Early non-Internet slang use of trolling can be found in the military: by 1972 the term trolling for Mi Gs was documented in use by US Navy pilots in Vietnam.It referred to use of "...decoys, with the mission of drawing..away..." Commonly, what is meant is a relatively gentle inside joke by veteran users, presenting questions or topics that had been so overdone that only a new user would respond to them earnestly.

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Media attention in recent years has equated trolling with online harassment.

For example, mass media has used troll to describe "a person who defaces Internet tribute sites with the aim of causing grief to families." In addition, depictions of trolling have been included in popular fictional works such as the HBO television program The Newsroom, in which a main character encounters harassing individuals online and tries to infiltrate their circles by posting negative sexual comments himself. Some readers may characterize a post as trolling, while others may regard the same post as a legitimate contribution to the discussion, even if controversial.

Like any pejorative term, it can be used as an ad hominem attack, suggesting a negative motivation. Whether someone intends to disrupt a thread or not, the results are the same if they do." Popular recognition of the existence (and prevalence) of non-deliberate, "accidental trolls", has been documented widely, in sources as diverse as Nicole Sullivan's keynote speech at the 2012 Fluent Conference, titled "Don't Feed the Trolls" Regardless of the circumstances, controversial posts may attract a particularly strong response from those unfamiliar with the robust dialogue found in some online, rather than physical, communities.

Farhad Manjoo criticises this view, noting that if the person really is trolling, they are a lot more intelligent than their critics would believe.

There are competing theories of where and when troll was first used in Internet slang, with numerous unattested accounts of BBS and Use Net origins in the early 1980s or before.

The English noun troll in the standard sense of ugly dwarf or giant dates to 1610 and comes from the Old Norse word troll meaning giant or demon.

whereas trawling describes the generally commercial act of dragging a fishing net.

As noted in an OS News article titled "Why People Troll and How to Stop Them" (25 January 2012), "The traditional definition of trolling includes intent. Experienced participants in online forums know that the most effective way to discourage a troll is usually to ignore it, because responding tends to encourage trolls to continue disruptive posts – hence the often-seen warning: "Please do not feed the trolls".

The "trollface" is an image occasionally used to indicate trolling in Internet culture.