Emmett Rensin, who by all appearances seems like a perfectly upstanding adult, makes a confession in Vox: He’s a former internet troll. Rensin, at the age of 14, fell into the ranks of trolls who would later become infamous for their transgressions — most notably weev, who spent a year in prison after exposing the email addresses of 100,000 iPad users.
Anyone who has tuned in to the news in recent months has witnessed an escalating rise in trollery, one that has driven innocent women into hiding, fearful for their lives. It reached an apogee, perhaps, when trolls threatened to release nude pics of actress Emma Watson. If how the media dealt with the rise of crack cocaine in the 80s and 90s is any indication, we’ll soon see headlines warning of a coming “troll epidemic” that will unweave the very fabric of society. Rensin, in his cogent essay, tries to unravel the psyche of your average internet troll, and in the process explain why trolling has reached such a crescendo this year:
For all of my desire to complicate the trolling narrative, to insist that at one time our motives were permissible if not strictly noble, to suggest that it was fun and harmless and surprisingly diverse, trolling as an impulse has always been largely the domain of white men — and especially of those acutely aware of a world where the theoretical foundation of their inherited power is crumbling. They — we — are all anxious. The difference is in how we cope. This fear does not deserve pity, nor does it take priority over the far deeper worries of the genuinely maligned, but there is something explicable in this alienation. It’s worth having a little bit of empathy if you want to understand where these people came from. Ten years ago, the worry was easily enough ignored: displaced into pranks and jokes and insistence on being above it all, somehow outside both systems, crumbling and ascendant. Trolling was escapism; a denial of one’s place as part of a threatening world by way of imagining a troll as its incidental trickster, here to expose all vanities in equal measure. Today’s so-called trolling is the opposite: it is an explicit part of these power dynamics; a reactionary force desperate to stop the world from changing in this way.
While I find his argument convincing, I think it excludes a prevailing reason for why trolling has escalated to the point where we’re seeing constant news headlines concerning the day-to-day discussion on 4chan: The media has taken an interest in it.
There’s a long-held axiom on the internet: “Don’t feed the trolls.” By definition, a troll engages in harmful acts in order to incite a reaction. He may or may not believe the rhetoric he’s spewing; his only goal is to cause others to lash out. The theory goes that if you simply ignore the troll, he will go away, but this strategy often fails because all it takes is one bystander to take the bait in order to justify the troll’s existence. And now with reporters combing through 4chan and magnifying every threat to the outside world, we’ve unleashed a massive feeding frenzy for the worst sociopaths on the internet.
It wasn’t always this way. I remember when trolls were mostly confined to message boards and Livejournal accounts. Back in the early 2000s I used to hang out on various science fiction forums, and from time to time we’d see massive flame wars break out that spanned dozens of thread pages. There was a time, during my sophomore year of college, when a troll, likely someone who attended my same university, found his way into my Livejournal and regularly attempted to incite me into battle over issues of gay rights (I often took the bait). But for those who didn’t hang out on message boards or blog comment sections (Read: Most Americans), the damage inflicted by these trolls was minimal.
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What changed? Well, I can’t point you to the first time a troll’s actions caused widespread media coverage, but the first time I recall it happening was in 2006, when a Livejournal user named Jason Fortuny uploaded a fake ad on Craiglist in which he pretended to be a female dominatrix soliciting male sexual partners. After hundreds of men wrote in, some of whom included photos of themselves and even dick pics, Fortuny then uploaded all the responses, full names and all, to Encyclopedia Dramatica. The internet fury that resulted ended up spilling over into the mainstream media, and Fortuny was eventually featured in a New York Times Magazine piece that was so uncritical that it bordered on hagiography (the article also heavily focuses on weev’s early antics).
But you didn’t really start seeing constant references to 4chan in the press until we witnessed the rise of Anonymous, specifically when the hacker collective organized an assault on the Church of Scientology, a war that culminated with the real-world protests at Scientology buildings all over the world. Recently, the New Yorker profiled Christopher Doyon, who before joining Anonymous was a homeless activist who had been arrested for selling acid at Grateful Dead concerts. After joining Anonymous in 2010, he engaged in ever-increasing self-aggrandizement, granting regular interviews to reporters, until he eventually was able to hold press conference that would result in journalists publishing his most outlandish claims, no matter how implausible.
Whether or not you find Anonymous’s actions to be noble, its rise in prominence has resulted in increased scrutiny of the internet message boards that breed and train our next generation of trolls. And with this attention, trolls have been able to launch attacks against ever bigger targets, thereby increasing the media frenzy. It reminds me of the rise of the Westboro Baptist Church. It used to be that the church’s members only held their protests at the funerals of gay people, and while this generated a certain amount of press attention and outrage from liberals, it wasn’t until Westboro began attending the funeral services of U.S. soldiers that the organization became a household name. The church, like today’s internet trolls, realized that the more widely respected the target, the more outrage induced by its protests. Why else would it announce that it would stage protests at the funerals of the children who died in Newtown? For an organization that fed on outrage, there couldn’t be a better target.
It would seem that the prescription for ending this current trolling epidemic, then, would be to call on the media to stop feeding the trolls. If we didn’t decide to cover and amplify every claim on 4chan that it was about to unleash a new trove of celebrity nude pics, then eventually these trolls will get bored and find something else with which to fill their time. But that’s the problem with trying to starve trolls of oxygen: your strategy is beholden to your weakest link. If 10 years ago we couldn’t convince a message board visited by only a few hundred people to refrain from taking a troll’s bait, how will we silence the thousands of reporters and millions of social media users who are only a hair trigger away from calling for mass outrage? The trolls, I’m afraid, are here to stay.
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