February 14, 2014 § Leave a comment
I’ve been contemplating how best to respond –if I should respond at all– to the recent University of Manitoba study conducted by Erin Buckels, Paul Trapnell, and Delroy Paulhus suggesting that trolls, or people who are said to engage in trolling behaviors (I would argue that there is a difference, or at least that how we define our terms significantly impacts whatever resulting findings), are marked by the so-called Dark Tetrad of personality traits: Machiavellianism, narcissism, and sadism. Not because I’m not invested in the conversation, obviously I am, but because my methodological approach is so far removed from those presented in the aforementioned study that it almost seems odd to compare these apples to those oranges.
Specifically, I chose not to ask psychological motives-based questions. One could, of course; it’s easy to see why this question –what exactly is WRONG with people who troll, anyway?– would be appealing to researchers and general audiences. But for the purposes of my own work, these were the wrong questions to ask. First, while I don’t doubt that many trolls/people who engage in behaviors described as trolling are indeed Machiavellian, narcissistic, and sadistic, perhaps at a higher incidence than within a random population sample (but perhaps not, depending on the population and sample therein), these conclusions are often difficult (if not impossible) to verify, particularly when you’re dealing with anonymous or pseudonymous subjects. Put simply, even when taken straight from the horse’s mouth, the fact that you are asking a troll ANYTHING immediately presents the possibility, if not high likelihood, that you are wading through a ten foot high puddle of bullshit. Because, again, troll.
So there’s that, but for me, the question of why individual trolls do what they do and what their particular damage might be is less interesting than why our culture is so amenable to trolls. That’s a completely different, and from my perspective, more dangerous line of inquiry, since it calls into question the seemingly clear-cut distinction between those who troll and those who are engaged in ostensibly “normal” behaviors — behaviors that are actually every bit as problematic (I’m looking at you, Fox News). Which happens to be the underlying thesis of my book and also everything I’ve ever written about trolls. I would make a joke about fruit salad or something, but I’m tired. Anyway it’s Friday, go home!
February 5, 2014 § Leave a comment
There’s nothing I can add to this. From The Metro:
A woman is thought to have become the first person in Britain to be jailed for trolling herself.
Michelle Chapman was given 20 months in prison after setting up fake Facebook profiles supposedly of her father and his wife to send hundreds of abusive messages to herself, before complaining to police.
The 24-year-old, of Robins Close, Par, in Cornwall, was described as ‘wicked’ by Judge Christopher Harvey Clark QC at Truro crown court.
The court heard how her actions resulted in innocent people being arrested or receiving police cautions, as well as the breakdown of her father’s marriage.
Chapman’s year-long campaign of abusive messages only came to an end when forensic internet inquiries revealed the Facebook profiles had been created at her own address, This Is Cornwall reported.
January 22, 2014 § Leave a comment
My friend Mike Rugnetta, host of PBS’ Idea Channel, opens the above episode by stating that this episode will be a bit different than normal. “I got most of the way through writing it before realizing that I didn’t agree at all with what I was saying,” he admits, which for me anyway is the ultimate “you had me at hello” moment. Mike goes on to say that, instead of rewriting the episode, he decided to do a little good cop bad cop (well, red shirt/blue shirt), except instead of there being two cops (or two different guys in two color-coded shirts), it’s just him disagreeing with himself.
August 8, 2013 § 3 Comments
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.
July 11, 2013 § Leave a comment
Today Nick Thompson of CNN published a long article on trolling, including quite a few quotes from yours truly. Here’s some from that article:
While Whitney Phillips agrees that anonymity plays a role in someone’s propensity to spew bile down Facebook walls, Twitter pages and news website comment boards, she says the bile was there first, just waiting to be hurled out at unsuspecting passers-by in cyberspace.
“The problem with blaming anonymity is that it assumes people are only horrible anonymously. Search a racial slur plus Obama on the internet and you’ll see more people than is reasonable who are perfectly happy being disgusting bigots under their own name.”
Is it possible to separate your online behavior from who you really are? Many trolls reject any relation between their profiles on the Web and their real life personas, according to Phillips, and say they are merely performing in order torment their targets “for the lulz,” or to teach people a lesson.
“Some trolls think that spending your time posting condolence messages on Facebook to someone you’ve never met is weird, and grounds for being trolled. They think they’re teaching people a lesson, teaching people how to behave online.”
Ultimately, Phillips says, it’s impossible to definitively say what makes trolls tick when you don’t have any demographic details about them. “We can’t very easily or in any kind of verifiable fashion sit a troll down and ask him what is in his heart, and if you could he would lie. They would tell you some bulls**t about what’s in their heart.”
I like the part about how CNN quotes me as saying “bullshit.” The full article is worth a read, and can be found here!
May 20, 2013 § 1 Comment
New article on trolling on definitions! The setup: These days apparently everything on the internet that is lame/upsetting is “trolling.” This framing isn’t doing us any favors! From the article:
[I concede that language shifts over time; I'm not mad, bro] But describing all problematic online behaviors as trolling and all online aggressors as trolls is a bad idea. Not because there is only one “correct” way to troll, as some trolls might insist, but because using the term as a stand-in for everything terrible online is imprecise, unhelpful, and—most importantly—tends to obscure the underlying problem of offline bigotry and aggression.
For the thrilling conclusion, go here.
April 12, 2013 § Leave a comment
……because the thing is, upon closer inspection of time frame and tripcodes, the PDF on Wired looks pretty solid. Now I don’t know what to think, maybe it is real. It’s hard to say; these things aren’t easily verifiable, and there’s always a chance of, as the kids in the business say, “ultra-coordinated motherfuckery” in the form of time zone meddling or extensive photoshopping (nearly 4 hours passed between the last post on the now-infamous thread and Wired’s posting of the PDF — plenty of time for shenanigans). For me, the fact that this has happened so many times before, in exactly the same way, on exactly the same platform, every single time, for the last decade, is one hell of a reason for eyebrow raising. Maybe I’m just being paranoid, maybe I’ve spent too much time on the internet. As of press time, I can’t decide.
Anons on 4chan are discussing the story now — many seem similarly incredulous. Some are downright effervescent. Some are trolling other anons by claiming that all the other hoaxes were in fact a hoax, and that they were all true. tl;dr we’re gonna need a bigger boat.
March 25, 2013 § Leave a comment
Yes, yes they are (click through to final slide of Gawker’s “The 20 Best Trollings in Modern History“).
I do of course vigorously agree that the media is every bit as skilled at trolling as self-identifying trolls, and that trolls and the media are almost identical in their behavioral and rhetorical tactics. But this is an inception-level metatroll masterwork, +1.