2015 in review: The roots of troll culture

First published 24 September 2015

In 1995, the veteran Australian feminist Dale Spender published a book entitled Nattering on the Net, written, in part, to encourage women to engage with a new phenomenon known as 'the internet'.

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things by Whitney PhillipsBut Spender felt obliged to issue a warning. 'There is no female who has worked on a networked system', she said, 'who has not been subjected to harassment, flaming or other intimidatory tactics.'

Spender's comments shed a different light on recent debates about online commenters. In a Guardian article this month, Jessica Valenti said more publications should abandon the practice of enabling reader comments, noting the 'never-ending stream of derision that women, people of colour and other marginalised communities endure'. Her piece prompted considerable debate, with Guardian journalist Katherine Murphy writing a rebuttal and Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams agreeing with Valenti.

Yet, when discussing the undeniably toxic nature of so much online culture, it's all too easy to slip into a rhetoric of decline. Valenti writes that 'as the internet and audiences grew, so did the bile'. The argument implies that the internet was once less bigoted and vicious — when in fact, as Spender's book reminds us, the trolls have been there since the start.

The common perception of trolls is that they are outsiders descending on a particular platform in order to wreck it. But in her 2015 book This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things — an in-depth scholarly examination of hardcore, self-identifying trolls — Mercer University liberal studies professor Whitney Phillips cautions against such an understanding.

Instead, she contends, 'trolls are born of and embedded within dominant institutions and tropes, which are every bit as damaging as the trolls' most disruptive behaviours'.

It's not just that they're technically adept, making 'expert use of the creative tools provided by the internet'. It's also that they identify and exploit society's fault lines (gender, race etc.) so that they can effectively provoke a reaction from their targets.

As a result, there's no simple response to trolling, since 'condemning these symptoms without addressing their ideological roots is unlikely to yield meaningful and truly transformative answers, no more so than putting a bandage over a broken arm is likely to set the fractured bone'.

On successful blogs, an initial post often facilitates extended debates among readers, who return again and again to engage with each other. When newspapers and magazines adopted commenting, many did so thinking they'd acquire bloggy interactivity on the cheap.

That was an illusion. Running a successful blog involves a huge commitment of time — and, in commercial publishing, time means money. It's not just a matter of moderation, either, though that's a difficult, thankless task. It's also about the writers' willingness and ability to engage with questions, clarifications and arguments.

If you're hosting a blog, you wade into the comments because feedback is the only reward you receive. But if you're a professional — if you depend on your articles to pay your rent — the prospect of devoting additional hours responding to readers is a daunting one, particularly since you're most unlikely to be compensated for doing so.

As a result, commenters rarely receive direct acknowledgement from the writer they're addressing. In this regard, the 'comment box is a strange, frustrating kind of double bind', writes Canadian technology-culture writer Navneet Alang, 'a chance to speak your mind, but a reminder that no one is listening'.

Alang suggests this basic contradiction contributes to the trolliness of comment culture. Respondents know that overt hatefulness invariably attracts attention, which encourages them to deploy it.

Phillips makes a similar argument: trolling can be 'an extremely effective rhetorical strategy' as it 'has a way of snapping its audience to attention, either by activating emotional investment or by forwarding a claim so outrageous that one cannot help but engage in a dialogue'.

That's neither a defense nor a justification, but it does hint at the complexities of the issue.

After scrolling down the abusive wasteland of so many threads, it's tempting to see abandoning comments as a way of severing the Gordian knot, a decisive measure to cut the amount of hate directed at (in particular) women and people of colour.

But, of course, there are all manner of other ways to troll. It's likely that abusive commenters deprived of an opportunity to vent below the article will take to Twitter instead — a medium on which, if anything, hate speech is even worse.

Indeed, the media organisations that have successfully abandoned comments have mostly devoted considerable resources to fostering other kinds of online engagement. But that's expensive, particularly in a context in which most online publishers are struggling to make any money at all.

Which brings us back to Phillips' central point about the relationship between trolls and the culture in which they operate.

If you're a publisher seeking virality, you need to foster the strong emotions in which social media trades. Getting people to love your content is great — but outrage, incredulity and even hatred also work. Generating such reactions is the very essence of trolling, which is why clickbait so often adopts very similar tropes to those Phillips describes.

We have, in other words, a troll culture, with the odious behaviour in comment threads a crasser echo of the strategies employed by proprietors desperate to get their content noticed. The problems Valenti identifies are real. But it's hard to see any immediate solution arriving any time soon.

Jeff SparrowJeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and honorary fellow at Victoria University.

Topic tags: Jeff Sparrow, economics, Australian politics, reform



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