* Their. If you felt the urge to politely help us to uphold the standards of proper English, you have just fallen into the troll’s trap. Intentionally making grammatical mistakes and waiting for community members to bite on the line is one of the ways in which trolls seek to spoil the experience of other online users. Other ways, all observed in practice, include posting funny but irrelevant reviews on app stores, convincing others to downvote a particular video on YouTube just for fun, posting a fake tutorial ‘showing’ how drilling into an iPhone7 will reveal a hidden headphone port, and roguishly replying to customer complaints from fake customer service accounts. All these activities suggest that trolls, typically, are troublemakers – they pose problems for marketers, marketing institutions, and other consumers. Yet do they rightfully deserve all the other names they are often called?

Are trolls cyberbullies?

Our conceptual analysis, recently published in the Journal of Marketing Management, shows that using the term ‘cyberbullies’ and trolling synonymously is not deserved – not only are the practices quite different but the motivations underpinning the behaviours are vastly divergent in many cases. To frame our research as well as guide future research in the area we propose a definition of trolling that delineates trolling from other similar behaviour. This definition illuminates six characteristics of trolling behaviours:

  1. They are deliberate.
  2. They are mischievous.
  3. They involve deception.
  4. They are engineered to provoke the target into response.
  5. They are designed for the benefit of the troll, or followers who find trolling entertaining.
  6. And finally, they usually but not necessarily have negative consequences for the people and firms involved. Yet while trolls may be annoying, rude, controversial, and childish, they typically do not intend to repeatedly inflict harm on a targeted person, which is behaviour distinctive of cyberbullies.

To call a cyberbully a troll downplays the seriousness of cyberbullying. On the other hand, referring to trolling as cyberbullying overstates the importance of legal action in tackling trolling.

Hunting the trolls

Ignoring the trolls – or, in the language of online users, ‘not feeding the trolls’ – is one response strategy for marketers who offer a medium for trolling or who are being targeted themselves. Marketers who wish to take a more proactive approach may find the process of curbing trolling challenging. When trolling does not fall under the right of freedom of expression or include illegal activities, marketers and targets may use legal remedies. Yet, these remedies were found to be impracticable. While marketers cannot rely on law enforcers to catch trolls, they also cannot expect such work to be done by the social media sites, which may be more active in prohibiting cyberbullying, but not trolling. Marketers and targets, however, may make use of the plethora of tools these platforms offer for the management of user experience. Some of these tools are problematic, however, as they do not prevent trolling but rather promote it. Even the strictest punishment – being banned from the community – is for trolls a modus operandi and badge of honour. In fact, any response to the troll or enforced sanction gives the troll what they want – attention.

So, is there nothing we can do about trolling?

Quite the contrary. To start with, we should aim to better understand how trolling behaviours come into being. The prior research is divided in answering this question. While some researchers, by highlighting trolls’ dark personality traits, suggest that they are born rather than made, other scholars conclude that the right circumstances can awaken the troll within any of us. In this context, trolling has been most often attributed to anonymity. But since trolling appears in both more anonymous and less anonymous places, there seem to be other factors in play that create better opportunities for trolling at some places and not others.

An opportunity makes a troll(ing)?

In our study, we used routine activity theory to conceptualise how the opportunity for trolling arises. For trolling to occur, three actors must transpire in space. First, there have to be motivated trolls. Second, there have to be reactive online users, responding to trolls. Third, capable human and nonhuman guardians who could deter trolling have to be absent. This conceptualisation highlights trolls as just one part of the trolling equation; the people or brands taking the bait and incapable guardians also play an essential role in creating optimal trolling opportunities.

Where to now in combating trolling?

Marketers concerned with managing trolling have two broad options. First, they can try to eliminate or minimise the three factors above – motivated trolls, reactive targets, and incapable guardians. For example, one way to make guardians more capable is to design them in a manner that would spoil the trolling. Rewarding bystanders who recognise trolling and warn the targeted consumers is one such strategy. The other option is to address the multidirectional interactions between the three factors, which are communicating to the troll that he or she is winning. Using bots to instant message with the trolls, or hiding trolls’ comments from other online users but not from the trolls themselves, are two examples of interventions that seemingly would give trolls the attention they seek, but not at the expense of disturbing online communities. Perhaps the trolls would benefit from a taste of there own medicine.


Read the original research article: Golf-Papez, M. & Veer, E. (2017). Don’t feed the trolling: rethinking how online trolling is being defined and combated. Journal of Marketing Management. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0267257X.2017.1383298

This post is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, unless otherwise stated. Third party materials remain the copyright of the original rightsholder.

Maja Golf-Papez

Maja Golf-Papez

Maja Golf-Papez is a doctoral student in Marketing at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her research interests lie in enlightening the dark sides of consumer behaviours and consumer–brand relationships.

Ekant Veer

Ekant Veer

Ekant Veer is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. His work primarily focuses on social marketing, transformative consumer research, CCT research and digital marketing. His work has been published in numerous journals including the Journal of Marketing Management, European Journal of Marketing, Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, Marketing Letters, Journal of Research for Consumers and Journal of Consumer Behaviour.

Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this posting are the views of the Author(s), and are not necessarily the views of the JMM Editors, Westburn Publishers Ltd. or Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.