KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

2014 columns, Gaming & Technology

Making trolls eat their words

by Connor Tomas O'Brien , June 30, 2014Leave a comment

5881861191_90de8b5bc9

When I co-edited a student magazine several years ago, a troll would send me long, handwritten screeds in shaky capital letters. Once, they’d underlined a passage with such force that the paper had torn in two and they’d had to sticky-tape the pieces back together. I shook upon receiving each letter, cognisant of the way my troll was manipulating a state of information asymmetry against me: they knew where I worked, and there was usually some threat of violence in each missive. At the same time, I was puzzled: the sender didn’t seem to want anything in particular. No concrete demands accompanied any of the letters. How would they know when they’d won and I’d lost, if they never even bothered to establish a victory condition?

I thought about my small-stakes snail-mail troll as I followed ‘Operation: Lollipop #hashtagwars’. This was a roughly-organised recent trolling project, which encouraged 4Chan users to create sock-puppet Twitter accounts and peddle bogus hashtags, with the ostensible aim of driving a wedge between feminist activists.  As of last week, over 253 troll accounts had been identified, with some of the spurious tweets gaining significant online traction.

One overarching response to ‘Operation: Lollipop’ has been an attempt to assert that the project ‘shouldn’t be dismissed as a prank or simple trolling’, and should instead be viewed in the context of a decades-long attempt to undermine feminism, socialism and anti-racism. On the face of it, this seems reasonable, but it also leads to a kind of rounding-up, in which trolls are increasingly being recognised as legitimate political actors (albeit unconventional, deviant, black-hat ones), whose ideologies should be taken seriously – if only for the purpose of debunking them.

Part of the problem we face in dealing with trolls is that it is never clear to most of us exactly what they gain from the trouble they cause. If, as research suggests, hating and trolling are linked to antisocial personality disorder, then the strategies we employ to deal with trolls needs to reflect the fact that what they might view as a ‘payoff’ doesn’t correspond to our conventional value system.

We’re consistently advised against ‘feeding the trolls’, but it seems as though none of us are quite aware what trolls actually enjoy eating. This is problematic, because if we’re not conscious of the troll’s desired response, we risk inadvertently encouraging further trolling by allowing ourselves to be played.

As has happened with many 4Chan ‘projects’, ‘Lollipop’ became even more troublesome when trolls began deliberately creating layers of false flags with intent to confuse critics. It remains to be seen whether the majority of the trolls involved legitimately identified as men’s rights activists (MRAs), or were simply using this faux-affiliation as a cloak – yet another constructed identity designed to deliberately misdirect ‘for the lulz’. (The fact that some involved certainly did identify as MRAs only muddles things further).

The troll/MRA distinction might seem pedantic, but it changes how one should attempt to respond to online antagonists: actions that might appear to succeed in disarming ‘legitimately’ racist, sexist or homophobic activists may simply gratify trolls. If we accept that trolls adopt different ideologically-offensive identities extemporaneously in order to serially provoke one group of victims after another, then arousing any response at all is in itself a measure of success.

One of the chief pleasures trolls appear to derive from their actions is in the manipulation of their marks, such that the victim believes they are acting of their own free will while being drawn down a predetermined path. This contradiction trapped many of those who responded to ‘Operation: Lollipop’ by engaging seriously with the trolling. Because the rules of the game are never made clear to us, it’s impossible to tell whether any action we take has been preempted. The more confident we are in the rightness of our response, the more likely it is that we’re being played. Documenting the actions of trolls using #YourSlipIsShowing is useful, for example, but it’s worth questioning whether methodically documenting a hoax works to disarm trolls, or simply encourages them further.

Every troll’s game is endless, but their victims are regularly rotated. This is, ultimately, what distinguishes trolling from legitimate activism: an activist provokes others in aid of a greater cause, while trolls provoke simply in order to irritate and humiliate, moving from one mark to the next as their targets stop responding. Before responding to our antagonists online, sometimes we need to step back and figure out what exactly it is they feed on. Then we need to figure out how to make them eat their own words.

Connor Tomas O’Brien is a web designer and writer, co-founder of ebookstore platform Tomely, and co-director of the Digital Writers’ Festival.

ACO logo




9781926428239

Abigail Ulman

Cold Feet and Hot Little Hands: Abigail Ulman on writing – and not writing – her first book

Post-book deal, every time I sat down to try to write something, I felt paralysed by some kind of literary stage fright. I had shown my work to other people before – for writing workshops, and submissions to literary journals and competitions – but I had never before written a story while thinking This story is going to be published in a book. Or, more accurately, This story idea is nowhere near good enough to be published in a book. Read more »

9781926428239

Sian Campbell

Girlhood and The Woman-Child in Abigail Ulman’s Hot Little Hands

Each of the stories in Hot Little Hands navigates girlhood in some way, from the lives of high school-age teenagers to those of young twentysomething women. ‘Girl things’ such as horse camp, gymnastics, feminised bodies, clothing, periods, crushes, yoga and gossip weave through the fabric of the text. Though the subject matter is often adult – the girls of Hot Little Hands navigate abortion, sex trafficking, young motherhood, drugs, and deportation – the girls themselves are not… even when they technically are. Read more »

Dont-Try-This-at-Home-_-cover_-FINAL1-300x460

James Tierney

Subscriber Stories: Angela Readman’s Don’t Try This At Home

As a subscriber to publisher And Other Stories’ distribution model, I am in the unusual position of reviewing a book – Angela Readman’s short story collection Don’t Try This At Home – that thanks me by name for making its existence possible. Read more »

amy-schumer

Rebecca Shaw

Amy Schumer and the equal right to be funny

I don’t think men should be banned from making jokes about contentious subjects. I am of the belief that anything can and should be laughed about, and if done right, it can be beneficial. But more often, women are doing it right, and women are doing it better. Read more »

womens-home-companion

Kate Iselin

Trivial Pursuits: The media and ‘women’s interests’

Women, especially in public life, exist as a part of men’s worlds – a big part, sure – but still a part. Even as women become more vocal in demanding accurate and respectful representation, we are kept at arms length by a mainstream media which struggles to catch up. Read more »

SGbTsPQ

Rebecca Shaw

Command and Control: Trophy daughters and overprotective dads

There is no doubt that an overprotective parent is better than a parent who couldn’t care less what their child gets up to. And there is no doubt that most overprotective mums and dads are well-meaning. But paternal ‘protectiveness’ shticks often boil down to fathers not wanting their daughters to have sex, and by extension, get pregnant. Read more »

kstew

Joanna di Mattia

Kristen Stewart Through the Looking-Glass

Kristen Stewart is an actress who has been criticised, maligned even, for an acting style that transmits from set to screen as sullen, adolescent, wooden, blank, fidgety and inelegant. But perhaps she’s an actress concerned with authenticity, and the defining feature of her style is to show us herself by appearing like she’s not acting at all. Read more »

it-follows-4

Anwen Crawford

Behind You: The subtler horror of It Follows

I don’t watch many horror films. Lifelong victim of an overactive and slightly morbid imagination, I regularly envisage disasters, natural or otherwise, that might befall me, without requiring the added stimulus of cinema. Read more »

anne-dorval-and-antoine-olivier-pilon-in-xavier-dolans-mommy

Joanna Di Mattia

All About His Mother: Xavier Dolan’s fierce women

Xavier Dolan has created an exuberant body of cinema that privileges women (and others on the margins) as complex, chaotic beings. Dolan’s fierce mothers are cleaved from the pedestal that so much of cinema places them on, so that they may dig around in the dirt that is life. Read more »

Struggle+Street+KEY+IMAGE

Anwen Crawford

Shame and Stigma on Struggle Street

Struggle Street framed poverty as a combination of genetic inheritance and natural disaster – a barrier to be overcome only through ceaseless positive effort. Those who sabotage themselves through bad choices are therefore fair targets for our scorn, while those who gain employment or remain sober deserve praise for overcoming the odds. The deserving and undeserving poor, in other words. What an old story. Read more »

TheSlap_Show

Genevieve Wood

The Slap: What’s lost when a cricket bat becomes a baseball bat?

‘A cricket bat wouldn’t make sense in an American context’, says Tony Ayres, executive producer of the US adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap. He’s right, of course – it wouldn’t. But when, in US playwright Jon Robin Baitz’s version, the eponymous slap occurs as the result of a swinging baseball bat, something’s not quite right. Read more »

empire-tv-review-fox

Anwen Crawford

Rise of an Empire

Watching Empire, I wondered why there haven’t been more television shows about record labels, the music industry being the cesspit of venality that it is. Forget TV dramas about police departments and hospital wards – a show about a record label comes with all that conflict, plus outfits, plus songs. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

DUKMRUTRHLU31425064919799

Katie Williams

The Currency of Games: The real world cost of in-game purchases

A new item introduced in World of Warcraft lets players purchase a month of playing time for the real-life price of $20, which they can then sell to other players in-game in exchange for virtual currency. It’s an exchange of real money for a virtual currency that has in-game value but none in the physical, ‘real’ world – and it makes me incredibly uneasy. Read more »

Arts House_Image_10c_Oedipus Schmoedipus (post)_Credit – Ellis Parrinder copy

Jane Howard

A Case for Diversity in Theatre

Attracting different audiences to the theatre is about many things. It’s about accessibility for people without high disposable incomes, but it’s also about marketing and publicity; about creating venues which are physically accessible for people with disabilities; and about ensuring the performers on stage are as diverse as we want their audiences to be. Read more »

2909252617_1f456d0c81_b

Jane Howard

A Working-Class Mythology: Ironing boards at the theatre

In theatre, there is perhaps no prop piece more mythologised than the ironing board, which came to signify the birth of contemporary British theatre. Read more »

ForceM6609

Jane Howard

Witness and Connection at Melbourne’s Dance Massive

In a city where it feels not a day goes by without an arts festival, or three, happening, Melbourne’s Dance Massive is resolutely unique. Australia’s largest dance festival is by necessity heavily reliant on Melbourne-based companies and shows that will go on to tour independently of the festival. The festival is undeniably of, and for, the dance sector in Melbourne. Read more »