Don't feed the trolls

The trolls - most of us will have encountered them at one time or another. In a comment section, on a message board or Facebook page there is always someone ready to unleash a torrent of abuse, and more often than not the most vicious language is reserved for those who least deserve it. Angela Nagle looks at the phenomenon of trolling, the cultural politics behind it, and asks is it a necessary evil?

They’ll be all around in the dark. Wherever there’s a fight in a comment section, they’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, they’ll be there, loling most likely. Wherever there’s a natural disaster or a chubby pre-pubescent girl singing a song on YouTube, they’ll be there too.

No informed or civilised discussion, no earnest concern and no gently expressed point of view is safe from being trolled and online discourse on the crisis has been no exception. Here are some samples:

On the police violence at the student demonstrations last November (from YouTube):

“guy loved it, deserved it too, feels like a big man walking around with a bit of blood on his clothes. I hate (most) protestors, they just wanna cause trouble and then cry when they get trouble back.”

“there spending more on asylum seekers and all the scammers that came into the country”

On the privatisation of Ireland’s natural oil and gas resources and the police’s treatment of Shell to Sea protesters:

“How many of the protestors are locals. Seems to be a focal point for every hippie and waster in western europe up there.”

“Bottom line, the wouldn't rape em cause they were crusties....”

On Dublin North TD Clare Daly’s criticisms of the government’s austerity programme:

“Parasite who is living off the stolen money of the people who have no choice in whether they get to keep their wealth. True hypocracy.”

On a boy kicking a deflated ball around a yard on YouTube:

“Gay channel you fucking faggot.”

Admittedly, the last one had little to do with the crisis and Hit Ball Of Camera wasn’t a great video but it captures the spirit of trolling. It is always the vulnerable, the irony-free or the feeble that receive the most bizarre torrents of impotent rage. While the explicit politics of trolling seem to be somewhere between nihilism and aimless misanthropy, they are often profoundly political, albeit unintentionally, and their influences are many but not unrelated. Think Randian Objectivism with an acute Nietszchean sourness about victimhood, mixed with a libertarian spirit that applies only to the freedom to do, watch, say, or download anything anywhere in the virtual world. When hackers spawned from the same spiritual home as trolls - 4chan’s /b/ board - attack the International Women’s Day site one day, corporations who thwart Wikileaks another day and an epilepsy support forum the next there may not be a coherent manifesto at work but the cultural politics are instantly recognisable to those of us who inhabit the virtual world a little too often.

However, trolls can come in many shapes and sizes and are not just a phenomenon of the English-speaking world. Much has been made of the role of the web in Egyptian uprisings earlier this year, but communication among protesters was also beset by trolls. On the We Are All Khalid Said Facebook page, arguably the main organisers on Facebook of the January 25th protests, commenters left messages of solidarity with poor besieged Mubarak, abusing the protesters for being a bunch of West-loving faggots and even going a step further and ‘liking’ the page just to go on and say that protests had been cancelled. Whether the trolls were government plants or just another manifestation of the principle that internet anonymity can make a good person do bad things, the method was the same: offend, prank, derail.

They’re also not exclusively a right wing or anti-liberal phenomenon. This week, a Facebook page called Democratic Right Movement Ireland was brought to my attention when a very unlikely friend had ‘liked’ them. Oh no, I thought, what if an Irish far right emerges in these tumultuous times as they tend to do? What if social media is the perfect conductor for it? What if this is the beginning of something dark and powerful that can’t be reversed?

The page had 23 likes. To put that in perspective, 11,916 people have gone out of their way to ‘like’ a page devoted to eggs on Facebook. Scrolling down for several pages I discovered that at least 20 of those likes were from anti-racist and anti-fascist leftists who had ‘liked’ the page purely to troll it. Not only that, most of those in question know each other. The Facebook page was in fact almost entirely made up of comments calling them ‘crypto-fascist fucks’ and ‘scum’. In effect, the page, like the Irish Defence League before it, has been rendered unable to function. Perhaps some day the virtual right will be populated entirely by the left and the virtual left will be populated entirely by the right.

Last month, Facebook unleashed its new commenting system, expanding its already imperial reach to any website wishing to avail of their free troll-slaying system, which means that when a comment is posted on a news site that uses the technology, it is connected to the commenter’s Facebook page, showing their facebook identity and tagging the comment on their page for friends and family to see. Websites who use it are beginning to see more polite but inactive comment threads as a result.

As the internet war over anonymity rages on, with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg in one corner and 4chan’s Christopher ‘Moot’ Poole in the other, it is worth considering how online debate around the elections and the crisis would have changed in the absence of trolling. With a decentralised and democratic technology where anyone can have a platform; where anyone can have a go at a politician (as we saw with the online backlash against Lucinda Creighton’s homophobic comments before the elections); and where anyone can have a go at someone for having a go at a politician in whatever way they choose, should we just accept that the stupidity, the offensive words and ideas, the bullying, the being called a stupid c*nt for your views on VAT, are just part of the medium and take the good with the bad? Would the engineered imposition of politeness, like the one Facebook have introduced really improve the nature of debate or is the aggression of troll-infested debate already imposing its own forms of engineering? Could we ever learn to accept the horrible little buggers or do we have a choice?


 Image top Hammer51012 on Flickr.