Internet Trolls

TROLOLOL… Feminist Psychology & Internet Trolling

Today we’re sharing a blog post co-authored by Lucy Thompson & Jessica Drakett, both lecturers in psychology and POWS committee members. Find them on Twitter @Quiet_Rumours and @JessicaDrakett

‘Trolling’ is defined as ‘a specific type of malicious online behaviour, intended to disrupt interactions, aggravate interactional partners and lure them into fruitless argumentation’ (Coles & West, 2016, p. 233). This particular behaviour is known under various names (e.g. cyber-bullying, flaming, etc.) and has been the subject of research spanning several decades and disciplines. Whilst instances of such online harassment have increased, to the point of becoming increasingly visible and normative within mainstream social media, scholarly work addressing it has decreased (Jane, 2015).

Rather than being reserved for subversive and supposedly anonymous media spaces (e.g. 4chan), trolling is firmly established as a practice in mainstream, public media spaces, such as Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, people are now clearly self-identifying as trolls in such public spaces. This move away from anonymous trolling has brought about a clear shift in the ways in which trolling is performed and its functions within the public domain. For example, trolling is now presented and interpreted in ways that construct it as socially acceptable, such as ‘banter’. However, as research has clearly demonstrated, banter is as much a crystallization of patriarchal power as explicit forms of harassment – indeed, Worth, Augoustinos and Hastie (2016) note that in a post-feminist climate, sexism and misogyny can manifest in surprising new ways disguised as jokes, irony and humour. In addition, we have seen the rise of the ‘ironic troll’, who is afforded the luxury of toying and playing with this ‘troll’ identity, by way of his uber-privilege. This “ironic” harassment is reminiscent of so-called “hipster sexism” (Quart, 2012) whereby problematic sexist statements are reframed as jokes so ludicrous nobody could possibly believe them to be said in earnest.

Mainstream psychological research seems to define trolling in singular and objective terms as a variable, seeking to understand its impact on those who experience it (e.g. Maltby et al. 2015). Although some discursive work has been done to understand the multiple meanings around trolling, this again has been directed at those who experience this practice (Coles & West, 2016). At present, the functions of trolling as a discursive practice are underexplored within the field, leaving the ideological power of this practice somewhat intact. In order to dismantle this power, we argue that the features of trolling should be named as two well-established and problematic discursive practices.

  • Gaslighting
    • Undermining another’s views or experiences in order to promote one’s own views as ‘correct’ or ‘real’
    • Denial of another’s reality through the privileging of one’s own
  • Silencing
    • ‘Mansplaining’ to correct apparent ‘inaccuracies’ in another’s account
    • The use of ‘banter’ to construct others as humourless, and make light of one’s own problematic behaviour
    • Framing legitimate concerns as ridiculous or unreasonable
    • Attacking those seen to be easy targets

Of course, a troll would argue that all of these things are myths, overreactions, or simply imagined, employing their rational objective position to justify these claims (See ‘Mansplaining’; ‘Denial of another’s reality’; ‘Framing legitimate concerns as ridiculous’). This is the ultimate enactment of privilege: assuming the power to (re)define the lines along which something is described and understood. It also rests on painfully obvious reproductions of historical discourses around women’s hysteria, which serve the enduring function of justifying the inferiority of anything deemed ‘feminine’ (Showalter, 1993; Tosh, 2015; Ussher, 1991).

Michel Foucault (e.g. Foucault, 1969/2002) reserves this kind of practice for powerful institutions that construct and reproduce discourses to preserve existing inequitable power relations. This has been noted by scholars such as Cole (2015), who draws on Foucauldian notions of disciplinary rhetoric in making sense of the kinds of abuse that visible and active women face too often in online spaces. Cole notes that the most common threats issued to women participating in feminist activism online are rape threats – though in line with the “ironic” trolling mentioned previously, these threats are often softened through the use of emoticons, acronyms such as “lol” (laugh out loud) and other such markers of humour.

In the case of trolling, it is easy to see that the institution embodied within the troll is patriarchy. For these reasons, trolling is implicitly patriarchal, and must be recognized as such. Whilst we should be welcoming of public calls to tackle online misogyny (e.g. the Reclaim the Internet project) we should also be mindful of attempts to shift the focus onto women who troll. We assert that trolling is a product of the patriarchy – regardless of who is doing it. From a feminist perspective, then, the practice of trolling therefore offers a site for the examination of patriarchy and how this is crystallized, reproduced, and preserved within contemporary cyber-spaces.


Cole, K. K. (2015). “It’s Like She’s Eager to be Verbally Abused”: Twitter, Trolls, and (En) Gendering Disciplinary Rhetoric. Feminist media studies 15(2), 356-358.

Coles, B. A., & West, M. (2016). Trolling the trolls: Online Forum Users Constructions of the Nature and Properties of Trolling. Computers in Human Behaviour, 60, 233 – 244.

Foucault, Michel. 2002. The Archaeology of Knowledge. (A. M. Sheridan Smith, Trans.). London: Routledge. (Original work published 1969).

Jane, E. A. (2015). Flaming? What flaming? The pitfalls and potentials of researching online hostility. Ethics and Information Technology 17(1), 65-87.

Maltby, J., Day, L., Hatcher, R. M., Tazzyman, S., Flowe, H. D., Palmer, E. J., … Cutts, K. (2015). Implicit theories of online trolling: Evidence that attention-seeking conceptions are associated with increasing psychological resilience. British Journal of Psychology, 107(2), doi:10.1111/bjop.12154

Quart, A. (2012). The Age of Hipster Sexism. Retrieved from

Showalter, E. (1993). Hysteria, Feminism, and Gender. In S. L. Gilman, H. King, R. Porter., G.S. Rousseau. & E. Showalter (Eds.), Hysteria Beyond Freud (286 – 344). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Tosh, J. (2015). Psychology and Gender Dysphoria: Feminist and Transgender Perspectives. London: Routledge.

Ussher, J. (1991). Women’s Madness: Misogyny or Mental Illness?. Brighton: Harvester-Wheatsheaf.

Worth, A., Augoustinos, M., & Hastie, B., (2016). “Playing the gender card”: Media representations of Julia Gillard’s sexism and misogyny speech. Feminism & Psychology, 26(1), 52-72. doi:10.1177/0959353515605544


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