The history of trolls, trolling, hacktivism and modern day politics.
You will struggle to leave a comment anywhere on the internet nowadays without someone commenting on it. Roughly half the world’s population have access to the internet, this means that for every video posted there is either a; labour, conservative, liberal, republican, democrat, anti-democracy, lunatic, psycho, religious person, atheist, gun lover, closet racists, outright racist, xenophobe, snowflake, ‘make America great again’ or your sweet old nan who doesn’t understand what a comment thread is – all of whom have their say.
The internet gives the world a platform to voice their opinion, regardless of what that opinion is. Anyone who disagrees with anyone can be scrutinised and debated (I use that term loosely) within the comments sections. We have all experienced long threads from all the above – those who are adamant that their opinion is correct and yours is wrong. They will stop at nothing to get that point across, even if that means spending hours out of their day to argue it. As a spectator, these arguments can either be comedy gold or they can show exactly how fucked humanity really is.
Society has coined a name for the people who like to add petrol to the fire; they are known as the internet troll. The troll will enter a conversation knowing full well what they say will cause a response of some sort, – often offense – it is used to lure people into an argument and make whoever is opinionated/passionate enough to fall for the bait look overly stressed and wildly out of control in front of millions of people. All this plays off in front of any other viewers of the thread with typically two types of reactions. Firstly, there are those who can see the familiar signs that a troll is at work and either find it funny or ignore it. Then there are those who believe the troll is being deadly serious, and can’t wait to voice their opinion, which in turn leads them down the same path as the original person who took the bait.
Liken it to the school playground – you think the popular kid is interested in what you’re saying so you get really passionate about your subject, but then you catch him making faces at you when you’re not looking – rapturous applause from the rest of the school lets you know you’ve been right royally fooled – trolled. This is essentially what trolls do, they cast a line with some juicy bait on it and see who nibbles, arguably done for comedic effect.
Trolling is not a new phenomenon. You could argue that comedians are trolls: they set up scenarios to get you to think the worst or over commit, only to reign it back in with the direction being changed upon delivery of the punch line. Sacha Baron Cohen is often considered one of the world’s best trolls; if you have ever seen his characters: Bruno, Borat, or Ali G then you will be familiar with his ability to lead people down a path, resulting in them saying their true (mostly outrageous and sometimes terrifying) feelings on extreme subjects. Remember the frat boys in Borat who admitted they wished they still had slaves? This is a perfect example of the purpose of a troll: to make the unknowing target slip up and show their true colours, whilst the troll acts interested in your subject.
What we know of the internet troll now actually came from the early 90’s, although they weren’t called trolls back then. Discussions and arguments were called ‘flames’ and the people who partook in the discussions were called ‘flamers’. From Big Dummy’s Guide to the Internet: “A flame is a particularly nasty, personal attack on somebody for something he or she has written.”
Big Dummy’s Guide gives us some excellent examples of how it all came about. Originally it came from Usenet, which was a platform where users could discuss different IT issues back in the days when not many people knew what a computer was – only the hardcore early ‘techies’. They gave names to different types of people, such as net.weenies, net.god, net.geek lurkers, wizards, names still synonymous with what you might class the techies of today. The ones we are most interested in here are net.weenies, as they closely resemble the modern day troll.
Net.weenies, according to Big Dummy’s Guide, are “the kinds of people who enjoy insulting others, the kind of people who post nasty messages in a sewing newsgroup just for the hell of it”
Back then, they pretty much did what we are used to today. However, there was barely anyone to take notice of it. The early troll proves that as soon as you put someone behind a screen away from physicality, their digital ‘cojones’ grow and their regard for consequence shrinks. As the internet grew and the users went into the millions, new discussion sites came into play; this, in turn, spawned a website that has arguably helped shape the internet as we know it today, that website is of course 4chan.
4chan is a masterpiece of knowledge sharing; it has everything from quick wit, interesting articles and solutions to problem-solving / genius ideas right through to illegal content and the darkest realms of the internet. Any question or desire you had – no matter how grotesque – users could go on 4chan with an easily changeable username – or more commonly, anonymous – and ask the world.
If you don’t know of 4chan, it is well worth a visit, even just to see a piece of history, however, unlike YouTube, where you can go down a wormhole for hours and find yourself looking at ‘how they cut the deadly puffer fish in Japan” at 3 am and come out relatively unscathed, 4chan is slightly different. If you were to go through a 4chan wormhole, there’s a strong possibility you would want to burn your eyes out and go and hug some puppies to bring you back to what you know is safe. It is not for the faint-hearted.
Like what you’re reading? Leave us your email and we’ll send our best content straight to your inbox.
Most importantly, 4chan is also the birthplace of the meme, a classic tool in the trolls arsenal. In the early days users of 4chan would describe how it was a network of people who would discuss anything and everything; there are many things that have appeared on 4chan that are horrendous enough to justify an entire article in itself, but for the purpose of this article, a summary will suffice. Millions of users belong to a completely anonymous network were whatever they say is allowed without repercussion. This was the birthplace of the mindset that ‘online’ is different to ‘person’. When users began to explore the realms of what they could get away with, this led to an addiction to push the boundaries, and seek reactions that would achieve maximum chaos. Let’s use the example of the sewing club discussed earlier;
Consider the following: on the video of a sewing club, a troll could say:
“Well the way she is doing that seam on those trousers is completely wrong, that won’t last more than a couple of months, who taught her, a blind person?”
This, of course, would be tame to what we are used to, but put that on a video of a professional seamstress and I guarantee there would be a bite in defence;
“Excuse me but what do you mean that seam won’t last, that seam is crossed and extremely sturdy, it will last for years, I was taught by my mother, how dare you call her blind!”
And so it begins, a different seamstress who would have been taught a different technique might now come in with their expertise;
“Well actually if you were doing it for a pair of trousers, I would recommend a different stitch altogether, your way will actually damage the shape. To be honest, the way you’re stitching does seem like you might be blind.”
And so on…
The troll, in this case, may not have a clue about sewing, seams, or what’s good or not, but they have now set up a ‘flame’ which could last for weeks, between people who wouldn’t normally argue or get irate about such things. It is just that simple. No one knows who the troll is, and even if they found out, it is just a username change away from being anonymous again.
Now, imagine having that anonymity but leaving comments on political campaign videos such as those for the Brexit ‘leave campaign’, side, where we were told there are too many immigrants in the UK. The Troll may not even care about Brexit, they probably don’t even live in England, they may even be a 14-year-old kid, but the troll could, with complete anonymity say;
“There are too many refugees coming into our country, why don’t they go back to their own land we have no room for them here!”
… or something similar.
This may in turn be met with a flourish of responses, some in agreement, some in defiance, some in what seems like physical pain that the statement was even made, others in sheer glee that ‘someone finally said it’. This is the trolls dream, how many people can I get to respond to this thread. Within the discussion communities, it’s a status if they have reactions in the hundreds or thousands then that is deemed a success. To a troll it is a game, to the people commenting it is life.
Recently it has even emerged that the Brexit and the Trump campaign were both allegedly subject to Russian interference, and that they were responsible for some of the trolling comments associated with the online campaigns of both events. If you ever viewed some of the comments on either campaign you were likely to see comments left by people who had no profile picture and under 100 ‘friends’ from time to time – this was likely a troll. This trolling reached millions of people and ignited a passion to side with what the troll was saying. In this case, this meant leaning to the side that met with Russia’s best interest. We now know that these were extreme views which led to normally rational people into being far more agitated and irrational than perhaps they would have been if they hadn’t of been lured in by an internet troll.
The overall and understandable frustration with this type of anonymity is that there is no one accountable for their actions, people with less understanding of the subject may ask for there to be complete transparency when leaving comments so that this situation can be avoided. There is as always another side. The anonymity people have on websites such as 4chan actually led to the founding of hacktivist group Anonymous; according to Bustle, the group first met in the online bulletin board. Overall, Anonymous has done some pretty good work for the world, they have taken down ISIS Twitter pages, debunked false claims from government officials, took down a white supremacist group, and helped expose and put child porn makers out of business. These coordinated efforts were possible because they have complete an utter anonymity. It is the classic good versus evil.
In the documentary We Are Legion, available to stream on Netflix, it is suggested that many members of Anonymous were once trolls themselves. Even now they are technically trolling people; when they made all of ISIS’ Twitter page into gay porn and gay pride messages. Obviously ISIS’ lost their shit and threatened Anonymous with beheading – roughly the equivalent of a blind man trying to single out a person in a football stadium. Filling the completely barbaric and much hated ISIS’ Twitter feeds with gay porn didn’t provoke an uproar when that story was released from anyone in the western world, there were no campaigns saying that it was cyberbullying and we shouldn’t troll them because it wasn’t nice. This conflict of interests makes it difficult to find a line to draw when it goes ‘too far’ as you can’t say you’re happy with free speech when it doesn’t affect you but then get annoyed when it does.
Sometimes trolling is absolutely hilarious. When we agree with the person trolling or creating the flame and see someone with different opinions to our own get so worked up over it, this can often be comical; you can imagine their faces pulsating in pure anger with your view and your opinion. Brexit is a fine example of this. ‘Leavers’ take great joy in berating ‘Remainers’ when they try and argue that Brexit hasn’t exactly gone to plan yet. Here enters the troll who will create a flame, the comments are plentiful and the ‘Leavers’ team up together telling the ‘Remainers’ that ‘they lost’ and to ‘get over it’. No resistance would come from the Leavers camp for the mockery of the ‘Remainers’, no one would step in and argue that this was cyberbullying and they should all get along. If there was a troll that trolled ‘Remainers’ about them losing or a meme depicting their loss then the ‘Leavers’ would find it hilarious and likely share the picture/post on their Facebook. It would be classed as an online debate about politics. However, anyone who has ever looked at a comments section between the two groups will know that within minutes the comments section is filled (from both sides) with racist, xenophobic, homophobic, aggressive and unnecessary remarks that most of the time has nothing to do with the original post. This obviously takes the funny side out of the originally funny reactions people had for opposing views, but the point at which it becomes unfunny to you may be long before or long after anyone else; this is where the problems lie. There is no unanimous decision where everyone will collectively say ‘enough is enough’ because everyone’s bar is set at different heights. Much like a school bully, trolls rarely know their limit, which is why they will push everything to see how far they can go, often resulting in it going far too far.
As much as it can be funny to sit on the fence and see two wildly conflicting groups of people tear apart their digital counterparts whilst exposing a seriously questionable personal morality, perhaps not surprisingly there are many times it goes too far.
In 2012, The Daily Mail reported a case in the USA where trolls ridiculed and mocked a 16-year-old girl on ask.fm, a website which happens to allow its users to ask anyone a question anonymously. Jessica Laney was taunted as a ‘slut’ and ‘fat’ and asked ‘can you kill yourself already?’ Even at 46 years old, being told that would royally fuck you up, at 16 obviously it led to the worst possible outcome. This isn’t a unique case; there are many cases where trolling leads to people taking their own life and it comes from people either acting anonymously and therefore facing little or no consequences. Or it is done via social media, and although some do face repercussions, it is nowhere near the level you would hope for because the laws around it are still unclear. The question will always remain the same, ‘would they have been so extreme and cold-hearted if they were there in person?’ – with the world being as fucked up as it is, unfortunately, the answer to that might be yes for a few people, but not in the same numbers as you find online.
With the internet how it is and the number of users growing by the day, it is hard to imagine a world where trolls cease to have an impact on the world. People will argue it is the ill-informed, illiterate keyboard warriors who troll and they need to be educated or stopped but this just isn’t the case. There are two reasons that trolling is here to stay, first; People love their own opinion, even out with your mates you will all argue on what you believe in, if anyone who wasn’t your friend were to question what you said then for a small number of people it might get heated and result in violence etc, this is human nature. Put that situation behind a computer screen though when you don’t have the immediate danger of a potential fist flying at your face – because you called someone’s girlfriend a ‘slut’ or being arrested because you’ve called someone a racial slur – and that’s what you see today, many more people leaving comments that most would never say to someone else if they were actually standing in front of them.
If world governments are successfully trolling the public to gain support and incite fear and hatred in order to succeed in campaigns and pass laws, then there really isn’t much hope in the ‘troll’ going away. The power of ‘troll’ under governments and world leaders will become like any other weapon, deadly and uncontrollable. It is the perfect weapon for them in many ways; a weapon where they let their people tear each other apart with the majority eventually supporting them because of the manipulation they had on their minds due to the hate they were exposed to via trolling, with no bloodshed or anyone coming back to point the blame at them.
Simeon is a contributing writer at No Majesty.