The Logic and Evolution of Trolling

... a new conversational form ...

By Joseph Graff, Paul Graff, and Thomas Veatch


An apparently new speech act schema known as trolling has become increasingly important in public dialog in the new, deeply-connected, on-line world. For example, right-wing trolling likely made the difference in the 2016 election. While anarchists celebrate the breakdown of rational public dialog, those who wish to solve important shared problems through rational dialog are increasingly disempowered. Trolling is an important puzzle to understand.

Trolling, according to this account, has undergone rapid evolution in recent years. We will set some context, trace that evolution, and outline possibilities for a better world.

Multi-role analysis

1. Thought itself, silent, if internally verbalized, might be considered a one-party conversation, but logically we differentiate the two roles of talker and listener when we say "I was talking to myself", and logically we do seem to be plural inside with, at least, competing motivations, frequently swapping command for submission.

2. Speech acts generally involve two parties, a speaker and an audience, where a two-way conversation may be considered a sequence of speech acts where speaker/audience roles swap at each turn.

3. A richer scene may include three parties, speaker, target, and audience, where for example in a humiliating joke or poking-fun situation the speaker connects using humor to the audience by attacking, by making fun of, a third party target, who may or may not be present physically, but is represented in the situational logic of the attack or joke as the butt, the assignee of a subjective moral violation in the humor as perceived by the first and second parties. (Inoffensive humor often results when the third party attacked is the speaker him or herself.) The first and second parties get to feel superior to the source of the violation, which supplies the N, Normality interpretation in the situation thus licensing the logical terms, N+V, of Humor Theory. It's a Hobbesian humor instance of feeling superior while putting others down. Baiting is a special case of three-party speech acts, where the speaker on behalf of and toward a sympathetic audience not only ridicules, slanders, or shocks that separate audience which is positioned as the butt or target of the opprobrium, but also outrages that butt or target for the purpose of drawing outraged responses from them, thus positioning them as the source and performer of that most enjoyable performance of helpless outrage (enjoyable to the sympathetic audience). You can do a lot of verbal battle, sides-taking, diplomacy, and damage, with just three. The three roles model is so basic to humanity that our very pronoun system encodes these fundamental political roles: "you" and "me", making "us", and "them", as in "us" versus "them". We discuss true fundamentals.

4. In the analysis of satire, four parties to the action are required in this kind of multi-role analysis: (1) the sincere speaker/ creator/ author/ orchestrator/ performer of the interaction, plays (2) an insincere role embodying an outrageous statement or action -- moral violation. This violation is seen and detected by (3) a shocked audience and unseen or undetected by (4) an implied straight audience (4). For example, when Jonathan Swift sarcastically has a "modest proposal" to solve the Irish famine by feeding human infants to the starving, there is an implied "straight" audience to whom the proposal is rational, sensible, and appropriate, given that cannibalism will indeed both feed the hungry today and reduce the population of hungry people tomorrow. The enacted speaker (2), oblivious to the violation, would seem to have an audience in mind (4), that agrees or has an open mind. This oblivious speaker (2) enacting the violation, is a role played by the satirical author or speaker (1), who at a deeper level is actually communicating to a shocked, true audience (3), which sees the portrayal, the idea, and the straight audience, each and all as moral violations.

5. This already-rich analytic schema, of multiple and enacted speakers and audiences must be further enriched to five, to capture trolling.

Trolling

In trolling there is a speaker/author with (1) true underlying as well as (2) portrayed-but-false roles, (3) a true audience, (4) a straight audience, and also another role, (5) a shocked/reactive audience. Let us have a look.

Trolling depends on variation in moral perspective, and when a speaker (1) pretends (2) to shock as a way of drawing a reaction from the shocked audience (5) whose behavior (5) will induce the righteous hostility of the straight audience (4) and the smugness/superiority of the true audience (3), all parties have different ideas of what is right and wrong as well as different levels of commitment to their views.

Generally the troll (true speaker) and true audience are cynical disbelievers in the public morality; at their most intellectual they espouse anarchist philosophy (e.g. Michael Malice, The New Right), or nihilistically reject the values of the shocked audience, and may or may not reject the values of the straight audience or the portrayed speaker role. It is neither wise nor correct to assume that the intersubjective moral universe has only two poles. The space of morality is rich, and many third directions might celebrate when two publicly-assumed poles are dragged in mud at the same time.

Incidentally, the meaning of the word, "pandering", is defined on this multi-role structure: in trolling, (2) panders to (4). The same applies also in (3-party) baiting.

Examples could be multiplied, please offer some for comment in the feedback box below.

Evolution of Trolling.

As the internet and social media took off, the size and diversity of audience increased for otherwise undistinguished members of the public, and the lack of accountability inherent in anonymous or pseudonymous forums enabled insincere actors to perform equally with everyone, and bad actors to act with impunity. Insincerity, cynicism, destructive verbal behavior became fashionable, and since virtue and vice are characteristic of, or at least available to, us all, most people allowed themselves to be drawn into a hyperventilating public dialog, at least as in the role of sides-taking audience.

Of course the increasing sophistication of social media technology in capturing and manipulating us through our strong emotions and tribalism has its role historically but let's have a look at this history with an emphasis on taking responsibility for our own responses!

Stereotypically, and perhaps most understandably, trolls might be teenage males who can't get a girl so they choose to express their testosterone via aggressive nihilism, throwing bombs at society, including saying things they don't believe just to get a rise out of others: conflict seeking, outrage whores. When others are outraged, these folks get paid, by shared juvenile laughter, by clicks, by a sense of personal significance otherwise lacking in their lives. Losers, but losers who are fighting, yet they are not even fighting back since they aren't an oppressed group -- the fact they aren't attractive to any potential romantic partners isn't oppression, the removal of any right, but mere non-invitation, or non-receipt of things that have to be earned. That is, just losers, in a fighting mood, looking for someone to to pick on, to bully, in order to extract some kind of meaningful interaction from. Read, "Lord of the Flies".

In this environment, the modern wave of trolling developed. It could be argued that only with the size and diversity of audience afforded by internet media could trolling have developed, but it would be unsurprising to find ancient, even prehistoric, cases, since its logical structure and thus its possibility exists outside of time: eternally.

This first generation troll was a person (1) acting as if taking an outrageous social or moral position (2), to communicate an affiliation or identity marker, to signal to his or her in-group (3) that they can stand together; the straight audience of sincere believers (4) may have been imaginary or hypothetical, while the success of the effort was measured in the reactions produced from the shocked audience (5).

Over time, the force of cognitive dissonance drives the troll away from maintaining that hypocritical difference between their inner truth (1) and their performed truth (2), toward having greater internal self-consistency, so they become true believers in their own outrageous positions. Not only the need to believe what you have been saying, but also the positive feedback that perhaps surprising arrives from your not-actually-imaginary audience (4) which turns out to be a loud crowd (of, say, cheering brownshirts delighted that someone is telling them their resentment and hatreds are justified).

Just as (1) may disappear, so also the cynical in-group audience (3) shrinks or disappears, when the wink wink behind the stage becomes less and less the point and that audience (3) becomes increasingly invisible, and when the only visible, audible audience is simply those pandered to (4). By the time Trump says the Charlotte rioters are good people, he no longer is maintaining a secret understanding with a secret audience (3), but aims only to arouse and affiliate with the rioter-friendly crowd (4). Affiliating and ingratiating himself with those sympathizers (4), on the one hand, yet at the same time, tickling or poking, as it were, the shocked audience (5) in the press and wider society, by whose subsequent reactivity, they themselves (5) elaborate and extend the speech act with their outraged responses, becoming in their public reactions a matter of enjoyment and contempt by both the true audience (3) and the straight audience (4) and the true creator (1) and enacted role (2) of the speaker.

Audiences (3) and (4) might think: F them (5) for having values that we don't share, F them for trying to impose them on us, F them for their sense of moral superiority which we don't accept, hurray for us who receive social validation by our participation in the shared true or straight audiences, and hurray for our leader whose speech act has provided social validation to us and brought distress and self-disempowerment to our enemies (5).

Further generations of trolling sophistication have developed since this initial affiliation- and identity-signalling phase. After years of the Trump machine, trolling has evolved to the point everyone knows that the true audience (3) has dissolved into the straight audience (4). Initially (3) thinks "Aren't we cute for throwing a wrench into society, stimulating conflict between the two non-nihilistic sides that we disagree with, both, as our nihilism advocates." But soon, everyone takes actual sides; only (2), (4), and (5) remain. It's a harsher more direct ridicule that has evolved.

It seems trolling has the effect of expand the Overton window, the range of expressible public opinion, so that those with a previously underground morality (4) now feel licensed to express their publicly-unacceptable views in agreement with (2), who has preceded them in expressing the previously unexpressible. After this the underlying speaker (1) and audience (3) disappear from the initiating history, and lose significance except by merging into (2) and (4). Now the sincerely obnoxious folks (4) sincerely express the opinions of the role that was previously only falsely enacted (2), and do it partly as self-affirmation, perhaps primarily to bludgeon the shocked audience (5). Thus culture war arises or expands, having been initiated or prompted by cynical communication between a hidden/true speaker and their hidden/true audience. The "joke" is stripped of its cynical creator (1), and audience (3) and layered meaning, and becomes straightforward ammunition in the culture war between (2) and (4). Thus an underground audience is enlisted or at least feels licensed now, to sincerely express their previously unacceptable opinions. Now, (2) baits (5) on behalf of (4), and noone thinks anyone is kidding.

Degrading the discourse

There are several negative developments coming out of trolling.

First, the deniability implied by a speaker falsely taking an outrageous position and asserted by the phrase "I was just kidding", provides cover for the speaker and for the straight audience whose moral position is not accepted in wider society. They were just kidding too, laughing at the racist joke, for example -- but only when called on it. Cover for the unacceptable, it must be said, is not a good thing, since it diffuses responsibility, and delays natural consequences from which people could learn and benefit.

Second, along with the troll's outrageous meaning may come an outrageous form, tone, or style, also outside the Overton window of acceptable public discourse. As the pandered-to, straight audience (4) may learn that their views are now acceptable in public discourse, the shocked/reactive audience (5) may learn that that form, tone, or style is also now acceptable in public discourse. Beyond acceptable, it now seems required, as the new way to achieve successful communication in public. Thus mudslinging induces mudslinging; curses stimulate curses; style induces style; indeed political violence induces political violence, all separately and aside from the positions actually taken and the meaningful content actually spoken. If the troll grunts and an audience seems to cheer, even the shocked and reactive audience may infer that grunting is the way to successfully make one's point to the public as well as back to the speaker/troll with whom they consider themselves to be in dialog, and now everyone is grunting. But then the ever-cynical troll is suddenly given the opportunity to blame his original target (5) by, for example, accusing them of a derangement syndrome. The accusation of derangement has its kernel of truth, for the outraged reactors (5) are now grunting like the enacted troll (2), and have indeed lowered their standards of public politeness -- if only by following the troll through the doorway of lowered standards. One must indeed be better than that; but this does not make the troll suddenly innocent. Finally, to express an objection to any of it is to be entrapped into the role of shocked/reactive audience member.

Fighting back

To combat the pernicious effects of trolling we must certainly know this history and this conversational logic. For if you don't know who is the turkey on the table, it's you.

Only a calm objection in the style of the original (calmer) public discourse, recognizing the cynicism, acknowledging all the layers and roles involved, and without expression of contempt or emotional reactivity, can keep one from becoming the butt and entertainment of the troll-show.

It may be hoped that real-time analysis, understanding, and suitable and effective response will be achieveable for those who don't wish themselves and their own audiences to be taken over by this corrupting gamesmanship.

The false dilemma poses a similar trap for audiences. For example:

There are only two kinds of people, those who admit they like the smell of their own farts, and those who don't admit it. Which are you?

An unsophisticated audience may be trapped by the structure of the false dilemma which on the surface seems to obey ironclad logic. A thoughtful audience will see that "admitting" something presupposes (does not prove) the truth of what is admitted. Similarly belief does not, while knowledge does, presuppose that the proposition is actually true which is believed or known. Admitting something presupposes it is true; not admitting it still presupposes it is true; neither proves it is true. So the person who poses the false dilemma entraps the logically unsophisticated audience.

Similarly trolling puts the innocent audience into a trap, which only a sophisticated audience member might escape. I hope this exposition will enable a reader to be a sophisticated audience member when trolling occurs, to understand the layers of implied and presupposed participants and beliefs, and to walk your own path with your own audience rather than be forced to follow the path and play the role the troller has laid down for you in Pander Stadium.

Fear not; be calm; speak your truth; don't let others make you be someone different.

Examples

Enjoying your outrage is not the highest value, but keeping your self-respect.

To the Charlotte comments, (5) might instead say, "Wow, what's worse, a Nazi, or a cynic playing a Nazi, pretending it's normal?"

To the NRA: "Yes, guns don't kill people, 9 year olds kill NRA gun safety instructors."

To the hyperventilating right: "Oh, shall the left all take up arms then, to fight your militias, really? Is that what you want? Didn't you hear that an eye for an eye soon leaves everyone blind?"

Shall we all think that behavior is now normal and acceptable?

Enough now, children.

You're funny, in a contemptible sort of way.

I disagree, because < insert reasons here >.

Please share your best examples; I'll post here and give credit.

Diplomacy!

See Non-Violent Communication for some baseline skills in diplomatic power talk.
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Copyright © 2020-2022 Thomas C. Veatch, Joseph Graff, and Paul Graff. All rights reserved.
Created: January 6, 2022; Modified: May 25, 2022; December 2, 2022.