What should we call… “trolling”?

ImageThere’s a problem I’ve been encountering a lot in my travels as an internet feminist. Sometimes the presently available language for describing a phenomenon is wholly inadequate, and sometimes the consequences are harmful. The internet has been going through a bit of a popular-use growth spurt in the last several years, and a lot of things (governance, commerce, the legal system) are struggling to catch up. Language is one of those things, so I’ve decided to start a series on my blog examining the phenomena I feel are begging for re-definition.

I think we’ve long since reached the point of linguistic inadequacy with the word “trolling”. It’s only gotten worse since the mainstream media picked up on the concept in its most rudimentary form. These days it seems like 75% of the time I see the word “trolling”, the context implies its meaning is something along the lines of “being mean on the internet” (um, nope.jpg).

So what do we talk about when we talk about trolling? I tend to think of trolling as provocation for provocation’s sake. In other words, intent is an important part of the definition, and a troll’s primary intent is to get a rise out of someone. Urban Dictionary, o holiest of internet linguistic tomes, backs me up on this one. (Worth noting: all the most popular Urban Dictionary definitions had a high number of downvotes as well as upvotes, suggesting that definitions of trolling are pretty contested terrain.) One of the most popular definitions of trolling says, among other things, “…trolling statements are never true or are ever meant to be construed as such” and “trolling isn’t simply harmful statements”.

THANK YOU, PERSON WHO WROTE THAT. In so many of the instances in which the popular press (and the general public) apply the label “trolling”, they’re referring to sincere statements from people who believe every word they’re saying. These alleged “trolls” have myriad intentions that may include getting a rise out of their target, but also include silencing their target, humiliating their target, inspiring fear or emotional distress in their target, etc etc etc. It’s not provocation merely for provocation’s sake, and the stakes are much higher.

The word “trolling” is not appropriate for these situations, and that’s largely why ye olde adage “Don’t feed the trolls” is such absolute bunk advice in these situations. If the person’s primary intent were to get a rise out of you, then sure, “feeding” that desire would probably be unwise. But what if the person’s primary intent is to silence you, to erase your voice and your presence from their jealously guarded spaces for online social interaction? Following the “don’t feed the trolls” advice would be giving them exactly what they wanted, wouldn’t it?

It’s one thing to erroneously apply the “trolling” label when referring to someone simply being a dick on the internet. I can live with that. But when we apply it to people who are spewing hateful things about people of colour, women, queer people, trans* people… When we apply it to people who orchestrate months-long campaigns of harassment intended to terrorize the target… When we apply it to people uttering death threats and rape threats… Well, we’re insulting the targets of this hatred and harassment, and I’d even go so far as to say we’re insulting THE PROUD INTERNET TRADITION of trolling itself.

I’d argue these kinds of behaviours shouldn’t be defined differently on the internet than they are offline. We don’t need special internet words for hate speech, harassment, or death threats. These words already exist. But to appease the many who seem hell-bent on calling this stuff “trolling”, would it be worthwhile to come up with a new expression for this kind of internet treachery? What should we call it? Tell me in the comments.

13 thoughts on “What should we call… “trolling”?

  1. Reblogged this on More @LadySnarksalot and commented:
    Everyone should read this piece. And harassing, hate speech and death threats should not be labelled as “trolling”. It’s not.

  2. “But to appease the many who seem hell-bent on calling this stuff ‘trolling’, would it be worthwhile to come up with a new expression for this kind of internet treachery? What should we call it? Tell me in the comments.”

    Jaron Lanier calls it “drive by anonymity”.

  3. From New York magazine:

    I’ve taken a bit of time to reflect before commenting here, for several reasons. Top of the list is because as a guy (white and able-bodied, in fact), I have the luxury of blowing off hateful comments and not having to worry about the possibility that some creep is really going to assault me or kill me. Women don’t have that luxury. That’s part of why I no longer tell my female friends not to take internet harassment seriously.

    And you make a good point about the term “trolling” — it’s simply not an adequate description for some of the behaviour you’ve described. Nor does it really capture the motivation for some of it. It’s for precisely that reason that I don’t think there’s any need to appease those who want a new word to describe online harassment, hate speech, threats and intimidation. Those words capture the behaviour well enough, and it’s revolting regardless of whether it takes place online or elsewhere.

    That said, I’d take issue with the paragraph in which you argue

    “what if the person’s primary intent is to silence you, to erase your voice and your presence from their jealously guarded spaces for online social interaction? Following the “don’t feed the trolls” advice would be giving them exactly what they wanted, wouldn’t it?”

    There’s a distinction between DNFTT and simply not engaging. If some asshole sends you hateful or threatening messages, or leaves gross sexist messages in your inbox or your twitter replies in an effort to silence / humiliate / intimidate you, the simple fact that you continue to write / speak / express yourself, rather than respond directly, means he’s failed.

    Easy for me to say, of course.

    1. Then why the fuck did you say it?

      I appreciate that you want to engage rather than offend. What I don’t get is comments like yours that purport to be making an argument, but have so many caveats they clearly make more sense as questions.

      There are a shitload of reasons why what you said does not work and there are plenty of people who have dealt with this kind of bullshit that are capable and willing to explain why this is so. But, speaking for myself, I have a whole lot more energy and patience for doing so when the person that is attempting to engage in this conversation approaches is it as someone who is about to learn something. People who approach it as expecting to get their two cents in even though they know they are at an informational disadvantage…I just don’t get it.

      Instead, what we often get is the latter. Someone apologizing for not knowing everything (who does?) and yet feeling like they need to take a stand about something that they just admitted they don’t know much about.

      Not to stereotype boys/men and all :p – but sometimes I wonder if you all know how to engage in discussions that aren’t arguments.

      1. What I discerned about Sol’s argument (though I could be wrong) was that he feels that simply by continuing to use one’s voice and take up space in a community, we are thwarting their attempts to silence us. And that because of that, it’s not necessary (but of course could be valuable) to directly engage the harasser. It’s an argument that I understand and agree with on some levels, but as an IRL Lisa Simpson, I think there’s a lot of value in direct engagement.

      2. Oh, that’s what I got too. (Although I did not see it about direct engagement, but any engagement. Which would include actions like Scalzi’s recent fundraising.)

        But that’s also pretty obvious, yes? And because he framed it as an argument instead of a question, I also felt like it came across as more than a little condescending simply because that is such an obvious point. (And rather judgemental of women who decide they cannot continue to subject themselves to such abuse.)

        In fact, the idea that one is letting the assholes win by not continuing to speak up one of the things said most often behind “don’t feed the trolls.” Personally, I think that argument, stripped on any nuance, is almost as useless as “don’t feed the trolls” – in no small part because it places all the burden on the one being harassed, and fails to consider what larger scale solutions might look like.

  4. As someone who has been interacting with people online for well over a decade, on every platform from chat rooms, message boards, livejournal communities to Facebook & Twitter, I feel like I have a pretty good idea of what trolling is… and often forget that the average internet user may not. I’m also an ardent feminist with an intersectional analysis and don’t put up with bullshit. And most importantly, I can tell the difference between trolling and hate speech.

    This reminds me a lot of what my friend Nora Loreto wrote about a few months back, in light of Amanda Todd’s suicide and Violentacrez doxxing. I find this tendency is mostly encouraged by mainstream media reports that try to gloss over complexities by using a buzzword or simple term instead of digging deeper in favour of bite-sized reports. I think it also happens quite a bit when we talk about “bullying” instead of naming specific things like slut shaming, fatphobia, or homophobia… saying that things are bad behaviour instead of institutionalized misogyny and violence.

    I don’t think we need a new word – like you say, there are many other terms that adequately describe these incarnations of online harrasment. Luckily I’m around people who have a basic understanding of sexism and racism and their ideas of what is unacceptable online isn’t very different from what they deem unacceptable in a face to face setting.

    I could go on and on, because this is a really rare thought-provoking point. Thanks for raising it.

    1. I very much agree with your points about bulling. I also find it interesting that the traditional advice for bullying and trolling amounts to the same thing: ignore them and they will get bored. And that, even as we are shifting away from that being the accepted advice for bullying, so many people still cling to that as the accepted advice for trolling.

      Amanda Todd’s suicide – and everything that led up to it – was just heartbreaking. But what really gets my blood boiling is when people say that she was bullied, full stop. Nothing about the fact that she was targeted by a predator or that this ADULT abuser was the one who instigated the bullying, much less that he did so because she attempted to escape from his abuse.

      Don’t get me wrong, there’s much that needs to change about how teens deal with each other, online and in person. But it’s just complete scapegoating for adults to go around blaming the teens who bullied her while completely ignoring the adult who abused her and the company (run by adults) that made that abuse and bullying easier to get away with. (Unless, of course, they thought it would be useful to stoke luddite fears of new technology, rather than asking decent questions about Facebook’s policies.)

  5. Agreed. (Well, I don’t think trolling is exactly a *proud* Internet tradition.)

    I feel that it’s important to distinguish between someone who’s trolling and someone who’s being serious because you need to take different approaches. “Don’t feed the trolls” is the modern equivalent of “ignore him and he’ll go away”. It really only applies to the classic definition of trolling, which comes from “a style of fishing in which one trails bait through a likely spot hoping for a bite.” (The sense 1 definition here http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/T/troll.html first appears in the Jargon File v. 3.1.0 in 1994.) Trolling in that sense is ultimately (usually male) adolescent attention-seeking behaviour. Ignoring the troll starves him of the attention he wants and hopefully prompts him to grow up.

    Oh, and I wouldn’t go so far as to say hate speech isn’t trolling. Someone could be just trolling by, say, posting homophobic slurs to an LGBT site (anything to get a reaction). The effect may be harmful even if the intent wasn’t malicious. But the way to deal with the troll is different from the way to deal with someone who is harassing LGBT people to shame them.

    (I’m afraid I don’t have any clever words for bullying, harassing, stalking, or uttering threats online.)

  6. What if it’s spewing hatred, bigotry, harassment, or threats at hetero, Caucasian males? Oh, wait, I forgot. We don’t count. We’re fair game.

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