Not that long ago, mainstream journalists scarcely ventured into the Internet’s darker corners, whether illicit or merely obscure. When social media finally collided with offline politics, not everything translated well. One example is the concept of trolling.
As etymonline argues, everyone “seems to have [their] own definition” of the word troll. The website dates the word “to the late 1980s or early 1990s and the Newsgroups era,” noting that it “seems to combine troll (v.) in the ‘fish with a moving line’ sense (itself confused with trawl) and troll (n.1) ‘troublesome imp supposed to live underground.’”
For me, the best definition is Urban Dictionary’s: “Someone who deliberately pisses people off online to get a reaction.” This is synonymous with the British slang wind-up merchant, meaning someone who does things just for the sheer joy of annoying others.
One classic bit of trolling involves entering a fan forum and arguing in favour of an unpopular opinion, in a seemingly sincere way. When challenged, you double down on your argument, attempting to annoy your detractors ever more, until you get bored or banned.
This has bled into the concept of flaming, which in Internet speak means “to engage in an online argument usually involving unfounded personal attacks,” as Urban Dictionary puts it. In the cloistered world of online fan forums, it was common to see threads and subforums descend into flame wars, some of which make Twitter enclaves look civilised. If things were further debased, there was always doxing or swatting: respectively, exposing someone’s private information and sending armed police to her house on false pretences.
Not all trolls were flamers, not all flamers trolls, and doxing and swatting were mercifully rare. And, while none of these concepts were completely new, they had a distinct meaning in online culture. Apart from trolling, they still largely do.
When mainstream culture finds out about a subculture phenomenon, it often won’t treat it too delicately. Since mainstream politics has become enmeshed with social media, trolling has taken on a fuzzier meaning. Now everything from legitimate disagreement to death threats can be branded trolling, so long as the recipient of the messages—or a journalist—says so.
One offline example was the LaRouche PAC activist, who recently gate-crashed a town hall event in Queens, New York, telling US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that eating babies was a necessary step for averting climate change.
Publications quickly labelled the LaRouche woman a troll. “May We All Handle Batshit Trolls as Well as AOC Did Here,” was the verdict of left-wing news site Splinter. “What The ‘Eating Babies’ Troll Job Said About AOC Is Pretty Terrifying,” argued the conservative publication Townhall. “LaRouchePAC trolls AOC, AOC doesn’t rule out eating babies,” the group itself commented on Twitter.
Had the activist been just doing it for the lulz, this would have been fair. But LaRouche PAC described the stunt as “satire,” adding, “Malthusianism isn’t new, Jonathan Swift knew that.” The group, which has an idiosyncratic agenda, also linked to a report titled “‘CO₂ Reduction’ Is a Mass Murder Policy: Designed by Wall Street and the City of London.”
The prank against AOC was done to spread a message, and activists were willing to behave like fools to get attention. In old money, this would be called campaigning.
The risk of dissent and disagreement being maligned as trolling was further evinced by the return of Parliament in the UK, after a court nullified its suspension. This led to an outpouring of invective from pro- and anti-government politicians and pundits. CNN journalist Luke McGee even asked whether Britain was “being led by online trolls.”
Legislation to stop Britain from leaving the EU without comprehensive legal arrangements was labelled a surrender bill by the UK government and its sympathisers. Parliamentarians likewise complained that they were accused of being traitors. Debate on the issue was inflamed by memories of the murder of MP Jo Cox, who was shot and stabbed by a white nationalist shortly before Britain’s referendum on EU membership in 2016.
Labour MP Stella Creasy expressed a widespread view: “When the trolls are in Parliament, how do we stop feeding the trolls?” But these people weren’t trolls: they were political opponents who had different priorities—and weren’t always polite about it.
While overuse has debased the meaning of trolling, the term retains connotations of bad faith, at least to my ear. If trolls are not always insincere, their speech is at least viewed as unproductive—perhaps even counterproductive. Calling an activist or politician a troll is an easy way to dismiss his views, thus dodging further debate.
It is no surprise that established voices are using the term to delegitimise certain opponents. This was demonstrated in a recent report by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, a British think tank that encourages journalists and public figures to disengage from trolls, to reduce the risk of promoting specific political agendas.
The think tank argues that “targeted abuse of public figures is not just about ‘lulz’; it is a deliberate tactic designed to generate outrage and attract more viewers to misinformation and hate.” In this view, trolls are not mere wind-up merchants, annoying people for the sake of it, but campaigners who exploit social media’s tendency to promote engaging content, however noxious.
“Troll propagandists know that when public figures engage with abusive trolls to defend their reputation or their values—a normal behavioural response—this inadvertently spreads and legitimates the trolls’ message and tricks social media algorithms into pushing it into a broader array of users’ timelines,” the Centre for Countering Digital Hate comments.
Refusing to engage with someone on social media has a similar effect to no-platforming, if the motivation is purely ideological. Nobody is obliged to engage with everyone, but sifting a feed for quality discussions is distinct from labelling somebody a troll to avoid addressing genuine disagreement.
While the think tank’s main target seems to be anonymous far right activists, the concept could also be applied to professional pundits like Milo Yiannopoulos, Katie Hopkins and Ben Shapiro, who have all been branded as trolls—a fair description, if such people are arguing in bad faith or incoherently, but unfair if you just disagree with their views.
Indeed, some activists have already decided to boycott certain publications and figures by refusing to retweet them or engage with them online. Such people won’t even link to reporting or analysis that offends them, for fear of giving their target clicks. A policy of not feeding the trolls can smoothly shift towards not interacting with your opponents at all.
Pure insults, abuse and death threats are worth blocking online. But, if our concept of trolling extends to those spouting political views we don’t like, there is a clear risk of blocking dissent, disagreement and criticism, even when it is useful.
Labelling somebody a troll because you think her argument is insincere has always been an intellectually shaky practice. An argument’s potency is unrelated to whether its proponent is sincere: hence the usefulness of devil’s advocacy, and of lawyers who defend people they believe to be guilty.
To justify ignoring your opponents—blocking, reporting or otherwise denying them the chance to speak to you—you need something stronger than a sincerity test. You have to believe the views themselves either have no value or are actively harmful. And this is impossible to know without giving the person a fair hearing.
What that fair hearing looks like will depend on the circumstances. Plenty of people are dismissed as trolls when they are merely rude or abrasive. But accusations that conservatives are heartless or progressives are naïve—or even explicit paraphrases of such views—can lead to more sophisticated criticisms. Strip away the curse words and a lot of alleged trolls have something to say that is worth hearing.
Even provocateurs like Yiannopoulos are of some value. Anyone with a large audience—even an audience drawn to offensive gobbledygook—has struck an emotional chord. Donald Trump fits many definitions of a troll, but ignoring him would require ignoring a significant chunk of Americans. Attempts to do that during the last US presidential election campaign did not prevent him being elected, or equip his opponents well for future politicking.
The advent of the Internet, which is largely a means of cheap communication, has doubtless made it easier to abuse our opponents. There has been an outpouring of insults, crude criticisms, caricatures and much unpleasantness besides.
At the same time, new channels have opened up, through which outsiders can challenge established voices and institutions, much as technology giants have challenged decades-old businesses. Jokes, memes and barbs at other people’s expense are an outpouring of previously restricted political expression.
Political and media incumbents can seek to block out newcomers by labelling them trolls. Sometimes they succeed in neutralising the threat they might pose. But those who are interested in debate, not merely in jockeying for political advantage, should be suspicious of such cheap allegations. Trolls these days come in many forms—not all of them bad.