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Abstract

This study analyzes cases where participants in Reddit’s advice-seeking forums are called out for trolling. The data consists of 217 call-out messages, in which other participants point out that the advice-seeker may be trolling them with a deceiving post. We analyze the call-out messages as Communicative Acts and introduce 1) a classification of trolling call-out acts and 2) an analysis of the functions of trolling call-outs. We used a CMC act classification and found five types of trolling call-outs: claim, desire, react, inquire, and direct. The call-out messages have two primary functions: They orient to either dealing with the deception or dealing with the transgression. This division of orientation can be seen in the format of the call-out message: call-outs can be used for different functions depending on whether the call-out message contains only the call-out or also other activities.

In online forums, posts may receive several types of replies that display coherence to different extents (Herring, 1999; Vepsäläinen, 2022). This means that, for example, a post seeking advice can attract responses that give advice but also ones that merely display empathy, show interest in the topic, tell about a similar problem, or even mock the original poster. Among different types of responses, there is one interesting type that questions the original poster's sincerity and integrity by voicing the suspicion that the poster is a troll. These trolling call-outs come in many forms, and they may be directed to either the original poster or other participants who might be reading the discussion. In this article, we are interested in trolling call-outs as communicative acts: What types of trolling call-outs exist, and what is their communicative function? We take as a starting point the assumption that though the replies may be of several kinds, they are not entirely random: They relate to the topic and activity of the original post and work as building blocks of larger discussions. Trolling call-outs are, though, rather peculiar building blocks for a discussion, in that they bring to the foreground something that was not mentioned in the original post: the notion of trolling.

Online trolling is a persistent phenomenon typical of and often mentioned on online forums and social media. In her extensive work on classifying trolling types, Hardaker (2013, p. 79) defines trolling as “the deliberate (perceived) use of impoliteness/aggression, deception and/or manipulation in CMC to create a context conducive to triggering or antagonising conflict, typically for amusement’s sake.” In Hardaker’s definition, there are two preconditions for trolling: deception and triggering (i.e., transgressive) behavior. Our analysis shows that through trolling call-outs, forum users display recognition of and orient to these preconditions – though mostly at different times and through differently formulated call-outs.

We analyze trolling call-outs as communicative acts (Jucker & Dürscheid, 2012) and through a CMC act classification (Herring et al., 2005), as well as a careful analysis of the trolling call-outs in their immediate discourse context. We aim to determine what are the functions of trolling call-outs in forum interaction. Our data comes from advice-seeking discussions on Reddit. In the following section, we briefly introduce communicative acts and CMC acts, advice-seeking in online interactions, and online trolling, followed by the presentation of the data and the methods of the current study. The analysis is presented in two main sections. The first analysis section consists of a classification of trolling call-out acts into five acts and their descriptions: claim, desire, react, inquire, and direct. In the second analysis section we analyze the call-outs as communicative acts, and show that they have two main functions depending on whether the communicative act consists of only trolling call-outs or also other CMC acts: dealing with the deception and dealing with the transgressive content. This is followed by a discussion of the findings.

The unit of our investigation is the communicative act (CA), as proposed by Jucker and Dürscheid (2012) in their presentation of Keyboard-to-Screen linguistics. CA refers to any unit of communication, be it email, academic talk, or a text message, that has a communicative intention (Jucker & Dürscheid, 2012, p. 46). CAs form a continuum in respect of the expectation of uptake, and they can form communicative act sequences with other CAs (CAS) (Jucker & Dürscheid, 2012, p. 47). The CA was chosen for analysis in this study due to its flexibility and appropriateness for the study of threaded discussion. In our data, advice-seeking on Reddit is a CA with a high expectation for uptake, and it forms a CAS with the trolling call-out that replies to it. The trolling call-out can also be replied to, thus forming another CAS (CAS2) within the first CAS (CAS1). In our analysis, advice-seeking messages as well as trolling call-out messages are CAs. In the framework of communicative acts, our study sheds light on what kind of CA’s trolling call-outs are, and what kind of CAS’ are formed by advice-seeking messages and trolling call-outs.

Jucker and Dürscheid (2012, p. 47) state that the term CA “also covers instances of what is normally called an utterance, a request or other speech acts that are often realized in the phonic code.” In the case of trolling call-outs, speech acts (CMC acts) offer the best framework for the classification of different call-outs according to the action that they are used to perform. We utilized the CMC act taxonomy by Herring et al. (2005) and identified acts performed by trolling call-outs. This taxonomy is a combination and distillation of Bach and Harnish’s (1979) classification of speech acts and Francis and Hunston’s (1992) classification of conversational speech acts, and it consists of 16 act categories. It has been applied to analyze messages on various platforms, including chat (Kapidzic & Herring, 2011) and Twitter (Nemer, 2016), and it turns out to be a well-adapted tool also for analyzing CMC acts performed through trolling call-outs.

Internet users have embraced and continue to embrace the opportunity to anonymously seek help and support from a wide audience on platforms with a large number of users, such as Reddit. There are advantages to crowdsourcing one’s problems, such as the potential to find knowledgeable and supportive peers. Nonetheless, the anonymity and the vast number of readers entail some possible disadvantages, ranging from aggression to advice that is deceitful or even dangerous. Giving insincere responses to advice-seeking has been defined in prior literature as a form of trolling (Donath, 1999; Hardaker, 2013). At the same time, the advice seeker’s sincerity may also arouse suspicion (Stommel & Molder, 2015; on helpline calls, see Emmison & Danby, 2007).

Research has explored seeking and giving advice in both expert-to-lay (e.g., Bromme et al., 2005; Locher, 2006) and peer-to-peer interactions (e.g., Eisenchlas, 2012; Morrow, 2006, 2012; Stommel & Koole, 2010; Vayreda & Antaki, 2009), reporting both differences and similarities between them. In both situations, the typical structures of the advice-seeking and advice-giving messages are similar. The advice-seeking consists of stating the problem and requesting advice, and the advice-giving typically contains assessment, advice, empathy, and experience (Locher, 2006; Morrow, 2012). Previous studies have also reported that the tendency to give advice can be so strong that advice is regularly given even when it is not requested (e.g., Vayreda & Antaki, 2009).

Another frequent occurrence in online interactions is that instead of advice the reply to an advice-seeking consists of something else. Vepsäläinen (2022) investigated the functions of such messages on Reddit and concluded that even though they do not offer what the original poster (OP) requested, they are typically related to the advice-seeking post and take a stance on the validity of the advice-seeking. The reply may accept the validity of the advice-seeking, display that the OP’s problem is not the one that they are seeking advice for, or question the morality of the poster or the advice-seeking. The poster's morality might be questioned, for example, if they are asking for advice on how to hide from their partner on whom they have cheated, and in these cases, they may receive accusing or even mocking replies. Calling out the advice-seeker for being a troll, though, goes beyond questioning the morality of the post or the poster. If the poster is indeed a troll, not only are their behaviors or attitudes questionable towards other people, but also towards the very people they are asking advice from. Online trolling is a distinct phenomenon in online communities that is deeply rooted in anonymity and deception. This implies that trolling call-outs are a unique type of reply worthy of investigation as a group of their own.

In academic studies as well as in everyday use trolling has been defined in various ways, and its definition has evolved over time. As shown in the quote by Hardaker (2013), traditionally trolling has been viewed as intentional triggering of conflict and wasting commenter’s time and energy. Sometimes it has also been seen as a means to signal group membership (Tepper, 1997). In recent years, however, internet users understand trolling as more harmful activities: flaming and harassment, including race and gender-based harassment (see Ortiz, 2020). Our findings and treatment of trolling align more with the traditional view of trolling as a prank, which may be due to the nature of our data (see the Data and Discussion sections).

Donath (1999) characterized trolling as a game of identity deception which is played without the consent of others and can damage the feeling of trust in an online community. Deception and luring others into pointless discussions is a common factor also in many subsequent definitions of trolling (Herring et al., 2002). Shachaf and Hara (2010, p. 1) describe trolling on the online encyclopedia Wikipedia as “repetitive, intentional, and harmful actions that are undertaken in isolation and under hidden virtual identities,” and Buckels et al. (2014, p. 1) describe it as “the practice of behaving in a deceptive, destructive, or disruptive manner in a social setting on the Internet with no apparent instrumental purpose.” Several definitions explicitly highlight that trolling is deliberate (e.g., Coles & West, 2016; Golf-Papez & Veer, 2017; Hardaker, 2013; Shachaf & Hara, 2010), and some mention that trolling can be done for the sake of amusement (e.g., Bishop, 2013; Hardaker, 2013; Sanfilippo et al., 2017).

Another, even more prevalent, component in the definitions of trolling is that the content that trolls post is transgressive, i.e., somehow inappropriate or provocative. For example, Bishop (2013, p. 302) defines trolling as “sending of provocative messages via a communications platform for the entertainment of oneself, others, or both,” and Cambria et al. (2010, p. 2) describe it as “emotional attacks on a person or a group through malicious and vulgar comments in order to provoke response.” Turner et al. (2005) note that “[a] Troll attempts to cause disruption within a newsgroup by asking (and often successfully dragging out) a provocative question.” Provocation seems to be a common, though not an exclusive, aspect of trolling.

Thus, scholars have characterized trolling as a diverse and multifaceted phenomenon which can manifest through different kinds of activities, and different definitions highlight different aspects of it. In contrast, this study examines cases where forum participants, for one reason or another, call out a poster as a troll. Here, the interest lies in the act of calling out, although the different definitions of trolling help make sense of what the participants are doing when they call out a troll. We adopt as a working definition that a troll is someone who deceives the community and lures them into useless discussions by posting transgressive posts and using provocative themes to cause shock and attract heated debate. We will show that on different occasions participants tend to orient either to the deceptive or the transgressive side of trolling, and they use different formats for doing so.

Given our interest in better understanding how potential trolls are reacted to and dealt with, we focused on cases where the alleged troll initiates the conversation. Our data come from 77 advice-seeking discussions on Reddit, which is a discussion website and news aggregator based in the United States. Its users are largely, but not exclusively, located in the United States (https://www.statista.com/statistics/325144/reddit-global-active-user-distribution/). Reddit consists of user-created interest-based discussion areas called subreddits. We used convenience sampling to select seven subreddits that showed up on a search for the keyword “troll” on the Reddit main page. These represent both general forums for advice seeking1 and more thematic ones.2

The discussions were searched in December 2019 from these subreddits using the keyword “troll,” after which the discussions that matched our sampling criteria were selected for analysis (a similar method was used by Hardaker, 2013). The sampling criteria for the discussions were that each original post presents a problem, requests advice, and receives at least one reply with a trolling call-out. Originally we collected 80 discussions, but three of them were deleted from the collection due to being duplicates or not fitting the collection criteria. This led to a collection of 77 discussions, the majority (68/77) of which were posted during 2019, the rest of them being one to five years older. Over two-thirds of the discussions (52/77) come from r/relationship_advice. The 77 discussions contain 2749 replies, and 217 of them are trolling call-outs. Example (1) from r/meditation illustrates a request for advice and a trolling call-out reply.

(1)

L1 OP Please name some agonising meditation poses or poses which expose the motives of our soul

L2 C You are trolling. But I LOLed

As Reddit discussions form a threaded structure, we indicate the position of the message in the thread by L2, L3, etc., where L stands for ‘level’. L2 messages respond directly to the original post, L3 messages are responses to L2 messages, etc. We have removed user nicknames and refer to every user who was called out for trolling as OP (Original Poster), and the users producing a trolling call-out as C (Caller). Other users are referred to as O. We also use the gender-neutral singular “they” when referring to individual users, because we are not privy to their actual gender identities. We do not seek to demarcate whether the perceived trolls are intending to troll, as our interest lies in the call-outs and their functions.

This article presents a pragmatic analysis of trolling call-outs that involves analysis of CAs, CASs, and CMC acts, with a concentration on the interactional import of the messages. Our analysis process consists of three phases: 1. identifying trolling call-outs, 2. classifying the communicative acts performed by trolling call-outs, and 3. analyzing the function(s) of trolling call-outs in their discourse context, i.e., the discussion formed by the original post and replies to it.

In the first phase of the analysis, querying the collected 77 advice-seeking discussions, we found 217 messages that contained trolling call-outs. In our definition, calling out refers to the semantic content of an utterance, and thus we define a trolling call-out as an utterance that states or implies a suspicion that the OP is a troll. A trolling call-out message is a message that contains either one or several trolling call-outs. It can consist of only trolling call-out(s) and its possible extensions (e.g., an account on why trolling is likely), or it can include trolling call-out(s) along with some other act (e.g., a reply to the original advice seeking). In our data, 191/217 (88%) of the call-out messages consisted of only trolling call-outs, and 26/217 (12%) of the messages included a trolling call-out along with something else.

In the second phase, we directed our attention to the classification of the communicative acts (CA) that perform trolling call-outs. We utilized the CMC act taxonomy by Herring et al. (2005) and identified five acts performed by trolling call-outs: claiming, desiring, reacting, inquiring, and directing. The criteria for identification were the following (according to Herring et al., 2005):

• Claim: an unverifiable, subjective assertion

• Desire: a statement of desire or need; hope, dream, or speculation; or a promise

• React: a display of listenership or engagement (positive, negative, or neutral)

• Inquire: a seeking of information

• Direct: an attempt to cause action.

The coding was conducted by the first author. Each trolling call-out was coded with a CMC act, after which we analyzed the call-outs more carefully to give them more detailed descriptions. For example, trolling calls categorized as claims were not just any kind of claims but, as a result of being claims about the poster’s misconduct, they had an accusatory tone to them. For that reason, they were also described as accusations. We draw on specifically interactionally oriented studies on similar acts to form an understanding of what these call-outs do in a forum conversation. The coding was mostly straightforward with very few cases of doubt. The only act category that caused difficulties and does not sit perfectly with its name is “react.” This category contains several call-outs that, based on their form, could belong to some other category (e.g., “desire”) but that are analyzed per their pragmatic function of reacting and evaluating something. More detailed descriptions of these acts in relation to trolling call-outs and especially their interactional import are given in the sections below.

In the third phase of analysis, we analyzed trolling call-outs’ functions in their discourse context, i.e., what is achieved through the trolling calls. We subscribe to Linell’s (1998a, p. 142) view of context as “an array of different contextual resources: prior discourse, concrete physical environment, people (and assumptions about people) with their interpersonal relations (frames), models of topics talked about etc.” Each communicative act on Reddit makes use of a set of contextual resources and at the same time modifies the context of the whole discussion, starting from the original post. In this stage, we analyzed the speech acts that the call-out messages contain, the activities that they perform together and separately (e.g., calling out the troll and giving advice), and the CAs (whole messages) and the CASs that they may initiate. Our analysis reveals two main types of trolling call-outs: 1) those that display that the poster is deceptive, and 2) those that treat the post as transgressive. These two types also reveal the two-fold nature of trolling: it can be understood primarily as deception or as transgression.

Table 1 below presents the frequencies of the different CMC acts that the trolling call-outs perform in our data. In some cases, a message contained several trolling call-outs that perform different speech acts, which is why the sum of the frequencies in the table is higher than 217. In the first column (Speech acts performed by trolling call-outs in messages consisting of call-outs) the number of Claims is notably high (54.5%), whereas Desires are rare (7.3%), which highlights the primary role of these messages: to reveal a deceptive poster. In contrast, in the second column (Speech acts performed by trolling call-outs in messages including trolling call-outs, i.e., in messages where there are also other CMC acts) Desire acts are as frequent as Claims (88.5%). This suggests that the role of trolling call-outs differs in these two types of CAs. As our subsequent analyses will show, the Desire act orients to the fact that the content of the original post is somehow transgressive, by expressing that it could be true but hopefully is not. The differences between the two types of CAs are analyzed in more detail further below.

Table 1. Frequencies of different acts that trolling call-outs performed in the data

In the following sections, we first present our classification of trolling call-out acts, after which we address the two main functions of trolling call-outs: dealing with deception and dealing with transgression.

Claim is the act that accounts for the majority of all trolling calls in our data (Table 1). Claims are subjective assertions that are unverifiable in principle (e.g., “I love pizza”) (Herring et al., 2005). We suggest that acts that assert that someone is a troll belong to a subcategory of claims that demand some kind of evidence from their producer: They are accusations. Accusations ascribe responsibility for an unsatisfactory event to a person or a group (Turowetz & Maynard, 2010). They have the requirement that they should be backed by evidence: They demand accountability (i.e., the ability to prove their credibility) both from the accuser and the accused. The accused party is expected to present a denial (Atkinson & Drew, 1979; Pomerantz, 1978) by which they can contest the grounds for the accusation (Atkinson & Drew, 1979; Buttny, 1993), such as describing the accusation’s premises in a new light (Antaki, 1994). Alternatively, the accused party can acknowledge and explain the occurrence they are accused of (Dersley & Wootton, 2000).

An accusation can be directed towards an other, i.e., the person the Caller is directing their words at, or a third party. In our data, calls were made in both ways: by speaking directly to the OP (You are trolling) or referring to them as a third party (This is so clearly fake). Some of the references are also ambivalent as to whether they are directed to the OP or the audience (Troll post). In their simplest form, the claiming acts in our data did not seek to present any evidence and just consisted of a noun and its possible modifiers. They expressed varying levels of affect depending on the word choice, typography, and evaluative elements (e.g., Troll, Troll post, Shitpost, Shiiiiittttt pooooosssstttt, Lol huge troll post). In this way, they asserted a high degree of certainty of OP being a troll – and possibly that the post itself presented sufficient evidence of trolling.

The second group of claims consists of clauses that contain modifiers that indicate a level of certainty. Expressions such as I’m getting troll vibes and this has to be a shit post express low epistemic certainty (by referring to vibes) and hint at necessity with a verb (has to be). A more confident example is this is fake as fuck. By expressing an epistemic stance, these calls demonstrate both the accuser’s accountability for accusations (see Pomerantz, 1978) and their cognitive processing.

The third type of claim, illustrated in example (2) (This just screams fake troll), hints at features that reveal the trolling without explicating them. This accusation got a reply from the OP, who had introduced themselves as an 18-year-old woman married to an older man who had persuaded their husband to throw out his 18-year-old son.

(2)

L2 C This just screams fake troll.

L3 OP Why?
Sorry but i am not trolling.

L4 C You keep talking about best for the family..... What family? You're kicking out one of the family members to be homeless...... How is that best for the family?

Evidence is made more explicit after the accusation, as OP asks for an account for the Caller’s accusation with Why? as well as denies the accusation (Sorry but i am not trolling.). The Caller brings out their evidence by listing details that make the post seem transgressive and hard to believe that someone would think or act this way. The CAS on the acceptability of OP’s behavior then continues between them for seven more messages.

The fourth type of claiming call-outs states the evidence explicitly. In some messages, this proof is based on knowledge of a forum-discussant, such as knowing that this poster has spammed the forum before. In other instances, the evidence is based on knowledge of the world, such as what kind of weight gain can be detected by eye (This has to be a troll. Nobody can detect 5 pounds by eyee).

In Herring et al.'s (2005) CMC act classification, desire is a cover term for acts that concern an irrealis situation, such as wishes and speculations. Our data contained 37 cases of desire (see Table 1). In contrast to the claims above, trolling call-outs that display desire orient to the content of OP’s request for advice, without actually engaging in answering it. For example, the Caller could hope that something in the advice-seeking would not be true. These call-outs foreground the transgressive nature of the posts and imply that it would be worse if the content were real than if it were made up. This invites others to share the wish and agree with it:

(3)

L2 A please be a troll, please be a troll, please be a troll, please be a troll, please be a troll, please be a troll,

Example (4) presents a discussion where OP has accused their son, who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, of being a narcissist, and criticized him for wanting anger management classes instead of resorting to essential oils and acupuncture, which in OP’s opinion would be helpful in the situation.

(4)

L2 C I'm really hoping this is a troll

L3 O Three posts, all in a similar pattern. Only comments on own posts. Troll is a safe bet.

OP’s post receives both trolling call-outs and replies that treat it as sincere. The controversial topic gains attention and suspicion, and at the same time, if sincere, it implies harm to OP’s son. Displaying a wish that OP may be a troll brings this controversy to the foreground, and another user validates this possibility by referring to the number of trolling attempts that have been made.

Reactions show either listenership or positive, neutral, or negative engagement (Herring et al., 2005). The trolling call-outs in our data that are used to react evaluate the ostensible trolling attempt positively or negatively. Our data contains 31 reactions altogether. The Callers express full certainty about OPs trolling and directly treat their posts as ‘evaluable’ attempts. When a trolling call-out is an evaluation (or ‘critique’; cf. Hardaker, 2015), an earlier post is considered a performance where an evaluation is its expected response. The evaluation can be either negative (Such weak trolling) or positive (you are a shitposting god at this point lmfao).

A recurring means the accusers use to demonstrate their forum discussant’s knowledge is by providing the perceived troll’s writing a commentary that goes beyond evaluation. The commentary can take the form of, e.g., pseudo-sincere direction, as in example (5), or some type of a review, as in example (6), to display a positive or negative reaction to the trolling attempt.

(5)

L2 C be more subtle when trolling pls

(6)

L2 C This is sooooooo obviously a troll, but quite a good one tbh. 8/10 on the creative writing, but a couple of little details let you down. Better luck next time.

These kinds of evaluations disarm the troll by playing with the aspect of creative writing that trolling accounts often bring to the surface. From the point of view of the Caller, they also substantiate that they are familiar with trolling – to the extent they can review it. This brings to the surface that trolling is not just the conduct of an individual troll but a phenomenon that has its codes and regularities. The Caller does not form their view on who is a troll or what is good or bad trolling in a vacuum but as a member of a community.

Inquiries (i.e., requests for information) constitute 28 cases of the data. They derive from trolling call-outs’ highly accountable nature: that an allegation for trolling can always be contested. If it would turn out that OP was not trolling, i.e., they were seriously seeking advice on a real problem, this should, theoretically at least, lead to allowing the conversation to continue. Callers approach the sensitivity and accountability of calling out others as trolls by posing inquiries such as Is this a troll account lmao or This is a joke.....right ??

An inquiry on whether someone is trolling or not could theoretically open negotiation on the sincerity of a discussant, but like other trolling calls, they are rarely responded to. In some of the inquiries – as in the two examples above – it is not explicated whether they are directed to the OP or the audience. Some of them though are clearly directed either at other discussants or to the OP, as in example (7). Inquiries directed at OPs provide them with a possibility to account for themselves in a way that does not require a contesting reply (e.g., “You are trolling.” – “No I’m not”).

(7)

L2 C Are you trolling?

L3 OP No

The example above is atypical in the sense that usually OP’s replies to inquiries are longer and provide an account for their sincerity. In this particular case, the L2 trolling call is the only reply OP receives, and the discussion does not continue after the L3 response. If OP indeed was a troll, the attempt was a failure: It did not lead to a long, futile discussion.

Directive communicative acts function as attempts to cause action (Herring et al., 2005). The fact that trolling is a recognizable part of the forum culture does not mean that it is accepted and viewed as preferable, and often trolling calls aim at directing the discussion and the ostensible troll. The 23 directives in our data were all requests-for-action. Although ‘not feeding the troll’ is common advice, in our data we had only five instances where it was spelled out (e.g., Don’t feed the troll).

Directives inform the troll and the others how the unveiling of a possible troll should affect the discussion. In eight directives in our data, other discussants are advised to read OP’s posting history, encouraging them to judge the evidence by themselves, and/or stop interacting with the troll (e.g., Shitpost check history and don't respond). Fifteen messages, in turn, are directed at the OP; these portray trolling as an unwanted phenomenon and the ostensible troll as persona non grata:

(8)

L2 C Troll elsewhere.

(9)

L2 C Hey, shut the fuck up
No one cares troll
End yourself

Especially example (9) shows how fiercely Callers may protect their discussion environment. Not only are others informed, but also the possible troll is told that their behavior is not acceptable.

We have seen that through the five speech acts performed by trolling call-outs, the Callers seek to engage the other participants in the discussion, not on the topic provided by OP in their advice-seeking, but on the topic of trolling. In the following, we show how exactly these call-out messages are used to deal with trolling by investigating their functions in the given context.

A troll is someone who deceives the community and lures them into a useless discussion by posting transgressive posts. The majority of trolling call-outs in our data deal with deception, the fact that there is a discussant in the forum that is not sincere. There are two ways to deal with the deception through trolling call-outs. First, the Caller reveals the troll, displaying at the same time the troll's nonlegitimate and their own legitimate status in the discussion. Second, trolling is depicted as an activity of its own, which is not the same as requesting advice. This is brought to the surface by re-contextualizing the trolling attempt. We propose that these dimensions are always present when the OP is called out for trolling, but they may surface and become relevant to a different extent in different types of trolling call-outs. Typically, the Caller also displays a desire to discontinue the ongoing discussion with the troll and have the troll leave the forum. It should be mentioned that many of the ostensible trolling posts also get replies that treat them as sincere requests for advice.

Firstly, trolling call-outs’ objective is to reveal a trolling attempt to other users by making them aware of something that they would not necessarily have noticed. Providing evidence of trolling also strengthens the call-out messages’ orientation to revealing. In providing evidence, Callers do not only draw attention to trolls as parties trying to deceive but also to themselves as trustworthy and logical thinkers. In this way, call-outs both deal with the accountability of the Callers and convince other discussants. The maintenance of mutual understanding between the participants is a precondition for any interactive event to succeed. On Internet forums, building common ground is a public effort. It yields social consequences for interaction, as unresolved events may compromise participants’ understanding of intended meanings and trust and intimacy within the discussion space (Enfield, 2006). Revealing a possible online troll can be seen as an attempt to preempt an ensuing communication breakdown that may result if a post’s malicious intent is not collectively realized.

Revealing the troll deals with the person who is trolling and transfers their status from a sincere forum member into a deceitful outsider. The trolling message goes through the same process, as it is recontextualized into the realm of fictive writing. By re-contextualization, the OP’s message is cast into a different interpretive frame. In linguistics, re-contextualization refers to “extrication of some part or aspect of text or discourses, – –, and the fitting of this part or aspect into another context, i.e., another text or discourse (or discourse genre) and its use and environment” (Linell, 1998b). A trolling call-out, thus, extricates (i.e., detaches) the original post from the activity it began, i.e., from genuine advice-seeking, and fits it into another activity, in this case into a realm of fiction: advice-seeking for a fictitious or speculative life situation. Of the speech acts presented above, especially evaluative reactions (e.g., such weak trolling) orient strongly towards re-contextualization. However, any expression that suggests that a post is a trolling attempt is a type of re-contextualization. In addition to treating the post as fictitious, a trolling call-out treats it as a special kind of fiction: deception. Trolling may be harmless and fun, but it can also be abusive and harmful, and when a post is re-interpreted as trolling, an expected and fitted response to it is resistance, which can, in its simplest form, be performed through a trolling call-out. Thus, re-contextualization is pervasive in all the trolling call-outs.

Trolling calls-outs that primarily deal with the deceptive side of the trolling, i.e., reveal and recontextualize the original post as trolling, can also be contested. In these cases, the OP – or in some cases another commenter – may be able to clear their status, forming a CAS, after which the original post will be treated again as a request for advice. Example (9) displays how the account of what makes the post suspicious provides OP with a possibility to correct the misunderstanding and afterward receive a response to their original advice-seeking. In earlier messages, OP has written that her boyfriend is not attracted to her anymore because she has gained 5 pounds.

(10)

L2 C This has to be a troll. Nobody can detect 5 pounds by eye

L3 OP It's not so much detect by eye but the fact that I tend to talk about/fixate on my weight a lot and he would hear me say I've gained 5 pounds.

L4 C Well there you go. He's full of shit. He's either worried you'll bloat, or he's looking for an excuse to bail.
out he goes

Though the first interpretation has been that of trolling, the evidence given by the Caller provides OP an opportunity to clarify, and in this case, she manages to remove the suspicion. In her L3 message, OP responds and gives an account of why the boyfriend knows about the 5 pounds. The denial of the accusation is done in a normatively expected way by addressing the grounds for the accusation (Atkinson & Drew, 1979; Buttny, 1993). In their L4 message the Caller accepts the clarification, gives an alternative interpretation, and, finally, also advises her to leave the boyfriend (out he goes), now orienting to the original post as a request for advice.

Trolling posts, as they are deceptive, are often also transgressive. Trolls use provocative themes to cause shock and attract heated discussions. All trolling call-outs deal with the transgressive nature to some extent by displaying that the troll’s behavior is unwanted, but some call-out messages orient to that to a greater degree, to the extent where the deception may become dubious. The discussants can find ways to deal with the post as either trolling or some other transgressive activity or topic. When dealing with topics and activities that are transgressive to the extent that trolling may be suspected, trolling call-out becomes a contextualization cue for negotiation on what is appropriate.

In this section, we deal primarily with messages that include a trolling call with another activity (26 cases in our data). Together they form the full message, a CA (Jucker & Dürscheid, 2012) in which the trolling call-out has a contextualizing role. A CA consisting of only one activity, calling out a troll, does not react to the original post as an advice-seeking, though it may give an account on why the advice-seeking is not plausible; a CA with a trolling call-out and another activity does that. This is not just a matter of having one or several utterances, as a trolling call-out with, e.g., an account can also consist of several utterances that take part in calling out the troll. In cases where there is a reply to the original post, the reply cannot be said to be done as a part of a trolling call-out:

(11)

I'm getting troll vibes
Trolling call-out
This has to be a troll.Nobody can detect 5 pounds by eye
Trolling call-outAccount for trolling call-out
I guess you are trolling, but if not, you know what to do. See the doctor.
Trolling call-outReply to advice-seeking

As was already shown in the previous section, a call-out that displays a desire that the OP is a troll orients strongly to the transgressive nature of the original post. Hoping that OP is a troll differs significantly from stating or questioning the accused troll’s identity in that it takes a stand on the actual content of the original post: There is something in it that the Caller hopes is not true. Trolling wishes, though, do not proceed further from wishing, and they are rarely responded to. Another way to bring the transgressive content of the post under inspection is to treat trolling as an option with, e.g., apposition (You are either a troll or very foolish) or an if-clause (If you're not a troll, you are very foolish). These messages provide evidence (the foolishness of the original post) to back up the call-out, but at the same time they retain the possibility that the post might not be deceptive, and the transgression needs to be addressed somehow. Furthermore, they deal with the transgression in a way that explicates the problematic nature of the original post.

The Caller takes a step forward from a mere wish that the transgressive activity is trolling by producing two separate speech acts in the message, one of which is a trolling call-out and another something that replies to the original advice-seeking, in this case, a directive act.

(12)

L2 C

I guess you are trolling, but if not, you know what to do. See the doctor.

Example (12) comes from a discussion where the OP has told that his penis is purple, infected, and on the verge of falling off. The post received several standalone trolling call-outs (i.e., messages consisting of the call-out only) and also advice that treated it as genuine. The trolling call-out in the example covers both options. It starts with an accusation whereby it reveals both to others and the possible troll that a trolling attempt has been observed and thus recontextualizes the post into the realm of fiction. Then, it takes a step back by providing an alternative: In case the post is genuine, the OP needs to go to the doctor. These kinds of dual trolling call-out messages that also provide advice are used especially in situations where someone might be harmed (in ‘endanger’ trolling, as described by Hardaker, 2013), and they can be used to serve two interpretations of the post at the same time.

Finally, the trolling call-out may merge into the reply such that it no longer functions as an independent speech act but shifts slightly towards a contextualization cue (Gumperz, 1982). In example (13) the Level 2 messages come from the same discussion, where a poster asks whether she should have a baby with a boyfriend she is not planning to stay with long term. The original post gets a lot of replies which mostly either advise her not to have a baby or call her out for trolling.

(13)

L2 A

In case this isn't a shit post:
You talk about having a child like it's a new piece of jewelry. You talk about your bf like his entire worth is measured by what he can do for you.
Everything is about you.
Please don't have a kid with anyone until you're at a point where you can read this post and see how absurd it is.

L2 B

This is a troll post right?
On the 0.0000001% chance it isn't, NO DON'T HAVE A BABY WITH HIM YOU TROLL

L2 C

Your current partner is too good for you. Leave him and see how finding a “better” man turns out for you.
Be a better troll next time.

The first two messages behave similarly in that they both express suspicion that the OP might not be sincere, and then move on to provide advice in case it is. They differ, though, in expressing different levels of certainty: Caller A, on one hand, suspects that the post could be a shit post but provides rather lengthy advice on OP’s situation. Caller B, on the other hand, expresses rather high epistemic certainty of the prospect of trolling with a declarative question (Heritage & Raymond, 2012) and by giving the post only a 0.0000001 % possibility that it is real. Also, the advice itself, written in all caps to add emphasis, contains a trolling call-out (NO DON'T HAVE A BABY WITH HIM YOU TROLL). The same applies to the third message, which does not mention a suspicion of trolling in the beginning but includes a request to be a better troll next time after the advice to leave the boyfriend. In these cases, advice-giving and trolling call-outs merge in a manner such that they are no longer mutually exclusive.

In this section, we have shown how CAs consisting of a trolling call-out and a reply to the original message treat trolling and non-trolling as two possible options. Furthermore, the Caller may orient to both at the same time in a way that does not see advice-seeking and trolling as separate activities: The OP is a troll, and they are requesting advice. In these cases, trolling is no longer tied to deception, but the transgressive nature of trolling posts is brought to the forefront. The trolling call-out frames the given advice and works as a contextualization cue: It provides an indication of the stance that the advice-giver is taking towards OP and their request for advice. This does not mean, though, that the Caller would always believe in the sincerity of the poster without contesting it; rather, their attitude towards the matter is ambivalent. While calling out the possible troll, they offer a reply on the OP’s terms, focusing on their original request. They treat OP as an interlocutor rather than as someone who should not be part of the discussion, or whose participation is contested, and the Callers attempt to build mutual understanding, though not necessarily an agreement, with them.

In this article, we have analyzed trolling call-outs as CMC acts and communicative acts and shown how call-outs can be used for different functions depending on whether the call-out message contains only the call-out or also other activities. In the first analysis section, we applied the CMC act taxonomy from Herring et al. (2005) to trolling call-outs. Out of 16 possible act categories, the trolling call-outs were performed though five acts: Claim, Desire, React, Inquire, and Direct. The Claim acts, which reveal the troll and accuse the poster of trolling, were overall the most common, though interesting differences were found between messages that consisted only of call-outs and those that also included other activities. Messages that merely called out the troll were performed through all five act categories, whereas messages that included other activities did not include Direct acts, and React and Inquire acts were rare.

In the second analysis section, we further analyzed the two CA types, consisting of only a call-out versus a call-out plus other activities, and showed that there are overall two main functions of trolling call-outs. Firstly, they can display that the poster is deceptive. In this case, the original advice-seeking is dismissed, as it is deemed no longer relevant. Revealing the poster as deceptive can be done, e.g., through expressing a suspicion that there is a troll (Claim), telling the troll to go away (Direct), or evaluating the act of trolling (React), which displays a high certainty of the suspicion that the poster is trolling. In the second case, the post is treated primarily as transgressive. In this case, the caller does not dismiss the discussion entirely but takes a stance toward its topic. In our data, the most common CMC acts for these call-outs were Claim and Desire. The Desire act, in particular, orients highly to the fact that the content is somehow transgressive, by expressing that it could be true but hopefully is not. These two types of trolling call-outs constitute different kinds of communicative act sequences, with possibly different follow-ups. They form a rather different relationship to the original post, to the desirability of continuing the discussion, and to the nature of trolling.

Advice-seeking and advising are often interpreted as reflecting asymmetrical power dynamics between the advice-seeker and the advice-giver, where the advice-seeker is seen as lacking knowledge that the advice-giver presumably has (DeCapua & Dunham, 1993; DeCapua & Huber, 1995; Hutchby, 1995). Trolling, in contrast, reverses this imbalance, as the non-knowledgeable party is, in reality, the one responding to the troll’s advice-seeking. In the examples shown above we see repeatedly how the Callers display certainty to different extents and point to evidence of trolling. Thus, they orient to what kind of knowledge they have in this situation where they are under threat of being deceived.

Calling out a troll is a delicate activity, which is evidenced in accounts. The Callers, in both trolling call-out types, can give accounts of the grounds on which they either suspect trolling or give advice even if there is strong suspicion of trolling. Although this does not happen in every case, it shows that not only the prospective trolls but also the Callers are accountable, and they can be contested. Thus, trolling call-outs are not one-way messages to critique and blame the poster but one type of possible reply in a conversation that can take several directions at the same time. The same post may be treated as made-up and genuine in different sequences or even in the same sequence, because a threaded forum discussion is not just one conversation where a uniform verdict can be reached.

This study shows that different trolling call-outs display orientation to different sides or definitions of trolling. They take a stance on what trolling is. According to our findings, which are in accordance with earlier studies on trolling, in Reddit’s advice-seeking forums trolling is depicted as consisting of three dimensions whose importance varies case by case: It is hidden and deceptive (i.e., needs to be revealed), primarily made-up (i.e., needs to be re-contextualized), and transgressive in its content or as an activity. Forum discussants do not, though, usually define trolling in their discussions – they mainly point out that there is trolling. But by doing so in a variety of ways they also indicate what their relationship to it is and what should be done about it: Should it be ignored? Can it be responded to? Should it be responded to? Trolling call-outs illustrate a balancing act in social responsibility: Either ignoring or excluding an advice-seeking user may incur considerable harm to the poster or others involved (see also endangering in Hardaker, 2013).

We have observed here that in advice-seeking discussions there are, according to the discussants, roughly two types of trolling, one of which is defined through deception and the other through transgression. This raises an additional research question as to whether advice-seeking posts replied to mainly with call-outs dealing with deception differ from those replied to with call-outs dealing with transgression, and whether there are systematic differences between these and other, non-calling replies that they receive. This shows that trolling call-outs as an object for study has not yet been exhausted.

A limitation of this study is that it focused only on one type of discourse, i.e., advice-seeking posts that are called out for trolling. The types of trolling that are targeted here may not represent all possible trolling types. For example, the aggression that trolls may display (see e.g., Hardaker, 2013: ‘aggress trolling’) is only implicit in these kinds of data, where the troll is provoking by asking for advice and not, for example, by responding to other peoples’ posts with personal attacks. This very likely affects the types and distribution of different trolling call-outs in our data. These possibilities should be attended to in future research. It should also be noted that in our study, we did not specifically analyze the effectiveness of trolling call-outs: whether they succeed in – or even attempt – curbing trolling or not. A larger dataset might reveal systematic differences in responses that different types of call-outs receive, because although responding to trolling call-outs is rare, it does occur.

Another question raised by previous research (Knustad, 2020) is whether and how trolling call-outs can themselves be used for trolling. The data in our investigation may have had such cases without us being aware of it. Furthermore, the low threshold for accusing someone of trolling on online forums has made trolling call-outs a common insult to cast at someone whom one disagrees with or finds displeasing, especially due to differing political opinions in online news comment sections (Knustad, 2020). Therefore, in some cases, it becomes difficult to distinguish actual trolling call-outs from verbal abuse. In a study that cannot determine whether the call-out is genuine, this becomes visible and relevant only when the call-out is called out.

  1. r/advice, r/askwomenadvice, and r/relationship_advice

  2. r/binauralbeats, r/cats, r/GenderCritical, and r/meditation

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Heidi Vepsäläinen [heidi.vepsalainen@helsinki.fi] is a Postdoctoral Researcher at University of Helsinki. She specializes in interactional linguistics, and her research interests include digitally-mediated conversations and human-machine interaction.

Henna Paakki [henna.paakki@aalto.fi] is a Doctoral candidate in Computer Science at Aalto University with a background in linguistics. Her research interests include digital methods in the study of disruptive online interaction like trolling and disinformation dissemination.

Antti Salovaara [antti.salovaara@aalto.fi] is Senior University Lecturer at Aalto University, Department of Design. He studies online trolling, users’ creative technology appropriations, human-AI interaction, and developers’ new future foresight methods for human-computer interaction research.

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