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Internet Trolls Beneath The Bridge - Where They Come From, and Should You Head Butt Them?

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When I was a child we didn't have the Internet or even video games, so although it sounds disturbingly primitive now and might make you squirm nervously, we had to amuse ourselves with things called stories. Some of these stories were labeled fairy tales; a genre that, though fanciful, contained allegorical narratives designed to teach a lesson or impart a universal truth. Some of these universal truths were hard to ascertain at the moment but became clearer as we reached adulthood and were exposed to the same Internet that made those quaint, silly, antiquated fairy tales obsolete. Now we learn our universal truths on Facebook by watching people eating in restaurants or taking vacations we can't afford in order to learn the harsh universal truth of I'm poor and you're not, or watching a video of an enormous, foaming at the mouth German Shepherd taking a nap with a litter of cuddly kittens, to learn about the universal truth of tolerance for others that we could easily eat, but choose not to.

One of these fairy tales was called The Billy Goats Gruff. In the Billy Goats Gruff three goats run out of grass and have to cross a bridge to find greener pasture. Nowadays the Goats Gruff would just go to the local dispensary in certain states, but those were harder times. Underneath that bridge lived an evil troll. In the post Internet world everybody knows what a troll is, but when I was a kid listening to this story I remember scratching my head and not being able to visualize a troll, so I had to accept that it must be something hideous and frightening. Anyhow, the first two goats gruff cross the bridge and avoid being eaten by telling the troll that there is a bigger, tastier goat following them who will make a better meal. Finally the third goat comes along, one who doesn't afraid of anything, and simply head butts that annoying troll off of the bridge, where the monster wallows around in the water and doesn't bothering anybody, ever again. Of course I didn't realize it at the time in the pre-Internet, pre Internet meme world, but this was simply a nicer way of saying that the goat unfriended the troll.

How was is that this evil troll; a savage ogre that seemed so undaunted, impassable, and terrifying thumping his chest mightily there atop the bridge, was so easily defeated? Are we really expected to believe in this wiser, more sophisticated post fairy tale world that one head butt into the water caused him to stay down there in the dark muck beneath the bridge, licking his wounds and renouncing goat meat forever, possibly becoming a vegan because of the humiliating experience? I like to think that the troll drifted downstream and found another bridge, one with more gullible goats who were easily convinced that being eaten by a troll was in their best interest. That is certainly what happens to the trolls we know today, who don't give up so easy, many times because they are being paid to eat gullible Internet goats and won't forego losing a payday because of trivial things like telling the truth, adhering to ethical principles, or respecting their fellow Internet users.

So this article explores the troubling questions of where Trolls really come from, should we be frightened of them, and should we expend the energy to head butt them off of our own Internet bridges, or simply walk on past?

They ain't exactly kissable, but are Internet Trolls more bluster than bite?

They ain't exactly kissable, but are Internet Trolls more bluster than bite?

Who (What) Are Trolls, and Where Do They Come From?

A simple definition for Internet Troll, formulated by the brilliant scholars at Indiana University - who get paid to surf the Internet and come up with profound conclusions about all the crap they find there, is as follows "...a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people..." Trolls definitely can be upsetting, but not all trolls stir the pot of goat meat for the sake of stirring the pot. I have no doubt that some trolls are sincere, that some are truly ideologically committed to the causes that they passionately defend. A handful, or maybe a thimbleful, really want to steer the confused, befuddled and misguided in an ideologically purer direction; to bring eyesight to the blind. Yes, a few trolls sincerely like to eat goat stew, even though most civilized beings wriggle our noses at the thought of such an unsavory, odiferous repast.

Some trolls are simply computer savvy teenagers doing what teenagers do best; making life miserable for everyone. As an example, the notorious 4chan site has been a hangout for disgruntled but clever troll youths who, if they had been doing their homework rather than bothering people, would probably be running their own Silicon Valley tech companies instead of pathetically wallowing in misery in their mothers' basements. Many trolls target video games relentlessly, leading the gullible and naive to their doom in some dark gaming dungeon. There are trolls in technical forums who deliberately give false information to the cyber-challenged who seek help there. In general, the types of Internet trolling that have been categorized by supposed experts in the field, who are probably also trolls themselves, are 1.) abusive and rude comments, 2.) creating controversial arguments, 3.) ridiculous self aggrandizement and conceit, and 4.) off topic attacks, which means spamming a post with comments that have nothing to do with the issue being discussed.

Many habitual Internet users; those who frequent chat rooms, online forums, Facebook threads, etc., were often puzzled by the quick and unrelenting frequency with which Internet trolls were able to respond to posts that conflicted with their fanatical political beliefs. Do these people have a life? Do these people have a job? - participants in online discussions would ask themselves, puzzling over how these seemingly omnipotent, omnipresent hobgoblins could respond so rapidly to every contrary comment.

As it turns out, many Internet trolls do have jobs, jobs that bring home a steady paycheck - an honest income, one might say, if it wasn't for the sleazy, underhanded source of that money. In June of 2013, National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden released copied documents that presented troubling but revealing glimpses into how the governments of the United States of America and the United Kingdom spy on, and covertly influence the political opinions of their citizens; in many cases by using your friendly neighborhood trolls.

The reporting of Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden's media contact...

...highlighted some of the key, discrete revelations: the monitoring of YouTube and Blogger, the targeting of Anonymous with the very same DDoS attacks they accuse “hacktivists” of using, the use of “honey traps” (luring people into compromising situations using sex) and destructive viruses...namely, that these agencies are attempting to control, infiltrate, manipulate, and warp online discourse, and in doing so, are compromising the integrity of the internet itself.

— Glenn Greenwald

Astroturfing and More

Ha! As if there was any integrity on the Internet to begin with.

Besides the questionable, somewhat laughable reference to Internet integrity, there are some legitimate concerns that the Snowden documents address. One such insidious technique identified in those pages, one used by governments, corporations, and political parties to influence Internet content, is known as astroturfing. According to alternet.org, an astroturf campaign is one "...is one that mimics spontaneous grassroots mobilizations, but which has in reality been organized." In other words, suppose I write a post critical of US military involvement in the Middle East. This incites a flood of comments questioning my patriotism, written by people pretending to support American intervention in the region, on the grounds that the United States is protecting freedom at home by killing terrorists abroad. If these critics are not really flag wavers with a strong belief in the right of America to project its military power overseas, but instead are being paid by a government agency, or perhaps a weapons manufacturer seeking to sell arms to the government, then this would be an example of astroturfing. Astroturfing certainly falls within the Greenwald criteria above as being a method "...to control, infiltrate, manipulate, and warp online discourse."