Taking Trolls Seriously

What’s the deal with Internet trolls, anyway?

The New Republic offers an intriguing review of a new book entitled This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture, which does pretty much what it says. Folklorist Whitney Phillips plumbs the depths of troll culture and psychology and finds that, for people who consider themselves so novel and edgy, the truth of the matter is that their repertoire is altogether simplistic and well-worn:

Trolls are processing mainstream culture, but not according to new standards. When the news anchor race-baits, trolls translate it into hate-speech. When Nancy Grace frets about a pretty missing white girl, trolls literally draw out the grotesque racialized picture she’s implying. “Today, when the media bombard us with shocking revelations of different kinds of madness that threaten the normal course of our everyday lives, from serial killers to religious fundamentalists, from Saddam Hussein to narco-cartels,” writes philosopher and troll Slavoj Zizek, “one has to rely more than ever on Hegel’s dictum that the true source of Evil is the very neutral gaze that perceives Evil all around.” If a bank robber is nothing compared to a bank owner, then what’s a troll compared to Bill O’Reilly?

In the post-Carlin American free speech tradition, we are inclined to equate humor and social critique. Criticism is broadly protected under the law and enjoys a wide berth culturally, so if jokes are a kind of criticism, then “It’s just a joke” is a workable defense. At times Phillips notices herself falling into this trap, unconsciously shifting the trolls into a scrappy underdog hero role. But a symptom isn’t made pleasant by comparison with the disease. When the trolls tell Phillips that their “real selves” are distinct from their troll selves, she doesn’t find it any more credible or significant than a hatemongering right-wing pundit making the same claim. The trolls that Phillips studied, even if they occasionally land on a worthwhile target, do their best to make the world a worse place.

As someone who has been using the Internet since the early 1990s, it’s fair to say I’ve had my own experiences with trolls, though fortunately not to the horrifying extent that others have. One thing that has changed dramatically is the set of tools at the disposal of your average troll today, compared with twenty years ago. In the mid 1990s, the kinds of public records that would allow a stalking-minded troll to doxx and harass a random person were not yet reliably digitized. Nowadays, it’s relatively easy to look up someone’s phone number, school, workplace, social media accounts, and so on. Even if you can’t find this information yourself, there are troll hangouts where people will offer to dig up such information for you, or even break into accounts to wreak havoc with them, and they will do this for free (if the potential “lulz” are considerable) or for a price. The prices can get “creative,” consisting of anything from Bitcoin digital currency to private nude photos of women (suffice it to say, virtually never without the consent of the woman involved) to boring old cash transfers via PayPal.

It’s not something one could reasonably call a business model, but it does help fuel the engine of chaos and discord that keeps online trolls going. The review doesn’t say much about harassment campaigns–it’s possible the book has more details–but these are an ongoing problem that represent the absolute worst the Internet has to offer.

While the loose affiliation of hackers known as Anonymous has obtained some notoriety by naming and shaming accused rapists and other assorted miscreants, this is rather a rehabilitation of their former image in which the highest achievement was to make someone “an hero,” which is slang for committing suicide. (I don’t recommend searching for the phrase–there is sometimes graphic evidence involved.) If everything is meaningless, then nothing of value is lost when someone dies–there is only humor to be had in knowing someone took the Internet so seriously as to kill themselves. This has even been an explicit goal of some recent harassment campaigns: determine if the target has any history of mental illness or instability, and if so, exploit it through harassment in the hope that the target will commit suicide out of despair.

It is perhaps in these incidents that the conservative, sexist, racist, oppressive politics of the troll become most obvious:

The metaphor of the gross maggot that cleans a wound by eating dead flesh is tempting, but just because trolls are annoying doesn’t mean they’re helpful. To quote Zizek again: “Far from containing any kind of subversive potential, the subject hailed by postmodern theories—the dispersed, plural, constructed subject, the subject who undermines every performative mandate by way of its parodic repetition, the subject prone to particular, inconsistent forms of enjoyment—simply designates the form of subjectivity that corresponds to late capitalism.” If you put Fox News through a fun-house mirror, you still get, more or less, Fox News.

The greatest irony of trolls’ “ironic” humor is how unironic it really is. What may have begun as edgy humor for the sake of edginess has evolved into genuine hatred and bigotry. If you pretend to be something for long enough, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when you ultimately become the very thing you’ve been mimicking. While the central premise of troll humor is that nothing is sacred, the fact of the matter is that some things actually do matter to trolls. There is a significant overlap with video game culture–indeed, the most notorious harassment campaigns have originated from video game communities and their periphery–and it seems as if any criticism which involves placing a game in its social context produces an outpouring of hatred and abuse from trolls. Some might claim that taking these expressions of vitriol as genuine is itself falling for the insincere ploys of trolls, but somehow not every topic produces a similar response, only those which are associated with sensitivity, vulnerability, empathy, and so forth. In other words, displays of emotions and attitudes commonly coded and stereotyped as feminine rather than masculine draw out the most ardent trolls. This is not a coincidence and it’s something Phillips notices quite clearly in her book:

Phillips describes “the observable fact that trolling behaviors are gendered male, are raced as white, and are dependent upon a certain degree of economic privilege.” Thankfully the author doesn’t make an indictment out of identification; what interests her more is the discourse these trolls are so attached to. It’s a “rigid rhetorical model, one that privileges and universalizes a male-focused worldview. In others, such rigidity would be unacceptable. But as long as they’re the ones tossing off the philosophical or emotional imperatives, the problem of attachment is apparently moot.” Everyone has to play by their aspiring-sociopath rules, or else the trolls will throw emotional fits for which we lack male-gendered terms.

Unfortunately, we lack both the social and legal tools to effectively address these behaviors at the present. That’s not to say there are no ongoing efforts to examine the problem, but it is an issue that those who have not been directly confronted by have a difficult time comprehending. Few legislators or law enforcement officers spend their days trawling through online communities, attempting to understand and map patterns of behavior, and the social forces underlying them are even less understood by the very people expected to address them.

For the time being, it looks like efforts to combat online abuse will have to managed at the ground level, with people fighting back directly through tougher community moderation, blacklisting services, support organizations, and other tools. No one has the answers yet, least of all me, but it would make for the greatest lulz of all if online trolls, in endlessly pushing the limits of free expression, ended up producing an Internet made much less free in the name of making it safer for everyone else.

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James

James runs this blog and likes to write about society, culture, politics, science, technology, social justice, and pretty much anything else. Rumor has it people read his posts sometimes.

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Taking Trolls Seriously

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