Trolls v trolls

Misappropriation and Misnomers

Dr. Whitney Phillips studies trolls. But she is more than just a detached analyst. She is a troll aficionado using her platform to fight the mis-appropriation of the term and to highlight how misuse is whitewashing more serious online ugliness.

Phillips studies “sub-culture” trolls ie self-identified trolls who spring from the 4Chan /b/ board lineage of lulz hunters. In layman's terms, this refers to members of a group (mostly white dudes) who enjoy provoking others online. Equipped with an endless supply of tactics, in-jokes and memes, these trolls bait their prey into frustrating debates and cheer when their targets lose it.

In general, I target earnest people. People who take what they do online far too seriously. […] I once trolled a bunch of Klansmen by acting like one of them and joining their communities to start, then acting like I changed my mind and creating a “former Klan for racial equality” site. They were targeted because they were earnest, stupid, and easy marks, but also because I hate racists (even if I sometimes play one on the internet). — Interview with a Troll

The original trolls were not this:

But in fact this:

Hook, Line & Sinker

So while no doubt annoying, the trolls were generally not so interested in destroying individuals as they were in attacking privilege, gullibility and conceipt. They were puerile and antagonistic. But not evil.

Over time, that view changed…

In the previous decade, you had it coming because you were pompous or entitled or privileged or foolish. The spirit was mischievous, and its intent was to humiliate unclothed emperors. Today, to have it coming is to expose the nakedness of masculinity or whiteness or some other sacred cow of the self-serious; the trolls these days are the red-faced ones, the ones who cannot stand to have their worldview made fun of. — Confessions of a former internet troll

And as part part of that shift, cyber-stalking, rape threats and death threats have all become grouped under the “trolling” umbrella.

In the intervening years, the term “troll” has come to subsume all kinds of antagonistic online behaviors, regardless of whether the participants would describe themselves as trolls. — Let’s call ‘trolling’ what it really is

This, Phillips says, is not trolling and it is time we get more precise when calling out behaviour online:

I prefer to describe online antagonism in terms of the impact it has on its targets. So, if someone is engaging in violently misogynistic behavior, I call them a violent misogynist, as “troll” implies a level of playfulness that tends to minimize their antagonistic behaviors, or at least establish a firewall between the embodied person and their digitally mediated actions.

English is malleable and even more so on the internet. There will be no #TrollWalk to reclaim the meaning of the word. But knowing the difference between capital-T old skool trolling and online harassment is a distinction worth making because it may affect how you choose to react.

… trolling really should be done in public: message boards, comment sections, social media sites, etc. Posting on a person’s facebook wall isn’t really trolling, and trolling isn't the same as “cyber-bullying.” Base level trolling is just interjecting unwanted/controversial opinions one probably doesn't even hold into a community that will react to them…— Interview with a Troll

If you are dealing with someone looking for lulz, “don’t fee the trolls” may be perfectly good advice. If someone wants a reaction and doesn't get it, they will probably look elsewhere.

But if someone is obsessed with forcing your agreement on his point of view, or silencing you, or causing you fear, “just ignore him” is not going to cut it and is dismissive of what may be horrific treatment and criminal behavior. It’s not just fun & games anymore.

So before labelling bad conduct as trolling, be clear about what is really going on.


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