You may have thought trolls were those fairytale ogres who lurked under bridges once upon a time, or maybe those vintage naked plastic dolls with the big shocks of brightly-coloured hair that are so ugly they're cute.
But recently, trolls - fictional and nonfictional - are turning up everywhere, from cyberspace to the school bus, on screens large and small, showing us how fantasy can disturb reality, and folks from schoolboys to grannies can turn into trolls.
A global outcry faulted British police last week for penalising trolls who use Twitter for hate speech. After his close friends were ridiculed and lambasted online following the stillborn birth of their child, television host Piers Morgan declared this week, "But what I am going to do is go to war with these trolls." Earlier this summer another global outcry led to the suspension of schoolboys who aped cyber-trolls in person.
The one thing that's clear is how confused we all are about the line between fantasy and reality, words and deeds, victims and trolls.
Karen Klein, the 68-year-old grandmother from upstate New York who made headlines this summer when schoolboys posted a video of themselves mercilessly bullying her on YouTube, is reportedly readying herself for a free trip to Disney World. She has time for vacation, as she won't be headed to work in early September as a bus monitor for the first time in years.
That is because thousands chipped in to donate more than $700,000 on www.indiegogo.com, helping her retire from her $15,506-a-year job. Walt Disney Co and Southwest Airlines reportedly offered the free vacation. At Disney World, Klein can expect to run into trolls at Epcot Norway and the Maelstrom ride.
| Does anti-trolling law inhibit free speech?
The outpouring of sympathy was as heartening as the bullying was cruel; indeed it's hard to know where to begin to describe the boys' barbarity. On that viral video "You're a troll" is their single most frequently hurled term of abuse. Why?
These boys were riding the maelstrom that's swirling all around us, replicating a "meme", a viral behaviour increasingly pervading our culture. They mimicked the behaviour of a new kind of troll: the internet troll aimed at women. This type of incident that shocked millions will only increase as long as we blame it on just a handful of boys while the phenomenon is nearly ubiquitous.
As the Klein video went viral, a spate of articles documented how "internet trolls" attack women primarily - even though recent news highlights that racism and generic cruelty are also popular. Also this summer Britain's Daily Mail published the saga of Nicola Brookes, whose "reputation has been systematically destroyed [by internet trolls]... Her age, appearance and illness all came under fire".
Earlier this summer, the Mail reported the suicide of another woman in response to troll attacks. A troll apologist summarised that case in a post on belch.com under the headline "Stupid Woman Lulzed to Death on Internets". The post reads: "The Daily Mail is blaming [her suicide] on 'Internet Trolls.' It is understood she suffered a barrage of abuse on email and social media."
Shortly before that, Helen Lewis blogged eloquently on the sexism of internet trolls in her collaborative piece for the New Statesman, "'You should have your tongue ripped out': the reality of sexist abuse online". Ten female bloggers agreed "there is something distinct, identifiable and near-universal about the misogynist hate directed at women online".
One of the internet trolls' most consistent slanders is that women who speak are "attention seekers" - which is the most obvious attribute of trolls themselves. The underlying logic of internet troll abuse is projection - and Klein's bullies imitated that.
On the video, they hammer Klein with strangely sexualised abuse and threats while imagining themselves as the victims of threats she apparently embodies for them. "Are you going to rape me?" they ask repeatedly, even as they threaten to "... take a crap in your mouth" and worse.
These young boys deploy the same twisted logic when calling Klein a troll while they behave exactly like internet trolls. The aggression and immunity of internet trolls is defended in the name of free speech and privacy. The biggest mistake Klein's bullies made was to think they could imitate that behaviour in person and then broadcast it on the internet.
While their computer screens taught Klein's bullies how internet trolls get away with attacking women with impunity, TV and movie screens were teaching them to see mature women as fearsome trolls out to destroy the world.
The BBC's Merlin series recently aired an episode about Camelot infiltrated by a disgusting troll whose sorcery transforms her into a beautiful, mature woman. Thus disguised, she seduces Arthur's father into marriage. The threat is spelled out for all of us in TV-land: if she gets her selfish way, young Arthur never gets to be the Once and Future King.
The same cougar-troll threat haunts the movies, in three film versions of the Snow White fairytale released in the first half of 2012. In Snow White and the Huntsman, the Wicked Queen isn't simply a sorceress: she's a troll. Beautiful Charlize Theron morphs before our horrified eyes into a revolting, unfeminine monster - exactly like the troll in Merlin.
Less mythic popular culture forms simultaneously broadcast the threat of the mature woman whose surface appeal masks a monstrous threat. Fact-based drama Tall Hot Blonde premiered on Lifetime this summer. Ironically, the movie was directed by Courteney Cox, whose ABC sitcom Cougar Town will begin its fourth season, making mainstream the notion of middle aged women as predators.
In Tall Hot Blonde, a middle-aged man falls in love with a teenager online, neglects his family and murders an imagined rival. In jail, he learns the real person behind "tallhotblond" is the mother of the girl whose photos seduced him - a pleasantly middle-aged-looking woman just like his abandoned wife. The deceptively youthful seductress suddenly turns old and ugly. And we're warned she "presumably still has internet access". So the man-snaring cougar-troll is still at large.
Women have died and had their lives demolished by misogynistic internet troll attacks. Karen Klein surely deserves respect, sympathy and aid, but so do all the women daily assaulted by trolls. Why have we singled out Klein and her bullies?
We picked Klein for exactly the same reasons her bullies did. Unlike most internet troll victims, she never had the audacity to speak. She says remarkably little on the video. Her bullies' abuse is as much class-based as gender-based: "I wanna know how poor your old ass is," they taunt.
We're more comfortable pouring out cash and sympathy for Klein because she doesn't have the beauty, ambition or voice that either cougar-trolls or internet troll victims have. We can assuage the guilt that underlies the ceaseless troll violence our culture generates by showering this one granny with gifts, without our collective ambivalence about mature women's power getting in the way.
Is it fair to punish these boys for exactly the same behaviour grown men the world over defend as free speech? While speaking out against internet trolls is gaining momentum, shouldn't the incidents of cruel trolling be decreasing, not increasing?
Instead of rewarding their victim by sending her away from the real world, let's teach everyone - schoolchildren and adults - that trolling isn't tolerated. Let's show all women that there's room for them on the bus and in cyberspace.
After all, Mirror, mirror, on the wall, is any of this fair at all?
April Alliston is a Guggenheim Fellow and Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University and a member of the Princeton Public Voices Fellowship through the OpEd Project. She is writing a book about pornography and technology.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.