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The Sociology of Trolling

What is a troll? The term is encountered with ever greater frequency yet its meaning has changed with the years, moving from a definition in terms of motivation (deliberately producing discord for amusement) to a definition in terms of behaviour (the fact of having produced discord in an online community). My fear is this change collapses the sociology of trolling into a psychology of trolling, reading back common personality traits from a common behaviour. This matters because it leads us to misunderstand trolling, including the possibility we should see it as a symptom of broader political problems which can only be adequately addressed in a political way.

This is a line of thought I found myself returning to when reading George Monbiot’s Out of the Wreckage. On loc 852 he writes:

When I make the mistake of reading the online comments below my articles –or anyone else’s –the image that strikes me is of people trapped, alone in their cars, in a traffic jam, unable to see past the vehicle in front of them. Their anger and aggression is focused on the drivers ahead, and they lean on the horn, blaring pointlessly at them. Their isolation and frustration blind them to the context: the reasons for the jam, the reasons for their anger, the wider problems the snarl-up might reveal. Alienation, separation and stress suppress empathy, understanding, curiosity and cooperation. Deep thought becomes impossible. Rather than deliberating together to solve our common problems, we shout and shake our fists at each other.

This is not to excuse what is often inexcusable behaviour. But it is to stress the necessity of understanding it. This is particularly important given the figure of the troll is increasingly influencing the terms under which the conditions of exchange are being established on social media platforms. In some cases, these might be technical tweaks which are opaque to users, whereas in others they are important shifts which respond to external political pressure. Our current concept of the ‘troll’ is so amorphous, liable to be stretched and expanded so easily to support a pre-existing agenda, it is crucial that we interrogate how it is deployed to support technical and political interventions, even when we agree with the substance of them.

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