Cases of internet trolling, and our responses to them, are hard to categorise because they are incredibly varied in how damaging their effects are. On the one hand, if you take to Facebook to gush about how ketchup is your favourite condiment only for someone to viciously proclaim that they prefer mustard, then maybe a reaction isn’t warranted. On the other hand, we currently live in a world where a sizeable racist and misogynist movement continually advocates violence and discrimination, primarily through memes and en masse trolling.
This movement is known as the alt-right: one of the most outspoken, aggressive, and unfortunately popular online movements right now. It’s often argued that we shouldn’t take trolling too seriously — that it’s generally just a case of memes and stupidity. However, once we write trolls off because our sensibilities are not in line with theirs — or because we intellectualise ourselves to such an extent that the trolls “aren’t worth worrying about” — we start to run risks. That is, we come close to enabling a series of vicious ideologies, giving freedom to hatred that distorts its own serious messages to avoid strict condemnation.
This is done by using a smokescreen of cartoon pictures and over-the-top hate-posting to distract from the socio-political subtext. And this is not something we should allow to happen. The level and frequency of our online connection has put us in a situation where avoiding putting effort into combating distorted, hateful online content is no longer acceptable.
Alt-right origins in meme culture
“Groups like the alt-right get so much attention because they act with outrageous impunity.”
Andrew Anglin is a prime example of the results of facilitating hateful trolling. Andrew Anglin, a highly active anti-Semite and white supremacist, advocates for the alt-right and its mission from his website, The Daily Stormer. In one of his posts, “A Normie’s Guide to the Alt-Right”, Anglin admits that the alt-right movement has its origins in the “intellectual meme and trolling culture” that was to be found on 4chan in the 2000s.
Aggressive online movements and ideologies find time to grow from nothing, specifically in comedic, non-serious realms of the internet, because nobody thinks them worthy of engagement. This gives them space to gather traction and supporters for the kinds of things that they’re saying.
The only difference between the alt-right as a loosely organised movement and lone trolls randomly attacking your Facebook feed is numbers. The confidence that the internet gives trolls to lash out online only swells once time allows like-minded people to coalesce into a movement. Groups like the alt-right get so much attention because they act with outrageous impunity. The reason they act in this way is that time has allowed them to grow and gain form.
“If you dismiss an act of trolling…you allow the distribution of content that is not viewed seriously from your end, but that can represent an ideological truth to other groups.”
How do we react? Trolling is so hard to defeat because it defends itself on multiple fronts. If you take trolling seriously, you get called out for not being able to take a joke, your own position is demeaned and the troll’s actions are validated.
However, if you dismiss an act of trolling as nothing more than a joke, you allow the distribution of content that is not viewed seriously from your end, but that can represent an ideological truth to other groups. These practices are what allowed movements like the alt-right to spring up. They were relegated to non-mainstream parts of the internet and ignored for being just weird instead of being publicly challenged.
As a result, we now live in a system where Breitbart, a glorified online hate movement, now operates as the primary media outlet for the president of the United States.
There is in fact a problem
“A more widespread opposition to smoke-screened hatred is needed, given that there’s so many of us “plugged in” that hateful content no longer reaches just a select few.”
Taking part in a constantly open online community has its pitfalls. The internet exposes us to gratuitous amounts of beneficial content, but it’s no secret to anyone that there’s a lot of anger swimming around social media. Trolling is unfair and irritating, but it’s not illegal. You’re as likely to be arrested for trolling as you are to be arrested for yelling on the street. Even when rhetoric that could be considered hateful appears online, as long as the material is distorted in such a way that it seems like just a joke, the moderators of social media websites generally will not step in to deprive the hateful user of access to Facebook and the like.
When it comes to solo trolls only seeming to look for attention, standard practice is to ignore them. The usual exhortation is that no one “feed the trolls”, and maybe that’s applicable if someone is telling you that mustard beats ketchup. The process that needs to take place is acknowledging that there’s a problem.
As a connected society, we’ve moved past the stage of being bewildered by the internet and all the strange things it can produce. People are so frequently connected that very little shocks anyone online any more. We’re no longer scrabbling to figure out how this virtual environment works; it’s ingrained enough in our culture that people should be able to begin a process of stepping up and addressing the issues that the internet presents.
Humans undergo a multiple-step process when entering a new environment, first getting settled in it and then proceeding to change it according to their needs. Now, the environment of the web has to change. A more widespread opposition to smoke-screened hatred is needed, given that there’s so many of us “plugged in” that hateful content no longer reaches just a select few. Islamophobia, misogyny, racism — once it’s out there, it has the capacity to touch thousands. With changing conditions come changing responsibilities. We know the issue is there; we now need to acknowledge that we can have a hand in removing it.
When trolling is used as a mask for hateful ideology, a different approach is needed. Movements like the alt-right need to be called out for what they are: hateful propaganda wrapped in a comic package. There’s no use in simply getting angry, being told you can’t take a joke and portrayed as the real troll. But we should not intellectualise trolling as a form of cultural commentary. Doing that gives people like Andrew Anglin — and people like Donald Trump — the confidence to say what they say.