10/03/2013 05:26 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Let's Call "Trolling" What it Really Is: Hate Speech

We've long since reached the point of linguistic inadequacy with the word "trolling." Ever since the mainstream media picked up on the concept, it seems like 75 per cent of the time I see the word "trolling," the context implies its meaning is something along the lines of "being mean on the Internet" (um, nope). In many cases it is used to describe bigoted attacks of the most vicious kind, such as the avalanche of violent misogyny hurled at feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian. In my TEDxToronto talk below, I delve into the problems that arise when we conflate trolling with bigotry.

So what do we talk about when we talk about trolling? I tend to think of trolling as provocation for provocation's sake. In other words, intent is an important part of the definition, and a troll's primary intent is to get a rise out of someone. Urban Dictionary, o holiest of Internet linguistic tomes, backs me up on this one. (Worth noting: all the most popular Urban Dictionary definitions had a high number of downvotes as well as upvotes, suggesting that definitions of trolling are pretty contested terrain.) One of the most popular definitions of trolling says, among other things, "...trolling statements are never true or are ever meant to be construed as such" and "trolling isn't simply harmful statements."

THANK YOU, PERSON WHO WROTE THAT. In so many of the instances in which the popular press (and the general public) apply the label "trolling," they're referring to sincere statements from people who believe every word they're saying. These alleged "trolls" have myriad intentions that may include getting a rise out of their target, but also include silencing their target, humiliating their target, inspiring fear or emotional distress in their target, etc etc etc. It's not provocation merely for provocation's sake, and the stakes are much higher.

The word "trolling" is not appropriate for these situations, and that's largely why ye olde adage "Don't feed the trolls" is such absolute bunk advice in these situations. If the person's primary intent were to get a rise out of you, then sure, "feeding" that desire would probably be unwise. But what if the person's primary intent is to silence you, to erase your voice and your presence from their jealously guarded spaces for online social interaction? Following the "don't feed the trolls" advice would be giving them exactly what they wanted, wouldn't it?

It's one thing to erroneously apply the "trolling" label when referring to someone simply being a dick on the Internet. I can live with that. But when we apply it to people who are spewing hateful things about people of colour, women, queer people, trans* people... When we apply it to people who orchestrate months-long campaigns of harassment intended to terrorize the target...When we apply it to people uttering death threats and rape threats...Well, we're insulting the targets of this hatred and harassment, and I'd even go so far as to say we're insulting THE PROUD INTERNET TRADITION of trolling itself.

These kinds of behaviours shouldn't be defined differently on the Internet than they are offline. We don't need special Internet words for hate speech, harassment, or death threats. These words already exist. But if we are hell-bent on calling this stuff "trolling," then we need a whole new philosophy for dealing with trolls -- one that challenges them instead of looking the other way while they wreak havoc on our discourse.

This post originally appeared on Steph's blog.

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