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10 Extraordinary Examples of Trolling before the Internet

by Kieran Torbuck
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

The internet has been great for many people, bringing new ways to learn, earn, and communicate with others. But like many new technologies, it has not been without its dangers. One unexpected consequence was the rise of “internet trolls.” These people want to embarrass someone or make them look foolish, so they “troll” their target by making provocative statements or trying to deceive them.

However, despite being intrinsically linked to the internet today, trolling is not a new phenomenon at all. In fact, it dates back thousands of years and has been used as a tactic in warfare, politics, art, and comedy. Various famous and powerful figures from history have been trolled, and some have even been trolls themselves. Here are ten of the most unexpected and extraordinary cases of pre-internet trolling.

Related: Top 10 Times People Tried To Shut Down The Internet

10 The Origin of Trolling

The Psychology of Trolling

Why are these types of provocateurs and manipulators called “trolls” specifically? In folklore and fantasy, trolls are rarely good, but many things in fiction and the real world are not good. The answer is that the name was not derived from the fictional beasts. Originally, “trolling” was (and still is) a common method of fishing.

It refers to casting bait on a hook into the water. Then, rather than waiting patiently for a curious fish to bite, trolling attracts them by dragging the hook slowly and steadily through the water so it looks like the bait is alive and swimming. It is deceptive, just like the “bait” that trolls use. Trolls say things that they know are exaggerated and untrue or do not themselves really believe in order to attract a response. Usually, this response will cause the target to look or feel bad.

However, unlike fishing, which has only one aim, trolls can have many different motivations. For some, trolling is just a sort of harmless prank, but others do it with more sinister aims in mind.[1]

9 The Littlehampton Letters

The bizarre case that inspired Wicked Little Letters [Spoilers]

In 2023, the movie Wicked Little Letters brought a true story about a small seaside town in England to the silver screen. An anonymous agitator in Littlehampton, West Sussex, England, had a lot of abuse and four-letter words for some of the town’s most respected residents. Among other imaginative insults, they scandalously suggested that somebody’s home-baked cakes had been produced by the rear end of a sheep, but they used much more obscene language.

Swearing is, of course, common on social media today, but what is shocking is that this happened in the 1920s. This was so outrageous back then that it made the national news and was even debated in Parliament. The insults were written in letters, which were first received by Edith Swan and appeared to come from a neighbor she had fallen out with, Rose Gooding. More people started receiving letters, and Rose was jailed twice despite little evidence against her.

Eventually, however, Edith was revealed as the culprit and convicted. After being seen throwing one of the letters at somebody’s cottage, a police sting operation caught Edith red-handed at the post office with another letter.[2]

8 Diogenes of Sinope

The Philosopher Who Urinated On People | DIOGENES

Diogenes of Sinope—also known as Diogenes the Cynic—is an early example of a person who is now recognized as a bit of a troll. This barely-dressed beggar lived in a barrel on the streets of Corinth in the 4th century BC and is remembered today as one of the era’s most famous philosophers. However, it is probably a good thing that he did not have access to the internet.

Diogenes constantly provoked others with his offensive and rude behavior, which reportedly ranged from eating loudly and disrupting lectures by Plato to spitting at passersby and touching himself in front of them. One of his more thoughtful stunts was to roam the streets with a lantern during the day and tell people that he was “looking for an honest man” when anyone asked what he was doing.

Interestingly, freedom of speech, which internet trolls today might use to defend their own behavior, is said to have been Diogenes’s reply when he was asked to name the most beautiful thing in the world.[3]

7 Niccolò Machiavelli

POLITICAL THEORY – Niccolò Machiavelli

Internet trolling is often associated with politics, but this is not new either. Techniques to make one’s political enemies and their supporters look foolish, dislikable, or weak have probably been practiced since people invented hierarchies of power. Niccolò Machiavelli famously included some of these dark arts in The Prince, his manual for taking and holding onto power.

However, some suspect that the book itself was a ruse to rob its dedicatee, Lorenzo de’ Medici, of his power. Machiavelli’s advice was presented as being helpful and realistic while the actions he suggested might really have been designed to inspire hatred of the leader. One who thought this was the English Cardinal Reginald Pole. He investigated the book after learning that one of King Henry VIII’s most murderous advisers had read it.

In Florence, Pole learned that some of what Machiavelli had written was, by his own admission, written to please a prince rather than advise them well. Pole concluded that the book was “like a drug that causes princes to go mad.” And Machiavelli had a motive to want to bring down the Medicis; they had previously fired him from his job and had him imprisoned and tortured.[4]

6 King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette

The Really Bad Sex Life (And Reign) Of Marie Antoinette & Louis XVI | Versailles | Absolute History

Trolling can lead to its target figuratively “losing their head,” but in the court of King Louis XVI of France, it might have helped a few heads roll. The Comte de Provence and the Comte de Artois were the king’s brothers, but they were jealous of his position and spread spiteful rumors around the palace about him and Marie Antoinette.

They spoke about their brother’s lack of bedroom prowess, saying that it had led to the dissatisfied queen having an affair with Artois. When Louis and Marie’s first child, Princess Marie-Thérèse, was born in 1778, the Comte de Provence stoked speculation about the child’s parentage.

Under the guise of raising a legitimate concern about royal procedure, he pointed out at the child’s baptism that the “name and quality” of her parents had not been declared. Rumors such as these helped to hurt the popularity of the French monarchy, which would soon cause a public revolt against them.[5]

5 Napoleon

Napoleonic Wars Explained In 10 Minutes

A short person with an aggressive personality might be described as having a “Napoleon complex,” a condition named after the famously short French emperor. But at 5’7″, Napoleon was only a little bit short by today’s standards, and during his lifetime, he was taller than the average height for men in France.

The reason he is believed to have been short is largely because his enemies in Britain knew depicting him as short pushed his buttons, so they made it a focus of their wartime propaganda. They relentlessly trolled him about his height in cartoons and pamphlets, even during periods of peace. Napoleon even had his diplomats ask the British to censor their press and considered the campaign a “deliberate provocation.”

Of course, he was ignored, having only proved that they were getting to him. So the trolling continued. Exiled after his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon is said to have claimed that the British political cartoonist James Gillray “did more than all the armies of Europe to bring me down.”[6]

4 Ian Fleming and Operation Mincemeat

The Pure Insanity of Operation Mincemeat in WW2

Misinformation is a favorite weapon for trolls, but before computers made it easy to doctor images and create fake news reports, the methods were a bit more imaginative. In fact, the imagination of a man who would later create one of the world’s favorite fictional characters was also behind one of history’s greatest attempts to spread misinformation. That man was James Bond author Ian Fleming, whose high-stakes trolling even fooled Hitler himself.

Fleming came up with the idea of Operation Mincemeat, which aimed to convince the Axis powers that the Allies were planning to invade Greece when the plan was really to invade Sicily. His plan saw a dead homeless man dressed up as a British military courier dumped into the sea off the coast of Spain, which was full of Nazi spies. With his belongings was a letter marked “PERSONAL AND MOST SECRET,” which detailed the false plans for Greece.

Making the body and the documents look convincing took months, but it paid off. The plans were passed all the way up to Hitler, who believed them and shifted 90,000 soldiers to Greece. This helped the Allies to take Sicily, topple Mussolini, and put the Germans on the back foot.[7]

3 George Washington

The Sedition of Benjamin Franklin Bache

The historical trolling of leaders did not only happen during wartime. For example, George Washington was the focus of a media troll from his own country during his post-revolution presidency. Benjamin Franklin Bache used the newspaper he published to give Washington a hard time by criticizing him and printing libelous accusations about him. Many of the accusations came from Washington’s rivals, and whether they were true or not was low down on Bache’s agenda.

Bache was sore that Washington would not give him and other people from famous families the power and status that they felt they deserved. In return for this insult, he criticized the first president at every turn. When Washington did not take a side during the French Revolution, it was to avoid any damage to the reputation of his young country. But Bache said he was betraying an ally.

When Washington signed the Jay Treaty to avoid more conflict with the British, Bache fueled anti-British sentiment. He was not above lying to tell the story he wanted, and he even published forged documents to defame the president.[8]

2 Merde d’Artiste

The Transgressives- Piero Manzoni and his “Artist’s Sh!t”

The world of avant-garde art can seem to outsiders like self-serious people admiring the bizarre objects made by self-serious artists (not to mention the serious money involved). Piero Manzoni was an Italian artist who saw the world in which he worked a bit like this. He thought the audience for contemporary art was so gullible that they would pay through the nose for anything with an artist’s signature on it.

In 1961, he came up with a way to troll them and prove his hypothesis right. He shocked the art community by filling 90 tins with his own “freshly preserved, produced, and tinned” feces and offering them for sale at the same rate as gold. And they sold. Over the years, many thousands of dollars have been paid for them.

However, his trolling did not end there. A collaborator revealed in 2007 that the tins had not actually been filled with “Merde d’artiste” as advertised but with plaster.[9]

1 Haydn’s Musical Joke

Hugo Wolf Quartet: Haydn’s String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op.33, No. 2, “Joke”

Classical music also has a reputation for stuffy seriousness, but in reality, plenty of composers wrote lighthearted and playful pieces. The 18th-century Austrian composer Joseph Haydn even wrote jokes in his music, effectively tricking his audiences. The ending of his string quartet “Opus 33 Number 2,” subtitled “The Joke,” is his most famous example and could certainly be considered a type of trolling.

Haydn uses long pauses and a false ending to prompt members of the audience to clap in the wrong place. Then he does it again. And again. And a few more times after that. Finally, the piece actually ends by awkwardly stopping in the middle of a phrase so that it sounds like it will continue.

It is not necessarily a joke—or series of jokes—that will cause laughter, but it has effectively confused audiences for centuries.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen