Schadenfreude with Bite

Richard Seymour

  • BuyThis Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture by Whitney Phillips
    MIT, 256 pp, £10.00, September 2016, ISBN 978 0 262 52987 7
  • BuyGendertrolling: How Misogyny Went Viral by Karla Mantilla
    Praeger, 280 pp, £32.00, August 2015, ISBN 978 1 4408 3317 5
  • BuyBad Clowns by Benjamin Radford
    New Mexico, 188 pp, £12.00, February 2016, ISBN 978 0 8263 5666 6
  • BuyTrolls: An Unnatural History by John Lindow
    Reaktion, 60 pp, £9.99, August 2015, ISBN 978 1 78023 565 3

Trolls are the self-styled pranksters of the internet, a subculture of wind-up merchants who will say anything they can to provoke unwary victims, then delight in the outrage that follows. When Mitchell Henderson, a 12-year-old boy from Minnesota, killed himself in 2006, trolls descended on his MySpace page, where his friends and relatives were posting tributes. The trolls were especially taken with the fact that Henderson had lost his iPod days before his death. They posted messages implying that his suicide was a frivolous response to consumerist frustration: ‘first-world problems’. One post contained an image of the boy’s gravestone with an iPod resting against it.

What’s so funny about trolling? ‘Every joke calls for a public of its own,’ Freud said, ‘and laughing at the same jokes is evidence of far-reaching psychical conformity.’ To understand a joke is to share a culture or, more precisely, to be on the same side of an antagonism. Trolls do what they do for the ‘lulz’ (a corruption of ‘LOL’, Laughing Out Loud), a form of enjoyment that derives from someone else’s anguish. Whitney Phillips, whose research has involved years of participant-observation of trolls, describes lulz as schadenfreude with more bite. The more furious and upset the Henderson family became, the funnier the trolls found it.

In 2011, one of these ‘RIP trolls’, Sean Duffy, a 25-year-old from Reading, was jailed for posting messages online about dead teenage girls. He called Natasha MacBryde, who had killed herself aged 15, a ‘slut’; on Mothers’ Day he posted a message on the memorial page of 14-year-old Lauren Drew, who had died after an epileptic fit: ‘Help me mummy, it’s hot in hell.’ Often, trolls gang up on their targets. Phillips details the case of a Californian teenager called Chelsea King, who was raped and murdered in February 2010. Her relatives were treated as fair game, and supportive strangers who tried to intervene were themselves tracked down and hounded.

RIP trolling treats grief as an exploitable state. It isn’t that the trolls care one way or another about the person who has died. It’s that they regard caring too much about anything as a fault deserving punishment. You can see evidence of this throughout the trolling subculture, even in more innocuous instances. In one case, participants phoned video-game stores to inquire about the non-existent sequel to an outdated game. They called so persistently that the workers answering the phone would fly into a rage at the mention of the game, to the amusement of the trolls. The supreme currency of trolling is exploitability, and the supreme vice is taking anything too seriously. Grieving parents are among the easiest to exploit – their rage and sorrow are closest to the surface – but no one is invulnerable.

The controlled cruelty of the wind-up didn’t need trolls to invent it. In the pre-internet era, it perhaps seemed more innocent: Candid Camera; Jeremy Beadle duping a hapless member of the public. The ungovernable rage of the unwitting victim is always funny to someone, and invariably there is sadistic detachment in the amusement. The trolls’ innovation has been to add a delight in nonsense and detritus: calculated illogicality, deliberate misspellings, an ironic recycling of cultural nostalgia, sedimented layers of opaque references and in-jokes. Trolling, as Phillips puts it, is the ‘latrinalia’ of popular culture: the writing on the toilet wall.

Trolls are also distinguished from their predecessors by seeming not to recognise any limits. Ridicule is an anti-social force: it tends to make people clam up and stop talking. So there is a point at which, if conversation and community are to continue, the joke has to stop, and the victim be let in on the laughter. Trolls, though, form a community precisely around the extension of their transgressive sadism beyond the limits of their offline personas. That the community consists almost entirely of people with no identifying characteristics – ‘anons’ – is part of the point. It is as if the laughter of the individual troll were secondary; the primary goal is to sustain the pleasure of the anonymous collective.

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For most organised trolls, having an explicit political affiliation or moral cause goes against the basic principle that commitment to anything other than the lulz is suspect. However, for ‘gendertrolls’, a term coined by Karla Mantilla, the objective is clamorously counter-feminist. It is to silence publicly vocal women by swarm-like harassment, misogynistic insults (such epithets as ‘cunt’ and ‘whore’), ‘doxxing’ (exposing the details of someone’s offline life), and threats of rape and murder. As Mantilla sees it, there is nothing unique about this behaviour: it isn’t ‘about the internet’, but a continuation of the ‘long history of men harassing and denigrating women as a means of trying to drive out potential competitors’. It is a ‘mass cultural response to women asserting themselves [in] previously male-dominated areas’.

The new inflection that the internet appears to make possible is the trolls’ disavowal of moral commitment, which depends on a strict demarcation between the ‘real’ offline self, and online anonymity. I am not what I do, as long as I do it online. Yet trolls are not the ‘equal opportunity offenders’ they claim to be. Much of the laughter, Phillips points out, is ‘directed at people of colour, especially African Americans, women, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer’ people, while trolling communities disproportionately comprise young white men in Anglophone or Nordic countries. Phillips describes the way they perform their whiteness and a particular type of masculinity – their racist trolling of Obama, for example, or their habitual use of the term ‘fag’. Masculinism is built into the culture of trolling: it isn’t a stretch to see the troll’s amorality as bound up with the familiar masculinist fantasy of ironclad superiority. It may be that all trolls are, among other things, gendertrolls.

If that is true, the troll’s self-image as a ‘trickster’, which Phillips takes seriously, doesn’t stand much scrutiny. The trickster is a figure whose only value is the destruction of value, the undoing of the distinction between good and evil. Phillips is perhaps persuaded by the analogy in part because she gets the joke: ‘I found certain forms of trolling funny,’ she writes, ‘and in some cases justifiable.’ Indeed, some of the trolls’ targets, such as the Church of Scientology, are conspicuously unsympathetic, and the trolling is often carried off with élan. But when Phillips describes trolls’ attempts to ‘subvert, or at the very least tinker with, the existing moral order’, she speaks as if the difference between collapsing the moral order, subverting it and tinkering with it isn’t very great.

If the yield of trolling is the outcry of the aggrieved, it depends utterly on the preservation of value. Trolls depend on there being enough people who care about enough things – an indifferent shrug means failure. The choice of victim almost always conveys a moral position on what it is more or less appropriate to care about. RIP trolls are most incensed by the suicides of seemingly privileged white people; they see such deaths as self-indulgent, and public displays of grief over them as a façade, as one troll put it, for ‘boredom and a pathological need for attention’. Other campaigns, such as the trolling of the National Security Agency after the exposure of its extensive wiretapping, suggest that another cardinal sin for trolls is the suppression or misuse of information.

The troll has it both ways. He is magnificently indifferent to social norms, which he transgresses for the lulz, yet often at the same time a vengeful punisher: both the Joker and Batman. The troll acts ‘as a self-appointed cultural critic’ in a tradition of clowns and jesters, according to Benjamin Radford, while simultaneously ‘plausibly maintaining that it’s all in good fun and shouldn’t be taken (too) seriously’. According to John Lindow’s ‘unnatural history’ of trolls, the original trolls of Scandinavian folklore punished improper behaviour and upheld social norms. If you take the behavioural code of lulz seriously and erase any commitment to social norms, what you are left with is the logic of punishment in its distilled form: if even the grieving are punishable, who isn’t? ‘None of us,’ goes the refrain, ‘is as cruel as all of us.’ It is around this principle that the most infamous trolling community forged its identity: ‘We are Anonymous, and we do not forgive.’ And what goes unforgiven is weakness.

Sociological analyses of ‘online deviancy’ tend to focus on such traits as Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy and sadism. Phillips debunks all this. It does little more, she says, than redescribe the phenomena with a particular moral accent, while asking us to take for granted the meaningfulness of the categories (‘deviancy’, ‘personality type’) used. Instead, she stresses the role of mainstream culture, arguing that trolls are ‘agents of cultural digestion’.

The dissociation and detached humour of trolling subcultures is perhaps best displayed in the extraordinary variety of jokes and memes about 9/11. Phillips believes this is an outgrowth of the cynicism that pervades the heavily mediated culture of the US. The television coverage of 9/11 and its aftermath consisted in 15-second snippets of horror and atrocity sandwiched between prolonged stretches of ‘rubbish’, in such a way as to provoke ironic detachment. The Bush administration extended the invitation to dissociate. ‘Stuff happens,’ Donald Rumsfeld said with psychopathic cheer in response to chaotic scenes of destruction in occupied Iraq; ‘Now watch this drive,’ Bush said, returning to his golf swing after delivering a sober message about the need to resist terrorism. After a brief interval of ‘moral seriousness’, the administration urged the people to have fun and go shopping, while driving up panic with colour-coded terror alerts. The affective gap formed in this period may have been widened by trolls, but they didn’t create it.

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In April 2015, a 31-year-old Neapolitan woman called Tiziana Cantone sent video footage of herself having sex to a small group of friends. Someone posted the footage online, and it rapidly went viral. A phrase she spoke to an unidentified partner in one of the films – ‘You’re making a video? Good’ – became a favourite punchline on social media; it was printed on T-shirts and mobile-phone covers, and used as an advertising slogan. Recognised everywhere, denounced by politicians, Cantone left her job, changed her name, moved to Tuscany and fought in the courts to get the footage removed from the internet. She succeeded in getting explicit images of herself removed from Facebook, but not from the many porn sites on which the videos had been republished thousands of times over. She was ordered to pay several of the sites a total of €20,000 in costs. In September 2016, she hanged herself.

The detached mockery, the rapidly commodified memes, the moralistic spite: the treatment of Tiziana Cantone is all but indistinguishable from mass trolling. As Jon Ronson reminds us in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, this pattern is not peculiar to the internet.[*] Before the phone hacking scandal put it out of business, the News of the World routinely published exposés of the sex lives of otherwise anonymous individuals, some of whom went on to kill themselves. Ben Stronge, an English chef ‘exposed’ in a story about swinging, begged the paper not to publish, because if they did he would never see his children again. They published, and he killed himself. Arnold Lewis, a Welsh teacher caught in a similar sting, told the NoW’s reporter if they published he would commit suicide. Shortly after the story appeared, he killed himself by inhaling exhaust fumes.

Social media has now greatly expanded the potential for this kind of predation. The monstering of Justine Sacco is one of Ronson’s most telling case studies. Ahead of a flight to South Africa, Sacco had tweeted: ‘Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get Aids. Just kidding. I’m white!’ With only 170 followers, she had no reason to expect much attention. But during the time it took her to fly there, Twitter exploded over what was taken literally as a racist provocation, rather than a joke about white ignorance. The first thing she received on landing were messages from concerned friends; then she saw why. Newspapers and broadcasters took up the story. The Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post sent journalists to tail her. Her old tweets, many of them also deliberately tasteless, were mined by Buzzfeed. For a badly worded joke – or worded all too well, hitting its mark too surely – she lost her job and was tormented for months by journalists.

Ronson recognises the schadenfreude of those who watched on Twitter, looking forward to Sacco’s devastation when her plane landed: he recalls his own first reaction, a ‘happy little “Oh, wow, someone is fucked.”’ He also points to the detachment associated with this punitive glee: ‘Whatever that pleasurable rush that overwhelms us is – group madness or whatever – nobody wants to ruin it by facing the fact that it comes with a cost.’ It is tempting to think of internet shamers as hypocrites: you can feel outrage or glee, but not both. But seen from another perspective, the outrage of individual tweeters may be secondary and vicarious; their primary job is to fuel the outrage of the anonymous collective. In that case, the main difference between trolls and shamers is that the former often mistakenly think they don’t have a moral commitment, where the latter often mistakenly think they do.

Sacco started out as a relatively mild, small-scale troll, but the chorus of denunciation to which she was subjected looked in several respects like a mass trolling campaign. Perhaps the reason this dynamic between troll and witch-hunter proves so volatile, and the reason we take such pleasure in the spectacle, is that it’s a version of something we already do to ourselves. Isn’t the Freudian slip or gaffe just a way of trolling ourselves, inciting and enjoying the rage of our own internal witchfinder-general? Or, to put it another way, trolls operate on our unconscious dissent from the identities and ideas we take too seriously, while online witch-hunters magnify to gigantic proportions the ways in which we are already punishing ourselves for that dissent. In this perspective, the troll isn’t just a sadist, but also a deluded masochist. ‘Don’t feed the trolls,’ the popular internet wisdom warns. A logical corollary might be ‘Don’t feed the moralists.’ They are part of the same spiral.

Despite innumerable cases of devastating harassment of individuals by newspapers over the years, the internet is now commonly blamed for liberating previously repressed aggression. ‘Below-the-line’ comment has become a by-word for viciousness, seen not as a by-product of the media content on which it feeds, but as the dark side of online democratisation. New media are also taken to share the blame for the breakdown of the governing consensus in Europe and the US. The success of Donald Trump and his ‘post-truth politics’ is seen as, among other things, an effect of the collapse of editorial standards as old ideological monopolies break up and people seek information and opinion from sources that pander to their prejudices. In this climate, the argument goes, political discourse is shaped by appeals to sentiment, not facts. Trolling can then be seen as just one more way in which reasoned debate is sabotaged. If anything unites trolls, cyber-sexists and conspiracy theorists, it is that they are out to derail the conversation, either for laughs, to shut women up, or to impose their own obsessions. It is not that trolls are necessarily right-wing; often they aren’t, though the right is increasingly trollish. Trump himself often gave the impression that he was trying to see what he could get away with saying for the lulz, whether it was claiming that tax avoidance just made him smart, or stating that his plan to profit from foreclosures was ‘the kind of thinking our country needs’, or denouncing the mothers of dead soldiers. As one of his high-profile alt-right supporters told the Guardian, ‘We’re the troll army! We’re here to win! We’re savage!’

*

There is reason to think that the far right is the political tendency that stands to gain most from the demolition of the truth. Phillips describes the symbiotic relationship between Fox News and internet trolls: Fox stokes the moral panic while at the same time supplying the cultural agar on which the trolls thrive. The radical right has always been acutely sensitive to the conative part of communication, the aspect that makes people act. Trolling, as a form of communication whose primary goal is manipulation, the power of the troll over the trolled, is ideally suited to such a strategy.

In this respect, Twitter’s decision in July to ban one of its most notorious users for racially abusive tweets could turn out to have been a first step, symbolically significant if ineffectual, in stemming the tide. The user was the young alt-right columnist Milo Yiannopoulos, a regular guest on news programmes on account of his carefully marketed controversialising. He was banned for spearheading a campaign of racist abuse aimed at the actor Leslie Jones, who starred as the only black member of the all-woman team in the remake of Ghostbusters. Twitter’s former CEO, Dick Costolo, admitted that the company’s failure to combat bullying on its platform was part of the reason for the decline in the number of its users and, consequently, in its share value: ‘We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years.’

Yiannopoulos is a typical product and exemplar of the alt-right: self-consciously both a troll and an ideologue. His reaction to being banned was to bristle, with ill-concealed delight, at the ‘emotional children of the left’ and their inability to cope with remarks they find disagreeable. ‘All I did,’ he told Business Insider, ‘was crack a few jokes.’ He has continued this patter since Trump’s victory, inviting Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News to ‘hear the humour’ in his suggestion that women be allowed onto ‘the men’s internet’ only if they agree to new rules. This cultivated ambiguity, the hedging of a serious political agenda with statements ostensibly made just for the lulz, is where trolling fits into the psychic and political economy of the alt-right. Breitbart, Yiannopoulos’s regular outlet, is effectively an outpost of the Trump administration: Stephen Bannon, the chair of Breitbart News, was signed up to the campaign the day after the former Fox executive Roger Ailes became a Trump adviser, and will be the new president’s ‘chief strategist’.

Breitbart’s two best-known scoops are a sting against the liberal civil society organisation, Acorn, in 2009 and the framing of Shirley Sherrod, an African-American employee of the Department of Agriculture, in 2010. In both cases, Breitbart manipulated footage – in the first, of secret recordings made by undercover reporters of interactions with Acorn’s employees; in the second, of a speech Sherrod gave to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People – so as to create the impression that black people were the enemies of white society. Acorn lost its funding and filed for liquidation a year later; Sherrod was fired and castigated by government officials and NAACP alike, until it became clear that they had been tricked. The White House then apologised and the secretary of agriculture offered her a new job. The conservative activists responsible for the Acorn story claimed the organisation inhabited a ‘revolutionary, socialistic, atheistic world, where all means are justifiable’, thereby licensing their own behaviour in turn. Andrew Breitbart claimed that Sherrod’s ‘racist’ speech showed the NAACP had no right to judge Tea Partiers as racist, and indeed was ‘a perfect rationalisation for why the Tea Party needs to exist’.

This capacity – this desire – to play both troll and witch-hunter is part of the affective basis for Trumpism. And Trump is the grandest troll of all: a huge, pachydermic stirrer, as cheerfully and swaggeringly amoral as Berlusconi. Like most trolls, he understands his target, constantly zeroing in on liberals’ bad conscience. During the presidential debates with Hillary Clinton, he defended his deportation policy by pointing out – as no other Republican candidate would – that Obama had deported more people than any other president, more than 2.5 million people. Saying things that are not usually said openly is part of the transgressive thrill of Trumpism. This is what the critique of ‘post-truth politics’ misses. Even when he lies egregiously, Trump’s fans think he is demonstrating an important truth in exposing media fakery. The alt-right, meanwhile, sees in Trumpism the basis for a new insurgent white nationalism, one that will victimise the exploitable – anyone who is not a conservative, white, affluent male – with detached delight. They are preparing for power, but their expression says: ‘Why so serious?’

[*] Ben Jackson reviewed So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed in the LRB of 9 April 2015.