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Making trolls eat their words

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

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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.

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