Beware: Trolls Lurking in the Comments Section

Dr. Whitney Phillips is an Assistant Professor of Literary Studies and Writing at the Penfield College of Mercer University. In 2015 she wrote a book called This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture which discusses the development of online trolling. Phillips describes three distinct categories for tolling behavior. For instance, trolling can be a fetish, “not in the sexual sense…but in the Marxist sense-specifically as a play on the concept of commodity fetishism.” Trolling can also be generative, where the trolls derive pleasure from the response to their trolling. And furthermore, Phillips describes trolling as a mask. This mask allows the troll to engage in outlandish behavior by “decod[ing] incoming and outgoing signals, framing all subsequent input and output as a particular kind of detached, lulzy play.”


To find examples of these kinds of trolling, I looked at the comments section of a CNN news article that was posted to Facebook. The article, ‘I no longer feel secure’ in Germany, Syrian refugee says tells the story of a man named Fares Naem who was attacked in Berlin. Naem witnessed two white men harassing a black passenger on a tram and attempted to intervene. The men then physically attacked Naem, following him off the train and beating him. He tried to get help at a local shop but he reported that no one would assist him.

The comments section on this article was overwhelmingly negative towards Naem. Most of the comments declared that he should go back to Syria and espoused other similar anti-refugee sentiments.


I found clear examples of the three types of trolling that Phillips describes. For trolling as a fetish, the commenters were especially focused on the perceived benefits Naem supposedly received because of his refugee status.


The commenters were unable to see the “social conditions and relations of power” surrounding government aid for refugees. According to Philips, “As a direct consequence of commodity fetishism, all the consumer can see is the product itself…” this allows the trolls to ignore the human aspect of the story and just see it as someone foreign taking their money.

For trolling as a mask, the troll first establishes the “play frame” where “participants indicate through tone of voice or body language that certain behaviors…are to be taken as playful, not real.” In this example, the person attempts to deny the attack ever happened, a ludicrous claim, meant to get a rise out of other readers who would interpret this as a serious comment.


For trolling as generative, Phillips describes a situation in which a young girl, Jessi Slaughter was accused of sleeping with the much older lead singer of her favorite band. Jessi posted a reaction video which was then the subject of extensive online trolling and personal harassment. Jessi’s father attempted to intervene, but unintentionally made the situation worse. According to Phillips, “By intervening on his daughter’s behalf, Slaughter’s father supplied trolls with an embarrassment of the latter, inadvertently attracting increasing numbers of trolls to the story.” A similar situation can be found in this comments section.


This person attempts to defend the Syrian people but the responses to the comment simply add fuel to the fire. In all three cases, the trolls show a lack of human empathy that is frankly disturbing, but that was probably their intention.

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