BY David Crowley in Frieze | 01 JUN 15
Featured in
Issue 172


Two recent books explore how online trolling is reshaping publishing and communication

BY David Crowley in Frieze | 01 JUN 15, CC-BY-3.0, 2010, republished in Joseph M. Reagle Jr., Reading the Comments, 2015; Courtesy: Geek and Poke

In 1932, Bertolt Brecht published an essay on the failings of what was, at the time, a new medium: radio. In Brecht’s view, radio’s chief flaw was its authoritarian character: the way it delivered messages to audiences who were too enchanted to do anything else but listen. This was the challenge, as he saw it: ‘Radio must be changed from a means of distribution to a means of communication. Radio would be the most wonderful means of communication imaginable in public life, a huge linked system – that is to say, it would be such if it were capable not only of transmitting but of receiving, of allowing the listener not only to hear but to speak, and did not isolate him but brought him into contact.’ Communication would, according to the Marxist playwright, overcome alienation and raise class consciousness. While Brecht might well be credited with anticipating the possibilities of Web 2.0, with its vast and self-replenishing banks of user-generated content and built-in feedback mechanisms, his vision of the future as a utopia of effervescent expression is some way off the mark. Today’s seemingly endless opportunities to share our opinions with the world have generated new anxieties, new crimes and new villains. In accounts of dysfunctional online communication, one figure stands out: the troll who, for example, haunts the Facebook memorial pages of those who have died young or in tragic circumstances, in order to ridicule their lives and deaths, often in the most sadistic ways.

Trolling is not just the province of sociopaths – the ‘outcasts’ and ‘loners’ that newspapers love to profile. It is also a new form of state propaganda. Publications such as The New York Post and The Atlantic, amongst others, have reported that Russia’s president Vladimir Putin employs a ‘troll army’ – based in an anonymous office building in St Petersburg – which trawls the internet looking for opportunities on social-media sites to eulogize the Kremlin and vilify the West. Working in shifts, its agents allegedly generate nasty, often racist memes about President Obama and represent the leaders of Ukraine as bumbling fools. These pro-Kremlin trolls act covertly, but there is little need to protect their anonymity. Created to be retweeted or forwarded, their words and images – like much else on the internet – are quickly cut free of their moorings.

Joseph M. Reagle Jr.’s new book Reading the Comments (2015, MIT Press) surveys the diverse forms of comment that make up so much of today’s online content. Reviews of military-style backpacks by survivalists on Amazon (‘It does not get a five star because the drag handle is small if you needed to drag a wounded team mate while wearing gloves and under fire’) seem very different from the sporking (‘reviewing work that is so bad reviewers want to fork their eyes out’) of slash fictions narrating Captain Kirk’s romance with Mr Spock on FanFiction sites. But, as Reagle shows, there are some clear patterns of convergence. The anonymity offered by the internet has the effect of relaxing the ethical standards of reviewers. Comment begets more comment. It is getting shorter, too: opinion is increasingly corralled in ratings (five stars!) and clicks (like!). Expert opinion is having to battle for our attention with waves of truncated and often splenetic comment (fail!). We are familiar with these trends – how could we not be? – but Reagle offers some vivid illustrations of the direction in which we are being led. These include swathes of sophisticated reviews of products on consumer websites that are generated algorithmically and cannot be distinguished from those penned by human beings, as well as the operations of ‘Like Farms’ in Bangladesh where people are paid to ‘like’ Facebook content in order to ensure that it circulates ever more widely.

Combining sociology and cyberspeak, Reagle’s book often has an oddly paternal tone, like a schoolmaster at the end-of-term disco. Whitney Phillips’s new book, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things (2015, MIT Press), takes a more provocative line. A history of online trolling, largely in the US, it offers a tight definition of this subcultural phenomenon that peaked between 2008 and 2011. Trolls pursue ‘lulz’ – their term for creating amusement at another’s expense – usually eschewing any kind of higher or moral purpose. The greater the outrage caused by their trolling of the dead, celebrities, the unfortunate or simply anyone who responds to their bitter provocations, the better. ‘Lulz’ justify everything.

Despite trolls’ loudly voiced nihilism and self-professed misanthropy, Phillips suggests that something like an ethical code operates behind many of their activities, particularly of those trolls who bait the news media. Fox News has been a prime target, not least because its journalists and commentators have expressed high-minded outrage at the activities of trolls and hacktivists. Famously, in 2007, Fox News broadcast a ‘Report on Anonymous’, attacking trolls acting under a shared sobriquet as an ‘internet hate machine’ and ‘domestic terrorists’. This served as both a victory and a call to arms, with one troll announcing: ‘Wow. Fox just fed the trolls, and did so in the lulziest way possible. I mean, what’s a bigger ego boost for Anon than to be branded dangerous criminals who can hack your computer by closing their eyes and merely thinking about it.’

Of course, notoriety is the kind of attention that trolls love and media reports seem to accelerate their activity. But their engagement with Fox (and other media corporations like Facebook) has been more complicated than that. ‘In the lead-up to the 2008 election,’ Phillips writes, ‘Fox sounded a number of racist alarms, including concern over Obama’s name […] as well as his alleged Muslim leanings.’ The trolls then amplified these news reports in memes in which the then-presidential candidate’s head was collaged onto pornographic images of black men, or placed him alongside buckets of fried chicken or food stamps – all racist commonplaces. For Phillips, this kind of stake-raising reveals what is already at work in the mainstream: ‘ Whatever their true attitudes toward Barack Obama’s candidacy or people of colour generally,’ she writes, ‘trolls were shouting from the rooftops precisely the attitudes that were being communicated via dog-whistle in more ostensibly “civilized” forums.’ And, for the trolls at least, what distinguishes their actions from those of the corporations is profit. Fox, they say to Phillips, boosts its ratings and therefore advertising income by sensationalizing tragedy or its inferential race discrimination.

According to Phillips, trolling is now mainstream and, in the process, losing its subcultural character. Perhaps she is right. Broadcasters and newspapers are becoming more troll-like than they would care to admit. Trollbait – the posting of offensive material that is guaranteed to enrage its readers – shares much in common with clickbait: titillating or inflammatory web content. It is perhaps with some justification that the UK newspaper Daily Mail is known by some as ‘The Daily Troll’: articles hounding ‘benefit cheats’ and asylum seekers, or reporting on the lives – and, in particular, the bodies – of female celebrities, sometimes with great Schadenfreude, draw an enormous volume of traffic to its site. Although far less corrosive, UK art critic Jonathan Jones has achieved a kind of minor-league notoriety for his often provocative and divisive opinions in the Guardian, both in print and online. Judging by the streams of comments that accompany his pieces, it seems Jones entertains his readers by irritating them. Of course, press sensationalism and provocative columnists are nothing new. But what is different, it seems, is a growing need for online publications and the writers they commission to provoke comment from their readers. Engaged in ruthless competition for audiences, comment is a direct and visible measure of attention. Failure to elicit a response can be public, too: the legend ‘0 comments’ at the foot of a column or an article reads like a silent review of its author in this age of feedback.

David Crowley runs the Critical Writing in Art and Design programme at the Royal College of Art, London, UK.