By Pied Piper
“Canadian researchers have confirmed what most people suspected all along: that Internet trolls are archetypal Machiavellian sadists,” says The Independent this week.
I disagree. In large part, I disagree due to a misunderstanding of what ‘trolling’ incorporates. The term ‘trolling’, whilst not to be confined utterly to its original usage in regard to the Internet, encompasses way more than the illegal acts of abuse committed by sadists online. Racial abuse, threats of violence, taunting someone over their dead relatives, these are all acts of abuse covered by the law, in reality.
Trolling, as I have known it from the dawn of the Internet, is derision in all forms. The most common form of derision, and certainly the one most prominent at the beginning of the Internet, is an important exercise in society. Not only that, but it is the most exciting form of social comedy we have. At once it is parodic, counterculture and silly. In TV and film, we applauded the like of Spitting Image, and the British have always toasted satire and the public roasting of celebrity by comics. Remembered fondly are moments in which guests are ripped apart on musical quiz shows, and in my view, rather cruelly at times.
Trolling is revenge for monotony.
Trolling, immediately, and not through a call to arms from any one troll, began overnight. For as long as there has been an internet, there has been trolling. It was bound to happen. The voiceless had chomped at the bit whenever they were given an opportunity to expose the nonsense fascia of media and celebrity. The same people that post ‘Free Israel’ messages on The Guardian message boards are the people that thirty years ago would jump into shot of a live broadcast and swear maniacally. Seems pointless, right? Yet so strong is the will of the everyman to render the hypocrisy of mainstream output tainted that he will sneer in front of a camera shouting, “Show us your tits, Beurk.”
Trolling matured, and although fresh babytrolls come through, not quite getting it right – recycling memes that have been recycled once too often already – by and large trolling occurs in a measured, intelligent and useful way. It challenges the establishment, doubts truth, canonises untruths to the point of farce, and makes us laugh.
It seems strange to me that trolling in itself is considered an almost unlawful act now, and that to be a troll is to be at once a perpetrator of hate-crime, bullying or persecution. Another blow for free speech. And don’t think I confuse free speech with verbal assault or violence incitement (though the latter is way more subjective than we are comfortable with in society). This is not how we view the Charlie Brookers of this world, and nor did we of Hunter S. Thompson, who, at times, acted almost solely with the aim of provoking reaction. Both of these men are trolls; both are revered by the middle-classes. They seek to expose, deride and ridicule that which they find objectionable, or open to criticism (such as art and artists, or politicians). People of prominence that have opted for the public eye are now able to denigrate the voice of scrutinizing trolls by palming them off as trolls. Perfect, then, that most of us now consider trolls to be despicable psychopaths. This is perhaps one of the more disturbing progressions over the last fifteen years as we still struggle to find our ethical feet in a wordwide web. Silencing those that challenge us is murkier than any troll’s mouse-mat, dingier than their bedrooms. The familiar soundbite over the last few years is that trolling is conducted by criminals of hate, and that all hate must be stamped out. This is all too convenient for those that stand to lose the most from an open conduit.
Whilst the tale behind the John Nimmo and Isabella Sorley rape tweets on Twitter last year were bizarre, if not distasteful, when prosecutor Alison Morgan said: “The messages involved extreme language and caused substantial distress,” all I could think of was Bill Hicks and The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart. I can’t help but feel that whilst it’s important that the police deal with threats of violence, the likes of MP Stella Creasy are unwittingly stripping the voiceless public, those they seek to represent and give voice to, of an important and previously unavailable platform in which to ask important questions of society. Not everyone has the ability, confidence or time to write open letters and essays. Even in its weakest form, trolling provides an outlet for the weak. At their best, trolls have served up some of the most thought-provoking comedy of the 21st century.
Whatever your take on abuse, bullying, trolling, satire, and we all have different ideas about the acceptability of those things, it’s important that we don’t just allow ourselves to be inveigled into viewing trolling and trolls as insidious. Take the power of that word back. It’s not about hatemongery any more than it is about lovemaking, it’s about voice, one that exists outside of the constraints of traditional media. And that’s something worth fighting for, worth trolling about.