Well Played, Dillon the Hacker. Well Played.

April 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

This is proper, artful trolling and mother approves.


George Bush’s Performance Art Instillation

April 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

i dunno lol

Earlier this week I was contacted by a reporter at the Houston Chronicle PANICKING about a deadline for a story (which she never ended up publishing, possibly because of unhelpful sources) about “How Ted Cruz Got Trolled,” her primary question being “So just how trolled did Ted Cruz get.” To which I could only look around and make the above face. Because I dunno, lol.

While I was reluctant to ascribe trolling–or anything! I don’t read minds– to the Ted Cruz story, I am so very tempted to declare George Boosh’s performance art instillation “Here Are Some World Leaders LOL” one of the strangest acts of trollery in Presidential history, this week anyway. I just have so many feels about this, how could it NOT be trolling. Don’t get me wrong, it definitely isn’t. However, I feel trolled by 43, and at 6:45 in the morning, isn’t that enough?

Regarding that University of Manitoba Trolling Study

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!

Nope, Can’t Even

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.

i just can't

PBS Idea Channel Tackles Trolling, Opens with the Greatest Line Basically Ever

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.

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

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.

Twitter Under Fire

July 31, 2013 § Leave a comment

Over the last few days I’ve received several press requests regarding the recent attacks against Caroline Craido-Perez, a journalist and activist who successfully campaigned for Jane Austen’s portrait to be featured on British banknotes. Unhappy that a woman would be featured on official tender (THE HORROR!!!), a bunch of dumbasses on Twitter threw a temper tantrum and started hurling rape threats at Craido-Perez as well as MPs Stella Creasy and Claire Perry, who supported Craido-Perez’ efforts. The British government demanded that Twitter intervene, and called for Twitter representatives to appear before a Commons committee focused on online abuse. Twitter has since agreed to include a “report abuse” button on/for individual tweets, which in theory will streamline the reporting process and allow will Twitter to respond more effectively to abusive on-site behavior.

A few quick points: first, as usual, the number one question I’m getting is “what motivates these trolls??” –to which I can only say slow down buddy, what do you mean by troll? As I’ve written before, how you define the term directly impacts how the question can and should be answered. Given how little we can know about the people responsible –maybe they’re trolling for lulz, maybe they’re just misogynist assholes, maybe they’re hoping to make the front page of the Daily Mail, maybe some combination of all three, maybe something else entirely– it’s better not to focus on motivations. The question is moot, for one thing, and more importantly diverts attention away from the underlying issue of pervasive cultural sexism — which is only reinforced by the subsequent and similarly poorly-defined imperative “don’t feed the trolls.”

For me, then, the issue has less to do with trolls per se and more to do with best moderation practices. In fact I would argue that the troll question follows and is directly contingent upon the moderation question. Kate Miltner and I considered this point in our last Awl post, which although focused specifically on Reddit, could also be applied to Twitter’s current situation. And no, “free speech” has nothing to do with it, dear god.

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