Bryan Caplan  

Against Trolling

What's the matter with western... Property Rights Create Harmony...
I never troll; my sincerity is controversial enough.  In particular, I never (a) misrepresent my actual views, or (b) try to inspire negative emotions for their own sake.  There is nothing transgressive in my heart.  While I often expect my writings to upset readers, I always hope to convince everyone - or, failing that, to launch a friendly conversation.  Indeed, my dream is a secular universal reconciliation - an intellectual climate where every participant is relentlessly fair-minded and good-humored.

Now you could say that "trolling" is a loaded word.  We can debate whether someone is "trolling," but not whether trolling itself is bad.  Strangely, though, several people have praised trolling to my face.  Their arguments were poorly developed, but seemed to amount to:

1. In the world of modern media, trolling is the most effective way to promote unpopular truths.

2. Trolling is fun for the trolls.

The first pro-trolling argument is dubious at best.  If you want to spread unpopular truth X, you generally need to defend X, not a caricature of X.  True, trolling is a good way to get attention and promote in-group solidarity.  But it also alienates people who don't initially agree with you.  People who want to spread unpopular truths need to overcome the audience's hostility, not court it. 

The second pro-trolling argument is probably true as far as it goes.  But you can say the same about every sadistic pastime.  And when someone confesses, "I enjoy hurting people," our reaction is normally to shun the speaker, not conclude that hurting people is good.

Of course, the weakness of these arguments doesn't show trolling is bad.  What is the case against trolling?  Most obviously, trolling hinders the search for truth.  The main mechanisms:

1.  Opportunity cost.  Trolling diverts intellectual resources from the construction of compelling arguments to the elicitation of negative emotions.

2. The argument tax.  Even sincere intellectual argument is discouraging.  Carefully listening to people we disagree with requires intense effort.  So does designing intellectually sound arguments to persuade people who don't already agree.  And the payoff for all this mental effort is usually zero: Most conversations end in a stalemate, where everyone sticks with his initial belief.  So what do trolls do?  Willfully make the process even more emotionally taxing than it already is.

3. The lemons problem.  Trolls know what they're doing, but rarely admit it.  It's up to their victims to spot the trolls.  This information asymmetry yields a classic adverse selection problem.  The fact that the person you're arguing with might be a troll makes sincere people more reluctant to argue.  As these sincere people exit the conversation, the troll-to-population ratio rises.  This in turn leads more sincere people to drop out, sparking a downward spiral in argumentative quality.

What is the combined effect of all three mechanisms?  I can only speculate, but it's easy to believe the search for truth would be 10% faster if trolling vanished forever.

To be honest, though, the main reason I don't troll is straight-up Puritanism.  Consequences aside, there are strong moral presumptions against insincerity and sadism.  Unless the social benefits of insincerity and sadism clearly and heavily outweigh the social costs, you simply shouldn't do them.

P.S. The game Are You A Werewolf? (perhaps better known as Mafia) puts two secret "werewolf" players against thirteen innocent villagers.  Every turn, the secret werewolves select a victim to eat.  Then the whole village (including the secret werewolves) votes to hang a suspected werewolf.  When I play this game, I have an iron rule: Immediately convict anyone who breathes the words, "I'm the werewolf."  My reasoning: Even if the person isn't the werewolf, he's helping the werewolves by sowing confusion.  I treat anyone who says, "I'm a troll" the same way.  If you say you're a troll, I believe you and we have nothing further to discuss.

COMMENTS (23 to date)
khodge writes:

It doesn't quite fit into your categories: I frequently encounter trolls who take over the comment section. I can only assume that they do not consider themselves trolls yet they do stifle discussion.

I remember one, in particular, who assumed that he had successfully refuted the owner of the blog and proceeded to answer every other respondent by referring to his own brilliant response. The owner should have shut him down but apparently, from his vantage point, did not notice what was going on.

Lawrence D'Anna writes:

I think you're dismissing argument 1 too quickly.

Trolling can be an effective way to promote an unpopular truth if it awakens potential allies faster than it creates enemies. Trolling is like a cultural analogue of terrorism. The point is not to defeat the enemy, but to provoke the enemy into overreacting in a way that will turn third parties against them.

Puritanism is still a good reason to oppose "cultural terrorism", but that doesn't mean cultural terrorism can't be effective.

khodge writes:

Just the second word of this post's title triggering a filter?

[See the EconLog FAQ for questions about the comment filters.--Econlib Ed.]

Chris Thomas writes:

Isn't the title "The Case Against Education" a little trollish in the sense of being deliberately provocative and somewhat misleading? I fully grant that you're never misleading in the substance of your arguments, but you don't seem to shy away from titles that sacrifice a bit of clarity for the sake of eye-catchyness. I mean, "The Case Against Institutionalized Education" or "The Case Against Subsidized Education" might both be more accurate.

blacktrance writes:

I don't think the connection between trolling and hurting people is nearly as strong as you make it sound. Sure, some trolls are genuine sadists and go too far, but that's not the essence of trolling. For example, there are communities of "trolls trolling trolls", in which it's understood that no one is actually becoming upset, where it's something like performance art. I've even seen trolls appreciated and their technique critiqued constructively.

Also, trolling isn't necessarily insincere. One can troll by stating one's actual sincere position in an inflammatory way, or even normally but in a context in which you know it would be particularly controversial and you enjoy the controversy.

Chris writes:

"If you want to spread unpopular truth X, you generally need to defend X, not a caricature of X."

What about a caricature of Y (the position you're against)?

If the troll's argument is ridiculous, and yet compatible with Y, then it makes clear that Y is untenable, when reflected upon.

Maybe this is satire. Or, troll-overloaded.

Shane L writes:

I agree with Bryan and I am surprised to see other commentators challenge him on this. Regarding the "lemon problem", I recall commenting on a feminist blog post and being treated with suspicion; so used to thuggish and irrelevant posts from trolling men, these feminists were understandably suspicious of my sincere questions. Trolls had hardened their prejudices.

On a large international relations discussion forum I saw conflict between Indian and Pakistani members worsen due to the ugly nature of the trollish nationalist rhetoric. A new member from one country would join with a relatively benign view of the other country, but would be shocked by the nationalist aggression from the other country's trolls into responding with defensive anger.

Likewise we had young Muslims join the community only to face immediate aggression and contempt from anti-Muslim members, which only confirmed in some Muslim members' minds the narrative that Westerners or Hindu Indians were engaged in a conspiracy against them. This mean-spirited trolling strengthened the most extreme and intolerant of opinions and undermined reasoned debate.

Bryan Hann writes:

Is it within reasonable use of the word 'troll' to refer to Socrates as a concern troll?

Sieben writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

abg writes:

@Chris - You'd need to take care not to make your caricature of Y a strawman, I'd think. At some point your portrayal of your opponent's argument could become so ridiculous that you're no longer representing his position fairly. When that happens, you would just be trolling without real purpose.

Also, while I'm sure you'd appeal to people who already agree with you, I'm not sure a mockery of a view, even one with a kernel of truth, convinces an opponent. I mean, how often have you been convinced by someone approaching you that way? I know I'd prefer someone to say "the logical implications of your argument are these" rather than a caricature, but maybe I'm off base here.

Jeff writes:

I think you're being overly generous to yourself, Bryan.

Andrew_FL writes:

"Trolling diverts intellectual resources from the construction of compelling arguments to the elicitation of negative emotions."

Saying that this is a point against trolling presumes that compelling arguments are effective and emotions, particularly negative ones, are not.

Trolling is bad strategy for finding the truth, and morally it's bad behavior. But it seems to be effective in winning arguments.

WalterB writes:

I don't think I've ever trolled, but I've been accused of trolling at times when I've done nothing more than politely disagree with the general tenor of the forum comments. Astoundingly, not everyone really wants to debate; some people just want to chat with like-minded individuals. I try to sense those situations and just move on, even when those people are just wrong, wrong, wrong!

Bob Murphy writes:

This is the one time where I can non-ironically say, "You're doing it wrong." This is why trolling can be awesome.

Phil writes:

I think I agree with the general point here, but ...

I'm not sure what the actual definition of trolling we're talking about here

seems like many of these debates work like a negotiation


side 1 - states view point X

side 2 - states view point Y

undecided arbitrator thinks best view roughly splits the middle


this quickly devolves to where the more aggressively you make your point (or set your price), the better the rough middle final solution winds up being for you


of course, this is sort of a short term optimal solution, if people know your original assertions aren't serious, they stop giving you the benefit of meeting in the middle

but that's the reputational long game

and, especially on the internet, its rare to see people play the long game

(which probably goes back to the lemon problem of internet trolls)


as an aside, it'd be interesting to wonder whether people underestimate or overestimate how much their reputation proceeds them, especially as the internet matures

especially attention grabbing trolls have signature styles that make them fairly easy to pick out and discount their views appropriately, even years later

August Hurtel writes:

As Vox Day (and Aristotle) have taught, some people cannot be moved by dialectic, they are moved by rhetoric.

Trolling is rhetoric. It is something we should learn how to do because our enemies are always doing it to us, and the number of people who are affected by emotional, content-less arguments will always be larger than us.

Thomas writes:

In case you hadn't noticed, very few people -- even scientists -- seem to be interested in the truth. Confirmation bias is the name of the game.

I agree with Bryan in two ways:

  1. I would like to believe that trolling could be eradicated;
  2. I try to remove all insincere behavior from my own choices.
But many human urges which are lamented by some can be shown by others to be beneficial for survival. Sex urge is the first example. Anger is another, less obvious, as I can argue.

Once I determined to remove all sarcasm from my speech. I soon discovered that sarcasm is easy and safe in some circumstances where candor would be risky. We are not all tenured. We are not all in a position where candor is without cost.

Curt Doolittle writes:

The purpose of trolling (like the purpose of Putin's propaganda organization) is to:

1 - poison the discourse by confusing new entrants seeking to understand,
2 - raise the cost of participation for protagonists by impeding the discussion,
3 - impede the development of positive reinforcement among protagonists,
4 - confirm the bias of the antagonists that follow.
5 - vent the spleen of the disenfranchised.

This strategy is extremely effective in large numbers,
as St Petersburg demonstrated from 2014-2015. Or as any listing on Drudge will demonstrate.

Ben writes:

The "opportunity cost" may not actually exist, since the places where "trolling" gets used were never going to be havens of reasoned debate in the first place.

Tannim writes:

Some of us troll just for the laughs, because the places we troll have both authors and commenters that are so bleeping stupid that they can't walk and chew gum at the same time without an instruction manual written in words of less than three syllables.

(On this site, thankfully, people are smart!)

No, it's because those people need to be exposed to the broader audience, and we simply don't care what they think about us.

Steve writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Niko Davor writes:

Caplan makes inflammatory arguments online that will knowingly upset people. That matches the Wikipedia definition of trolling that he cites.

Some people consider provocative parody, satire, and humor trolling. I generally wouldn't condemn those.

Opposing trolling, is like opposing evil or being a jerk. It's very subjective. It's usually the other guy who is the troll or jerk.

Caplan arguably trolls education or national borders or politicians. If you dispute the labeling as "trolling", he is at least making snarky, knowingly offensive, criticisms.

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