Internet trolls! Everyone hates them. But are they actually good for something? A new academic paper argues the worst sort of trolling illuminates harsh truths about social networking, the internet, and the mainstream media.
For her paper published in this month's issue of the online journal First Monday, "Loling at tragedy: Facebook trolls, memorial pages and resistance to grief online" University of Oregon Ph.D. student Whitney Phillips embedded herself in a loose network of Facebook trolls with names like Ruthless, Frank Bagadonuts, and Pro Fessor. Their specialty is trolling memorial pages set up to honor young people tragically killed, which Phillips calls "RIP trolling."
They post pictures of dead kids onto dead kids' pages. They post movie stills from films like Dumb and Dumber captioned with the phrase "LOL YOUR DEAD," PhotoShopped pictures of babies in meat grinders, and images of anally impaled corpses…on a page devoted to a drowned Australian boy, trolls posted pictures of the World Trade Center mid–collapse
RIP Trolling is one of the most distasteful forms of trolling, a fixture of troll hive 4chan, and has thus become one of the most publicized. After every high profile tragedy, a panic about the anonymous hordes viciously trolling the memorial pages of the victims invariably hits the media. The most infamous RIP troll is Sean Duffy, the Englishman jailed for posting messages like "Help me mummy, It's hot in Hell" on a dead girls' page—on Mother's day.
But some of these trolls offer an interesting justification for their anti-social behavior. Phillips focuses on a guy who goes by the handle "Paulie Socash." Paulie says he and his crew sow chaos on public Facebook memorial pages for gay kids who have committed suicide because the collective mourning by people who have never met the kids is "tacky." "This isn't grief," Paulie tells Phillips, "This is boredom and a pathological need for attention masquerading as grief."
Socash outlined this idea further in an interview with Phillips for the Index on Censorship website in September:
The underlying philosophical purpose or shared goal…would be to disrupt people's rosy vision of the internet as their own personal emotional safe place that serves as a proxy for real-life interactions they are lacking (i.e. going online to demonstrate one's grief over a public disaster like Japan with total strangers who have no real connection to the event).
Even if you disagree with the trolls' tactics, it's hard not to sympathize with Paulie's point: People could certainly use an antidote to the fuzzy feeling engendered by well-meaning, but ultimately pointless collective emotional froth that flings up around the latest natural disaster or revered CEO death. Especially when all this emoting happens in the corporate-controlled temples of Facebook or Twitter, who are making millions off it.
And Phillips argues that RIP trolling also exposes the media's tendency toward spiraling into panics, especially regarding internet-related stories.
With each new death, be it violent or self–inflicted, Facebook trolls would feed on and exploit the ever–shriller media coverage, and the media would in turn feed on and exploit the ever–fiercer trolling response. Facing pressure from all quarters, Facebook was forced to take drastic, draconian measures, which trolls promptly subverted. The cries for Facebook to do something thus grew ever louder, giving both reporters and trolls further grist for their respective mills.
But Phillips also falls into a trap that often catches scholars and journalists who hang out with trolls: the impulse to justify trolls' actions with intellectualizing, and to take too seriously trolls' self-mythologizing as harmless tricksters and their opponents as humorless bores. The fact is, anyone who would anonymously post a bloody corpse on the memorial page of a teen girl killed the day before in a car accident is a bad person. And it means something that the worst trolling is usually done by young, white men, against young women, gays, and minorities—some of whom are forced off the internet forever as a result of rape and death threats.
RIP trolls are sociopaths, not cultural critics. But not all trolling is created equal. If you want to troll responsibly, troll Scott Baio. It's hilarious.