A Troll in the Park

So. Apparently, there is a single and notable target of “trolls” and it is wet liberal mildly reformist ladies who are paid for their average opinions. 

Yes. Really. The evidence is clear and shocking we read today from Julia Baird,

according to Pew Research Centre, 5 per cent of women online said they had been put in a position of “physical danger” because of an internet activity.

Except, um, according to that same study by Pew, 3 per cent of men are subject to the same threat. 13 percent of the women surveyed in that study said they were subject to unusual harassment but so did 11 per cent of the men.

This is a statistical difference so small, it could be viewed within a margin error.

But the journalist’s hope that Twitter insist “people use their real names” can be found quite beyond the limits of reason. I shan’t describe here the many reasons that anonymity is a digital liberty to which no person with an interest in justice should object. But, the author’s is not a plea for justice.  It is a plea, whether its author has chosen to consider the foundations of her argument or not, to afford the luxury of a world without opposition to women with views similar to her own.

I am personally acquainted with both trolling and pre-internet stalking and threats of violence by strangers.  I understand that harassment can be gendered. I understand that fear can transform one’s life.  But, as I am not an idiot, I also understand that I live in a time of unpleasantly democratised communication where it is now quite acceptable to tell people with whom one disagrees that they should “die in a fire”.  And, moreover, where everyone offers everyone else such threat irrespective of gender.

I also understand that this sort of discourse is just a style of discourse; albeit an unsavoury one.  It is naturalised.  It is common. It is  a despairing commentary that takes as its style hyperbolised physical threat.  It has been happening on reddit and 4chan and other places I do not visit for years.

Trolling, unambiguously practised by many of the people interviewed in the Julia Baird piece on trolling, is a style of communication.  It is not a threat.  It is an extreme extension of the identity-based, ad hominem Stupid of an age that fails to utter reason.  It is, for shame, typical and we all understand that when someone tells us to “die in a fire” or “get raped” that what they want to convey is opposition. But the are, like many of the people interviewed, too lazy to do this in any way that exceeds the simplest polemic or aphorism.

For the eightieth time this year, what I read is discourse about discourse.  It is pure discourse; a conversation about nothing but the terms of conversation itself.  Just as right-wing “thinkers” Like Andrew Bolt or Bill O’Reilly suggest, this “trolling” is elevated from evidence of what it really is—a culture that has forgotten how to argue—and evidence of what it isn’t. To wit: evidence that I Am Right. And People Want to Silence Me.

Oh. Please.  Manufacturing an enemy to enhance one’s legitimacy is a stinking, rotten trick used by underwhelming ideologues of all flavours to extend an intellectual life that cannot, goodness knows, be maintained by their “ideas”.

Because those so absorbed in the matter of “trolling” have no reasonable ideas. Instead of building ideas, they fixate on the most meaningless opposition to them.

When someone tells me to “die in a fire” or that I am “ugly” or “unrapeable”, they have done nothing to silence me. In fact, if their attack is public, they have actually provided a mild support in the service of my ideas.

If they unpick my ideas and argue in a way that exceeds attack on my person or my body, it is then they are a genuine threat.  The way to silence me, by way of example, is with reason.  Yet, I commonly find that invective is preferred.

Oh. But I am wrong. Because no one else gets insulted and threatened online more than women who write acceptable arguments about the pain of having a Bad Body Image  in mainstream publications and it is essential that these voices NOT BE SILENCED.

The author protects the rights of the unremarkable to speak without critique.  But cannot seem to understand that in affording this “safe-space” to a range of women who are, for the most part, already employed to offer their fairly meek opinions, that she is happy to sacrifice the ability of, say, a citizen journalist in Homs or a queer teenager in Brisbane or a network of First Nation activists in Canada to publicly and anonymously offer their view of the world.

“Why allow the violent and cowardly to hide?” she asks.  Well, You know. Because if we don’t “allow” anybody to hide, then everybody who needs anonymity to communicate will hide.

But this is our era of liberal progressivism, innit. Matters like information security and data sovereignty move few journalists and readers to anger.  Matters like Someone Hurt My Feels on the Internet move many.  The NSA is not a threat when compared to a troll who tells me to die in a fire.  Privacy is not a chief concern; especially not when compared to internet meanies.

WHAT KIND OF WORLD threatens the freedom of average thinkers to say unsurprising things?

Not this one. Wish it fucking would.

27 comments for “A Troll in the Park

  1. Diane
    February 15, 2014 at 3:28 pm

    You take another little piece of my heart when you write like this.
    Soon, I will be heartless.
    Or, perhaps I already am

  2. Alex
    February 15, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    I think many people complain about the kinds of trolling women are subject to compared with men, not just the relative incidence. Generic ad hominem is for the men, more sexist language for the women.

  3. Jacob
    February 15, 2014 at 4:09 pm

    Thank you for getting this response out. This piece really got my goat today. So much so I nearly decided to write a blog. But then I realised I’m fundamentally quite lazy … But two things stuck out for me and I wonder what you think.

    Firstly (sorry, I hate enumerating like that but I’m ranting!) I thought this piece by Baird is endemic of other op-ed pieces that revealed themselves this week. They’re just churned out at such a rapid rate that the quality of thought behind it is being compromised. I’ve always found that most well thought out things that I write (as a law talking man), need a bit of time to germinate. Sometimes I can crack out a good advice on a topic I know backwards. But if I try to rush it, its generally underdone – and I’m seeing a lot of underdone pieces this year. Maybe I’m being kind – maybe its just sloppy intellectual work or people deliberately writing stupid poorly researched pieces?

    Secondly, I have a fundamental problem with her first ‘suggestion’ for dealing with the ‘trolls’ – that you track them down to their place of work and complain. It is, in my view, a revival of the idea that an employer can and should regulate the behaviour of the individual.

    By all means, if the ‘offensive’ conduct is occurring at work and using employer resources (be it IT, bandwidth, time or ‘brand’), the employer has a role to play – thats one of the features of the concept of vicarious liability. But this idea that the employer can be a quasi or actual regulator of social behaviour is the more insidious message of the piece. It is an approach that has been rejected time and time again by the courts. However, the way policy is developed in this country at the moment (shout loudly for a week or two about a problem and demand a quick and easy fix), I would be concerned that her ‘advice’ is picked up as ‘sound policy’ and suddenly picked up by employers and politicians alike.

    Anyways, thats my rant in response to your rant. And thank the baby jeebus that you don’t have a character limit on your blog, allowing me to rant in a semi logical way. :)

    • February 21, 2014 at 3:26 am

      Yes.. I can’t find much with which I disagree, here.
      Although, I don’t know if this stuff is churned out quickly.
      Baird actually writes pretty well. She is, I think, a product of academic training and certainly follows the apparent structure of an argument. But her argument is profoundly liberal. It is an idea of “rights” that, like the Magna Carta, extend only to a few wealthy land owners. You know, she might have deposed the King but she’s building a new power structure.
      The problem is not so much time, I think. Although, the exigencies of the market fuck us all up. People like me, and, I assume, Baird are now paid just as much as the women she interviews in her article who are not, like us, more formally trained to be media providers. And so what happens is that we necessarily come up with work that is not as good as it could be if we were paid in more traditional labour-value system.
      Just to give you an idea of the mechanics, I wrote this on writing. http://badhostess.com/fuck-you-and-your-mate/ Time was, I could spend all day and night and the next day writing an opinion piece. And a few days thinking about it, too. If I did that now, I wouldn’t be able to make the rent.
      I don’t know if Baird is in a situation like mine. Even if she has been spared the poverty of the writer’s life, the fact is this widespread poverty (and that is no exaggeration; most of us do really live below the poverty line. I know plenty of exquisite writers who can no longer afford to live in cities) has caused a poverty of ideas from which there is no escape. So all we really get is this vile liberalism. Which we even see now espoused by some of our most serious left-wing thinkers.
      This stuff is easy to produce and it is very easy to consume. The idea of Individual Responsibility with the odd bit of “don’t be a racist” and “don’t be a misogynist” thrown in is now the most marketable form of analysis.
      Baird, at least, does it well. And I imagine she is actually a fairly ardent humanist liberal who can tell you about Immanuel Kant. Her deontology is of a better quality than others.
      But, yeah. This tittle-tattle attitude where people critique bits of power and happily use other bits of power is fucking beyond me.
      How “trolls” got to be an important Social Issue is anyone’s guess.

      • Carlene
        February 23, 2014 at 7:50 am

        Helen, the reply above is an absolute lesson in what it means to debate ideas & not attack the people who have them. Every aspiring writer should read it every day until it sinks in. Amongst the many things to despair about the plethora of badly written opinion pieces is none of those authors or their 140 character mates would come close to getting it

  4. David Anderson
    February 15, 2014 at 7:41 pm

    I’ve done my fair share of real trolling, on Facebook mostly. It’s nothing to do with debate, it’s about getting a rise from simple people, for fun. Imagine your target is a battery operated doll with various buttons and knobs which you can use to make it do silly things, and you press and turn at it until it goes berserk, and then some more. Cool stuff.

    Trolling is not calling people names because you don’t like them or disagree with them. In fact if your target knows they’re getting trolled then by most definitions your troll attempt has failed.

    Ironically (?) having written this article Julia Baird is likely to encounter some real trolls (who’ll be hoping their antics instigate her to write another silly article, with them as the subject!)

  5. Hayley
    February 16, 2014 at 11:58 am

    Your point about trolling occurring in the absence of the intelligence to make a decent argument is great. I do wonder though what is the answer to some of the horrific and traumatic abuse that occurs. You may be able to shirk it off but clearly a lot of people can’t. Case in point being the woman mentioned in the article who had her stillborn child turned into fodder for trolls. These kinds of distressing attacks are not ok. I wonder what the solution is to that, as I can’t lump it in with the ‘just ignore them’ mode of dealing.

    • February 16, 2014 at 12:02 pm

      Mate. People are shitty. You can’t legislate that away.

      • Hayley
        February 16, 2014 at 12:36 pm

        I’m afraid you’re right.

        • February 16, 2014 at 2:58 pm

          And this is news?

  6. andye
    February 16, 2014 at 12:56 pm

    “die in a fire”

    I remember back in the day I used to comment on a comment site. It started around 1999 and the heyday was the early to mid 2000s. This was before the social media explosion and the common use of comments in news articles. I remember that much of the discourse that is now called “trolling” was basically “how do you do?” in this arena. If you couldn’t come up with a soul crushing burn of your opponent in response to something you mildly disliked, you weren’t trying hard enough. “die in a fire” was cliched and overused by noobs trying to battle the grizzled veterans. The experts aimed to make a noob poster break down. Those who survived the trial by fire generally toughened up and joined in the game, not taking the wordplay to heart. There was a forum dedicated to people making “i am leaving forever posts” so the bodies of the fallen did not clutter the main point of the site, which was a bunch of often intelligent rejects with broken personalities attacking each others insecurities to feel important and big.

    There were other bigger sites around this time too. They had similar populations, though I think the one I am talking about was one of the nastiest. You had to find it, though. You had to join this terrible conversation. The trolls today are not limited to that. They can personally reach out to a celebrity and troll them unsolicited. They attack people who are choosing to operate at a different level of discourse to them. They are no longer confined to the reservation.

    Social media has just democratised being a jerk. None of these modern trolls seem to be anything close to as witty and acerbic as their predecessors, replacing this with blunt threats and crude shocks. Much of it is cartoonish and vile, but the danger is that buried in the bile that now passes as commonplace are real and genuine threats and dangers. In the old way, everyone was anonymous. Today the trolls are generally anonymous and attacking a known person.

    So I see so much history and precedent, but the changing shape of the non-troll media has shaped the way trolls operate. Basically, I have the Hipster view of trolls. I liked them more when they were underground, before they sold out.

    • el don
      February 19, 2014 at 2:55 pm

      yes, i had an experience of similar type of email list (96 – 2003) – where they did actually TRY to welcome people and NOT send them off in high dudgeon. but so many feelings get hurt so easily in writing and in semi-public forums, that the slightest disagreement would send people to the public unsub stalk-out. talk about roll your eyes.
      (i was so involved in this type of *discourse* i wrote my phd on it, but that’s another story)
      nowadays that genteel world seems to have gone. and the lovely arguments with it. i mean, twitter. how can you make an argument on twitter.
      anyways… one course i’m involved with is giving one aspect of all this a burl – trying to get journalism students to understand what makes a specious or fallacious argument. i reckon we get a 50% comprehension rate, so that is good news as far as i’m concerned. some of the products are on display on the website we make them use as well – http://mdia2002.org/2013/ – unfortunately the gems are hidden amongst the stylised…

  7. Kelly
    February 16, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    I’m prob considered a troll for commenting on here but as I am an ‘overthinker’ & prone to writing sentences that are too long, I decided to comment
    I agree that you cannot police & enforce ‘niceness’ in society or Twitter.
    Cruelty/spite/vitriol for some is every day while for others a rarity, so perhaps while trolling is the problem, the response is what we can control.
    Trolling is not gender specific for those who experience or inflict, so I agree that it shouldn’t be made out to be affecting any one category
    This morning on Twitter I made an inept attempt to convey to you that your writing engaged me & made me realise that getting annoyed with how the message gets delivered prevents me from hearing that message. It is misinterpration of style that loses that meaning.
    It (the annoyance) wasn’t personal or directed at you, but rather self-annoyance that I hadn’t realised the points that you make by myself.
    Your writing cuts thru the sugar coated bullshit into a nerve, it’s raw & it’s blunt but it is also factual, matter-of-fact and (what I have read), fair.
    I realise that you prob don’t tweet to ‘engage’, but more likely ‘convey’, gawd I don’t even ‘follow’ you but with Twitter how it is the info/message flows, I call it the #fickletrickle.
    I’m sorry you felt I was being personally critical, that was not my intention.
    I can’t promise that I won’t respond to a Tweet ever again but I never personally attack anyone on Twitter & assure you I never will.
    You prob don’t need to read this, most likely you’ll tell me to get fucked & leave you alone, but I needed to say it.

    • Slaggy moll
      February 16, 2014 at 5:18 pm

      I read what you tweeted and Helen Razer’s response. She’s got a post-modernist tome up her arse, don’t waste your time trying to engage.

      • February 16, 2014 at 5:23 pm

        This is new and fun trolling!

  8. sth yarra gal
    February 16, 2014 at 3:38 pm

    The Institute of Public Affairs are champions in this technique.

    The employ trollers to go through websites and attack their opponent’s.

    I saw this with their extreme stance against climate change.

    Tea party tactics thrown in for good measure.

    I honestly think Andrew Bolt is their mentor as I know his son works there.

    They have adopted the nickname called the Institute of private a….holes

    Very nasty and manipulative tactics that resulted in death threats to Climate Scientists

  9. Renee
    February 18, 2014 at 2:38 pm

    Did Julia really imply that there was only ‘one single and notable target of ‘trolls’? I think not. Dramatic much, Helen? Do you not often threaten that you’re ‘never coming back to twitter again!’ because of trolls? Although I don’t agree with everything she wrote, I’m glad she brought the topic up. So there.

    • February 18, 2014 at 3:52 pm

      Baird absolutely said that women are attacked more than men. This is false.

      • Renee
        February 18, 2014 at 6:34 pm

        Agree, she did say that and I don’t know whether it’s true or not but you used language to imply she said women were the ‘only’ target though. I know you were being sarastic but it just seemed very dismissive right off – stop ya whinging girlie. That said, you dissected her argument later on so I may have been too sensitive.

      • Lola
        February 23, 2014 at 2:55 pm

        Your risk of being trolled is proportional to two things. The first is your rate of oversharing, the second is the melodrama factor in your posting. Women might get slightly higher troll rates, because, let’s face it, tweeting about your stillbirth sends the trollmeter skyhigh. Guys are less likely to overshare (only slightly), and melodrama is socially less acceptable, but they get trolled for different reasons (sometimes, the formulas are not mutually exclusive). The second formula for predicting troll rates: you or your postings ‘idiot factor’, combined with a rating on how seriously you take yourself.

  10. Dave M
    February 20, 2014 at 11:44 am

    http://www.smh.com.au/comment/why-i-miss-julia-gillard-20140219-330py.html

    I was apalled and embarrassed by the way that we treated Ms Gillard. I know a lot of women who would make a worthwhile contribution but they don’t want to play the bully game that is endemic in workplaces and politics across this country. I’m sure that you’d hold up OK in this environment but how can we have productive debate when people with something to contribute get bashed up for opening their mouth. I get the idea that if someone, male or female, who has made an idiotic, ill thought out statement gets told to get fucked you’re an idiot. I’ve been told plenty of times and it’s great for self reflection and improvement or even to harden your resolve. It’s when everyone gangs up on the way they speak or their clothes or their hair that I despair of this country. I hardened my daughters up from day 1 but why did I feel the need to do it?

    • February 20, 2014 at 4:07 pm

      Politics is a dirty game and Gillard was not subject to especially poor treatment. Not relative to the poor treatment all politicians receive.
      If you are talking about the Larry Pickering cartoons; have a little search for the ones he did of Bob Hawke.
      And if you are asserting that Gillard was deposed because of trolling, then you perhaps have a different understanding of the ALP than mine. http://www.crikey.com.au/2013/06/28/razer-gillards-knifing-had-nothing-to-do-with-the-patriarchy/

      • Dave M
        February 20, 2014 at 5:11 pm

        The electorate is an ass I agree however when dumb or just plain nasty people in the electorate perpetuate blind hatred and bile constantly through whatever forum then dumb people start to take it as truth. Cartoons don’t bother me but Ditch the Witch doesn’t sound near as bad if you say Ditch the Warlock does it?. If people read enough times on a blog or in the paper that her partner is gay then it is pretty hard to get them to understand the real truth. He becomes gay whether it is truth or not. The art of repeating lies until they become truth is an old political tool and is used very effectively by trollers I understand. Some people can handle this form of intimidation and some people can’t. Sometimes intimidation on a computer screen translates to real life violence and I think this would scare a lot of people too. I think we all lose when the people that can’t handle it decide that they don’t want to contribute anymore out of fear. As for the ALP yes I’ve been a member on and off for 40 years. Right now I’m not a member because I would have rather gone down spectacularly than entertained Rudd as leader again. I do have an understanding of the organisation though and, like pretty much everything else, it is run on greed, fear and self interest.

        • February 20, 2014 at 11:54 pm

          At no point, have I advocated for trolling. Plainly, it is a nonsense discourse. But I would suggest that the explicit assumption that women deal with nastiness of the troll kind more often is wrong and the implicit assumption that they are less able to deal with it is troubling.

          And this is not about me being some tough guy. My life was ruined by a stalker. I have not recovered personally from that fear. I doubt that I ever will. But I can’t abide this dangerous talk of “exposing” trolls. If it means giving up the few precious freedoms we have remaining—those very same freedoms that allowed Chelsea Manning to show atrocity to the world—then I understand my personal discomfort (which is actually pretty sad if you think about it: I am a medically blind person and so was necessarily more vulnerable than a fully-sighted person might be) is part of the price.
          We cannot worry about the small amount of damage to the part for the sake of the liberties of the whole. Well, we can. But when we make personal problems (and trolls, which is what this piece is about are a TINY proportion of internet users and not a social force) universal problems, we fall victim to the rampant individualism that, in my reading of the world, is causing so much harm.
          Unfortunately, people in positions of privilege—and I am one of those when it comes to discourse—just need to suck it the fuck up. You can’t legislate for good manners.
          As to your point that “sometimes” internet violence leads to real life violence. This cannot be substantiated. There are many indications that crimes of violence are at an all-time low in Australia and similar liberal democracies. There is no evidence that trolls, whose power comes from technological anonymity, have caused a spike in violence. There is a case to be made that a culture that plays out its violence emotionally and technologically is less likely to play it out physically, in fact.
          I just can’t. I cannot listen to anyone tell me that stupid, cynical, constructed speech b an otherwise reasonable (except not on single parents, Aboriginal Australians or asylum) Prime Minister was a cry from the heart.
          She was the fucking Prime Minister. The single most powerful person in the nation just not get to say “I’m oppressed like everyday gals” anymore than all of the “viragos” Julia Baird interviewed do.
          These women are not oppressed. At least, not in the way they like to think they are. FFS. Delicate flowers.

          • Dave M
            February 21, 2014 at 10:45 am

            I live in a police state where there are very few personal freedoms left so I’ve never been in a hurry to give up more of them. This also happens to be the murder / violence capital of the world as well as the least technologically advanced so there is evidence for your assertion regarding violence played out technologically being less likely to be played out physically. I have been close to a few people that have been murdered. The reasons were usually mired in piss, speed, sex, jealousy or all four. My point is that there are different worlds across this country and what may apply at one place is foreign and strange in another. They must have left the NT out of their statistics on crimes of violence. I didn’t like the misogyny speech either. It sounded a bit like poor bugger me to me. I especially didn’t like it when she ran away from the Aboriginal ladies and lost her shoe. That for me was when I knew that she was finished. I hope like hell that your life hasn’t been ruined and I hate the fear being still with you.

  11. Cathy
    February 20, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    We all agree that trolling is bad. It’s not right. Agreed. What is difficult for me to understand is how many of the same groups (yes, even feminist ones) which bang on about how bad trolling is are quite happy to share for comment some photo of some personal trainer from Shitsville USA who wrote a FB promo that was kinda annoying. They do this in order for her image to be vilified and reshared and for her to be personally hated by people thousands of kms away because she’s a bit annoying. How is this superior to trolling? It has the veneer of being socially acceptable, that’s all.
    I watched a bit of a “trolhunter” show a few weeks ago and the good-looking, bit-famous host tracked down a convicted “troll” and confronted him in the street a-la-ACA and the man looked pathetic and just said go away but the host kept hounding him and I think we were all supposed to say “Yay! He sure humiliated that loser” and it just made me even more sad for our society.

  12. CAP
    February 23, 2014 at 2:15 pm

    My biggest problem with trolls is – It used to mean something. You lived under a bridge and made life hell for people. Possibly ate people. Now days the actual trolls run around being repugnant and then turn around and accuse others of being a troll for standing up for themselves.

    Yes there is an element of trolling that is truly insidious and dangerous and it’s not to be taken lightly, it literally destroys lives. I do, however, take exception when I hear about someone being upset by trolls when they have spewed forth the most vile discriminatory rhetoric and are then surprised people said something nasty (or sometimes not even nasty, they just have defended themselves) in return. Now trolls are crying troll and snivelling into their hankies when people are simply standing up to the abuse they have propagated. Maybe we need a new name for this behaviour of crying troll when you have been the original and instigating troll – perhaps they are snolls (somewhere between a snake and a troll)

    I would like to start a list of Snolls – People who can never ever cry troll – among them will be a handful of shock jocks and the occasional education minister or equally trollesque politician. Add a smattering of mining magnates and media empire barons….. along with a countless number of privileged nasty snots (another mix – snotty troll=snoll too)who condescend and belittle people and are then are shocked that the people they have been perceiving as dirt beneath their feet, are actually articulate thinking beings. There are also regular not so privileged folk out there trolling away and being what some people call A-hats, then acting completely astonished when someone dares to disagree with them. Aahh yes, the troll transcends class, gender race and any other box I can think of – as does the rise of the Snoll.

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