"I'm Not a Troll, I Just Play One Online" Ambiguity and Misrepresentation in Troll Culture

When one thinks of internet trolling as a genre of online communication, many probably think of the Oxford English Dictionary definition, defining the term as the act of posting "a deliberately erroneous or antagonistic message on a newsgroup or similar forum with the intention of eliciting a hostile or corrective response" ("Troll v."). However, since its origins in the 1990s, trollng has emerged as its own form of internet subculture, rife with its own rules, rituals, specialized language, and websites dedicated to the practice. Because of this evolution, trolling has much to teach us about the ways that ambiguity and misrepresentation can be weaponized against unsuspecting internet users, both because it creates a culture of trolls who engage in such deceptions, and because it creates a culture of spectatorship, where hordes of gleeful internet trolls relish in the public humiliation of anyone foolish enough to fall for their tricks. Now a far cry from its humble beginnings on isolated internet forums, trolling has reshaped the landscape of the digital world, where misrepresentation and uncertainty about a person's identity can make hesitant users question whether any ideological person -- no matter how obscene of outrageous -- can be taken as genuine, or simply a clever trick from an internet troll.

To understand trolling as an online practice, it's useful to think of it the way Judith Donath does, as a "game about identity deception, albeit one that is played without the consent of the players" (45). When trolls participate in this "game," they "attemp[t] to pass as a legitimate participant [in a group], sharing [their] common interests and concerns" for as long as they can, slowing making their interactions with the group more and more misleading and outrageous (Donath 45). Therefore, the "fun" of trolling comes out not necessarily from a particular fondness for telling lies, but instead seeing how long you keep the ruse going before you get caught, and exposed as a troll. When understood this way, internet trolls are less like vulgar, indiscriminate bullies, and closer to countercultural respondents to a (so called) overly sensitive public. Gabriella Coleman also makes this comparison, likening troll culture to the punk and Dada movements, emphasizing the "rich aesthetic of spectacle and transgression" at work in trolling (101), later adding that trolls took the 1990s culture of political correctness and "not only tossed it out the window, but made a mockery of the idea that language, much like everything virtual, is anything that should be taken seriously" (111). Echoing Coleman's point, Fuller et al. write that the way some trolls see it, they are "not the disruptors of the originary communities of internet culture, but their defenders. [...] However problematic their tactics, they are definitely trolling up, standing up to power and homogenization, and keeping open the possibility of the Internet as a zone of freedom" (4).

However, this characterization of internet trolls as countercultural antiheroes is not meant to make excuses for their actions. Many instances of trolling can still be particularly vicious, vulgar, offensive, and mean-spirited. Not all internet trolls are created equal, and whole some trolls may see their pranks as harmless fun on the internet, others may take advantage of the (so called) no limits message boards that trolls inhabit to make particularly racist, sexist, or homophobic jokes in especially poor taste. Benjamin Aspray writes about this cruelty when he characterizes how the "most dystopian" aspect of internet trolling is the "laughter of superiority over anyone naïve enough to fall prey to the troll's provocations," which demand a "mastery of political language but an absence of ideological commitment" (156). Because trolling encourages (and perhaps even necessitates) there to be no limits as to what can be said, "any argument is fair game as long as it pisses somebody off" (Aspray 156). Viveca Greene echoes Aspray's anxieties of how troll culture can become particularly vicious and dangerous, writing how the Alt-Right as co-opted troll culture to "advance a decidedly white supremacist, anti-Semitic, misogynist, and deadly serious agenda" which seeks to "challeng[e] progressive ideologies they consider oppressive, shif[t] public conversation, and buil[d] a counterpublic by weaponizing irony" (34). This weaponized irony is particularly dangerous when any position -- no matter how objectionable or horrendous -- can be explained away as just a joke. When any (and all) ideological positions are placed into the flattering category of "just joking," it leaves open the possibility that many audience members won't be able to tell the difference between the outrageous things a troll says (or does), and a troll's sincere ideological beliefs.

This ambiguous space between sincerity and satire may perhaps be one of the most ominous aspects about internet trolling. Overall, internet trolling's emergence as a subculture of online communication forces us to ask a rather concerning question about our fellow citizens online: how (if at all) can we reliably determine which of fellow Internet-users are representing themselves truthfully? How can we reliably determine whether or not internet users are being truthful, or just trolling us? If trolling can teach us nothing else, it's that these two previous questions have no simple answers, and if we want to get to the heart of the solutions to these problems, we need a more nuanced understanding of how misrepresentation, ambiguity, and anonymity can be weaponized against the public for malicious purposes.

Works Cited

Aspray, Benjamin. "On Trolling as Comedic Method." JCMS: Journal of Cinema & Media Studies, vol. 58, no. 3, Spring 2019, pp. 154-160. doi:https://doi.org/10.1353/cj.2019.0030

Coleman, E. Gabriella. "Phreaks, Hackers, and Trolls: The Politics of Transgression and Spectacle." The Social Media Reader, New York University Press, 2012, pp. 99-119. https://archive.org/details/TheSocialMediaReader/

Donath, Judith. "Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community." Community and Identity in Cyberspace, edited by Peter Kollack and Marc Smith, Routlege, 1999, pp. 29-60.

Fuller, Glen, et al. "Troll Theory?" Trolls and the Negative Spaces of the Internet, special issue of The Fibreculture Journal, no. 22, 2013, pp. 1-15.

Greene, Viveca S. "'Deplorable' Satire: Alt-Right Memes, White Genocide Tweets, and Redpilling Normies." Studies in American Humor, vol. 5, no. 1, 2019. https://muse.jhu.edu/issue/40140

"Troll, v." OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2019. www.oed.com/view/entry/206615

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.