We know all too well that the internet isn’t all fun memes and hamster videos. The darker side of online life is home to trolls, spammers, and many varieties of toxic behavior, spanning from tactics intended to harass one person to nefarious attempts to spread harmful disinformation as widely as possible. For many of the practices that play out exclusively online, specialized terms have emerged, allowing us to name and shine a light on some of these actions—and their real-life consequences.
Sealioning is a specific type of trolling. The general term trolling refers to harassing someone online with the intent of getting a (negative) reaction out of them. In the case of sealioning, a troll will relentlessly harass someone with questions or requests for evidence in an attempt to upset them and make their position or viewpoint seem weak or unreasonable. Sealioning is often disguised as earnest curiosity or interest in debate, but the real goal is to troll someone until they get angry or upset.
Sealioning is a common trolling tactic used on social media. For example, a Twitter user might say that they support a higher minimum wage. In response, a sealioning troll might repeatedly and relentlessly ask them for sources that would prove the merits of higher pay scales or demand that they write detailed explanations of how increased wages have affected the economies of the world. The troll will not stop until the other person angrily lashes out (or blocks them), thus allowing the troll to paint themselves as the victim and then claim to have won the “debate” over the issue. Those who engage in sealioning are never actually interested in legitimately debating—the point is to harass and attempt to diminish.
Doxing, or doxxing, is the act of publishing someone’s personal information or revealing their identity without their consent. The term comes from the word docs (short for documents). Doxing is often done in an attempt to intimidate someone by invading their privacy and causing them to fear for their safety, especially due to the threats they often receive after having been doxed.
In many cases, doxing involves revealing the identity and information of people who were otherwise anonymous or using an alias. For example, a hacker might post the real name and home address of a popular streamer or influencer who is otherwise known by a fake name. Sometimes, celebrities are the target of doxing. In one prominent incident in 2013, several high-profile celebrities, including Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian, were the victims of doxing after a hacker publicly revealed their addresses, social security numbers, and financial documents online. In a more recent instance, a Twitch gaming streamer known online as XQc was doxed and then repeatedly targeted with the practice known as swatting.
The term swatting refers to the practice of initiating a law enforcement response on an unsuspecting victim. Though swatting results in real-world actions, it often originates online or with the aid of digital means, such as by using software to anonymously contact 911 and report a threat or illegal activity at the target’s residence. The practice is especially used to target public figures. The word is based on the term SWAT, referring to the special police tactical units that respond to emergencies. Obviously, swatting is extremely dangerous due to the unpredictable nature of such scenarios, when law enforcement officials believe they are entering a highly dangerous situation.
In online contexts, the word brigading refers to a practice in which people join together to perform a coordinated action, such as rigging an online poll, downvoting or disliking content, or harassing a specific individual or group. Brigading is similar to the online practice known as dogpiling, which involves many people joining in on the act of insulting or harassing someone. Unlike dogpiling, which may be spontaneous, brigading typically follows a coordinated plan.
Both the practice and the name for it are often traced to the forum website Reddit, where brigading (which is explicitly against the site’s rules) typically involves one community joining together to mass downvote content or to disrupt a community by posting a large amount of spam, abuse, or trolling comments. For example, a person who posts a negative review of a TV show may be targeted by users of that show’s fan forum, whose brigading might consist of messaging the original poster with abusive comments.
Firehosing is a propaganda tactic that involves releasing a large amount of false information in a very short amount of time. Due to the resources often needed to pull off such an expansive disinformation strategy, the term firehosing is most often used to refer to the alleged actions of large organizations or governments.
For example, the term firehosing has been used to describe Russian propaganda during the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the 2022 invasion of Ukraine; Chinese propaganda in response to reporting on Uyghur Muslims in 2021; and numerous incidents in which President Donald Trump and members of his administration were accused of spreading false information.
Astroturfing is a deception tactic in which an organized effort is used to create the illusion of widespread, spontaneous support for something. The goal of astroturfing is to give the false impression that something has wide support from a passionate grassroots campaign when in reality the effort is (secretly) motivated by a person or group’s personal interest. Like firehosing, the term astroturfing is often used in the context of large organizations and governments due to the resources needed to perform it.
For example, the term has been repeatedly applied to the deceptive information practices allegedly used by the Russian government, such as attempts to create the perception of universal support for Russian president Vladimir Putin or to create the illusion of widespread opposition to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy during the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Elsewhere, astroturfing has been used by the media and public figures to describe attempts by businesses and special interest groups to falsely create the impression of popular support, such as for fracking, vaping, and denial of the existence of climate change.
Rage farming is a slang term that refers to the practice of posting intentionally provocative political content in order to take advantage of a negative reaction that garners exposure and media attention.
The term rage farming emerged in early 2022, first being used to describe a social media tactic used by conservative groups, such as the Texas Republican Party. The term was applied to the practice of purposefully posting provocative memes and other content in order to anger liberal opponents. The word farming in the term refers to its apparent goal of generating a large amount of critical and angry comments in hopes that the negative response draws media exposure and attention and attracts support—and donations—from like-minded people.