“Don’t feed the trolls,” the saying goes, as if it were really that easy. As a prescriptive for navigating the harassment, hatred and bile that now fester on and darken the Internet and social media, it’s both woefully inadequate and unrealistic advice. Like its closely related partner, “Don’t read the comments,” the suggestion that we all just ignore the toxic venom spewed online by actors who often travel in packs and attack in hordes, underestimates the unignorable provocation, emotional trauma and bonafide fear they purposely create and instill. The bunk idea that we can all just look away—or more annoyingly, log off, shut down or shut up—is the quaint, ineffective (and in our current troll-glutted climate, offensive) relic of a bygone era. It’s a holdover from a time when the internet was a kinder, gentler digital space and the trolls who roamed it less malicious monsters than playful pranksters.
The evolution of trolling, like that of the internet itself, has occurred with surprising and unpredictable speed. In the early days of the World Wide Web, trolling took the form of a relatively innocuous—though intrusive and annoying—type of merry pranksterism. Fusion contributor Kristen V. Brown describes 1990s Usenet forums as sites where trolling was considered “a little like a prank phone call”; one 2002 Urban Dictionary entry defines trolls as people who post “deliberately provocative message[s]…with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument,” while another states that “trolling does not mean just making rude remarks: shouting swear words at someone doesn’t count as trolling…and isn’t funny.”
Examples of latter-day trolling might include putting up wantonly obtuse, logically circuitous, mind-blowingly stupid, off-topic or antagonistic messages (often dubbed “flaming”), crafted solely for the purpose of frustrating or otherwise irritating more sincere members of an online community. The idea was that trolls didn’t mean the dumb things they said, though successful trolling—and this is key—required that those they aimed to piss off believe that they did. “Troll” was a label the angry members of an online community imposed on troublemakers, a way to identify and ferret out those hellbent on ruining an otherwise good conversation.
“There would be guys who would go onto the Star Trek newsgroup and say, ‘You know, I think Spock was actually human,’” says Jon Hendren, who has become one of the internet’s most revered trolls based on a series of outrageous stunts, including appearing on a TV news segment about Edward Snowden and instead discussing the plight of Edward Scissorhands. “It would garner these huge lengthy responses from guys who would list every time Spock said something about being Vulcan. You knew the guy who said that [Spock was human] was not being serious, but he also wasn’t breaking any rules. He’s getting his jollies from that—and I think that’s what trolling is to me. It’s where you play within the bounds of an established system…to highlight the absurdity within those systems, hopefully in a funny way.”
4chan and Reddit went live in 2003 and 2005 respectively, and the two sites become epicenters for trollish behavior. Whereas trolling had previously been a thing you were accused of by those who disapproved of your behavior, now “trolls” began to claim the title for themselves, considering it a source of pride.
“4chan was when people really started to take that label on as something that they wore almost as a badge of honor,” says Whitney Phillips, a media folklorist and actual scholar on internet trolls, whose doctoral thesis served as the foundation for 2015’s This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture. “This was a point of subcultural identification. It was a way to connect with the people who were around you who were engaging in similar behaviors. It was a way of marking an in group, essentially.”
Phillips, who has spent nearly a decade e-staking out the virtual spaces trolls frequent, such as 4chan, Reddit, Facebook and Twitter, notes in her book that there is “every indication that the vast majority of subcultural trolls—certainly the ones I interacted with—are relatively privileged white males for whom English is either a first or second language.” In the mid-aughts, as the particularly white-male dominated spaces of 4chan and Reddit grew exponentially, trolls began taking up more and more digital space, not just on those sites but across the internet in general. Just as in real life (or IRL), when groupthink and mob mentality are added to the churn of toxic masculinity, sexism, racism, white supremacy and male fragility, the results were predictably ugly. Trolls had long claimed they were in it “for the lulz,” which is sort of like lolz, but at other people’s expense. In the decided shift in the tone of trolling, the incredibly unfunny invective was often directed at women, African Americans and other people of color, as well as other historically marginalized groups.
In many ways, internet forums in the U.S. offer an unvarnished look at America’s essential character; a transparent account of what this place is really about when you strip away accountability and offer anonymity in its place. On Reddit and 4chan, particularly the latter’s anything-goes /b/ board, extreme racism and vicious misogyny flourished, with cruelty and abuse becoming key traits of the hivemind personality. Administrators at 4chan and Reddit responded to the explosion of hate speech and vitriol by doing absolutely nothing, then followed that up by turning their inaction into a policy of sorts, framing it as vague, overly simplistic advocacy for free speech. That approach quickly succeeded in creating an environment less known as a site for the unimpeded exchange of ideas than a welcome haven for white nationalists, anti-Semites and women haters.
Along with the teeming masses of neo-Nazis and misogynists, this attitude attracted creeps whose interests included things like incest, rape and graphic pictures of dead children. One of the most prolific Redditors, a guy who went by Violentacrez until he was outed in 2012 as Texas military dad Michael Brutsch, created and/or moderated subreddits including r/chokeabitch, r/niggerjailbait, r/Hitler, r/jailbait and r/Jewmerica. (Not to wade too deep into the weeds here, but if you can conceive of it, or it’s so horrible you’d desperately like to forget it exists, there’s probably a 4chan board or subreddit dedicated to it.)
Dan McComas, a former higher-up Reddit until the site’s highly public reshuffling last year, reflected on the direction of trolling since the internet’s nascent days—when the worst thing you saw was “maybe sending somebody a disgusting picture and disguising it”—and what we’re seeing now. “I guess one thing leads to another, but I don’t know,” said McComas, who recently founded IMZY, a social media site focused on creating online communities where abuse and harassment don’t get in the way. “I have a hard time really buying into the slippery slope thing. I think that terrible people exist, and terrible people were given platforms to thrive. Not only to thrive, but to teach people and to influence people. For those things not only to become accepted, but to become encouraged, and that it turned into something huge.”
There are harmless, beloved memes and other internet ephemera that have come from 4chan and Reddit. We have those troll bastions to thank for LOLcats and Rickrolling, and the “hacktivist” collective emerged from the masses of 4chan’s Anonymous contributors. But in the same way that Reddit (the 11th most visited site in the U.S., with 542 million monthly visitors), can take cat memes and inadvertently turn them into widely shared, culturally embedded viral touchstones, the site is also very good at reflecting and amplifying the kind of hate that’s already pervasive in American society.
As those voices have become ever louder on Reddit, they’ve often drowned out, in volume and by sheer force of will, the voices of others attempting to build communities for themselves. (A kind of “free speech for me, but not for thee,” I guess.) What’s more, many of those trolls have played up their actions as a sort of heroic pushback against “political correctness” (i.e., the idea that the people who have always been able to say whatever abhorrent things they want might now be held accountable for saying those things), which they suggest somehow violates their First Amendment rights. Never mind that the sheer amount of hateful language they freely espouse all over the internet is proof that they’re wrong.