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Trolls in The Modern Age: More Employee than Rebel?

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Trolls have been around for about as long as the internet itself. However, exactly what the term means and the role that these trolls play in the wider online landscape has changed quite considerably over the years.

Trolls were once something that businesses feared, a poison that could rapidly infect any online presence tied to the business. An unconstrained troll with a fake IP address could be enough to drive legitimate users away and tarnish a brand’s image. However, today, businesses have begun to embrace trolls in some areas. The modern troll is just as likely to be working at the behest of big business rather than rebelling against it.

What Exactly is a Troll?

The term ‘troll’ has been a part of the internet lexicon for some time now, although its meaning has subtly shifted during that time. Initially, a troll was simply a person online who set out to cause trouble, to varying degrees. In the early, more innocent, days of the internet, long before Facebook, or even MySpace, online forums were the designated meeting grounds for most internet users.

Trolls from one message board would occasionally register accounts with rival forums in order to instigate flame wars – exchanges of barbs and insults with no purpose other than pouring fuel onto the fire. Over time, the term troll garnered some much more sinister connotations as trolls began to utilize the nascent technology of social media to undertake targeted harassment. This was no longer anonymous web users causing trouble for their own amusement, it became about using the cloak of anonymity to cause very real pain and distress to other people.

However, in the modern age, the term troll has shifted meanings again. Those old types of troll still exist, but the term is now much more commonly associated with individuals who are causing grief online at the behest of an employer, sometimes even a nation-state. These trolls have been widely used to muddy the waters of political discourse and sow doubt and confusion in a number of areas.

We have seen the effect that coordinated troll campaigns can have on the political process. The 2016 US presidential elections bought the issue sharply into focus. Since then, we have learned the true extent and prevalence of these operations. Whereas a troll used to be an individual, they are increasingly part of a commercial operation. Anyone with enough money can hire a troll farm to do their bidding.

Someone who is ‘trolling’ is deliberately putting something forward to provoke a (usually negative) reaction. Historically, this has been done with the very worst of intentions and has represented some of the most reprehensible behavior humanity has to offer. Today, trolling is used by businesses – in an entirely ironic and postmodern fashion, of course – to create minor soft-ball controversies that can easily translate into increased publicity and, hopefully, extra clicks.

Troll Marketing

The philosophy behind troll marketing is as old as marketing itself – there’s no such thing as bad publicity. To an extent, of course. That’s why troll marketing is all about creating controversy, but a controversy that can easily be managed and won’t actually cost the company any users.

This can most commonly be seen in the form of a provocative Tweet. Anything too offensive is obviously not going to draw in any new interest in your business – not the kind of interest that you want anyway – but something that is likely to elicit impassioned responses from your users without crossing the line can work well.

Many businesses have discovered that they can easily kick up a brief but profitable firestorm by making social media posts lambasting millennials. You may well have seen one of these Tweets being shared by your friends and have wondered how a business with a large millennial following could possibly be so tone-deaf as to make a post that would provoke millennials in this way. Well, now you know!

These businesses know that all they have to do is make a comment about how easy millennials have it, how their lives are nothing but secure job offers and opportunities to buy property for less than their parents did, and there will be a veritable firestorm of minor controversy. The statements aren’t strong enough to actually alienate any of their audience but are clear enough to elicit a response of some kind.

It’s easy to be cynical about this kind of thing – what could possibly be more corporate than deliberately starting a very small and easily managed controversy in order to boost interest? But the truth is that effective troll marketing is actually pretty difficult. When it’s done right, troll marketing will elicit a response from the user, making them feel as if they have to comment, without ever making them feel like the business is not on their side.

Corporate Astroturfing

As well as playing the role of a troll themselves, many businesses have discovered that they can hire online trolls like digital mercenaries. After all, it stands to reason that if someone is willing to shout racist abuse at a stranger in the name of staving off boredom for a few minutes then they will probably shout whatever you pay to.

Corporate astroturfing involves using a combination of trolls and shills to push a narrative that is favorable to your business at the expense of your competitors. Shills will happily wander around social media, looking for discussions about your business or brand and inserting themselves into them. They will have nothing but positive things to say about you and will be eternally suspicious of the competition. Meanwhile, your trolls will try to deflect negative attention away from you and towards your competitors.

Corporate astroturfing is especially effective because it enables massive corporations to masquerade as grassroots campaigns. By creating seemingly organic content that appears to represent an individual opinion, businesses are able to market to consumers while their guard is down.

The nature of online trolls has changed a lot over the last few decades. Few people could have predicted that businesses themselves would come to embrace trolling in the way that they have, but here we are. Today, trolling is just another potential tool at the disposal of corporate marketers.