“Are Internet Trolls the Modern Incarnation of Witch Hunters?” -My Interview with the Atlantic Wire

August 8, 2013 § 3 Comments

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One of the things that’s a little strange and at times pretty frustrating about doing media interviews is that, more often than not, an entire 45 minute conversation or 8,000 paragraph email exchange is distilled to one money-quote sentence. Sometimes this is the best sentence you said, and sometimes it is the one sentence that appears to undermine your entire argument and makes absolutely no sense and why did you ever say that, you idiot. Either way, the context is often lost, which makes reading the articles you appear in somewhat surreal.  Plus, that is a lot of (unpaid) labor for a one-sentence payoff.

Which is why I’ve decided to start posting my full responses to the questions I’m asked, along with the articles my quotes appear in. Few of the arguments I’m making can be summarized in one sentence, so this way I can say my full peace.

Most recently I was interviewed by Rebecca Greenfield at The Atlantic Wire, who was interested in writing about troll attacks against feminist activists. She wanted to know what the precedent was for these sorts of behaviors, the specific question being “where did this kind of stuff take place before the Internet?” and to which I replied:

This is a very interesting question, though maybe not for the obvious reasons. Specifically, the phrase “this kind of stuff” suggests that there exists some basic coherence to the attacks against Caroline Criado-Perez and others — in turn suggesting that someone could make an overarching claim about the attacks. And I’m not sure that’s possible, or even all that helpful. Because what KIND of stuff is this, really? Some of the misogynist, violent responses were likely sent by people who meant every word they said. Some were likely sent by people who self-identify as trolls and would claim to care less (if at all) about the issue itself, but rather the outraged reactions their behaviors might elicit, or by people who don’t necessarily identify as trolls, but who enjoy a good internet fight, or perhaps by people, whether self-identifying troll or not, who wanted to see if they could be quoted by a news outlet, for laughs. And those are just a few possibilities — there are an untold number of reasons why someone might engage in these sorts of behaviors.

And, ultimately, none of those reasons matter. What matters is that the rape threats and harassment did occur, regardless of the why or the who. In fact, focusing exclusively on why and who tends to divert focus away from institutionalized outposts of sexism and towards those who are condemned as aberrational, but who in fact merely represent the grotesque extreme of more commonly held prejudices against women (something as simple as “men are better writers than women”).

This of course makes it extremely difficult to establish behavioral or technological precedent for the behaviors described in this NYT article. It really depends on what you mean by the phrase “this stuff.” If by stuff you mean violent misogyny generally understood, the answer is yes, there is ample precedent, more precedent than can even be enumerated, precedent beyond any attempt at hyperbole. If you mean people being horrible online, sure, there’s plenty of precedent for that as well — for decades now the internet has been a breeding ground for antagonism, mischief and so-called acts of fuckery. If you mean trolling, particularly if it you’re using the term as a synonym for being horrible online, well pull up a chair, because that’s an entirely separate rabbit hole to fall down, as I explain in this post.

So, again, the answer becomes muddied by the question itself. One thing this conversation does precipitate is an examination of the ways in which these behaviors –whatever their precedent(s)– are are built into, and in some cases are directly impacted by, the technological systems out of which they emerge. Just as significant as “Where did this kind of stuff take place before the Internet, if at all?” is the question “What do our current cultural and technological circumstances have to do with this kind of stuff?” The answer to which would go something like, while the sort of violently sexist bile directed at Criado-Perez definitely has precedent (and not just precedent but precedents), it also has context. It may not be new, in other words, but it is unique to this specific media landscape. Not only does Twitter allow for anonymous or pseudonymous communication, not only does it provide a forum for users to directly interface with public figures, its social functionality encourages the breakneck spread of information. Compounding this point is the fact that the majority of journalists and I would venture to say all mainstream media outlets have a Twitter presence, and with a simple retweeet are able to amplify –and lend legitimacy to– stories that might have otherwise remained local or limited in scope. More users can then engage with a story — and not just engage, but engage in ways that never would have been possible 20 years ago.*

In short, the fact that the Jane Austen Twitter troll controversy unfolded the way that it did has as much to do with where were are NOW as whatever might have come before–for better and for worse, in this case mostly worse.

Greenfield responded by asking me to clarify whether or not trolling can be considered “new” behavior. I replied:

I’ve written a bunch about the ways in which trolling behaviors echo more established cultural tropes and behaviors, which I discuss here and again here. That said, the internet is its own space with its own contours — the underlying ethos/politics of many of these behaviors may have ample cultural precedent, but the specific expressions of these behaviors are impacted by the technological affordancees not just of whatever specific platform but the internet as a whole. Put most pithily, trolling (and when I say trolling I mean subcultural trolling) is old behavior expressed in a new medium.

To see how these quotes got used, check out Greenfield’s article here. It’s a fun new game, this!

*I should have added something about how the media then reports on the resulting audience engagement (particularly when the audience engagement is antagonistic and/or abusive), locking the audience and members of the media into a frenzied feedback loop.

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