Out trolling the trolls

I’ve just finished reading the excellent This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things by Whitney Phillips. It offers fascinating insights into the evolution of ‘trolling’ as a practice, leading from its original form of sub-cultural self-identification to the diffusion of the label across the entire spectrum of online activities deemed to be anti-social. Her overarching thesis is that trolling is framed as an aberration relative to the mainstream culture, when in fact it represents the logic of that culture taken to its extreme. Trolling only makes sense against a background that facilitates it, such that trolls should be read as an inditement of contemporary culture rather than a threat to it. This diagnosis is most acute when it comes to broadcast media, with trolls expertly hacking the media for their own amusement in a way that takes advantage of the media’s propensity for those very things (misleading information, lack of understanding, morbid preoccupations and a deep need for attention) which trolls are seen as embodiments of.

Her operationalisation of ‘troll’ as a self-identity is an important part of the book. The problem I have with the contemporary use of troll is that it subsumes a wide range of behaviours into a singular pathologised description. To point this out is not to defend any of these behaviours, only to remind that we should not assume people do similar, or even the same, things for the same reasons. The diversity of trolling behaviours gets obliterated by the seemingly straight-forward designation of ‘troll’, something which I suspect many people now think they unproblematically recognise when they see it. But underlying ‘trolling’ we might find the urge to incite and manipulate for amusement (i.e. ‘troll’ in the self-identifying sense), online activists who see themselves as fighting a culture war through their keyboards, outpouring of hatred reflecting a generalised contempt for other human beings, the desperate externalisations of someone unable to cope or any number of other things. We need to recognise this variety at an ontological level while nonetheless remaining attentive to the epistemological and methodological problem of how, if at all, we are able to read back ‘offline’ motivations from ‘online’ behaviour.

Towards the end of the book, Phillips talks about her experience of out-trolling trolls. She recognises that this runs contrary to familiar advice “don’t feed the trolls”, something which I’ve always found to work just as well as face-to-face as on the internet:

This strategy—of actively trolling trolls—runs directly counter to the common imperative “don’t feed the trolls,” a statement predicated on the logic that trolls can only troll if their targets allow themselves to be trolled. Given that the fun of trolling inheres in the game of trolling—a game only the troll can win, and whose rules only the troll can modify—this is sound advice. If the target doesn’t react, then neither can the troll.But even this decision buys into the trolls’ game. The troll still sets the terms of their target’s engagement; the troll still controls the timeline and the outcome. (pg. 160)

I don’t quite follow the reasoning here. A refusal to engage only leaves the troll in control in a formal sense of the term. In practice, there isn’t a timeline or an outcome, with an enormous caveat I will get to later in the post. Instead, she details a strategy of out-trolling the trolls, performing an earnest response to their attempts at engagement in a way which reveals their own investment in trolling.

The dynamic shifts considerably if the target counters with a second game, one that collapses the boundary between target and troll. In this new game, the troll can lose and, by taking umbrage at the possibility, falls victim to his or her own rigid rules. After all, it’s emotion—particularly frustration or distress—that trips the troll’s wire. In most cases, the troll’s shame over having lost, or merely the possibility that he or she could lose, will often send the troll searching for more exploitable pastures. I frequently utilized this strategy in my own dealings with random anonymous trolls, particularly on my quasi-academic blog. (pg. 160)

I’d like to have seen more example of what she means here but I find it an intriguing idea. As I understand it, her notion of ‘trolling rhetoric’ entails seeking to provoke another person to express their concerns in a way deemed to be excessive, revealing what is taken to be their over-investment in their online activity. Underlying this is a belief that “nothing should be taken seriously, and therefore … public displays of sentimentality, political conviction, and/or ideological rigidity” are seen as a “call to trolling arms”, with the ensuing trolling often understood in an explicitly pedagogical way. The lulz enjoyed through this represent a “pushback against any and all forms of attachment” but, as she notes, trolls themselves are deeply attached to lulz (p. 25). There’s a power in revealing this attachment, inciting trolls to perform it through the very rhetorical strategies through which they seek to dominate others. Ignoring them leaves the troll unmoved, engaging in this way reveals the deep paradox at the heart of their behaviour.

Phillips recognises how contentious such a strategy can appear, honestly recounting her own ambivalence about the possibility. It nonetheless has a certain appeal though, specifically the idea that we might “troll better, and to smash better those who troll us”But there are two huge caveats to its employment in the academic context within which and for which I’m writing. Firstly, how would university departments and communications offices respond to examples of ‘out trolling’? The evidence we have suggests not very well. Secondly, do we have any reason to assume that those who are increasingly targeting academics online represents trolls in this self-identified sense? I think the argument offered by Phillips is deeply plausible but suspect it only holds true for those who share this sub-cultural identity. Those who, for instance, see what they do as activism are much less likely to be moved by it and engagements of this could be deeply counter-productive.

Categories: Digital Sociology

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