Fanning the flames of trolling

You can’t stop the trolls if you don’t know who they are, writes John Gooding.

Not these kind of trolls...
Not these kind of trolls…

Watching Katherine Feeney of The Sydney Morning Herald and Joe Hildebrand of The Daily Telegraph grill a set of self-described “trolls” on SBS’s Insight last Tuesday was like watching a pair of kindergarteners perform heart surgery. They were admirably enthusiastic, to be sure, but they did not fundamentally understand the topic at hand.

The problem with any discussion of trolling is that no-one agrees on what it actually is. If you’ve read the newspapers or watched any current affairs in the past few months, you will likely think that trolling is repeatedly lashing out at public figures and vulnerable web users, driving them to depression and suicide. Celebrities such as Robbie Farah, Stephen Fry, and Charlotte Dawson have experienced this form of abuse, with the latter being hospitalised as a result.

As sad as these stories may be, however, to say that these people were victim to trolls is to ignore what many self-described trolls consider trolling to be. Take the more nuanced definition given by another of the Insight panellists, Asher Wolf: “trolling was not seen as necessarily just bullying or just law breaking or just abuse of others…really insightful trolling involves getting information across to others, it involves changing the way people think about things”. None of the above cases count as examples if one adopts this standard. All of the pathetic tweets that Farah and Fry received are merely old-fashioned bullying on a new-fashioned medium.

Under this definition, trolling is not limited to online communication. For instance, in an episode of Top Gear, the presenters attempt to drive across Alabama with slogans such as ‘manlove rules OK’ and ‘NASCAR sucks’ painted across the panelling of their cars. They were trolling. Ashton Kutcher’s Punk’d is trolling. If you’ve ever told a friend that “gullible” isn’t in the dictionary and they went and looked it up, you were trolling.

When trolling is genuinely funny or interesting, it doesn’t exactly grab headlines. However, when people troll poorly or try to pass of their attempts to bully as trolling, it gets attention in the form of vapid, cudgel-wielding sensationalism such as The Daily Telegraph’s ‘Stop the Trolls’ campaign. As Hildebrand explained on Insight, the campaign is referring to “…personal sustained abuse at strangers from anonymity”. Stopping these people is an admirable goal, but to call them trolls is to imply that every self-described troll revels in abusing people, which is simply not true.

English is a democratic language insofar as majority usage determines the meaning of words, and there is no way to protect a word from redefinition. Perhaps the majority have come to believe trolling is inherently, unavoidably malicious. If this remains the case, then all the vaguely nuanced trolls across the world will cease being trolls and will instead become provocateurs, or culture jammers, or some other bland academic term. Meanwhile, the word “troll” will simply denote any ambiguous internet bogeyman. The media have redefined trolling to mean “being an asshole on the internet”, and then complain about trolls being assholes on the internet. Sure, people who harass and bully are a problem, but in attempting to correct them we should not smear by association every interesting troll along the way.

The people dissected on Insight were not the Feeney-and-Hildebrand version of trolls. They were not idiots who abused strangers for no purpose other than to hurt. At the worst, they were the “mean-spirited prankster” type of troll. Not all trolling is funny and amiable, but not all of it is hateful garbage either.