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Is Online Trolling a Reflection of Our Social Values?

Sara Rodrigues and Hans Rollman
Hacker image from Shutterstock.com.

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things confronts the interrelation between subversive trolls and mainstream ideas, and opens up conversations about post-internet politics, activism, and human relationships.

“Don’t feed the trolls” is a common adage in online spaces, repeated especially by those who express progressive opinions online and/or engage in online activism through social media. Progressive discussion or writing in online spaces is often coupled with a crash course in trolling, wherein writers or commenters are subject to explicitly oppositional and/or offensive commentary. Such commentary is intended to upset and frustrate those attempting to change the way that we understand critical social issues, whether it is women’s rights, animal cruelty, or climate change.

Yet, as much as we believe the commentary of trolls to be politically and ethically misguided, we also know that talking back will only make us angry and it will do nothing to change the worldview of trolls. Provocation and belligerence, paired with intentionally poor grammar and profanity, is the name of the trolling game.

Trolling activities extend beyond commentary on progressive news stories, however. In recent years, trolls and trolling have caught the attention of the mainstream media. The mainstream media is quick to identify something as an instance of trolling ("Burn it Like Beckham: David Trolls Son Brooklyn With an Almighty Putdown", Edited by Amrita Kohli, NDTV, 20 April 2015) but, at the same time, it expresses repulsion and concern over trolling and its effects ("Social media trolls and why Periscope is bad news for women everywhere", by Jenna Price, The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 April 2015). The media decries trolling, especially the kind that targets grieving family members of the recently deceased (known as RIP trolling) and victims of violence or tragedy. Public outcry over the proliferation and effects of trolling has become so significant, in fact, that algorithms to identify and automatically ban trolls are in development ("New algorithm could put an end to online trolling", by David Nield, Digital Trends, 19 April 2015)

The mainstream media teaches us that the intention of trolls is to silence, humiliate, and intimidate victims of tragedy or crime and/or people from marginalized communities. One thing that is often on the minds of pundits, and likely the general public, is: Why do people troll? What kind of individual would maliciously target and provoke outrage in people whom they do not know? The mainstream media denounce trolling behaviors as pathetic, unsympathetic, and vindictive; trolls themselves are represented as lowlife scum who have nothing better to do with their time.

Within these pseudo-psychological parameters, the mainstream media positions itself as oppositional to trolls and their actions ("Germanwings plane crash: Racist Twitter trolls make vile jokes over deaths of 150 tragic victims", by John Shammas, Mirror, 25 March 2015), while trolls understand themselves as engaged in a combination of media and social critique.

For Whitney Phillips, lecturer in Communications at Humboldt University, this is a peculiar dichotomy. In her new book, This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things, Phillips proposes that sensationalist, corporatized media and trolls have far more in common than either party might like to admit. This affinity is what trolling reveals, and it is the object of Phillips’ study. Her provocative argument, in fact, is that trolling is in many ways not only a product, but a reflection, of the very society that denounces it.

Phillips’ investigation of online trolling identities and activities brings together folklore studies, critical media studies, and ethnographic research. Phillips interweaves these perspectives not only to make sense of trolling within the cultural milieu, but also to propose the existence of a symbiotic relationship between trolling activities and the rhetoric of sensationalist media. This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things is anchored by a correlation between the politics of trolls and the ideology of sensationalist media (à la Fox News). Phillips’ premise is that, contrary to what we might expect, trolling is informed by the same logics and rhetorical strategies of the mainstream media.

Trolls profess to be anti-establishment and working in opposition to the disaster fetishism of the corporate media, but the rhetoric that informs their activities is a normative one that's very much aligned with the mainstream and its conservativism. On this point, Phillips compares trolling activity and mainstream media coverage in the early days of Obama’s presidency. Her analysis reveals that online imagery of Obama as socialist joker ("Philip Kennicott on Images: Obama as the Joker Betrays Racial Ugliness, Fears", The Washington Post 6 August 2009) and mainstream media’s concerns about Obama’s citizenship and religion are both informed by the same xenophobic and racist sentiments. The only difference, she finds is that the racism of trolls is implicit, while the racism of the mainstream media is overt. So, the antagonistic relationship between trolls and mainstream journalists, Phillips shows, simply does not hold, for both are cut from the same rhetorical cloth.

Phillips’ work contributes a thorough history of trolling behaviours, which upsets prevalent assumptions about the origins of trolling. It's often assumed that trolling is a 21st century phenomenon, borne out of the anonymity of comment spaces on blogs, the dark corners of 4chan’s /b/ board and, more recently, Twitter. But Phillips’ genealogy of trolling reveals that trolling in fact precedes 4chan. What we now call trolling has apparently long been part of human culture, but internet trolling has its origins in the online forums of the '90s. These “proto-trolling” activities include, for example, large-scale antagonism on forums like rec.pets.cats, where trolls posed as pet owners to solicit assistance from the forum, while other trolls inundated the forum with gruesome “advice”.

For Phillips, though, it's the trolling activities borne out of 4chan’s /b/ board that align current iterations of trolling with a distinct subculture. It was 4chan and comparable forums like reddit that sedimented trolling activities, identities, and ideologies. These subcultural origins gave way to a “golden” period when, in the late 00s, trolling “crystallized”, flourished and, importantly for Phillips, came to most explicitly mirror dominant ideologies about race, gender, ability, and sexuality.

For the Love of Lulz

Trolls troll for the production of and reveling in the “lulz”, an “unsympathetic, ambiguous laughter” derived especially at another’s expense. Phillips likens lulz to a more lethal iteration of schadenfreude, but suggests that three defining characteristics make it a distinct phenomenon. She points out that lulz fetishize emotional distance via myopic humor; it's a force that generates community; and it attracts attention. But lulz is more than simply a motivator for trolls. It is, Phillips maintains, a “critical concept” in understanding trolling, specifically because it informs who will be targeted and in what manner, and also because it situates trolls within a community of like-minded individuals with established and stable personae.

Phillips proposes that it's impossible to determine the demographics of trolling due to trolls’ commitment to anonymity. But, she says, the fact that trolls typically target people marginalized by and because of their gender, race, age, ability, class, and/or sexuality suggests that trolling is marked by what Ryan Milner calls a “white centrality”, a political and rhetorical space occupied by middle-class heterosexual men aged 18-35.

Crucially, Phillips makes a sharp distinction between trolling and its affiliates public shaming and (cyber)bullying—or, more generally, online antagonism. She argues that trolling is undergirded by a politicized critical logic of anti-disaster-fetishism and anti-seriousness that cannot be similarly located in instances of shaming and (cyber)bullying. Phillips also delineates between trolling behaviours and the activism of hacker collectives like Anonymous: trolls are motivated purely for lulz, whereas Anonymous has become a force for tangible social change. In being motivated purely by lulz, trolls are thus only successful when an act of trolling produces lulz. In contrast with shamers and cyberbullies, the intended effect of lulz is supposed to be political: successful production of lulz means that the target is outraged, and has therefore taken the trollbait. Ultimately, as Phillips’ ethnography reveals, trolls want targets to understand, through their outrage, that nothing should be taken seriously.

Phillips concludes by agreeing that trolling is an unpleasant side effect of the openness of the internet. At the same time, she wonders whether attempts to regulate trolling would be effective, or merely thwarted by the tech-savviness of trolls. She doubts whether an anonymous-free internet would in fact be a more sympathetic space. Phillips’ book offers a case for the potential political effectiveness of trolling, pondering its potential usefulness in and for feminist politics.

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things is a strong introductory text on the historical and cultural aspects of trolling, and it offers numerous insights into the logics and ideologies that undergird it. This timely work also opens up an opportunity for much-needed dialogue about the ethico-political implications of online antagonism.

The Methodological Challenges of Researching Online

Ethnographic research of online cultures poses intriguing methodological challenges, which manifest in Phillips’ work. In some ways it’s little different from traditional ethnography. Researchers must gain the trust of a self-contained community: must come to understand what is acceptable behaviour, and what is not; what constitutes a warning, and what constitutes a joke. When are people being serious, when are they offended (and why), and when are they testing you or pulling one over on you, the outsider? When is a statement to be taken at face value, and when is it to be understood as masking deeper meaning?

Like any ethnographer, the observer of online culture must learn through trial and error, deploying equal measures of self-restraint, patience, perception and analysis, all bolstered with a dose of courage. The ethnographer can’t sit back forever, lurking in the chatroom shadows: eventually they must put themselves out there and engage, or risk incurring the disrespect and disdain of the group. In the final analysis they must hope that sincerity, truthfulness and an honest effort will earn them tolerance, if not complete acceptance.

The ethnographer of online culture engages in many traditional modes of research: conducting interviews and participant-observation (at conventions, conferences, and social get-togethers and parties). Phillips recounts spending “thousands of hours engaging in participant observation on 4chan’s /b/ board, Encyclopedia Dramatica, Facebook, Skype, YouTube, and various other online spaces (commercial websites, personal blogs, specific comment threads)”.

Yet other aspects of online culture are unique. Online ethnographic work means that one doesn’t have the advantage of being able to observe the other person’s body language and facial cues: normally invaluable aids for the ethnographer. One can’t even make educated guesses as to gender, ethnicity, age, or other characteristics which usually equip us with some potential frames of reference for the people with whom we’re engaging. Do these challenges hinder good analysis; or do they in fact help the researcher by stripping away potential stereotypes and bias?

Another key variant when it comes to ethnographic research of online culture lies in the omnipresence of the culture, as well as the nature of the power dynamic. Trolls and hackers can follow the researcher anywhere in the virtual world (and even intrude into their offline worlds). As well, the researcher is dealing with professionals who often have a great deal more technical skill than the academic. Put bluntly, the research “subjects” could easily target and cause a great deal of anxiety and upset for the researcher if they didn’t like what she had to say. And the likelihood of the research subject being able to access and follow the academic’s work is greater than that afforded by traditional ethnography, in which there is often an informal divide (geographic, linguistic, or class) between the community under study and the ivory tower academic forums in which the researcher shares the results of their work. Ethnographic study of online culture is an area where the subject has a far greater ability to respond to the researcher.

In a chapter focusing on her methodology, Phillips outlines other challenges she encountered: “how and where to restrict my research focus, the ever-shifting dynamic between community and platform, trolls’ insistence on anonymity, constant subcultural change, and most vexingly, my own research myopia (by which she means the insecurity she felt as a tenuously accepted insider, which included pressures to perform and defend the culture she was studying).”

Two of these points are particularly interesting. The “ever-shifting dynamic between community and platform” refers to the ways in which the technology of a particular community space – Facebook, or 4chan, or whatnot – has a direct impact on how the community expresses itself. For example, Twitter’s 140-character limit shapes the nature of dialogue on that platform; Facebook’s efforts to combat trolling in fact shape the strategies trolls use to maintain community and resist policing. The impact of technology, in other words, shapes culture in these research spaces.

“Constant subcultural change” is also a significant dynamic: online culture undergoes transformation at a much faster pace than other forms of culture and cultural expression. Staying on top of that is a challenge, illustrated by Phillips’ chagrin at the fact that an academic journal article she wrote in 2010 about memes didn’t appear in print until 2013. This is the normal slow pace of academic peer-reviewed journals, yet it meant the article was no longer entirely accurate by the time it appeared in print, given the far more rapid pace of change in online culture.

Such are the unique challenges faced by ethnographers of online culture; yet as Phillips observes, they also offer illuminating insights into the very nature of that culture.

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