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The roots of troll culture are closer than we think


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 Phillips

But 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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Existing comments

You forgot to mention the 'lulz'...

Luke McMahon | 24 September 2015  

Great to see this kind of analysis. I think much of the problem is the anonymity. Recently I got myself onto a blog, not realising that my first name would simply be put as the responder, so I joined the ranks of Bills and Jeffs and Wendys who could have been from Mars for all I knew, or could have been staff of the newspaper. Never again. Anyway, on the rare occasion I look at blogs, it seems that the first few comments may have something to say and then it deteriorates into a badly punctuated waste of space. Anonymous comments on the internet are the written form of talkback radio, a type of 'angertainment' where people can sound off without taking any responsibility.

Sister Susan Connelly | 25 September 2015  

Being a troll - I would translate the word as 'internet bully' - is at least as much a matter of psychological development as it is a cultural construct. Of course they are not mutually exclusive. I think, in our culture, there is an assumption you get rewarded if you win. Winning is all. To my mind that is a narrow, self-destructive approach. If I have an online argument with you and you win what do I do? Commit the intellectual equivalent of hara kiri? I think we need to develop a culture of online civility where we realise that we are all trying to reach a mutual solution. I would suggest anyone who doesn't and just wants to 'destroy' other people online is a bit of a psychopath. I would suggest this is as much due to learnt behaviour as it is to any assumed cultural dominance. I would not discount what Whitney Phillips, Dale Spender and others say but I think the problem does have deep seated psychological roots with implications as to how we educate younger people on how to disagree using the new media. As you say it is something which won't be solved overnight.

Edward Fido | 25 September 2015  

Hard-hitting and interesting. Most people, I would think, begin commenting on blogs as a means of communicating, of reaching out over particular issues. "Trolls" is a term bandied about, particularly by blog hosts, to explain behaviour they don't like. But the true troll is an anarchist, and very few of us fall into that category. Finding the 'right' place to converse can be difficult. And, as a commenter, I appreciate Jeff's explanation of blog hosts' difficulties. I'm not one to naturally take a big breath, and count to ten. But it's always an option.

Pam | 25 September 2015  

Since he tells me that he probably won't read this I won't address him. Instead I will imagine I am talking to someone else who has read the article. Really that is the point. If I read a book, I like to discuss it with friends especially if I strongly agree with what is written. I don't suppose that I will get an opportunity to talk to the author. Rarely would I bother to talk about media that I have come across that I disagree with, except if I think it is downright ludicrous. Hence my answer here. I have not come across invective trolling. I suppose it depends what media you look at. I enjoy the opportunity to comment and looking at responses from others.

Paul | 25 September 2015  

Thanks Jeff, trolling well covered, and all commenters are right. I'm here because like Paul, " enjoy the opportunity to comment and looking at responses from others." Opportunity to comment is opportunity to be part of the world, to be active and to have some meaning. Like other authors. Understandings re contribution and how to do so differ, as do personalities. Invective can be diminishing, both directions. In fact, usually is. Is it different to heckling? Have town criers and Sunday soap box and stump orators suffered any less? Doubtful. Sometimes it's a forced read to take the emotion some post. It's still relevant - it's a picture of our society at work. Emotion's harder to wade through, but doesn't automatically invalidate the argument. My only gripe is when comment and forum moderators edit a post to reflect what their pov. Can happen on ES too. Leaves a bad taste when a comment is edited to contain a conversation within narrow boundaries and when same remainder of comment is used to squash/shutup the legitimate feelings of pain/pov from the poster being replied to. Like statistics, moderators can also inject distortions into an argument. I'll pull my head in again.

MichCook | 25 September 2015  

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