Chuck Johnson and the catch-22 when criticizing online trolls

charles johnson

There’s an old and well-known internet adage that you “should never feed the trolls.” It recognizes that there’s a certain contingent within internet culture that feeds on attention and extracts that attention by writing the most incendiary and hateful things imaginable. The resultant mass condemnation, rather than shaming the troll into an apology or silence, merely fuels it and often times attracts even more attention to his inflammatory rhetoric. The theory goes that if you simply ignore the troll, then the food on which it subsists, outrage, goes away, and the troll goes away along with it.

There’s been constant worry lately that Charles Johnson, a rightwing blogger who wrote for several conservative publications before branching off on his own, is a troll who has been given too many turns at the feeding trough. For the uninitiated, Johnson has posted some of the most incendiary “journalism” one can imagine. In just the last month or so, he published the addresses and phone numbers of two New York Times journalists, inciting death and rape threats that drove them from their homes. Within the last week, he published what he claimed was a photo of “Jackie,” the UVa student at the center of the unraveling Rolling Stone article on campus rape, trying to use the photo as proof that Jackie had lied about her rape. Within hours it was shown that the woman in the photo was almost certainly not Jackie, and though Johnson eventually printed a “correction,” most of that correction was so tone deaf — he congratulated himself on making the correction and claimed he still liked his “batting average” — that it left little doubt as to Johnson’s sociopathic underpinnings. To paraphrase a line from The Dark Knight, some people just like to watch the world burn, and Johnson is one of those people.

Naturally, Johnson has generated enough mass outrage that it’s caused interest from the mainstream media, and that interest has then led to significant backlash from those who believe any attention from the media merely provides a larger audience for Johnson’s antics. When the Washington Post’s Terrence McCoy profiled Johnson, for instance, the Daily Caller’s Matt Lewis accused McCoy of “romanticizing” Johnson. “Johnson can move on when his exploits cause harm, and claim victory when he ends up being right,” Lewis wrote. “And then repeat it. That’s fine for him, but the question is whether or not the Post should be in the business of incentivizing this sort of behavior.” Other journalists have grappled with this question of whether condemnation of Johnson is merely playing into his overall strategy of creating attention. In his recent column on Johnson, New York Times media critic David Carr definitely struggles with this dilemma. “I’d ignore him if I thought he would go away, but I get the feeling he won’t,” Carr wrote. And then later: “My worry is that people who have made it this far in the column will click over to [Johnson’s blog] to see what all the fuss is about.”

I’d argue, however, that Johnson’s trolling has reached a large enough audience that columns like Carr’s have become necessary. Yes, the media attention helps Johnson attract the racists and homophobes that make up his core fanbase, but it also effectively marginalizes him, thereby decreasing the chances that his poison will spill too far into the mainstream.

We’ve seen this happen with James O’Keefe. O’Keefe, if you’ll remember, shot and posted the infamous ACORN videos purporting to show the organization attempting to help a pimp and prostitute — played by O’Keefe and a female friend of his —  avoid paying taxes. The videos received immediate mainstream attention, not only from Fox News but also the New York Times, whose ombud famously chastised its reporters for not covering the story quickly enough. Because the videos were given such mainstream legitimacy, Congress quickly used it as an excuse to defund ACORN — an organization that’s been a fervent advocate for low income and minority citizens.

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But in the months following the posting of these videos, much of their content was determined to be highly misleading, with multiple attorneys general concluding that the videos were “heavily edited” in ways that portrayed ACORN’s actions out of context. New York Times ombud Clark Hoyt, now with egg on his face, significantly backpedaled and admitted that many of the underlying claims in the videos were misleading. These revelations led to increased skepticism from the mainstream media when O’Keefe released further videos, a skepticism that likely reached a crescendo when O’Keefe tried to lure a female CNN reporter onto a boat filled with sex toys and sexually harass her (the plan was thwarted when one of O’Keefe’s female employees warned the reporter ahead of time).

O’Keefe is continuing to release his undercover videos, but they have increasingly been met with skepticism and are often outright ignored by the mainstream media. Don’t get me wrong, O’Keefe, like Johnson, is still able to generate attention for his antics, but much of it is confined to the conservative echo chamber, and very little of it has spilled out into mainstream America, at least nowhere near the extent of his ACORN videos. His brand has been significantly marginalized, even though it was at the expense of giving him more attention.

We also saw this effect with #GamerGate, the online movement that claimed to be concerned with gaming journalism ethics but was mostly a misogynist cudgel aimed at feminists and their supporters. Early on in the controversy, traditional journalists who covered the movement would offer a throwaway sentence something along the lines of “the movement does have some legitimate concerns with gaming journalism.” Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff, for instance, made reference to  “those who genuinely want to use #GamerGate to talk about ethics and the changing face of gaming.” But as the media continued to cover the trollery, it became quickly apparent that no legitimate criticism was found in the bowels of the internet where #GamerGate supporters congregate, and as a result the mainstream media’s coverage of the movement became universally negative. Because of this, any further attempts from the movement to attack feminists will be met with either indifference or condemnation.

So yes, Johnson will continue to gain an audience as a result of media coverage, but because of such harsh criticism, not only from columnists at the New York Times and Politico, but also from many rightwing pundits — including conservative pollster Frank Luntz — Johnson’s work has been confined to the same intellectual realms as World Net Daily and Alex Jones. That’s not to say that he can’t still inflict significant damage, especially when he goes after rape victims and minorities, but it’ll hinder his reporting from slipping into mainstream discussion, and will in many ways blunt his impact. Charles Johnson may never ever go away, but at least he has alienated those who might have otherwise promulgated his reporting. That’s about as close to a glass-half-full scenario as we’re going to get.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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