‘Internet Trolls’ and the gatekeepers

Louise Mensch’s harassment by Frank Zimmerman has inspired a plethora of commentary on ‘internet trolls’, most of it wholeheartedly jumping on board the bandwagon which has been trundling with ever increasing velocity for the past year or so. This bandwagon conflates any and all disagreement/abuse/opposition to or criticism of someone/something online under the title of ‘troll’. It should seem obvious to any sensible person that Zimmerman’s campaign, which apparently originated with online insults but led to a sustained period of threats including phone calls to her home, is not remotely comparable to the traditional idea of an ‘internet troll’. As a few writers have pointed out today, this term was previously widely used to refer to subpar shit-stirrers who love to wind people up. No more, no less. Harassment is harassment and abuse is abuse – labelling them with a term which has been more associated with petty (but often witty) arguments on internet forums lessens their gravity.

Now, these distinctions seem quite clear to me. Reading the pieces today, however, it’s obvious that the wider (almost incoherent) use of ‘troll’ is the one which is taking hold in the media and so, by extension, in wider usage (particularly in readers not particularly well-versed in the online world). This perhaps doesn’t seem like a big deal – who cares what troublemakers are called, right? However I think this raises wider issues about the media. Two excerpts from two different columns about ‘trolls’ struck me today. The first was from Zoe Williams’ piece in The Guardian:

Of course it’s possible to troll at a much less violent level, simply by stalking through internet communities where people might be expected to think in a particular way, and saying things that will wind them up. If you would like to try this sort of trolling to see what the appeal is, I suggest you go on to the Comment is Free section of the Guardian’s website and post something like, “People shouldn’t have kids if they can’t afford to pay for them. End of.” Or: “men like skinny women, which is why you won’t be able to find me a banker with a fat wife. WILL YOU?” Or: “Men like sex. Women like cuddles. GET OVER IT.” Or: “Nobody even knows what’s in a greenhouse gas. How can I take ‘climate change’ seriously when nobody knows anything about it?” Amusingly, I am getting quite wound up by these remarks, even though it was me who made them.

I’ve quoted this paragraph at length as I find it quite illuminating. I’m sure Zoe is referring to people who deliberately try and cause arguments and will say whatever is most likely to cause this in any given context.  However in choosing to illustrate this with stereotypically ‘reactionary right-wing’ comments on The Guardian, Zoe inadvertently highlights one of the major problems with the current usage of ‘troll’ – namely, that it is increasingly used to refer to anyone who challenges what is seen as a consensus view, especially if they do so in an inarticulate way. Read the first sentence again. If you were to visit The Guardian’s website, read an article which you think is terrible and then see 100 comments underneath praising it, it’s fair to assume that posting a critical comment would ‘wind them up’. Yet considering something and coming to a different conclusion from others is not ‘trolling’ in any sense. Unfortunately, this is one way in which the term is increasingly being used – as an instant claim to the higher ground and attempt to shut down debate. Interestingly, Zoe later explicitly says that trolls are fearful of putting forward an argument which is “more robust or far-reaching” than ‘first principles’, putting the onus on those who think differently to carefully articulate their thoughts. There is no room here for the responsibility of the reader to consider different viewpoints and especially pay attention to those who perhaps cannot express themselves as articulately as they would like. Working on differences is a two-way process and increasingly the urge for those with certain commonly held views is to instantly label those who disagree as ‘trolls’ and move on. No-one learns from this and the dismissal is as damaging and unproductive as a true ‘troll’ who really is just there to wind up.

The second excerpt builds on this. It’s from Laurie Penny’s column in The Independent:

Ten years ago, politicians, journalists and celebrities might have anticipated the occasional angry letter from a reader, sometimes even a scary letter. Now anyone with a public platform can expect to face constant harassment in comment threads, via email and on Twitter, especially if they’re a woman or a member of an ethnic minority.

For me, this goes to the absolute crux of what I’m talking about. Throughout the column, Laurie paints ‘trolls’ as hateful, bigoted figures who harass minorities (I’m not going into the ‘straight white men harass others, especially women’ narrative here, though clearly it’s hugely problematic). In this paragraph, however, she goes further and thinks wistfully of a time when writers could only expect ‘the occasional angry letter’. Aside from again conflating Zimmerman’s stalking with something infinitely less sinister, Laurie is inadvertently pining for a time when ‘politicians, journalists and celebrities’ were ‘protected’ from the views of the public; when they could enjoy their positions of privilege without challenge. I think this is hugely important, as it is very much ‘politicians, journalists and celebrities’ who have led the charge of labelling even relatively mild criticism as ‘trolling’. The landscape is changing and they are scrambling to protect their positions.

Much has been written in the past 10 years about how the internet has altered the music industry. Record labels, long seen as the gatekeepers to success in the music industry, have been ravaged by illegal downloads. However there are undeniable opportunities in this, for those who understand the changed (and changing) landscape. It is more possible than ever for an artist to control their own work and careers: the internet offers many ways of reaching an audience while making it much more difficult to have a traditional career as a ‘star’ in the music industry. Generally, record labels have been slow to respond to this and have sought to protect their positions, initially with lawsuits, increasingly with attempts at legislation, half-heartedly with co-operation for new models such as Spotify.

I think there are many analogies to be drawn with the media here. Traditionally, newspapers and the wider media have acted as gatekeepers to opinion and ‘success’ in that industry. Politicians, celebrities and columnists have had a hugely privileged position in holding access to those platforms (and this isn’t to ignore the hard work that many have put it to obtain that access). Again, however, the internet has changed everything. It has never been easier to put your work out there, never been easier to share your thoughts and opinions. The readership of traditional newspapers is in terminal decline. The ‘troll’ phenomenon of the past year, then, strikes me as largely a response to this. The mindset that holds sway is still one which values traditional media over the public – the temptation, then, is to dismiss the latter as forcefully intruding on the territory of the former. Some have commented that Louise Mensch could be labelled a ‘troll’ herself, such is her tendency to hold forcefully contrary views. The same is true of many columnists who make a living criticising politicians, television shows, celebrities – often in a rather brutal manner. Yet all of these people are lended respectability by their traditional positions in the system, despite said system having changed massively.

As with the music industry, the media is trying to adapt to the changing landscape. The Huffington Post is an obvious example, bolting the ‘new media’ work of the ‘public’ to a traditional media model where it profits those who act as gatekeepers. The Guardian’s modern fixation on ‘open journalism’ is a similar attempt to marry the two worlds. Because the mindset of the traditional media still holds sway, this notion of the troll as forceful usurper of the natural order gains hold. This has the effect of making writers want the legitimacy offered by traditional media, leading them to give their work away for free to something like the Huffington Post just as an artist will go on ‘X Factor’ in the hope that it will give them exposure and lead to a record deal. Ultimately, however, both Huffington Post and ‘X Factor’ are seeking ways to profit from the new landscape.

There have never been more opportunities to control our work and its dissemination. The conflation of threatening, criminal behaviour with criticism (carefully packaged as ‘the wrong sort’) is arguably another way for those in positions of privilege already to attempt to control this. This isn’t to say that record labels and traditional media aren’t still very important – but whereas even 15 years ago, they were the only game in town, in 2012 they are but part of the landscape. A landscape which will continue to change and, despite the moral panic over ‘trolls’, I think it will be a change for the better.

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