Distraction Free Reading

Trolls, Trump, and Truth: How Much Does History Matter?

In an article published last week on Motherboard, Whitney Phillips, Jessica Beyer, and Gabriella Coleman argue strongly against the widely-circulating idea that that the rise of Donald Trump and his supporters in the alt-right and white nationalist movements can be traced back to early incarnations of the internet-based “trolling” communities such as 4chan. These scholars of trolling culture suggest that a careful historical analysis will show that the recent upsurges in racism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism in our politics are distinct from what their own work treats as the core cultural practice of “trolling.” They argue that 4chan, Anonymous, and trolls in general have never been fully aligned with any single political agenda, and so it is a mistake to reduce the fluid and complex trolling communities of the past to one particularly unlikable segment of what they have become. While I am appreciative of the authors’ insistence on a more precise and causally-nuanced account, I also think we should be careful not to let the pursuit of accuracy distract us from the identification of homologies between these cultural trends.

A Pepe the Frog meme: an angry frog that looks like Donald Trump, pointing down from atop a brick wall.

Image source: Reddit

The authors acknowledge that certain features of early trolling subculture have persisted into the present, but they point out that the discontinuities between the trolls of the 2000s and those called trolls today outnumber the similarities. Failure to recognize this fact, they say, allows for the mistaken idea that trolling culture has been channeled exclusively into right-wing agendas. Against this view, they point to significant offshoots of early trolling culture that have instead pursued decidedly more progressive political aims. Anonymous, for example, aided the Occupy and Arab Spring movements. Getting the history right is important, they contend, because blurring these distinctions gives the alt-right an out, the ability to say: “we’re just trolling,” and avoid responsibility for the content of their speech. As they put it, “The acceptance of trolling into our political language normalizes an antagonist-centered worldview in which the aggressor gets to choose their own terms and assert what the appropriate reaction to their behavior might be.” After all, if they are “just trolling,” then they must not “really mean it.” However, in arguing that the history and political persuasions of trolls are more complex than reductive media accounts suggest, they also stop short of developing a convincing explanation of just what it is that is makes the behaviors of the current coalition of deplorables different from anything that has preceded it in the mainstream of American political life.

They briefly mention “4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump,” a widely-praised article by the writer and artist Dale Beran that has been broadly circulated on social media as an example of the mistaken assertion that there is some fundamental link between the social groups identified with 4chan and Anonymous and their more offensive offshoots. Beran’s piece chronicles his experience with 4chan, describing how its subcultural community came to adopt a specific language and sense of humor, and how its decentralized political engagements led a faction to found the more activism-oriented Anonymous. Beran suggests that there is some causal link between the hopeless alienation of the 4chan community, which he describes as a group of basement-dwelling male gamers, and the rise of Trump. The authors of the Motherboard article would argue that is not nearly so simple, and I would add that it would be nearly impossible to identify such a cause and effect relationship in the first place. Perhaps, however, Beran’s argument does not need to be taken quite so literally. I think there is a broader point worth taking from it.

Whatever concrete historical connection it might be possible to draw between mid-2000s-era 4chan users and the movement that brought about Trump’s victory is not the most important aspect of Beran’s article. What is more interesting is his account of the ethic, system of values, and general attitude that characterized the community that grew up around 4chan and the fact that it, in many ways, it bears an aesthetic and rhetorical resemblance to the current “avant garde of the far right.”

In Beran’s account, the 4chan crowd is made up mostly of young men with bleak economic and romantic prospects who have given up the pursuit of conventional success “IRL” in favor of the more manageable world of internet message boards and video games, their very own “safe space.” They are at once obsessed with stereotypically male contests of strength and entirely resigned to their status as losers. Simultaneously ridiculously self-confident and incompetent, Trump appeals to them as the winner who is also obviously a loser. He is almost an embodiment of their culture of hopelessness. They will not be disappointed when Trump fails to fulfill the promises he made because, as Beran explains, “support for Trump is an acknowledgement that the promise is empty.”

This ethic is where I think there is a crucial link between our contemporary political culture and trolling. It is undoubtedly important for social scientists and historians to know precisely what actually happened and to get the story right. That said, the complexity of this necessary historical work shouldn’t prevent analytic recognition of a coherent, shared cultural sensibility at work here. Philips, Beyer, and Coleman claim that we must not allow the so-called trolls of the right to shrug off criticism by saying they are “just trolling” because they should be made to take responsibility for the damage they cause. It seems to me, though, that this is exactly the reaction this behavior aims to elicit. Sincere opposition to the content of their insults seems only to fuel them further. It very well may be their whole point. Maybe they are so effective at sowing havoc precisely because nobody can be quite sure whether they mean what they say, not even they themselves.

Did the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which was at the same time extremely dumb and bafflingly complex, gain traction in the wider media narrative around the election outcome and the rise of the alt-right because people were so misinformed and paranoid that they really believed John Podesta’s emails contained secret messages referring to a child-sex ring? It seems highly unlikely to me, though undoubtedly some unfortunate individuals were convinced. What seems more plausible to me is that it took off because its creators were able to continue spinning it out into increasingly absurd scenarios because they were not bound to represent the truth, but, on the contrary, were continually rewarded for publicizing what was obviously fantasy. It was a production, not an investigation. Perhaps what makes this discourse distinct, what makes it “trolling,” is that it wins by having an uncertain relationship to truth such that when its opponents debunk it, they often simply appear to be playing the role they have been set up to inhabit. I imagine, for instance, that the conspiracy theorists behind the Pizzagate story were only delighted by any serious efforts to unravel their handiwork systematically, which would, it seems likely, lend them more legitimacy than they would otherwise have.

There is communicative asymmetry here that brings to mind Michel Serres’ concept of the parasite, an entity that positions itself within existing information channels between the senders and receivers of information creating unwanted noise. Though it is excluded from proper communication, it forces the existing order to adjust to its presence and feeds on the circulation of messages while creating none of its own. In a radio interview, Beran, describing 4chan as the epitome of the concept, defines the troll as “someone who is there to disrupt communications” and “lives underneath the normal passages of communication, underneath the bridge [. . .] in that strange dank environment underneath” and only emerges to cause trouble for other people before descending again to safety. Perhaps these parasitical trolls cannot be directly countered or made to take responsibility for their actions in the ways typically considered politically suitable. As Philips, Beyer, and Coleman state, “We don’t have a blueprint for any of this.” Maybe, whether we call them trolls or not, they have to be addressed with communicative strategies that we have not yet discovered.

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