Let’s build ourselves an island… @TimDunlop thinks small about trolling

Oni netsuke front
The Japanese troll: the Oni (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At some point, we will reach critical mass of articles about Internet trolls written by baby boomers, containing pictures of troll dolls.

Tim Dunlop has a piece up on The Guardian‘s website about the often confusing deployment of the word ‘troll’.  Here’s the key paragraph:

The word once had quite a specialised meaning limited to a particular sort of disruptive behaviour, but it has now become a catch-all term to describe any behaviour that some journalists and editors deem inappropriate. Their responses to what they call “trolling” often seem less about combating abuse than reasserting their role as gatekeeper, to restore to themselves the right to decide who gets to speak in public and who doesn’t. It is what US academic Susan Herbst calls “the strategic use of civility”. [Source: Dunlop, T. ‘How the word “troll” has been redefined by the powerful’, The Guardian 16 August 2013]

Dunlop has — for a number of years — concentrated on the social world of communication through the lens of the media.  What is the relationship between changes to the front page of the media (in whatever form the ‘front page’ takes) and the change in the public’s way of discussing issues.  It’s due to this background that Dunlop misidentifies the (ab)use of the word ‘troll’.  This is the journalists and editors taking its cue from common discourse — not the other way around.

The use of the word ‘troll’ in popular discussions has become increasingly problematic.  The Wikipedia entry on the issue is an incoherent, babbletastic mess of an entry.

As noted in an OS News article titled “Why People Troll and How to Stop Them” (January 25, 2012), “The traditional definition of trolling includes intent. That is, trolls purposely disrupt forums. This definition is too narrow. Whether someone intends to disrupt a thread or not, the results are the same if they do.[3][4] Others have addressed the same issue, e.g., Claire Hardaker, in her Ph.D. thesis[4] “Trolling in asynchronous computer-mediated communication: From user discussions to academic definitions”,[9] and Dr. Phil. Popular recognition of the existence (and prevalence) of non-deliberate, “accidental trolls”, has been documented widely, in sources as diverse as the Urban Dictionary,[10] Nicole Sullivan’s keynote speech at the 2012 Fluent Conference, titled “Don’t Feed the Trolls”[11] Gizmodo,[12] online opinions on the subject written by Silicon Valley executives[13] and comics.[14]  [Source: ‘Troll (Internet)’, Wikipedia accessed 16 August 2013]

I’m not even sure if that’s English.

It is easy to understand the concept of somebody deliberately disrupting a conversation.  The puzzle is identifying trolls.  We tend to think of a troll as a person who deliberately disrupts a conversation for the purpose of getting a reaction.  Thus, we have to divine the mental state of the person at the other end of the keyboard from the words and images that they’ve posted.

But in the above mish-mash of words from Wikipedia, there’s a bit of an argument about whether intent should be part of the identifying criteria.  The general thrust of the article is that being disruptive in any way is sufficient to warrant the ‘troll’ label.

This is what points the way to a decent understanding of why the label ‘troll’ has become problematic.  If I agree that the Earth is flat and my friends all agree that the Earth is flat, then the person who suggests that the Earth is a globe is clearly a troll.  By labelling them a troll, I don’t have to entertain the possibility that I am incorrect or that my views are misguided.

The Internet is mostly about confirming your biases.  I was the only kid in my regional high school to study Latin.  Each night, I could jump online to chat with other Latin students around the world.  In a sense, I wasn’t stuck in regional Victoria — I was connected with like-minded people who had a shared interest.  Although this story makes us feel warm and fuzzy about the Internet, the story would have been similarly true if I were an extreme anti-Semite.  Anti-Semites, racists, libertarians, misogynists, and all kinds of other social nasties use the Internet to find like-minded people to confirm to each other that they’re not alone.  If I’m so bad, why are there so many people who think just like me?  We are either the exceptional few who really know what’s going on or we are the silent majority who is excluded by the liberal/conservative media.

The language of the Internet is not to challenge your prejudices.  It’s to protect them.  It is a massive toolkit to shut down disagreement.

Once we have found communities which, by and large, agree with us and confirm our biases, we use language to exclude dissenting views from our new communities.  Thus, the person who uses well-reasoned arguments against the fringe dwellers in the Men’s Rights Activist forum is a troll.  If you note that MRA is inherently misogynist, you’re using ‘ad hominem’ arguments.  If you cite reasons why MRA nutbags are crazy, you’re making an appeal to authority.

And Jove help you if you dare suggest that anything is remotely similar to something which happened in Europe during the 1920s and ’30s…

We even use handy slogans — ‘Don’t feed the trolls!’ — and pictures of troll dolls to marginalise dissent further.  People who disagree aren’t serious; they’re just childish and cute.

Ultimately, we wish to believe that our opinions are rational, sensible, and logical.  To protect this self image, we refuse to believe that somebody could disagree with us while being rational, sensible, and logical.  If it should happen that we might be incorrect about something, we demand that our errors be pointed out to us in a way which allows us to preserve that self image.

A failure to agree with me completely or a failure to protect my fragile self image will result in me calling you a troll; I don’t feed trolls.

When editors and journalists deploy the word ‘troll’ in the way identified by Dunlop, they are not distorting its ordinary meaning.  Far from it: they are using the word in its regular, everyday, ordinary way.  Yes, the symptoms end up being the same — the journalists and editors use the word to protect their grasp of social power — but a deeper understanding gives us some clues to how to deal with the issue: we need to cultivate a community in which people can disagree with each other productively beyond the platitudinous ‘agree to disagree’.

The cure?  Better opinion writers.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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