The Trolls We Are
Following the advent of online chat rooms, forums and social media, a new species emerged: internet trolls. Despised by many, celebrated by a few, these provocateurs are known for anonymously harassing other users simply for the thrill of it—or, as they’d say, “for the lulz.” Various scandals have thrust these shadowy creatures into the limelight, prompting us to ponder what the phenomenon means for our behavior and ethics, online and off.
One of the most popular lairs of trolldom is the social news website Reddit. Bewildering in its scope, Reddit calls itself the “front page of the internet.” Users submit links to other webpages they find interesting; those links are then “upvoted” or “downvoted” by other Reddit users, and the tallies either raise them to higher visibility or lower them out of sight. Reddit also hosts subreddits, smaller pages that cover an array of sometimes bizarre topics, everything from literature and new technology to “dogs with fake eyebrows.”
Trolls have seized on subreddits, creating a series designed to titillate a few and outrage everyone else. The most famous troll subreddits are dedicated to such vile subjects as “beating women,” “incest” and “pics of dead kids.” It seems there is an arms race among trolls, a contest to see who can invent the most repulsive, most incendiary subreddit and thus garner the most attention. As shocked users criticize the posts, others jump in to defend them, leading to a flurry of upvotes. This in turn promotes the trolls’ handiwork throughout the site, whetting their appetite for yet more fame and controversy.
Of all the trolls who have lurked on Reddit, none was more reviled—or more popular—than the user named Violentacrez, moderator of the long-standing troll-centric subreddit, “jailbait,” which featured photos of adolescent girls plucked from Facebook and Flickr without permission. Other Violentacrez subreddits pushed the envelope still further, trafficking in racial slurs, domestic violence and creepshots, lurid photos of unsuspecting women taken in public places.
Though many users called for an end to Violentacrez’s behavior, Reddit resisted. The reason? The site allows users to post whatever they want without censorship, as long as no laws are broken. To those who agreed with this policy, Violentacrez was a rebel against puritanical control who championed freedom of speech.
There’s another undeniable fact: Violentacrez drove a tremendous amount of traffic to Reddit. Page views are the site’s lifeblood, and for better or worse trolls like Violentacrez make it viable. Violentacrez drew a record-breaking 1.73 million page views in a single day when Anderson Cooper criticized the jailbait subreddit on his television show 360. Naturally, most users logged on out of pure outrage. But to Reddit, page views are page views.
Violentacrez’s anonymous trolling came to an end in October 2012 when the news and gossip site Gawker published a damning profile, exposing him as a Texas-based programmer named Michael Brutsch. Written by Adrian Chen, the exposé revealed that Violentacrez had gained so much influence in part because he had close friends on the Reddit staff. According to Chen, Brutsch played a key role at Reddit, no matter how distasteful his hobbies: He was one of the few people willing to moderate the popular but controversial subreddits, ensuring that nothing truly illegal (e.g., kiddie porn) was ever distributed. Reddit saw this troll as a necessary evil.
Chen’s reporting sparked a firestorm. Many Reddit users were outraged that a pillar of their community had been “doxxed”—internet slang for outing an anonymous user’s identity. In retaliation, dozens of subreddits banned links to Gawker. But the story didn’t remain online. When word of Brutsch’s activities made its way to his employer at his programming job, Brutsch was promptly fired. Meanwhile, major news outlets such as The New York Times, The Atlantic and CNN got whiff of the story, and troll was soon a household word.
An image-based message board and celebrated troll hangout, 4chan has spawned countless internet memes—usually recurring image- or video-based inside jokes, like pictures of cats with goofy sayings (that tiny genre known as lolcat). The page known as /b/ is especially notorious. Essentially, it’s the internet thrown into a blender: /b/ has no rules or limitations, and the result is a free-for-all that acts as a test kitchen for memes.
The /b/ board’s anarchic environment is perfect for prank-loving trolls. Specifically, it serves as a coordinating point for mass harassment; /b/ trolls often focus on targets who are naive about the ways of the internet or simply vulnerable, such as parenting forums or memorial pages for the recently deceased. The idea is for the trolls to outdo each other with hijinks (i.e., “to share the lulz”), the more tasteless the better. They call themselves /b/tards.
Over the years, 4chan has become such a hallmark of troll culture that it has produced a meme all its own. Perhaps you’ve already seen the iconic image known as trollface: a bald, wrinkled head with mischievously squinting eyes and a toothy grin that convey both the troll’s creepiness and its devil-may-care joy.
Though 4chan tries to be a bulletin board for insiders run by insiders, Gawker’s investigative scrutiny has turned up a few truly outrageous trolling incidents. Some have been simply absurd: In July 2013 4chan users rigged a contest so a 39-year-old man won the right to meet pop sensation Taylor Swift, thereby “crushing the dreams” of teenage fans vying for the prize. (The contest was later canceled when it became clear the man had won dishonestly.) But some of Gawker’s coverage has revealed far more brutal trolling, as in July 2010, when 4channers harassed an 11-year-old video blogger, circulating her personal information and making prank phone calls—like a digital lynch mob producing real-world havoc.
In summer 2010 4chan and Gawker engaged in an all-out cyberwar. When the anarchic 4chan made several attempts to hack Gawker’s site, crash its servers and spam its employees’ email accounts, Gawker swore to expose 4chan further, all while the two sites exchanged taunts on social media platforms. The battling highlighted just how intertwined the sites are. Both founded in 2003, 4chan and Gawker are rooted in digital youth culture. In terms of self-righteous internet ideology, they are two sides of the same coin.
In April 2013 the Bank of England announced it would “retire” social reformer Elizabeth Fry from the five-pound note and instead feature Winston Churchill. As critics quickly pointed out, the swap meant the only image of a woman to appear on British currency would be that of the queen. Journalist and feminist activist Caroline Criado-Perez lobbied to replace Charles Darwin, who’d been on the 10-pound note for 13 years, with novelist Jane Austen. In July, in part because Criado-Perez had the support of several powerful women, including Labor Party legislator Stella Creasy, the Bank of England announced that Austen’s likeness would be universally acknowledged on the tenner starting in 2017.
The decision woke up the trolls. Utilizing Twitter, they bombarded Criado-Perez, Creasy and other supporters of the new banknote with misogynist invective: everything from petty insults to threats of murder and rape. One handle was @killcreasynow. The incident sparked a wider debate on how to apply hate speech laws to the internet—an especially challenging task, since trolls frequently change their online identities and use software to mask their ISP addresses. Nonetheless, Twitter announced plans to provide a “report abuse” button on all versions of the site.
In 2013 Twitter-borne rape threats made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. When the Bank of England replaced Charles Darwin on its 10-pound note with Jane Austen, trolls emerged from the woodwork to send violently misogynist tweets. Meanwhile, a slurry of invective focused on Jezebel journalist Lindy West, a critic of sexist tendencies in contemporary American comedy. After appearing on FX’s Totally Biased to talk about the popularity of so-called rape jokes, West found her Twitter account exploding with insults, threats and such horrific tweets as “No one would want to rape that fat disgusting mess.”
Like the women targeted by trolls over the Austen banknote, West has used the attacks as an opportunity to discuss what many would like to overlook, even shooting a YouTube video in which she unflinchingly reads aloud the malicious tweets. While her opponents argue that comedy must be free from censorship in order to work, West asserts that this argument is often advanced by hypocrites. Case in point, the trolling attacks. As she wrote for Jezebel, “If anyone’s still worried about comedians being ‘silenced’: This is what silencing looks like. Sorry, boys, but it’s not going to work.”
Some trolls use their controversial tactics for what many view as positive ends—a form of vigilante justice in which trolling the powerful helps defend the weak. The most prominent group to do so is the hacker collective Anonymous. Spawned by the 4chan image board, Anonymous is a leaderless “hive mind” that got its start by hacking websites purely for the lulz. But over time Anonymous has evolved a strong sense of morality, trolling organizations deemed a threat to freedom, including those as varied as the Church of Scientology, the KKK and the FBI.
In its recent Operation Troll the NSA (#OpTrollTheNSA), Anonymous spammed the National Security Administration with farcical emails and tweets filled with the “keywords of terror” the NSA routinely monitors on the internet. This led some to call Anonymous a group of digital Robin Hoods, defending free speech, democracy and the right to privacy. Others felt this incident was the work of self-congratulating terrorists. Whatever the case, such massive trolling events have made Anonymous’s emblem—the inscrutable Guy Fawkes mask—recognizable the world over.