If you’ve ever posted any information online you may have gotten some unexpected feedback. Internet trolling may be the reason why the same person continuously replies to all of your comments. Most of these replies are in an argumentative way. It’s almost like the online form of high school bullying.
But at what point does it go from harmless banter to something that is illegal? This article will also discuss methods that work to stop this cycle.
Internet trolling is legal. Real trolling consists of responding in an unexpected and often antagonist way. Some trolls can cross the line and commit crimes such as threats and cyberbullying.
What is trolling online?
Trolling is the intentional rebuttal of another statement for the main purpose of being contradictory. It is the intention of the internet troll to start an argument or frustrate the original commenter.
For example, if you post online that the sky is blue someone may reply that obviously, the sky is red. Their statement would typically not hold any basis in fact. The troll is merely taking the original content of the author and asserting the exact opposite.
There may be different ways to describe exactly what a troll is. This can be due in part to how vague or generic someone applies the definition.
Sometimes when someone offers a different opinion on a topic, people assert that this is trolling. However, it is more likely that the difference of opinion is just that. And one way the original author is attempting to refute this disagreement is by labeling this person a troll.
Why is it called trolling?
Trolling is a fishing term. It describes a method where a fisherman pulls a line with bait through the water hoping to attract a fish to catch.
This definition was then applied to the behavior of some people online. The bait is a rude comment or something intending to cause the victim to become emotional. The catch is the now-triggered target who was now involved in an argument and this considered a fish on the line.
Decades after the first online appearance of the term trolling, fewer people are aware of the fishing reference and its original meaning. Now, most people believe it is a reference to mythical trolls.
They describe these trolls as ugly, grumpy, and living under bridges. Considering its spelling is identical, it is an easy mistake to make.
Is Trolling a Crime?
In the last decade or so, laws in reference to trolling have become more commonplace. The term used instead is typically cyberbullying. This is a broader term but does encompass severe forms of trolling.
Typically, the activity of the trolls is protected in the U.S. by First Amendment. Among other things, it protects a person’s right to free speech. However, there are some exceptions based on comments due to content or quantity.
There are times when there are too many, frequent or pervasive comments to the same person. When the receiver issues a warning to stop, it can be considered harassment. There are laws against this kind of activity in every state.
When the content of that trolling turns from simple oppositional content to more threatening or referencing violence, this is also illegal. The laws covering this activity are referred to as anti-bullying legislation.
There are no federal laws in the United States against bullying, but the government does have this website for more education about cyberbullying.
Trolling Laws by Location
I reviewed each state’s definitions of cyberstalking, harassment, and anything relevant. It took a while. Generally, all states prohibit communication that threatens harm, is obscene, or hate speech.
This list only counts states whose statutes are most likely to apply to normal trolling. Often the intent to alarm or annoy must be proven. In true trolling, proving this intent is not possible. Instead, the communication appears to be a difference of opinion.
For this reason, many states that have harassment laws are listed as “School Only”. This means the state’s laws typically not apply to trolling. Some states like Nevada do have criminal penalties. But they apply only to school students. The definitions fit better with bullying instead of trolling.
Please keep in mind this list is subject to change as new laws are passed. And each state has its own description for the seriousness of the charge or grading. Some use Class 1, Class A, or 3rd Degree, etc.
List of State Cyberbullying Laws
|Alabama||AL||Hazing||Class C misdemeanor||Alabama Code §16-1-23|
|Alaska||AK||Bullying||School Only||Alaska Statute §14.33.200|
|Arizona||AZ||Hazing||Class 1 misdemeanor||Arizona Revised Statutes §13-2921|
|Arkansas||AR||Cyberbullying||Class B misdemeanor||Arkansas Code Annotated §5-71-217|
|California||CA||Harassment||Misdemeanor||California Code, Penal Code – PEN § 653.2|
|Colorado||CO||Hazing||School Only||Colorado Revised Statutes §18-9-124|
|Connecticut||CT||Cyberbullying||School Only||Connecticut General Statutes §10-220a|
|Delaware||DE||Cyberbullying||Class B misdemeanor||Delaware Code Annotated Title 14, §9303|
|Florida||FL||Cyberbullying||School Only||Florida Statutes Annotated §1006.147|
|Georgia||GA||Hazing||School Only||Georgia Code Annotated §16-5-61|
|Hawaii||HI||Harassment||Petty misdemeanor||Hawaii Revised Statutes §711-1106|
|Idaho||ID||Bullying||School Only||Idaho Code §18-917a|
|Illinois||IL||Cyberbullying||Class 4 felony||105 Illinois Compiled Statutes §5/27-23.7|
|Indiana||IN||Bullying||Class B misdemeanor||Indiana Code Annotated §20-33-8-0.2|
|Iowa||IA||Bullying||School Only||Iowa Code §280.28|
|Kansas||KS||Cyberbullying||School Only||Kansas Statutes Annotated §72-6147|
|Kentucky||KY||Bullying||School Only||Kentucky Revised Statutes Annotated §158.148|
|Louisiana||LA||Cyberbullying||Misdemeanor||Louisiana Revised Statutes Annotated §17:416.13|
|Maine||ME||Cyberbullying||School Only||Maine Revised Statute Annotated Title 20-A §6554|
|Maryland||MD||Bullying||School Only||Maryland Code Annotated, Education §7-424|
|Massachusetts||MA||Cyberbullying||Misdemeanor||Massachusetts General Laws Chapter §71, Section 37O|
|Michigan||MI||Cyberbullying||Misdemeanor||Michigan Compiled Laws §380.1310b|
|Minnesota||MN||Cyberbullying||School Only||Minnesota Statutes §121A.031|
|Mississippi||MS||Bullying||School Only||Mississippi Code §37-11-67|
|Missouri||MO||Bullying||Class A misdemeanor||Missouri Revised Statutes §160.775|
|Montana||MT||Bullying||School Only||Montana Code Annotated § 20-5-209|
|Nebraska||NE||Bullying||School Only||Nebraska Revised Statutes §79-2,137|
|Nevada||NV||Cyberbullying||School Only||Nevada Revised Statutes Annotated §388.123|
|New Hampshire||NH||Cyberbullying||School Only||New Hampshire Revised Statutes Annotated §193-F:3|
|New Jersey||NJ||Bullying||School Only||New Jersey Statutes Annotated §18A:37-14|
|New Mexico||NM||Cyberbullying||School Only||New Mexico Administrative Code §184.108.40.206|
|New York||NY||Harassment||Class A misdemeanor||New York Penal Law Part 3 Title N Article 240.30|
|North Carolina||NC||Cyberbullying||Class 1 misdemeanor||North Carolina General Statute §14-458.1|
|North Dakota||ND||Bullying||School Only||North Dakota Century Code Chapter 15.1-19-17|
|Ohio||OH||Bullying||School Only||Ohio Revised Code Annotated §3313.666|
|Oklahoma||OK||Bullying||Misdemeanor||Oklahoma Statute §21-1172|
|Oregon||OR||Cyberbullying||School Only||Oregon Revised Statute §339.351|
|Pennsylvania||PA||Cyber Harassment||3rd degree misdemeanor||Pennsylvania Crimes Code Title 18 Section 2709|
|Rhode Island||RI||Cyberbullying||School Only||200 Code of Rhode Island Rules 030-10-2|
|South Carolina||SC||Harassment||School Only||South Carolina Code §16-3-1700|
|South Dakota||SD||Bullying||Class 1 misdemeanor||South Dakota Codified Laws §13-32-15|
|Tennessee||TN||Cyberbullying||Class A misdemeanor||Tennessee Code §39-17-308|
|Texas||TX||Cyberbullying||Class B misdemeanor||Texas Education Code Annotated §37.0832|
|Utah||UT||Cyberbullying||Class B misdemeanor||Utah Code Annotated §53G-9-602|
|Vermont||VT||Bullying||School Only||Vermont Statute Annotated Title 16, §570c|
|Virginia||VA||Bullying||School Only||Virginia Code Annotated §22.1-276.01|
|Washington||WA||Cyberbullying||Gross misdemeanor||Washington RCW §9.61.260|
|Washington DC||DC||Bullying||School Only||District of Columbia Regulation § 4-1502|
|West Virginia||WV||Harassment||Misdemeanor||West Virginia Code §61-3C-14A|
|Wisconsin||WI||Defamation||Class A misdemeanor||Wisconsin Statute §942.01|
|Wyoming||WY||Bullying||School Only||Wyoming Statutes Annotated §21-4-313|
Civil suits while unlikely, are still possible. This is because there are certain laws about defamation and libel. This is true whether it is against an individual or a business.
For example, the type of trolling can consist of statements about a person or product that were obviously not true. It can be negative and cause civil damage by making people less likely to purchase the product. Or it could hurt the reputation of the person.
Protected First Amendment Speech
As mentioned above there are certain rights in regards to speech in the U.S. Keep in mind when this was established, the thought process was for people not to be oppressed by the government.
This First Amendment gives people the right to speak their minds, and say things that are not favorable about their country.
There are notable exceptions when it comes to everyday speech. Commonly given as an example is that you cannot yell “fire” inside of a crowded movie theater. This is because the harm done with this panic outweighs the person’s individual right to conduct this particular speech.
The same would also go for trolls who crossed that fine line from expressing their opinions and communicating a threat.
Another example would be the existence of a restraining order or no-contact order. These orders demand there to be no contact between two parties. Any kind of speech directed towards this protected person would not be protected under the first amendment.
Trolling Ethical Issues
The reason this kind of activity is unethical is based on a no harm philosophy. While this conduct can be within the scope of criminal and civil law, it is still not morally acceptable.
This is because of the potential emotional harm that can be done to the target. All of this depends on the style, seriousness, and quantity of the comments. But it would be agreed by most rational people that the forms of trolling that involve negative and abusive words are wrong.
However, that is not to say that disagreements, differences of opinions, debating, and simple arguments fall into this category. Trolling as a whole typically takes that to the next level.
This is because the goal is not necessarily to debate or express a difference of opinion. But rather it is to emotionally harm and get a reaction out of the target.
The problem of trolling is what it does to people. The reaction some people have when they are confronted with repeated comments that are obviously done simply for the sake of argument can vary.
Depending on the person, it can increase their stress level. It can raise their blood pressure, make them worry, make them agitated, and even angry. They may not fully understand why a troll is acting in this way or even recognize that this person is an internet troll.
Is Trolling Bullying?
Now that we have an understanding of trolling, there are similar terms that are related. One term is bullying.
Both of these involve an adversarial exchange of communication. The core difference is that the primary goal of bullying is the torment of the victim.
Meanwhile, trolling has other likely goals such as entertainment or a fix for boredom. When this activity develops into a more serious nature, it is now a criminal incident.
Sometimes bullying on the internet gets out of control. When that happens, serious crimes such as swatting can happen. To learn more about swatting, read our article about preventing swatting.
What is Trolling on Social Media?
Trolling on social media networks is one of the lowest forms of trolling. The motivations sway dramatically from attention-seeking to cyberbullying. There are also cases of juvenile antics, personal vendettas, and the list goes on.
What makes this so complicated is the fact that these social networks are inundated with people on the other side of the equation. These particular people use these platforms to overshare every detail of their lives.
They do this in order to brag or garner attention for themselves. As a result, trolls identify these types of posts and give feedback that is of the most undesired form.
For example, someone may post pictures from their vacation to brag about the expense or location. A troll will then point out the least desirable fact about that location.
The topics vary but can include anything from poor weather to the political climate. Generally, the game the troll plays is finding not the silver lining but rather the worst-case scenario in every situation.
Attention trolls like Elon Musk use it to their advantage. He is not alone in this category. Anyone who responds to situations in an unexpected fashion like a troll but for the purposes of garnering attention falls into this category.
The reason people like Musk do this is that it is a free and simple marketing strategy that brings attention to his brand.
Types of trolls
Understanding the different types of trolls can help expose the underlying reasons why they do it.
Less Aggressive, more self-centered
The grammar police do not provide constructive criticism. The minor error they point out did not in any way prevent the effective communication of the original poster.
An example would be when people correct common mistakes like using “there” instead of “their”. Then they pretend they did not understand the entire content of the post because of this small mistake.
The key to communication and grammar being able to effectively share information. Because someone uses the incorrect word does not necessarily mean the person reading it will not understand and disregard the statement.
The know-it-all is similar to the grammar police but not limited to grammar knowledge. They may have some additional knowledge on a subject than most people. But they almost always exaggerate this advantage.
One clue that can be used to identify these types of trolls, is they often do not speak professionally. Typically someone in the forefront of their field would not show the same kind of antagonistic viewpoints. A true industry leader avoids personal attacks and discrediting their peers.
The power-hungry moderator is overly sensitive and censorship-focused. This means the limited power they have has gone to their head. As a result, they look for the slightest opening for them to exercise their power.
This can look like a form of censorship. However, censorship is done to completely ban or remove statements the moderator does not agree with.
Instead, a trolling moderator is typically seen when the content is not necessarily what is being policed. But instead, it can appear to be simply singling someone out for making the same types of statements as somebody else.
More aggressive, Attack focused
The triggered politician turns every conversation into a political debate. They try to educate the original poster on why their priorities are wrong. Then they start talking about an off-topic political point.
This is similar to conspiracy theorists who always respond with unrealistic answers. The test differs from the know-it-all because it is not typically fact-based information. These are opinions based strictly on politics. It can also be a sign of selfishness as someone believes their worldviews are more important than others.
The thrill-seeker is usually very young and looking for a laugh. Sometimes it can be boredom that spurs it on. They can be are spotted by poor grammar. Often they can be immature and have an obvious youthful profile picture. Also, they may think they have “it all figured out”.
Alternatively, the thrill-seeker could be older and lacking fulfillment in their lives. Because they are bored with their own life, they believe success is getting under the skin of other people. So, forcing people to respond in a heated exchange and furthering an argument is what excites them.
This person typically does not necessarily hold their point of view to be true. Meaning they do not necessarily believe their own argument. And therefore the exchange does not bother them. They are solely trying to frustrate and bother the target.
The contrarian is always in opposition to the original poster. Their aim is to start a debate or even an argument. Even then, the troll does not hold those beliefs. They are playing devil’s advocate.
You can often see this with respect to authority figures. Their argument does not necessarily rely on facts or opinions. But rather the rejection of any influence by an outside party.
Typically their emotion can be seen as anger. This is often due to unresolved resentment about an unrelated topic in their personal life. Typically this is something outside of their immediate control. So by focusing their answer on their trolling they hope to regain their lost sense of power.
How to deal with trolling
Don’t feed the troll. This is a common phrase that you might see at a point where someone recognizes conduct as that of an internet troll.
What they’re trying to do is first alert other people to the presence of the troll. They are then attempting to make sure other people do not encourage the troll to continue with this behavior. This way, the troll will not get satisfaction in the conversation and may disengage.
This is due to the fact that the troll “feeds off” of the responses of its targets. This is much in the same way that a bully feeds off of the suffering of their victim. It is a common tactic to ignore a troll or bully. Then hope they will look for an easier and more receptive victim elsewhere.
Responses to Trolling
The best response to trolls is no response at all. When you do not respond to the troll they do not get the satisfaction they are seeking. This can be a difficult task depending on the type of troll you are encountering.
There do exist some internet trolls who rather than feed on the responses, are more destructive. They attempt to create numerous negative responses in order to damage the reputation of a person or a company.
In these particular circumstances, it is often more effective to report these trolls to moderators. These types of trolls are easier to spot and moderators are very likely to take action.
The last thing you would want to do is respond to a troll in an attempt to rebut their arguments. This simply encourages a back and forth exchange. So there is no satisfactory result possible in your favor.
Some people will go as far as to attempt to troll the troll. This is an unfortunate and seldom successful practice. Oftentimes this kind of activity gives them what they want. This is because it provides the troll with responses. In return, they win.
Lastly, you are wasting time and it does not show you in a favorable light. People may begin to think you are the troll. This can hurt your credibility and lead to more negative responses against you. You can also be a target of moderators along with the original troll.
Internet trolling is legal.
When you post information online the responses can be unpredictable. Trolls reply in a confrontational way. So sometimes the verbal attacks can get personal.
There are many reasons people choose to do this. They may be bored or have stress in their personal life. When trolling goes too far, crimes such as threats and cyberbullying occur.
If you find yourself targeted by a troll, I recommend you do not respond. Because there is nothing you can say to deter them. In fact, your response alone is what they are looking for.
For information about another form of internet, read our article on Swatting on Twitch.