Luke Simcoe is a guest blogger. He contributes the occasional post on web culture, the various kooks and cranks who inhabit the Internet, as well as copyright matters.
I often wonder if Australia missed the memo about not feeding the trolls.
In complete defiance of one of the Internet’s most common maxims, the land Down Under has gone crazy on trolls after a pair of celebrities—rugby star Robbie Farah and former Australia’s Next Top Model host Charlotte Dawson—were harassed on Twitter. In the wake of the attacks, conservative tabloid the Daily Telegraph has launched a #StopTheTrolls campaign (the hashtag for which has of course been heavily trolled) and Farah allegedly met with the Prime Minister Julia Gillard to discuss what could be done to stem the tide of slimeballs saying mean things online.
It’s already illegal in Australia to “menace, harass or offend” others via telephony—which includes the Internet—but that hasn’t stopped politicians from renewing calls for stricter laws and increased surveillance. Former prime minister Kevin Rudd declared “it’s time to build a bridge over the trolls,” while Communications Minister Steven Conroy lashed out at Twitter, citing the company’s reluctance to hand over information about users accused of violating the aforementioned law.
“Twitter may think they’re above Australian laws and they clearly think they’re above American laws, but ultimately good corporate citizens do not behave this way,” said Conroy.
Critics have been quick to accuse Farah and Dawson of casting themselves as victims while ignoring their own supposedly troll-ish behaviour. Dawson routinely doled out verbal abuse in her role as a Top Model host, while Farah has come under fire for his less than civil response to Twitter trolls, as well as for a previous tweet in which he suggested the prime minister should receive a noose on her birthday. In the case of the Telegraph, some observed that the paper ran a front-page story about #StopTheTrolls below a teaser celebrating “Kyle and Jackie O,” a radio show infamous for its insensitive commentary. Host Kyle Sandilands has threatened to “hunt down” callers who disagree with him and once told a guest they should go to a concentration camp to lose weight.
An here’s where Australia’s approach become problematic: When victims of trolls troll themselves, who’s the real troll?
The problem is that we don’t have a proper definition of what exactly constitutes trolling. The word has become an empty signifier, a catch-all for any and all undesired contributions to online discourse. Someone insults you on Facebook? Troll. Did your video on YouTube get down-voted? Totally trolls. Worse still, the term can often be used as a way to shut down debate. Don’t feel like defending your opinion? Just label your detractors trolls.
This understanding of trolling has little to do with what online newsgroups, which originally came up with the word, meant by it. Judith Donath, who wrote one of the first scholarly articles about trolling, describes it as “a game about identity deception, albeit one that is played without the consent of most of the players.” Trolls would familiarize themselves with the customs of a an online community and then set about doing and saying things to disrupt those norms. Trolls were self-conscious and performative saboteurs; they would privately self-identify as trolls, and were entirely aware of the disconnect between themselves and their online utterances. In fact, the term itself was created to distinguish between people who were just being jerks online and those who were pretending to be jerks online.
Viewed in that light, perhaps Farah and Dawson are giving their tormentors too much credit. After all, I doubt the rugby fan who insulted Farah’s late mother really had some higher purpose (even it was just the lulz) beyond saying the most offensive thing he could think of.
One of the problems of the contemporary, all-too-broad definition of trolling is that it has allowed lawmakers—in Australia, for example—to use the spectre of trolls to pass legislation that restricts free speech and invades our privacy. By applying a new term to an old behaviour—just plain old being a jerk—we’ve made it seem like we need new ways of solving an old problem. We’ve already got more than enough synonyms for “jerk” (Maclean’s own Jesse Brown is fond of the term “asshat”), and plenty of laws against things like hate speech and uttering threats. We don’t necessarily need more just because of something called the Internet.
Another good reason to stick to the more nuanced definition of trolling is that it recognizes not all trolling is bad. For example, when Newsweek sparked controversy with its recent “Muslim Rage” cover, countless netizens took to social media to mock and harass the magazine via a comedic #MuslimRage hashtag. Newsweek’s story itself was fairly troll-ish: a sensationalist piece paired with a sensationalist cover designed to foment outrage and bring hits to the website. In turn, the Internet’s response was to troll the troll, much more effective and much less of a slippery-slope than asking the government to step in and censure, no?