Intellectual Affairs

Under the Bridge

No sooner does disaster strike than the gloating begins. Scott McLemee interviews a scholar who tracks online trolls.

December 15, 2011

Last week, the journal First Monday – a prominent venue for scholarly research concerning the Internet – published a paper called “LOLing at tragedy: Facebook trolls, memorial pages, and resistance to grief online.” The author, Whitney Phillips, is a graduate student in English at the University of Oregon. The shooting at Virginia Tech came three days later. Talk about an unhappy coincidence…. The paper itself is smart, and written with more verbal flair than the prospect of peer review normally inspires. It is required reading for anyone trying to come to terms with the strange and sometimes ghastly ways people now respond to horrible news. 

“RIP trolling” targets the webpages set up to commemorate death and disaster -- defacing them with comments and images intended to offend or enrage visitors to the page. There is no law against being a creep, as such, but disgust at RIP trolling has inspired efforts to work around that fact. In Australia, for example, one Bradley Paul Hampson recently received a three-year sentence for the graphics he put up on Facebook pages devoted to two murdered schoolchildren.

According to an article in the Queensland Courier-Mail, he posted “photographs of one victim with a penis drawn near their mouth and highly offensive messages, including ‘Woot I'm Dead', ‘Had It Coming' and others too offensive to publish.” Hampson was arrested for the possession and distribution of child pornography. But it seems more fitting to call him “the first person to be charged and convicted of Facebook vandalism,” as the newspaper’s caption writer did, beneath a photo of Hampson almost certainly chosen because of his smirk.

Whitney Phillips’s interest in the topic is ethnographic and analytic, not prosecutorial. Her graduate work in English has a “structured emphasis in folklore,” and she’s as scrupulously non-judgmental about RIP trolling as Alan Lomax would have been about the morality expressed in a murder ballad. The article in First Monday is based on research for her dissertation, now in progress, which is called “Internet Trolling: Cultural Digestion, Lulz, and the Politics of Transgression.” The word "lulz" in the subtitle is a bit of in-group slang, to be discussed below in due course. (It's a troll thing, you wouldn't understand.) 

After reading the article, but before getting in touch with its author, I went to Facebook expecting to locate the inevitable Virginia Tech Shooting 2011 memorial page(s) -- and the no less inevitable defacement. But searching for “Virginia Tech shooting” yielded no hits. A little more exploration turned up a page called R.I.P Virginia Tech Dec 8 2011. It had been created almost immediately after the news came out, but there was no subsequent activity. For that matter, no administrators for it were listed.

“If the shooting had happened a year ago,” Phillips said when we spoke by phone, “there would have been 50 pages on it. There’s been a pushback from Facebook since then. The algorithms are keeping the space as safe as possible. They shut things down before they even exist, almost.”

The vigilance makes her research more difficult. In a blog post, Phillips writes that when a tragedy occurs she has to rush to her computer to document the troll response “because this shit isn’t going to archive itself.” One remarkable thing about the bibliography of her paper is that it lists numerous webpages with a parenthetical “since deleted” following the title.

The constant erasure of trollic discourse, if you’ll pardon the expression, is part of the dynamic that Phillips is studying. In a sense, it is a much softer form of the policing that landed Bradley Paul Hampson in jail. Phillips indicates in conversation that she has experienced such policing firsthand: at one point, Facebook shut down her account for abusive behavior -- although all she’d done, she says, was “friend” various trolls and observe their behavior. The vigilant FB algorithms took this to be complicity. Phillips appealed the decision, making clear that she was engaged in research, and won reinstatement. But since then, she’s shut down her profile out of misgivings over Facebook’s role as a platform devoted to generating money out of identity in ways over which users have little control.

According to Wikipedia, which in turn cites the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest confirmed reference to trolling (in the sense of a kind of Internet behavior) dates from 1992. I try not to argue with the OED any more than necessary.  That seldom goes well. But in this case, it is simply wrong. A search of the Usenet archives shows one person accusing another of “trolling for commentary” no later than 1986. By 1989, somebody responds to a comment with “Trolling for abuse, Eliot? Or is this some weird self-immolating postmodernist gesture?”

One folk etymology has it that trolling is a variant of “trawling”: pulling a net or a baited line from the back of a boat to capture fish. The other, considerably more common explanation is that the noun came first, with “troll” as an insulting label for the Usenet provocateur. The image of an irritable creature living under a bridge in turn gave rise to the injunction, “Don’t feed the trolls” (i.e., don’t let yourself be provoked because that’s what nourishes them), which then caught on in the blogosphere at some point in the early ‘00s, albeit without much success in thinning the population.

The old-school Usenet troll sometimes posted under his real name, and he tended to act alone. But the species has undergone a significant mutation, according to Phillips, who thinks the new breed came into its own in the mid-‘00s. The contemporary troll always uses a pseudonym, and usually more than one -- and keeps a number of email accounts and Facebook profiles in case he is banned, which happens a lot. Any serious troll is a past master at cloaking or disguising his Internet service provider.

Concealment, then, is essential. At the same time, the notion that trolls are antisocial is misleading: A crucial point about the new sort is that they interact with one another, form friendships, and work together.  Phillips says she has interacted with certain trolls for three years now -- but still does not know their real names or even, with any certainty, in what part of the world they are located.

Her observations and interviews across that period suggest that trolls constitute a subculture, with its own distinct tradition, lingo, and outlook. They have gathering points and networks; they have ways to recognize one another even when obliged to change pseudonyms. While RIP trolling has generated media attention and moral panic, their influence is both broader and less obvious. Phillips told me that trolling is “both ubiquitous and invisible” and “permeates the online ecosystem” in ways that outsiders tend not to recognize.

Among the phenomena with “ties, and often direct ties, to trolling” that she listed in an e-mail note are “LOLcats, RickRolling [in which individuals are unwittingly redirected to a clip of Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’], ‘hactivism,’ Anonymous, the Guy Fawkes mask, [and] half the memes on Reddit, the list goes on.”

Trolls are in it for the lulz, and they take getting b& in stride.

Clearly a little translation is in order. It is simple enough to figure out what b& means. Just pronounce it: “banned” – enough of an occupational hazard to merit a shorthand expression. But "lulz" takes a bit of unpacking. While derived from the familiar interjection LOL, for “laugh out loud,” lulz carries a special in-group nuance. Lulz refers to “a particular kind of unsympathetic, ambiguous laughter similar to schadenfreude,” explained Phillips by email. “Unlike schadenfreude, however, which is often described in passive terms (a bad thing happened to someone I don't like, so I laughed), lulz are much more active, or at the very least imply the vicarious enjoyment of others' direct actions (I made a guy so mad he started typing in all caps, so I laughed and/or I saw someone else make a guy so mad he started typing in all caps, so I laughed).”

Well, everybody needs an ethos, I guess, and a case might even be made for understanding the troll as some kind of trickster figure.

Still, it’s hard to see RIP trolling as anything more than the blend of sadism and cowardice. The lulz of making jokes about, say, a teenager’s suicide involve all the satisfactions of inflicting psychic violence at random, with none of the inconvenience of swallowing your own teeth when somebody punches you in the face repeatedly. 

Based on interviews with trolls, though, Phillips says that there is more to it than vicious misanthropy – that at least some of them have a very specific agenda, and a moral code, of sorts. They do not violate pages set up by family of the deceased, and don’t mean to hurt them.

What angers and disgusts them, she says, is how the media will pick out certain deaths or catastrophes and do saturation coverage – after which, people rush to set up online memorials that then draw “grief tourists.” The latter are people “who have no real–life connection to the victim,” explains Phillips in her paper, "and who, according to the trolls, could not possibly be in mourning. As far as trolls are concerned, grief tourists are shrill, disingenuous and, unlike grieving friends and families, wholly deserving targets.”

One way of trolling is to set up a FB memorial for a nonexistent dead person and then mock the visitors who soon turn up. “This isn’t grief,” Phillips quotes one troll as arguing. “This is boredom and a pathological need for attention masquerading as grief.”

By this logic, the point of RIP trolling is to disrupt -- or at least challenge -- the sensationalism, narcissism, and vapid communitarian sentimentality fostered by the 24-hour cable news cycle and social networking. They subject anyone who gets caught up in all of it to scathing laughter. Possibly this will be for the lemmings’ own good. Their rage might be a first step towards learning the difference between phony emotion and meaningful experience. Or maybe it will give them a heart attack. It’s lulz either way.

Phillips presents as strong a case for this interpretation as can be made, perhaps -- while also analyzing the dissociation between online and real-life identity that allows trolls to avoid thinking about the collateral damage to bereaved family members and friends of the deceased. I read the paper with interest, but also with the nagging thought that RIP trolling provides a critique of the contemporary media in roughly the sense that lynching offered one of the criminal justice system. In either case, malice is more evident than principle.

On the other hand, trollery includes RickRolling, which never hurt anybody, apart from getting that song stuck in people’s heads repeatedly. Trolling covers a multitude of activities -- most of them irritating, though not actually sociopathic.

The thought that there might be a million trolls in the United States, as Phillips thinks is possible, seems…what? Perplexing? Certainly that. But also a complicating factor in all sorts of ways. A troll is Mark Zuckerberg’s sinister twin, cloned to infinity.

And since Whitney Phillips has thought about the phenomenon more than anyone, she should have the last word. After listening to my misgivings by phone, she wrote

“Although I fully understand the impulse to denounce trolls and trolling behaviors (ironically, trolls actively pursue this very response), I would simultaneously argue that trolling has much more to offer, and much more to say, than critics might realize. My basic argument — although it is an argument riddled with caveats and qualifications — is that, contrary to the assumption that they represent all that is terrible about human nature, about anonymity, and about the internet generally, trolls also perform an important cultural function ….. they take whatever they find, the good, the bad, the hateful, the creative, the hypocritical, the amusing, anything and everything else, and put it on display.

“Sometimes they do this purposefully, with political intent. Sometimes they do things simply because they can. Either way, by mapping trolls’ behaviors, it is possible to similarly map trends and tensions within the host culture — the byproducts of which trolls consume, recombine, and eagerly hurl back at an unsuspecting populace. Tell me what the trolls are doing, in other words, and I’ll tell you about the world they live in."


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