Has the word “troll” been redefined deliberately?
Around the end of 2010, I started to notice mainstream news articles using the word “troll”, but it did not retain its then-conventional acceptation which was “person who tries to provoke a negative reaction in an online discussion”. People started to use the word to mean “stalker”, or “critic”. My inference was that our folkwardens were readying the law looms to legislate against free speech online, and that this conflation of criticism, playful satire and already criminal intimidation was part of the softening-up exercise to prepare the public for being censored.
The term “troll” was problematic even in the 1990s, as even when it had a commonly-accepted meaning, it was regarded unreflectively by some as an inherently illegitimate activity. The argument ran that deliberately diverting a discussion was against the forum rules and ipso facto wrong. A better approach was to recognise that posting some absurd provocation is sometimes the best way of puncturing pomposity and luring the pretentious into unforced error and exposing their arguments, but that this consumes finite attention bandwidth, so there is a need for a variety of forums which trade off these concerns against each other to different extents.
The redefinition, or “ambiguisation” of the word “troll” allows someone to attack the activities described by the old sense of the word, whilst purporting only to attack those covered by the new sense. This may in fact now be a general problem; if there’s something you don’t like, start using the word which describes it to refer to something else which no-one likes, and then attack the former by attacking the latter. Your opponents will be left trying to explain semantics.
In the future it may be possible to detect these attempts to redefine and “own” the vocabulary, which could give an early warning of planned repressive legislation.
(The Wikipedia page on trolling primarily documents the old sense of the word, of provocation.)
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