This is one of the most engaging things I’ve ever seen on YouTube. I’d enthusiastically watch an entire web series built around this premise. There’s a whole research agenda waiting to be undertaken exploring the troll’s claim that he needed to be abusive in order to get noticed by Owen Jones.
This is Jaron Lanier’s memorable description of social media in his new book Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Social media is a technology for asshole amplification. To be clearly seen in the fact that “since social media took off, assholes are having more of a say in the world” (pg 43). His point is not that social media is a haven for trolls because it’s “not helpful to think of the world as being divided into assholes and non-assholes or if you prefer trolls and victims”. On pg 44 he cautions that each of us has our own inner troll:
It’s like an ugly alien living inside you that you long ago forgot about. Don’t let your inner troll take control! If it happens when you’re in a particular situation, avoid that situation! It doesn’t matter if it’s an online platform, a relationship, or a job. Your character is like your health, more valuable than anything you can buy. Don’t throw it away. But why, why is the inner troll there at all? It’s such a common problem that it must be a deep, primal business, a tragedy of our inheritance, a stupid flaw at the heart of the human condition. But saying that doesn’t get us anywhere. What exactly is the inner troll? Sometimes the inner troll takes charge, sometimes it doesn’t. My working hypothesis has long been that there’s a switch deep in every human personality that can be set in one of two modes. We’re like wolves. We can either be solitary or members of a pack of wolves. I call this switch the Solitary/ Pack switch. When we’re solitary wolves, we’re more free. We’re cautious, but also capable of more joy. We think for ourselves, improvise, create. We scavenge, hunt, hide. We howl once in a while out of pure exuberance. When we’re in a pack, interactions with others become the most important thing in the world. I don’t know how far that goes with wolves, but it’s dramatic in people. When people are locked in a competitive, hierarchical power structure, as in a corporation, they can lose sight of the reality of what they’re doing because the immediate power struggle looms larger than reality itself.
The evolutionary language here can seem off-putting to a sociologist. But it can be recast in terms of internal and external goods. Sometimes we are driven by the rewards internal to what we are doing while at other times we are driven by rewards external to what we are doing. What makes social media platforms so insidious is their tendency to, as Lanier puts it, make “social status and intrigues become more than immediate than the larger reality” (pg 49). I don’t agree with his account of why this is so but I think the underlying direction of his argument is correct. Social media is asshole amplification technology because it lends such force and vivacity to external goods, particularly recognition and reputation, leaving internal goods hard to sustain.
We often do sustain our relationship with these goods, as can be seen in the continued existence of thoughtful and intelligent exchange online. But we do so in spite of rather than because of the asshole amplification architecture of social media. It’s grasping the bivalent nature of this relationship, as internal and external goods co-mingle within platform architectures which are continually modulating in response to our (ambivalent) actions, which is crucial if we want to understand and perhaps even overcome the asshole amplification propensities of social media.
In recent months, I’ve become preoccupied by how we make sense of the experiences of academics being harassed or trolled when using social media. My initial interest in this was in my capacity as a trainer and consultant. One of my roles is to encourage, train and support academics in their use of social media. The apparent rise of this experience necessitates a response. We need to know how to prepare academics for this experience, as well as be able to advise on potential responses and their likely efficacy.
However as a sociologist I’m dissatisfied with the idea that we leave trolling framed solely as a risk encountered in public engagement through social media. There is something more complex happening here, as a new media infrastructure changes the real and imagined relationship of academics to the wider public. It would be a mistake to frame this in terms of disintermediation: social media changes the role of previous gatekeepers to publics (e.g. journalists, broadcast researchers, think tank staff) while opening up opportunities to work with them in new ways. Their gatekeeping function becomes less straight forward. But it also empowers platforms themselves as gatekeepers, with mediation now being in large part enacted through the architecture of each social media platform.
This can produce what feel like unmediated meetings with the general public. It is imperative that we realise this is not the case and ensure a wide understanding of how platforms mediate interaction, as well as how we can collectively work to exercise an influence over these processes in order to ensure public engagement has a chance of succeeding. But it also invites us to call into question some of the assumptions about publics and our relation to them which were allowed to develop under the conditions provided by the older media infrastructure. I really like the account Jana Bacevic offers of these assumptions in this recent essay:
In assuming a relatively benevolent reception of scientific knowledge, then, appeals such as Chis and Cruickshank’s to engage with different publics—whether as academics, intellectuals, workers, or activists—remain faithful to Popper’s normative ideal concerning the relationship between reasoning and decision-making: ‘the people’ would see the truth, if only we were allowed to explain it a bit better. Obviously, in arguing for dialogical, co-produced modes of knowledge, we are disavowing the assumption of a privileged position from which to do so; but, all too often, we let in through the back door the implicit assumption of the normative force of our arguments. It rarely, if ever, occurs to us that those we wish to persuade may have nothing to say to us, may be immune or impervious to our logic, or, worse, that we might not want to argue with them.
What fascinates me about these encounters is how unprepared we seem to be for the possibility that ‘the public’ could be disinterested or even actively hostile to what we are doing. I don’t think online harassment can be reduced to such hostility, far from it, but I do think it’s often an important component of it. This is even more the case with trolling, though drawing a principled distinction between the two is a (challenging) topic to another post.
We urgently need to prepare for these encounters, including avoiding the dispiriting trap of drawing too sharp a contrast between old and new. We have not left behind an old world of mediated engagement where we can imagine pliant publics to enter a new world of unmediated engagement where we directly encounter hostile publics. There is still mediation and we still imagine our publics. But we now have the possibility of somewhat random, largely unpredictable interactions which I want to argue have important implications for the sociology of knowledge.
Call for Papers – Edited Collection
Online Othering: Exploring the Dark Side of the Web
Editors: Dr Karen Lumsden (Loughborough University) and Dr Emily Harmer (University of Liverpool)
The Internet plays a vital role in many aspects of our social, political and cultural lives and in the early days of its expansion there was much enthusiasm for its potentially transformative role in providing a space for individuals to construct their identities, communicate with others and share ideas and concerns. A perhaps unanticipated consequence of these developments has been the extent to which some individuals and groups have used this freedom to engage in hateful or discriminatory communicative practices online in these loosely regulated spaces, often hiding behind the cloak of anonymity. For instance, women on Twitter and in the public eye have found themselves subject to online harassment, sexism and trolling, while the aftermath of the Brexit vote saw in a rise in reports of hate speech including racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism, in both online and offline contexts.
This edited collection explores the othering and discrimination propagated and encountered by individuals online and in social media contexts and cultures. It problematizes and analyses the dichotomy presented between real and virtual worlds (and spaces) by exploring the motivations behind certain offending and othering behaviours, and the impact this has on the targets of online abuse and hate speech. This includes the extent to which online othering constitutes a new phenomenon and how the motivations for committing forms of cyber-abuse, cyber-hate, and othering relate to the expression of these attitudes and behaviours in the offline context.
It explores the extent to which forms of information and communication technologies facilitate, exacerbate, and/or promote, the enactment of traditional offline offences (such as domestic abuse and stalking). Finally, the collection addresses the role of the police and other agencies in terms of their interventions, and the regulation and governance of virtual space(s).
The edited collection is an output from a one-day conference on Online Othering hosted at Loughborough University. We are seeking additional contributions to the volume from scholars and researchers working in disciplines such as sociology, communication and media studies, criminology, political studies and/or gender studies.
Contributions should address the ways in which various groups and identities are subjected to othering in online environments. This can include news websites, social media platforms (i.e. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, etc.), blogs, and forums. We are also interested in contributions which explore othering across multiple contexts. Potential topics can include, but are not limited to:
- Trolling and gendered online abuse/harassment;
- Cyber-bullying or cyber-stalking;
- Hate crime/speech online;
- Homophobia and/or transphobia;
- Online representations of disability;
- Class bigotry;
- Racism, Islamophobia, or anti-Semitism;
- Sexting and/or revenge pornography;
- Brexit, Trumpism and the rise of the ‘alt-right’.
The edited collection proposal is to be submitted to Palgrave as part of their Cyber-Crime series by Autumn 2017. For accepted submissions, the finalised chapters will need to be received by the end of September 2018.
Interested contributors should email a title, abstract (250 words) and biography (100 words) to both Karen Lumsden K.Lumsden@lboro.ac.uk and Emily Harmer E.Harmer@liverpool.ac.uk by 31 August 2017. Authors will be informed of decisions by 30 September 2017.
This essay on ‘the cult of cruelty’ has some interesting points to make about the role of what danah boyd calls persistence and searchability in facilitating incivility online. It makes it possible to trawl through someone’s activity, enabling a degree of engagement with choices and representations that would not otherwise be possible:
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately — the ways in which people exact their hurt. It’s common for people to subtweet about their hate-follows and hate-reads. Nothing distinguishes between the hate cultivated for people we know as opposed to strangers — we’re all fair game for someone else’s vitriol. People have no problem playing armchair therapist; they analyze our lives from a computer screen and then proceed to deliver play-by-play commentary on how we should live our lives based on how they live theirs. Many have come to believe that an online representation of one aspect of our lives is the complete story, the whole of our lives. Who we are, the content of our character, is reduced to what we choose to publish. The choices we make — from what we wear to how we parent and whom we love — should be obvious based on the collective’s personal experience and we’re admonished in text or in forums for “not getting it”. We crave authenticity yet we vilify others for their public missteps, for being human. People talk smack behind our backs to then kiss-kiss, hey, how are you? to our face. People leave hateful comments tearing apart our appearance: Why is she naked in every picture on Instagram…ugh! Who does she think she is? Why does she wear such unflattering clothes? If she didn’t want to hear about how bad she looks she shouldn’t be posting pictures of herself online. Apparently, being public is an open invitation for hate, and it’s frightening that groups exist on the Internet devoted to the care and feeding of that hate.
It also makes it possible to trawl back through the incivility that has been directed at us:
We live in a country that espouses free speech, but many are forced into silence in fear of the hate avalanche. In a private Facebook group, many women talk about not reading the comments of their published articles out of self-preservation. “Don’t read the comments” is a constant refrain. Women leave social media because they’re beaten down by people in fear of losing their privilege. A whole group of people has been reduced to a patronizing “snowflake” moniker because of their inability to toughen up, and it’s as if the Internet has become Darwinian in the sense that only those who hate, and those who can withstand and endure that hate, survive. A few years ago, I was the subject of a man’s ire, someone whom I believe I knew (or at least had come into contact with during my agency career, which makes the whole situation that much more unsettling), who wrote about how much he hated me because I stood up for women who had been ridiculed online because of their appearance. Fifteen years ago, a small circle of literary bloggers posted cruel blind items about me and I remember being at work, in front of my computer, reading these posts and my whole body going numb.t
There’s an excellent overview of ‘hate reading’ here:
Underlying all this is a weirdly common human tendency toward “hate-reading.” Call it that for short, at least, because it also includes “hate-listening” and “hate-watching.” In short, many people seem strangely drawn to material that they know, even before they’re exposed to it, will infuriate them. And hate-reading in its purest form involves not just seeking out the aggregated fodder of Media Matters or Newsbusters, but actually going straight to the source: a conservative mainlining Keith Olbermann; a liberal recklessly exposing herself to a Rush Limbaugh monologue.
A lot of us do this, but why? No one knows for sure, but there are a few potential explanations. One is that hate-reading simply makes us feel good by offering up an endless succession of “the emperor has no clothes” moments with regard to our political adversaries. In this view, we specifically seek out the anti-wisdom of whoever appears dumbest and most hateful as a means of bolstering our own sense of righteousness. “If the commentary is dumb enough, it may actually have a boomerang effect in that it reassures us that our opponents aren’t very smart or accurate,” said Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a media psychologist at the University of Texas San Antonio.
I’ve just finished reading the excellent This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things by Whitney Phillips. It offers fascinating insights into the evolution of ‘trolling’ as a practice, leading from its original form of sub-cultural self-identification to the diffusion of the label across the entire spectrum of online activities deemed to be anti-social. Her overarching thesis is that trolling is framed as an aberration relative to the mainstream culture, when in fact it represents the logic of that culture taken to its extreme. Trolling only makes sense against a background that facilitates it, such that trolls should be read as an inditement of contemporary culture rather than a threat to it. This diagnosis is most acute when it comes to broadcast media, with trolls expertly hacking the media for their own amusement in a way that takes advantage of the media’s propensity for those very things (misleading information, lack of understanding, morbid preoccupations and a deep need for attention) which trolls are seen as embodiments of.
Her operationalisation of ‘troll’ as a self-identity is an important part of the book. The problem I have with the contemporary use of troll is that it subsumes a wide range of behaviours into a singular pathologised description. To point this out is not to defend any of these behaviours, only to remind that we should not assume people do similar, or even the same, things for the same reasons. The diversity of trolling behaviours gets obliterated by the seemingly straight-forward designation of ‘troll’, something which I suspect many people now think they unproblematically recognise when they see it. But underlying ‘trolling’ we might find the urge to incite and manipulate for amusement (i.e. ‘troll’ in the self-identifying sense), online activists who see themselves as fighting a culture war through their keyboards, outpouring of hatred reflecting a generalised contempt for other human beings, the desperate externalisations of someone unable to cope or any number of other things. We need to recognise this variety at an ontological level while nonetheless remaining attentive to the epistemological and methodological problem of how, if at all, we are able to read back ‘offline’ motivations from ‘online’ behaviour.
Towards the end of the book, Phillips talks about her experience of out-trolling trolls. She recognises that this runs contrary to familiar advice “don’t feed the trolls”, something which I’ve always found to work just as well as face-to-face as on the internet:
This strategy—of actively trolling trolls—runs directly counter to the common imperative “don’t feed the trolls,” a statement predicated on the logic that trolls can only troll if their targets allow themselves to be trolled. Given that the fun of trolling inheres in the game of trolling—a game only the troll can win, and whose rules only the troll can modify—this is sound advice. If the target doesn’t react, then neither can the troll.But even this decision buys into the trolls’ game. The troll still sets the terms of their target’s engagement; the troll still controls the timeline and the outcome. (pg. 160)
I don’t quite follow the reasoning here. A refusal to engage only leaves the troll in control in a formal sense of the term. In practice, there isn’t a timeline or an outcome, with an enormous caveat I will get to later in the post. Instead, she details a strategy of out-trolling the trolls, performing an earnest response to their attempts at engagement in a way which reveals their own investment in trolling.
The dynamic shifts considerably if the target counters with a second game, one that collapses the boundary between target and troll. In this new game, the troll can lose and, by taking umbrage at the possibility, falls victim to his or her own rigid rules. After all, it’s emotion—particularly frustration or distress—that trips the troll’s wire. In most cases, the troll’s shame over having lost, or merely the possibility that he or she could lose, will often send the troll searching for more exploitable pastures. I frequently utilized this strategy in my own dealings with random anonymous trolls, particularly on my quasi-academic blog. (pg. 160)
I’d like to have seen more example of what she means here but I find it an intriguing idea. As I understand it, her notion of ‘trolling rhetoric’ entails seeking to provoke another person to express their concerns in a way deemed to be excessive, revealing what is taken to be their over-investment in their online activity. Underlying this is a belief that “nothing should be taken seriously, and therefore … public displays of sentimentality, political conviction, and/or ideological rigidity” are seen as a “call to trolling arms”, with the ensuing trolling often understood in an explicitly pedagogical way. The lulz enjoyed through this represent a “pushback against any and all forms of attachment” but, as she notes, trolls themselves are deeply attached to lulz (p. 25). There’s a power in revealing this attachment, inciting trolls to perform it through the very rhetorical strategies through which they seek to dominate others. Ignoring them leaves the troll unmoved, engaging in this way reveals the deep paradox at the heart of their behaviour.
Phillips recognises how contentious such a strategy can appear, honestly recounting her own ambivalence about the possibility. It nonetheless has a certain appeal though, specifically the idea that we might “troll better, and to smash better those who troll us”. But there are two huge caveats to its employment in the academic context within which and for which I’m writing. Firstly, how would university departments and communications offices respond to examples of ‘out trolling’? The evidence we have suggests not very well. Secondly, do we have any reason to assume that those who are increasingly targeting academics online represents trolls in this self-identified sense? I think the argument offered by Phillips is deeply plausible but suspect it only holds true for those who share this sub-cultural identity. Those who, for instance, see what they do as activism are much less likely to be moved by it and engagements of this could be deeply counter-productive.