troll-spotting (1): an introduction

A Labor Day special. Quite a long three-parter. Do not press “read more” without a comfortable drink in hand first. Call this anti-trolling for dummies, an idiot’s guide to counter-trollism: part of this here blog is turning into yet anotherdoes the world need another an online guide to trolls and trolling. It might well also be an “idiot’s guide” in terms of being written by someone who’s a bit of an idiot, a.k.a. ignorant naïve fool figuring things out a bit slowly. Mind you, that might amuse! And amusing other people is good and fun!!

Not to fight and destroy them: but to understanding them as a contemporary phenomenon, and looking further into trolling and its social, political, and ethical implications. The better to deal with them.

Q: WHY DOES TROLLING MATTER?
A: BECAUSE IT’S DIFFERENT NOW

See, back in the good old days–the early ’90s–trolling was much simpler.

There were fewer people online then, and they were more techy. Computers weren’t as easy to use and accessible to all and sundry; you needed to be quite knowledgeable before you could go online and chat in rooms. Back when I started out, in 1991-92, the internet and the online community were small: a very few universities, some IT companies and private research centres, defence/national security, that was about it. It was more of a community than a world. And the online interactive part was mostly young and male: especially in gaming, early MUDDing, where the chat-rooms tended to be. The troll-profile was simpler and more standard. But heck, being a silly naïve young lass back then, when I was first trolled I lost my cherry in floods of gore and tears. Yes, I got screwed; hope I learned something from it, besides going into Phase 2 of feminist development.

Back then, because trolling was male and macho, it was ballsy and aggressive. Figuratively physically violent. This was combat. Well, if you’re on WoW, that’s parr for the course anyway. Interacting and dealing with trolls worked in a similar way.

2011: different world, different online world, different trolls. Quite an impressive range of them. The rules of engagement and just war have changed. It’s like war itself: while the world–and the troll-world–has grown, so has the arsenal of weapons and martial arts at our disposal.

Anti-trolling is not the single combat of giant champions. It’s not an elegant gentlemanly duel with rapiers and rapier wit. And it’s not simply dropping H-bombs on entire countries.

We’re in an era of demented lone gunmen, smartphones, suicide-bombers, and dirty bombs. A time of semi-literate, ignorant, fundamentalist loons. Of entitled arrogant spoiled vapid princesses. Disgruntled over-smart, over-educated, over-read, under-used hipsters. Anxious neurotic insecure mean teenage girls. Their mothers and grandmothers. Teenage boys in their bedrooms. Other types too, and all the old-fashioned classic trolls. And one sort of troll posing as another; multiple accounts and personae; merry mayhem. There’s a lot of intelligence and talent out there.

And that’s the tragedy. What a waste of creative energy. There are people out there reinventing the novel and the movie, inventing new literary forms, engaging actively and interactively with how the web has changed and is continuing to change central creative concepts like “authorship,” “authority,” and identity itself. This present blog is messing around with the classic essay. Trolls could be doing so much more, so many other things instead.

Q: WHY WOULD CARING ABOUT TROLLING MATTER?
A: PRECISELY. BECAUSE IT MATTERS. AND IT’S ABOUT CARING

My own suggestions for dealing with trolls, for whatever that’s worth, boil down to three:

  1. the rule of law, the full weight of the law, including higher arbitration and the equivalent of the UN, ICHR, ICJ
  2. martial arts that avoid confrontation and conflict, and any other techniques and tools for calming, defusing, negotiating ceasefires and hostages releases, and re-establishing peace and stability
  3. solidarity and community-reinforcement: on boards, in board-member messages, in discussion and comment and critique off-board.

The posts on here about trolling–the set for this long weekend, and others–are intended as a sort of a user’s guide to trolls, like bird-watching ones, but also a hypothetical guide to using and manipulating them into not being trolls any more.

NBBB: I have zero evidence that the rehabilitative approach can work. Quite the contrary. Then again, I don’t want to lose hope. Or stop caring. Stop caring: you risk stopping being human.

What if no-one reads this post, put off by the length? Or the other posts? Why am I wasting my time?

  • Because I don’t know, at the time of writing (which was spread in bits and pieces over a while anyway), whether or not anyone will read this. Whether they’ll read it now, or later. I can’t know that. All I can do is write, and hope.
  • And I won’t know of any of that if I don’t write. Game theory 101: the only move with a known outcome is a negative one with zero result.
  • Because keeping historical records and archives is part of preserving knowledge. Be that for the present or the future. Yes, that would include the possible outcome of no-one reading this post in my lifetime. Let’s imagine that this post isn’t read by anyone while I’m alive. Whether or not it’s read after I’m dead, I won’t know about it. But that doesn’t matter. It’s not about me: it’s about the post and its contents. Ideas being in circulation, having an identity and will of their own, and being free things, to be reshaped and recirculated by other people.
  • Because if just one person reads this, and it makes them think, or be angry, or should “huzzah!”: then the post has done something good.
  • If just one person reads this who’s been cyberbullied, and it lifts up their spirits: the writing’s done some good.
  • If a troll or a q-troll reads this, and it makes them think–even if it makes them angry before it makes them think–then I’ve done some good.
  • But: remember: it’s not about me. It’s about this post (and its mates). It’s about getting ideas out there.
  • If the sum total of happiness in the universe is increased through the post’s existence: even by the tiniest amount: then that is good.
  • And increasing happiness and doing good, or even risking doing both these things, makes me happy. So there.

See further:

  • your local library / university or college library / online libraries
  • most of the philosophical canon is available online for free: Project Gutenberg, Perseus, Wikisource, etc.
  • a start: Harry Frankfurt, The Importance of What We Care About, The Reasons of Love, On Truth.

The ideal end not being the exposure and destruction of a troll, but their conversion and rehabilitation; to being “born again” as a mature, responsible, constructive, enlightened active participant in gynocracy. What follows owes less to Sun Tzu and Machiavelli than it does to Bismarck, Arendt, Nussbaum, Laotzi, and Buddhism: a Pacific North-West counter-trollism.

There’s a lot of hate out there–let’s at least try to turn it to love.

Over-idealistic, totally impractical, rose-tinted specs, me? Never.

Q: WHY ARE TROLLING AND COUNTER-TROLLISM IMPORTANT?
A: TOLERANCE & TRUTH

There’s also been some stuff on here about tolerance, and there is some more coming up. Tolerance: hot topic, fashion, fad, fuel for the chattering classes. Yet deeply serious, important, and old. As old as human time, as old as the recorded history of human interactions…

I don’t have any answers to the paradox of toleration. Others’ proposals and propositions, and links for further future reference, are coming up in yet more next posts next week and the week after. All I can offer is perspective. The bigger picture. Particularly: historical perspective.

2011 (and indeed 1991, 2001, and points between): not the first time that freedom has been an era-defining issue. Its fragility. Threats to freedom from idiocrats, pseudo-thinking idiocrats who mistakenly believe they’re democrats, crazy people, fundamentalist loons, and malevolent antisocial bitchy nihilists. Nor is it the first time that a dominant trend in response has been censorship and repression. My own paradigm-shift defining moments: 5th c. BCE Athens, as you’ve seen; 16th c. Europe; and 18th c. Europe and America. In crisis: control, authority, exemplarity, the fabric of society. On the rise, and once again–see anti-quackery and feminist blogs, and the Arab Spring, for example–under threat, right now, as we move towards autumn/fall and the last part of the year: intelligent independent thought, questioning, scepticism, enlightenment, and revolution.

Renaissance to early modern Europe offers an important parallel, because–as noted by a thousand and one cultural critics of the last couple of decades–of the technological shift to a new means of communication–print–and the threat that anyone can write, publish, and disseminate anything. Freedom of thought and expression confront orthodox control, centralized authority and authorization. What happened next? Religious reformation, counter-reformation, wars of religion, massive development and strengthening of the nation-state, and a new formalisation of absolutism and intolerance.

History, damn it, is vital: case-studies providing analogies; pit-falls to avoid; lessons to be learned; overshadowed–haunted–by the spectre of historiography: rewriting, memory/remembrance/commemoration/false memory; revisionism; and false relativism.

Sometimes the margins and marginalized endure. I’m not one to advocate martyrdom. Keener on survival against the odds, myself; and a multi-angle attack that includes reform from inside, which in turn can be the most valuable of subversive stratagems.

But but but: this here blog est alter dicat moriae encomium. Herewith another reason why, in the shape of a most esteemed and admirable martyr for truth and conscience.

I ask you: Could this movie win six Oscars® today?

Q: WHY?
A: BECAUSE…

Why do trolls troll? Fuck knows. Well, OK, because they’re some combination of frustrated, angry, fucked-up, evil. Trolling’s a broad-spectrum thing, though; there is some of what I’d call “good trolling,” inc. some “trolling for the lulz.”

Why are people nasty when they could be nice? Again: fuck knows. I don’t. Stupidity, short attention-span, a need for quick highs and quick fixes, an illusory, short-lived bit of fun?

But: There’s been a lot of research recently in psych and applied philosophy on happiness: add that to everything and everyone, from Epicurus and co. onwards, pointing to happiness being good and being good for you, and being good making you happy–the ultimate Virtuous Circle.

What got me into writing all this guff, hot air, stuff and nonsense about trolling: well, personal experience aside–being trolled, being bashed–part of my day-job involves work-place bullying and managing and manipulating it (like most of the workforce), and (heaven help us all) preliminary counselling prior to referring people to actual professional specialists. (This all usually involves, suprisingly enough, chocolate.)

oOo

I’m also writing this because trolls are becoming more prevalent, more vicious, more disconnected from the real-world implications and consequences of their actions. On a positive note: it’s theoretically and academically interesting: for speech-act theory, agency, subjectivity, fictionality, and so on.

But trolls are scary and–even on what would seem like the world’s least offensive and most trivial and meaningless discussion-boards, on MakeupAlley–they’re scaring people. 

That is BAD.

And it gets me UPSET AND ANGRY.

***CAVEAT***

I should add a note of warning here. I’m willing to stick my own neck out and risk further cyber-bullying over trolling–in this case, because it’s not just trolling; it’s rather more serious, by someone who is rather more serious about it. Track my IP address if you will–I have more than one device, and because I’m not a moron I don’t use my workplace one (or work-time) for troll-stalking, this kind of blogging, or any other non-work-related activities.

But: I do not advocate and would not encourage troll-stalking.

If in doubt, ignore trolls or anything that looks like them. They are dangerous. Some, as in the main case here, may be ill or worse. Be very careful.

And be careful online: trolling is on the rise, it’s evolving and becoming ever more varied, do take care out there. Don’t post any more information than you absolutely have to, unless you know and trust the other person or people. On a discussion-board or forum, remember that it’s public. Opinions, racial origins, sexual orientation, beliefs: within whatever your comfort zone might be. On a lot of this, I’m either happy to be up-front or I just don’t give a shit. On some things, I’m not posting any further information. Full stop.

Be very wary about falling into TMI: information about your life, your job, your education, your upbringing, and pictures of yourself: these are the big ones to watch out for. They’re easy to reveal–and easy for other people to get out of you: either flattering you or goading you. Be on your guard. Got a doctorate from Oxford, working in a high-powered finance and analysis job for a multinational, speak fifteen languages, got several houses and a yacht, a bunch of perfect kids, the perfect SO, founder and head of a bunch of charities, have a great wardrobe, show impeccable taste, go to avant-premières and sneak previews, and have skin that looks photoshopped without having to do anything to it beyond soap, water, basic cream, and sunscreen? Don’t boast. Don’t be tempted even to mention it: any mention can be construed as showing off. And it’s not hard to research and track people.

Besides, it’s always more flattering, polite, and plain old nice to assume everyone’s on the same level, anyway.

That having been said: I would advocate SOLIDARITY. Stand firm against trolls. Support and console victims of abuse. As with other cases of abusive behaviour in the past: there are many ways of taking a stand against it. Not all involve direct action, or violence. This is about setting examples, models for people new to the game, welcoming incomers to an anarchic community. It’s a fragile society: and much harder to live in, and keep liveable, and indeed to sustain at all, precisely because it’s anarchic. It’s tough, but it’s vital to keep things from being about ganging up; or conquering and controlling territory; or generational fights, the rebellion of Angry Young Men (and others) against crumbly oldsters, and the oldsters clamping down oppressively.

Many things I go on about may seem old-fashioned, but they’re not: or rather, no more old-fashioned than their opposite numbers of barbarism and thuggery–which might at first sight seem more radical, racy, and modern simply because they’re more dynamic, active, and vigorous. As contrasted with stable, stolid stuff, that seems–stuffy: politeness, respect, mutual aid, care, compassion, decency, basic common humanity. 

SOS Racisme: I still have that badge from the original marches. Showing my age and how far back my dreadful leftyness goes…

Another trigger / inspiration for trollography: a couple of bits of recent correspondence. Anonymised, as per usual. The first is with a newbie (with whom I’ve had further conversation; hopefully this will all be to the good):

L: […] tiny MUA crash course. Who is the troll-in-chief by the way?

G: […] Trolls:
café: loads–some I’d classify as “good trolls” though, out for the lulz, satirical commentators, comedians, fulfilling a vital socio-political function.

skin care board:
[the regular and attentive reader can guess this one]

It’s possible, to be fair, that she’s been in need of that break–and may also have been wound up about it–so she might be more chilled out and nice when she gets back. Hoping for her as much as for MUA, I get a sense there’s more deeply, pathologically wrong than just being mean. Also, watch out because she’s moody–will sometimes be nice, and sometimes it’s genuine–manipulative–forming gangs and blocks–deceitful–and smart.

I tend to give her the benefit of the doubt and leave her be as much as possible: she IS actually right on some things–I mean factually and argumentatively–and one should, I think, always be willing to treat each statement separately on its own merits, rather than presuming to judge the whole person. Whom I don’t know anyway.

She has a couple of allies / buddies; mainly cos they like the same products.

Green and some other boards: [two regulars–easily guessable, again]. Both are agents provocateurs. For the former: sometimes for good, especially on green board, which sometimes gets a bit full of (organic, hand-crafted) shit. Also involved in serious harrassment and bullying. The latter may have previously been “Elmiragulch.”

Green board’s funny, though: like café, a lot of everyday life stuff, ethics, politics, etc. isn’t technically off topic, but actually an integral part of it–unlike skincare, makeup, hair, fragrance. Green’s ended up harbouring a lot of ethical refugees from other boards… and people like me who stick on two.

Green trolling is thus slightly different. The skincare version is fairly simple. Seriously, it’s not that bad. I’ll be celebrating the 20th anniversary of meeting my first ever internet troll, in about November. That was one almighty messy loss of virginity…

Context for the next bit: I responded to a known troll, thinking to attempt Truth And Reconciliation. This caused some consternation amongst troll-watchers. The experiment failed, in that bashing on BB ensued anyway; just the usual, “gingerama” (sic.) being one of the nominees on “poll time: Which SCB hag do you want deleted into oblivion?” Meh.

Here’s my response to one correspondent–note change in tack towards being more careful, yes, even flat-footed barging-around clumsy clutzy silly naïve old me:

I thought I’d try the tack of seeing if rewarding good behaviour worked–in case the main thing that’s wrong is that s/he’s lonely and insecure, and this is a cry for help.

We’ve all seen what happens when bad behaviour is punished. I do think, and agree with others on this, that silence really is the best policy.

But: I’m not convinced that sympathy is in order; and as I’m not a shrink, let alone *her* shrink/caseworker, I’m not competent to judge what the best approach would be. I do think that, whatever else is going on there, she’s sick. In more ways than one. On advice from you and others, will be treating as poisonous bitch, keeping distance, and avoiding as far as poss. […]

And on reflection: behaving like toddler having tantrum = treat like toddler. Attention-seeking = ditto: ignore.

I do think she’s illl, but I also know that most MUAers (me included) aren’t professionally competent to deal with that. Thinking: what do I do with nutjobs [at work]? Sure, I give them the benefit of the doubt and let them explain themselves. I sit them down [and] get them to talk. But that’s an attempt to ascertain the extent of their nutjobbery. Then I get them to leave–in the nicest way possible, after feeding them chocolate, etc.–and refer them to [other] services.

Will write up interrim report but otherwise disengage.

Lesson learned: do not engage with nutters.

Am now passing that lesson on to others. Peeps? Careful out there.

Also, do not be scared or too proud to change your own behaviour, tactics, approaches. I’m now convinced that one should not deal with nutters on MUA boards, at all.

Bitching about them here on this blog, or in personal message exchanges, or on BB or anywhere else–cool.

But not MUA. Keep MUA clean, pure, look after it for the people who have no idea what else is going on, look after and protect them (and their sweetness and innocence). If the mods won’t or can’t do this, then it’s the responsibility of “more senior” (*cough*) i.e. more experienced, wiser MUAers. We have a duty of care. It’s not the same as “power” or “control.” It’s not for ego-trips and ego-massage.

THIS IS ANARCHA-FEMINISM. GYNOCRACY IN ACTION, GALS!!!

A large part of it is setting a good example: a counter-example to juvenile trolling and bitching and bashing: one of adult dignity, respect, civilization, heck maybe even a bit of sophistication and chic.

I remember this, too…

Here’s some of an exchange with someone else, earlier:

Xena, Warrior Princess: I think if we totally ignore that horrible [usual suspect], she/he/it will go away (http://www.makeupalley.com/m_130151390). Trolls thrive off attention. I noticed she posted far less when the regulars ignored her. She’s so awful, and what she did [earlier] was despicable [posting images incident–more on that next week]. I really think the best approach is zero interaction. Just my humble opinion of course.

Ginger: It’s OK, all is NOT forgiven, and she’s provided interesting material for blog posts. More coming up. And, indeed, food for thought of the actual work-related variety. Who’d have thought trolls could be so useful and productive…

X: [OK] Keep me posted on the experiment […] Yeah, all should not be forgiven. Just because it’s the internet, I don’t understand the license people see to act with calculated cruelty to complete strangers who have done them no harm. I also wonder who has the time and interest to sit around all day doing that. It bespeaks mental illness; or a pure and simple malignant, evil personality.

G: Totally. Seen her cafe activity btw? This is someone who has insecurity and control issues. Wants and needs attention. IME, I don’t actully know her, etc.

Plan:
1. give her no troll-fodder
2. reward good behaviour, but ignore bad: so as to show fairness (thus giving no troll-food).
3. *hope* this means she gets used to niceness, and nice normal interactions, and adjusts behaviour accordingly. Hoping she’s sufficiently normal to respond to niceness by liking it and wanting more of it. Rather than liking excuse to be mean more. I don’t know quite how sick she is, though…
4. also *hope* that if she’s busy being nice and responding to niceness, this leaves her less time and energy to be bashing people on BB…
5. if (or: when… I’m not that idealistic and optimistic) any bashing occurs, come down like tonne of bricks.
6. Can only do on *this* board: if it occurs elsewhere, it’ll have to be a case of taking screenshot of BB and posting link to image in a comment (on-topic, of course) re. two-facedness + warning to others.
7. it’s OK, she remains on trollwatch.

X: I see your point, but I’ve been familiar with her troll activity for over a year on cafe. A lot of it before was “off color” Jewish jokes (her SN is from a holocaust film), and she is actually one reason why I don’t involve myself in any of the lighter/harmless discussions on cafe ever (a random chat board is not inherently wrong/bad, but this one seems to be because of people like her). I don’t mind at all what you choose to do in your interactions with her, but it is my thought that her internet persona is well developed and “rewarding” her good/neutral behavior won’t change her long-term goals on the internet as I believe she uses it as an outlet for her personal frustrations and personality problems. This from having watched this bizarre character for over a year on cafe.

G: I see your point too. […]
I do wonder–those flurries of activity; the mix of buddies who are distinct and ones who are indisinguishable echoes, might / might as well be other personae. Multiple personalities, disjunct with reality, and with normal human behaviour and rules of conduct. There may be a _reason_ she’s living at home with her parents at her age.

But: on advice from you and others, will be [treating as] poisonous bitch, [keeping at arm’s length, and avoiding] as far as poss.

X: those others that pop on with her = sock puppets as well. Also, she slipped up once and referred to herself as much older (not young, unemployed, living with her parents and swimming in CDLM).

G: sock puppets indeed…
Will basically avoid. Therapy and rehab are the job of an independent paid professional. Also, the irony would be unliveable, for an atheist of Jewish extraction to appear to be turning the other cheek, and doing a “blessed be the peacemakers.”
Don’t get me wrong: doing these things = good. It’s the irony I’d struggle with. I’d never be able to take myself seriously any more, ever again. And then where would we all be?

X: Lol, well exactly […] too repugnant too even deal with, let alone try and rehabilitate. So I think we’re basically on the same page.

[…] discussions about anti-social behavior on the internet. People really are writing dissertations on it it, but the bottom line is that we are in an age in which now more than ever people can act without accountability. They can act out their basest desires/fantasies and no one will be the wiser. The digital age has brought a higher degree of cruelty and general callousness/crassness into the realm of what is considered normal. It makes me think of the much-discussed gay freshman throwing himself off the GW bridge after his roommate schemed to secretly film and broadcast a homosexual act via a concealed webcam.

But it happens all the time in various forms, this digital cruelty. Some trolls actually term themselves with pride as “grievers.” They form internet communities: digitally stalking/harassing families who have lost a loved one to accident, suicide or other terrible misfortune. No doubt people with horrid inclinations existed like this before the internet, but there was hardly the opportunity to act on them. I think most serious trolls probably function normally in non-virtual reality. However, opportunity+lack of accountability=anti-social behavior for [some people].

A topic that has interested me for a while from an academic perspective rather than just a practical annoyance on MUA. […] the question of evil. Why people choose to act in a morally deplorable fashion with little social or material gain simply because they can get away with it vs. being kind and good. That in a nutshell is the question of evil. And I am not sure turning the other cheek [etc.] is quite the answer to this over-all phenomenon at all. I think there needs to be more legal recourse for victims of internet stalking and harassment (not talking about MUA per se, but more serious cases, such as mentioned above). ITA.

  • Next posts: drawn from bits and bobs in my MUA correspondence. See also: update to MUA notepad: on MUA rules
  • The next post: is on defining terms.
  • Other Gingerrama posts up till now that feature trolling and counter-trollism: here.

Image at top: Cafe Press.

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