Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

Arrest that troll!

(image via xkcd) What does “don’t feed the troll” really mean? For me, it means trying not to get sucked in to inflated and incendiary language, not biting the bait laid out by someone who has nothing better to do …

Tue, Jul 31, 2012, 12:48


(image via xkcd)

What does “don’t feed the troll” really mean? For me, it means trying not to get sucked in to inflated and incendiary language, not biting the bait laid out by someone who has nothing better to do than maliciously aim for contempt or perhaps in some lighter settings, poke at people with vicious, knowing humour, albeit in an ultimately vitriolic fashion. You don’t feed the trolls – the forehead flickers of the internet – because in doing so, you’re giving legitimacy to their words. It’s a pointless exercise. Unless you’ve got a massive take down that will completely shut someone up to hand, there’s nothing to be gained in paying attention to someone who spews cartoonish bile. All you’re doing by interacting is fanning what is a crappy little spark and turning it into a wildfire. If a troll screeches on Twitter and no one responds, then its words disappear.

Nobody should have to endure abuse online, but it’s a reality born out of not just a culture of anonymity, something which is fading away from online communication, but also a culture of distance, velocity and access. You might think distance and velocity together are a contradiction, but the ease with which our modern minds can detach ourselves from the impact of communication is real and weird. Someone sitting in their living room can think anyone from Kim Kardashian to Maeve Higgins is a dick and tweet “you’re a dick” and all of a sudden the message is in their timeline. Unless Kim Kardashian or Maeve Higgins respond, the words don’t seem legitimate, or perhaps not even real. Plenty of people don’t think before they tweet and just throw messages out there like coins into a well, sometimes you hear a ‘plop’ and sometimes you don’t. The person sending the message moves on without a response, and the person on the receiving end does too, generally just rolling their eyes. Occasionally, you might have just caught Simon Pegg or Grace Dent or Cher on a bad day in a bad moment and they ping back telling you to fuck off. Oops, guess what, now your words are real. Now the access is a two way street. Now your words might also have consequences. This might empower you if negative attention is your thing, or it might completely put the shits up you when you realise the impact of insulting someone from afar. Either way, the troll has just been fed.

Are you entitled to call someone a dick from afar? Probably, yes. In the same way that you’re entitled to suck up to Justin Bieber or Douglas Coupland in the hope of a response. Probably nearly everyone has said something mean about someone online, be it slagging a Craig Doyle programme, wondering if Britney Spears has lost her looks, saying Michael Noonan doesn’t know what he’s talking about, giving out about a panelist on #vinb or slagging a Eurovision contestant. I know I’ve done it, but as a rule of thumb and tweet, you should think far more about writing something negative than something positive. You should probably think about how you would feel if the same thing were said about you. Would you shout it across the street at them? Would you say it to their face at a party? If you think your negative opinion still stands up, then go for it. But be prepared to deal with the consequences if they just so happen to read and or respond to your 140 characters or less.

Celebrities, who are constantly at the butt of inane and sometimes hurtful abuse (if they choose to be hurt by it) have become obsessed by trolls. Sometimes it feels as though any difference in opinion or consensus at all is met with hysterical yelps of “troll!” and subsequent RTing to encourage flaming from one’s followers. There’s an excellent blog post on this from back in May here. I’ve thought about that blog post a lot since I read it. I don’t think I’ve spoken to a writer, actor, musician, or filmmaker in the past 18 months when they haven’t brought up online haters or trolls, or the culture of negativity online. It’s in interviews and One Direction documentaries, magazines and tweet retorts. And it’s an obsession I don’t quite understand. While there’s probably lots of point in academically and sociologically investigating the extremity of language online versus language ‘in real life’, it’s a slightly bizarre obsession when if one just ignored it, this whole culture would go away. I referenced it briefly in this piece about Adam Buxton. The problem is, trolls get into our egos. They enrage us by starting arguments and picking away at things we say or post. The sentiment in the old cartoon above is as true today as it ever was. The trolls still exist because we keep feeding them.

Which brings us to the arrest of a 17-year-old for abusing British diver Tom Daley, and ending up spewing a ridiculous death threat in his direction on Twitter. The teenager has said loads of other stupid and offensive things as well, but I’m not going to repeat them here because, really, what’s the point? I’m sure plenty of people applauded his arrest, dusting off their hands and saying “huzzah! Another online bully thwarted!” But is this not just a complete waste of time? Are police going to start barging into the houses of people typing “THIS IS SHIT I HOPE YOU DIE” in the comments section of YouTube cat videos? Sure, what that kid said to Daley was horrible, but he’s just some randomer – all the more reason to ignore him. And surely arresting a 17-year-old for the world’s most unrealistic “death threat” is the exact same idiotic rationale that led to the jailing of people for their Facebook status updates during the English riots last year?

I am not a defender of idiots. If I had one superpower it would be to make people who have no idea what they are talking about yet still felt entitled to express an opinion to shut the fuck up. I end up in frequent rages when seeing stupid stuff written online, or when someone tweets something idiotic at me. But one thing I try to do is ignore trolls. I learned this from the early days of blogging. You can shoot people down or argue with them – and that can sometimes even be fun – but ultimately if someone is writing something ridiculous and emotionally disproportionate, then it’s better to either not read it at all, or just eyeroll and move on. It’s a tactic that works for me. Occasionally just to prove to someone that their opinion is completely misplaced, I’ll take them on, but consistent trolling gets deleted, blocked and ignored. Of course the hilarious thing is, sometimes collective opposition to trolling often becomes trolling itself. I’m sure several of Tom Daley’s defenders ended up saying equally horrible things to the kid who was eventually arrested. A troll, perhaps, is just one component in what can end up as a mob.

Of course, people have to think about what they’re saying. You could probably argue that someone who is dumb enough to (a) make a hurtful remark to a young diver, (b) have a stream of racist tweets on his timeline, and (c) threaten to drown that young diver in a pool, deserves to be given a fright by the cops. That way of thinking is along the same lines of believing cops roughing up local kids for non-specific offenses just to show them who’s boss and where the order truly lies is a good way to fight crime. It also applies the broken windows theory to the internet. If we get rid of the minor people spouting stupid meaningless vitriol then perhaps our entire online culture of communication will become more polite. Really though? Because the ultimate in troll feeding is actually arresting people over their remarks. There is no greater way to give something legitimacy than to get the authorities involved. And whatever the ramifications for freedom of speech, the internet should be a place where you can call someone a twat if you want to. It’s not nice, but insults are part of human behaviour. I am not excusing death threats, sexism, racism or homophobia, but people aren’t all happy handshakes and lovely politeness. There’s a dark and stupid side to everyone too, and if you try to stifle that, who is it really serving?