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I Wrote this Paper for the Lulz: the Ethics of Internet Trolling


Over the last decade, research on derogatory communication has focused on ordinary speech contexts and the use of conventional pejoratives, like slurs. However, the use of social media has given rise to a new type of derogatory behavior that theorists have yet to address: internet trolling. Trolls make online utterances aiming to frustrate and offend other internet users. Their ultimate goal is amusement derived from observing a good faith interlocutor engage with their provocative posts. The basis for condemning a pejorative utterance is often taken to be the harm it causes or a defective attitude in the speaker. However, trolling complicates this picture, since trolling utterances are by definition insincere and should be recognizable as such to other trolls. Further, these utterances seem morally questionable even when they cause little to no harm (e.g. when a troll’s utterance fails to secure uptake), and they often do not feature conventional pejoratives. I argue that while the potential for negative effects is relevant to ethical assessment, in general trolling is pro tanto wrong because the troll fails to accord others the proper respect that is their due (independently of whether they harm them). However, this characteristic wrong-making feature is sometimes overridden.

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  1. For a collection of papers that are representative of the work philosophers of language have done on slurs in recent years, see Sosa (2018).

  2. Questions about the moral and legal implications of hate speech are explored in Tirrell (2017), who explains how slurs motivate harmful discrimination against vulnerable groups, and Waldron (2012), who argues that the harm of public hate speech is sufficient for justifying legal restrictions on it.

  3. See Stanley (2015) for examples.

  4. Barney (2016) describes the concern troll as “the one who ‘sees the other side’” (p. 1).

  5. Phillips uses the label ‘subcultural’ in recognition of the fact that STs make up an online speech community whose members have a shared goal (lulz) and will often coordinate their efforts to achieve it.

  6. Here I am drawing on Kate Manne’s distinction of misogyny from sexism. Misogyny refers to social systems that operate “within a patriarchal order to police and enforce women’s subordination and to uphold male dominance” (Manne 2018, p. 33). In comparison, sexism is an ideology that rationalizes and justifies patriarchal social relations (Manne 2018, p. 79). Those who lack a sexist ideology and have sincere feminist commitments may nevertheless sometimes channel misogynistic social forces to enforce gender norms (Manne 2018, p. 77). I take it that ‘express’ is not a success term, that is, an agent can express a derogatory attitude A without harboring A.

  7. Of course, an ST could enjoy lulz derived from fantasizing about their target reacting to them with frustration or offense independently of whether the target actually reacts this way. In any event, lulz are an intended effect that need not be achieved.

  8. Relatedly, Basu (2019) raises an objection to effects-based accounts of what is wrong with having racist beliefs. Basu gives the example of a hermit who lives in an isolated forest and finds a picture of a man named Sanjeev. The hermit forms a racist belief about Sanjeev (namely, that he smells like curry). Despite the fact that this belief cannot harm Sanjeev (since the hermit will never interact with other people), Basu argues that the hermit wrongs Sanjeev just by virtue of having a racist belief about him.

  9. A similar intuition is expressed by Cohen (2017, p. 186). However, Cohen does not mention STing specifically, and it is not clear which form of trolling Cohen has in mind. Rather than offering a general ethical assessment of trolling, Cohen aims to account for the virtuous arguer’s character by contrasting them with a paradigmatically vicious individual (the troll).

  10. Glüer and Wikforss distinguish non-constitutive norms, which exist independently of the activity they govern, from constitutive norms, which create the very activity they regulate. As an example of the former, consider prescriptions regarding dinner etiquette, which govern an independently existing activity, eating (Glüer and Wikforss 2018).

  11. See also Cuneo (2014), who argues that the normativity of our discursive practices (e.g. the fact that our judgments and behavior incur certain commitments, and that as speakers we have rights, responsibilities, and obligations vis-à-vis our interlocutors) is essential to our ability to perform speech acts.

  12. One reason that I regard Robin’s behavior as pro tanto wrong is that ceteris paribus, it would be better for Robin to persuade Ted through rational means than to troll him. It is regrettable that she had to resort to STing to get Ted to appreciate the hypocrisy of his stance. However, one may think that in certain cases it is appropriate to respond to irrational perspectives only by using strategies like trolling, as opposed to relying on rational persuasion. One worry about responding to flat-Earthers, climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers, and phrenologists by presenting them with reasons to abandon their views is that we risk legitimizing them in a problematic way. We may even think that such individuals have forfeited their right to equal consideration as conversation participants, though I will not attempt to settle this issue here.

  13. Similarly, Bell (2013, p. 160) suggests that the experience of being contemned may motivate someone who harbors inapt contempt to reflect on their objectionable attitudes and work to change them.

  14. Harvey (1999, p. 72) suggests that protesting hate groups can be a valuable act of solidarity with those targeted by such groups. Countertrolling racist STs may have a similar function, though whether a racist troll’s target welcomes and appreciates the countertroll’s intervention is a separate issue.


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I am grateful to Andrew Morgan and John Dyck for helpful discussions, and to the audience of a March 2019 colloquium at Auburn University for many illuminating comments.

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Correspondence to Ralph DiFranco.

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DiFranco, R. I Wrote this Paper for the Lulz: the Ethics of Internet Trolling. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 23, 931–945 (2020).

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  • Social media
  • Trolling
  • Derogation
  • Speech
  • Harm
  • Respect