The week of May 10, 2015

Of trolls and men

By Jesse Hicks

“Trolling” is a concept that’s escaped the confines of its Internet-specific definition—something like “a person who intentionally provokes online”—to become a mainstream, increasingly nebulous term. We live in interesting times, when United States senators, at a loss to counter the social media savvy of the so-called Islamic State, suggest trolling the terrorist group with memes.

Despite the surreality of the notion of weaponized memes, that use of “trolling” is at least close to the original meaning. But then we’re also asked whether Prime Minister David Cameron is trolling with his post-election sartorial choices. Professional basketball player Paul Pierce is said to be trolling when he bangs on the glass at a hockey game. “Satanists are trolling Christians over abortion rights,” reads a headline in the U.K. Independent. And these are just easy examples from the past month.

This increasingly expansive idea of “trolling,” however, has consequences, as Whitney Phillips argues. The catch-all term can blur moral distinctions between endorsing your friends for silly things on LinkedIn or just being a weirdo for fun and profit and pernicious, sustained online harassment—which remains a serious problem, too easily dismissed as mere “trolling.” Alana Massey details her own experience with Twitter harassment, and Brianna Wu calls for an FBI investigation of the still-ongoing Gamergate, to show that online actions still have real-world consequences.

“Trolling” will probably always be with us; after all, it can be an umbrella term for behaviors that have long existed. But as these articles argue, perhaps the best we can do is look it in the eye and call it by its rightful name, whatever that may be.

Photo via Erica Nicol/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed