Sunday, 28 April 2013

Trolls - a spotter's guide

Are people using the word "troll" (noun or verb) with sloppy imprecision, or is the word just changing its meaning with use? This is what on line trolling / being an Internet troll originally seems to have meant:
A troll is deliberately crafted to provoke others with the intention of wasting their time and energy ... Trolls can be identified by their disengagement from a conversation or argument. They do not believe what they say, but merely say it for effect. 
In other words, geek-speak for an old-fashioned wind-up.

Amanda Marcotte argues that people are now reaching for the T-word to describe any loudmouth who happens to share an obnoxious opinion on line, even when said loudmouth sincerely holds that opinion. Which is, of course, not the same as saying something outrageous that you don't really believe, simply for effect:
One of the most common practices on the Internet, ranking somewhere between sharing cat videos and griping about minutiae on Facebook, is to dismiss people who share repellent, shocking, or just plain controversial opinions as "trolls." People have somehow convinced themselves that sincere opinions and attention-seeking behavior are mutually exclusive. (See a discussion of this from Slate's Farhad Manjoo, who is reasonably sick of the term being applied to people who aren't even trying to be offensive, even if their opinions are controversial.) 
You could say that calling some knuckle-dragging misogynist, racist, homophobe, or other bigot a "troll" is to pay that person an unwarranted compliment. A troll, after all, needs to have the intelligence to think about another person's values, self image, or world-view, then come up with a statement calculated to cause that person annoyance or distress. Most trolls are probably dysfunctional attention-seekers,* but the successful ones aren't completely stupid. Unlike bigots who mouth repellent trash because they're dumb enough to actually believe it.

On the whole, I agree with Marcotte, that we shouldn't say "troll" when we mean "bigot" (I plead guilty to such sloppy usage myself). I'm not quite so sure when it comes to "trolling" clickbait though. Up to a point, much of the content of, say, the Mail Online is simple, mouth-breathing bigotry, people with a prejudiced world-view spEaking their bRanes, either for the benefit of people with a similar world-view, or to propagandise to anybody who might be sitting on the fence between either using their prefrontal cortex to navigate complicated and important issues, or simply relying on the reptilian brainstem (AKA "common sense" in Mail-speak). In this sense, it's mere bigotry.

But there's also calculation there, the realisation that you can get a two-for-one click through rate by appealing directly to the worst instincts of bigots and outraging Guardianistas who click through to prove to themselves what unbelievable new depths the Mail has sunk to, then go and tell all their friends. Some of this is an accidental by-product of producing bullshit in industrial quantities, but I don't think the Mail's generating the amount of traffic it does by accident. There's ignorance and prejudice here, in spades, but there's also enough business sense to turn the art of the wind-up into a profitable revenue stream. I don't like to pay the usual suspects at the Mail Online the compliment of calling them "trolls", but the fact that they've successfully commidified outrage suggests that they are - within their own limited domain - more than just stupid bigots. Never underestimate the enemy.

*with a few exceptions where the trolling is precisely targeted to demolish a particularly silly point of view, to tweak people who are taking themselves way too seriously, or to puncture pomposity