I can’t remember the first time I heard the word “troll” used as a moniker for someone deliberately behaving badly on the Internet for attention. It was ages ago. I do remember not accepting the premise that the offenders were being hateful solely for “lulz,” though. That reasoning always seemed faulty to me. All that animus had to come from somewhere, and the most likely point of origin was inside of the trolls themselves. To me, it seemed perfectly reasonable to assume that the people behaving like misogynists online were misogynists offline, that the people spouting racist vitriol were racists, that the homophobic rhetoric was being typed by actual homophobes. Real people were on the Internet — that made the Internet part of real life in my mind.
It’s the not being face-to-face that’s made some people so bold. The anonymity removed the immediate social consequences. Those hurling insults were well outside of the punchable range of the people they were offending. Plenty of the tough talk is just that: talk. Nevertheless, something else about “trolls” has always been clear to me: their bad behavior wouldn’t remain sequestered online. They could find each other. They could band together. They could amass numbers. This would embolden them even further, and they’d eventually get up from their computers and take their violent rhetoric out into the real world.
The online profiles of school shooters in the social media age are teeming with red flags. The antisocial, violent discussions they have are shrugged off as adolescent angst, uncomfortable growing pains. “Boys will be boys.” We need to talk more about this, about the way cruelty is often deemed a rite of passage into manhood, about the way their violence is excused. Blaming the hormonal changes of puberty is a cop-out.
I remember adolescence vividly. I found it horrifying, confusing, exhilarating, humiliating, and exhausting. I also remember well the pecking orders at school and how viciously they could be enforced. It was quite ugly sometimes, and there really wasn’t anything to do except find a way to navigate it all and survive. Violence or threats of violence were commonly-employed tactics. As was scanning the herd and pouncing on the weaker antelope before the lions caught you limping. It could be brutal.
I had a tongue like a machete, and that was my weapon of choice. Anyone who said anything moderately unpleasant to me was sliced to ribbons. It was mainly defensive, but I understood that making an example of someone could keep everyone else at bay. For a while. Others were always on the attack, always poking and prodding, always ratcheting things up, always trying to get attention in any form from anybody. In hindsight, I can see that some of them were crying out for help. No one organized their lives around it, though. Yes, there were bullies and class clowns, but I don’t know that you could build an identity around attention-seeking then in the same way you can now. There really wasn’t a way to wear it as a badge of honor without something else to prop it up. Pretty girls got to be mean. Boys who were already built like men got to bully. Male athletes had the run of the place. You needed a license to be horrible publicly. I’m sure those patterns still hold to some extent, but the Internet created room for everyone else and gave rise to the troll, whose existence is defined by being horrible to other people.
There is something empty inside people who troll. The thing hollowing them out is resentment. That resentment is rooted in a poisonous envy born of unfulfilled entitlement. It’s why virulent misogyny is such a common theme in spaces that embrace trolling — the men who take refuge there are losers with women, and they are enraged by their inadequacy. Men are socialized to see women as rewards for their accomplishments. Being denied those rewards turns many men towards violent anger, which they express through harassing women online. It often escalates, though. This frustrated entitlement is why a man who identified as an “incel” (involuntarily celibate) rammed a van into a crowd and murdered ten people in Toronto: because he couldn’t get women to sleep with him. Mass shooters nearly always have disturbing, violent histories with women in their past, and their terrible behavior is often documented online. That rage finds ways to express itself offline, with tragic circumstances. Violent threats towards women are the blaring sirens society refuses to heed.
The Internet is a breeding ground for the radicalization of disaffected young men, but this is all bigger than greasy-haired, sallow-skinned teenage boys online. There’s a whole industry of trolls-who-aren’t-trolling littering the television airwaves.
Megyn Kelly is in trouble again for being racist. Her latest infraction: defending blackface. How could anyone be surprised with her track record? NBC dumping her and her horribly rated show won’t be satisfying, though. She should never have been hired in the first place. There were some who thought her racist nonsense at Fox News was an act — just a gig for cash — an elaborate, high-paying troll. Her brief stint at NBC proves otherwise. She is what she presents herself to be. As are many of her former colleagues at Fox News. Frustrated White entitlement is the foundation of the right-wing media’s grievance industry. It is the refuge of mediocre people whose psyches cannot cope with a fair playing field. It’s why sports is such a fraught arena for them. The scoreboards don’t lie to protect their egos. It’s much deeper than that, though, and more sinister.
Political instability in the United States has reached worrying levels as violence mounts. Prominent members of the opposition party, including two former Presidents, a former Secretary of State, and a former Attorney-General, all of whom are vocal critics of the current President, were targeted for assassination by pipe bombs sent through the mail. A major news organization, with which the President has feuded was also targeted. The President has continued his attacks on the media, which he has referred to as “enemies of the country.” The assassination attempts coincide with the run-up to the mid-term elections in the United States, where voting irregularities favoring the ruling party are already being reported.
Right-wing media outlets, which have been vocal in their support of the President have largely dismissed the massive plot to assassinate his political opponents. Some are downplaying the importance of the assassination plot, while others are calling it a “false flag” the opposition party planned to try to gain sympathy.
Is this trolling? I don’t think so. Every rancid, wicked word serves a political purpose. They genuinely don’t believe the attempted assassination of their political enemies matters. They genuinely don’t care about how incredibly unstable their country is becoming. They have no problem tossing dry gunpowder into the raging flames. They cosy up to authoritarian power rooted in White nationalism, because it’s what they believe in. They genuinely do not believe in the concept of society. Nihilism is the core attribute of the troll. They’re not backing Donald Trump cynically. They share his destructive values.
There has been a serious attempt to take out the leadership of the opposition political party in the United States in one fell swoop via assassination by IED. Anyone who shrugs that off while an authoritarian buffoon sits in the Oval Office has told us all something very important about themselves. They’ve probably been telling us for decades. It’s time to listen, take them at their word, and act accordingly.
They were never “just trolling.” They were propagandizing. There is a system of feedback loops they’ve constructed over decades that reinforce every piece of misinformation they spread. This apparatus cannot be engaged with honestly, and the propaganda it churns out should never have been dismissed as “differences of opinion.” Anyone still selling this line, anyone arguing for “civility” and admonishing people to listen to and debate these bad actors doesn’t understand what’s happening.
They really are fascists.
It’s a frightening thing to grapple with, but all these things are connected: the reality game show host at the head of America’s government, the talking heads functioning as state television at Fox News, the young men who’ve been radicalized online and are taking their violence into America’s streets, as they did in Charlottesville. The biggest troll who wasn’t trolling is the President of the United States. The machinery has coalesced around him. As horrifying as the prospect is, we have to take him and all the right-wing trolls supporting him literally and seriously.