Trolling with my homies: Some Economics of Internet Trolls

IP is full of trolls, but typically those associated with IP, not those online.  The IPKat, however, is both a blog and part of the IP community, and therefore can take a wider look a trolls. So, for you delectation, some economics of internet trolls (a person who deliberately provokes, often in an abusive manner, for the sake of provoking):

My home town's beloved "Fremont Troll"
Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia
The typical playground for trolling is that of comments -- with posts, Twitter or other forums. Comments are important for blog communities as they create a conversation, rather than a monologue.  The user-generated content of comments really enhances online media.  There are clear benefits from comments, but they come with costs -- one of which is trolls.

To troll or not to troll:
A classic economics approach to an individual's decision making is to assume that the individual weighs up the costs and benefits of the options and chooses the best option.

The costs to the troll are few.  Trolling requires spending a short amount of time creating online identities, identifying potential opportunities, drafting and posting comments, and monitoring the relevant threads.  The repercussions found offline, such as social rejection and prosecutions under the Public Order Act 1986 are less likely because the probability of identification is lower. Online trolls do get prosecuted, but the individual troll can safely assume a low chance of legal action.
Troll-face1 by Martin Alleus

Ah, the benefits. Much of the benefits of trolling are psychological in nature. There are all sorts of studies about the psychological traits of trolls and some personal accounts. This article by psychologist Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic suggests that the benefits largely fall into two categories: the ability to act on impulse and status-enhancing effects.  Just as my posts on IPKat give me some warm fuzzies in the form of social recognition, trolls enjoy the attention their trolling attracts.  That 'gotcha' moment or successful provocation must be addictive.  

The model
What would an economics post be without some squiggly lines? Assume the following:

  1. Expected Costs of trolling are a function of:
    1. The act of trolling (t)
    2. Expected punishment, which is a function of:
      1. probability of detection and being found guilty (p
      2. punishment in the form of a fines or incarceration (n)
  2. Expected Benefits of trolling are a function of:
    1. The ability to act on impulse (m)
    2. Status enhancing effects (s)
The troll decides to troll if the Expected Utility E(U), which is a function of the Expected Benefits E(B) minus the Expected Costs E(C), is greater than zero.  (Note that f() is the expression for "is a function of")

Tragedy of the commons
Trolling falls into a classic model of the tragedy of the commons. The benefits of exploiting a common resource (the online community) are largely captured by the individual trolls, whereas the costs are absorbed by the many. Left unfettered, the situation has a tragic end where the online community becomes depleted.

Troll by Doug Wildman
You can see that internet trolling isn't vastly different from IP trolling.  In general, the costs to the troll are negligible and the benefits potentially quite high; much of the cost of IP trolling is borne by the IP system and economy as a whole.  Long-term, this may result in the depletion of IP systems and innovation. 

How to tip the balance of troll decision making? Monitoring comments and fostering a self-policing community environment are a good way of reducing benefits (m and s, respectively.) As I discussed in my post on criminalisation of IP, detection (p) and punishment (n) increase costs.  Increasing the costs of trolling activities would likely increase the costs for all commenters, which could result in an inefficient outcome. 

Rock and troll.

N.B. Edited 11/11/15 to correct an error in the cost - benefit function. 
Trolling with my homies: Some Economics of Internet Trolls Trolling with my homies: Some Economics of Internet Trolls Reviewed by Nicola Searle on Tuesday, November 10, 2015 Rating: 5


  1. One of the fundamental rules of the internet is: Don't feed the trolls! I am afraid that such a post is a direct provocation for trolling...

  2. The number one distinction:

    as they create a conversation, rather than a monologue.

    ANY repetitive post that has as its aim a monologue as opposed to a dialogue is "Tr011 bait."

    Now ask yourself, gentle readers of the most popular patent blogs, who champions the dialogue and who merely engages in the monologue.

  3. Surely, the troll would want the benefits of trolling to outweigh the costs, in order for the trolling to be worthwhile.


    E(U) = E(B) - E(C)

    Currently, our friendly neighbourhood troll is trolling only when the expected costs are greater than the expected benefits, which clearly not troll-onomically advisable.

  4. Yes, anonymous 16:15 you are quite right, that is a typo on my part as it is benefits minus costs, not the other way around.

  5. I didn't read the full post, because I got distracted by the seemingly nonsensical phrase "Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia". Surely this makes no sense? How does one license a work under fair use? Wouldn't that essentially mean permission from the rightsholder to use the work, provided it meets the fair use criteria? Which is exactly the same as using the work under the same conditions but with no such permission from the rightsholder. It's clear the work uploaded to Wikipedia is not "licensed" under fair use at all, fair use is invoked to justify the upload.

  6. By all means tag someone as a troll but make sure you know who the accuser is and judge for yourself if they use the term appropriately. The word is often used by shepherds to direct sheep - it is problematic and judgemental. What proportion of "trolls" later turn out to be genuine whistle blowers or people with a legitimate disagreement? The word troll is rather like terrorist. It depends on a point of view. T.C.

  7. It appears some trolls have thick skins.

  8. Jeroen - - Having previously cited Wikipedia photos. I did note that the suggested citation was different this time. I'm not sure how it works, perhaps the user/uploader wrote the license?

  9. Is this an IP blog, or just a blog?

  10. With apologies to Frankie Laine:

    Trolling, trolling, trolling,
    Though the courts are swollen
    Keep them cases rolling
    So snide!
    In vain they try to weather
    And get all in a lather
    Wishing they’d fallen down and died
    My mind’s calculatin’
    My reward will be waitin’
    Soon as I have brushed them aside.

    (For folk not so ancient:

  11. Anonymous at 00:17,

    Absolutely correct.

    You might note that here in the States, the phrase "Patent Tr011" was actually coined directly as a gratuitous insult by a Big Corp in a smear campaign, for the sole purpose of padding their own profits - and NO concern for any "nobler" discourse or other end result.

    You might also note that our Executive Branch is well overdue in its required timeliness to respond to a well-documented propaganda destroying request by one Ron Katznelson to remove (or validate) said type of propaganda from a White House "white" (actually yellow, in the journalistic sense) paper that was nothing but "Tr011" propaganda.

    Funny too - where is the dialogue on these aspects?

  12. Should I be surprised that no one wants to discuss this elephant in the room?

    Push comes to shove: blog comment sections are a battleground, and those who are true Tr011s do NOT want to be "fed" with anyone willing to engage and point out the fallacies of the "Tr011" speaking points.

    This also provides a rather easy editorial control: anyone who blindly repeats a mere speaking point (ad nauseum) without addressing counter points presented in previous dialogues should have their post (which can be obviously classified as mere propaganda) removed.

    And yes, this solution was shared with the editor of the "premier" US patent law blog personally some four years ago. A relatively easy solution, given that it is typically the sAme ones who really are not interested in an engaged discussion.

  13. Perhaps, though, "Tr011" is not the most apt chracterization...

    I am reminded of a life lesson I learned when I was very young.

    I was situated in a small burg, where rival grade schools were extremely close and every day the flow of students passed each other coming and going.

    As a small lad, I was quite surprised (and befuddled) to find myself the victim of a bully, a sizably larger child, who had decided that for his amusement each day in passing he would rip my books from my hand and toss them to the wind.

    After the second occurrence, I talked with my father.

    His advice: punch the bully in the face.

    Guess what.

    I followed the advice and the bully, even being much larger, lie crying on the ground in abject humiliation.

    He never bullied anyone again.

    Tr011s may "feed" on interactions, but internet bullies cannot stand to be punched in the nose.

    If blog moderators will not take care of blog bullies, then my fathers advice is most fitting.

  14. Funnily enough, US Anon, my dad gave me similar advice. And 20-years of karate lessons. Never got to use the lessons!

  15. Nicola @7:46 GMT: It's been pointed out to me that it's a known issue that's being worked on for almost a year now. See (the standard text of the embed code is 'Licensed under [License] via [Project]', where 'fair use' is also seen as a license). It has a high priority but apparently it's "not a trivial fix" (something to do with machine-readable data). It's plain HTML though, so you can simply alter the code to have it make sense.

  16. As a matter of interest, the Guardian has done some interesting quantitative work on trolling:

  17. Ms Searle,
    Indeed, the Guardian did quantitative work but the many comments from regular btl commentators were about the lack of qualitative work. Allegedly.
    An innocent bystander in this, but the usual problem of making an incorrect correlation/causal link seemed to arise. The assumption made was that trolling (based on moderated comments) was more prevalent in articles by women and black men. But no systemic bias of the moderators was considered I.e.they were perhaps more defensive of those writers with regard to abuse. A surprisingly high percentage of comments identified arbitrary decision making by the moderators.

    Fortunately that doesn't seem to occur here. Maybe a better class of reader? Or a better class of writer??


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