Interview with a troll
Sean Duffy has been jailed for 18 weeks for “trolling” tribute pages to suicide victims. But was he a “true troll” or was this harassment? And is there a philosophy behind trolling?

Whitney Phillips speaks to troll “Paulie Socash” about tribute sites, free expression and where trolls draw the line
14 Sep 11

Sean Duffy has been jailed for 18 weeks for “trolling” tribute pages to suicide victims.  But was he a “true troll” or was this harassment? And is there a philosophy behind trolling? 

In this extract from an interview in Index on Censorship magazine, Whitney Phillips speaks to troll “Paulie Socash” about tribute sites, free expression and where trolls draw the line

Whitney Phillips: How did you get involved in trolling?

Paulie Socash: For me it was political discussion boards around 2002, especially those with a strong element concerned with 9/11 and its repercussions on national and international politics. It was an easy thing since I was already a participant in a few of these as myself (or the constructed online persona I projected of myself, really), but I decided to create a few alternate personas on these boards to target specific members who happened to be annoying or overly earnest (9/11 “truthers” and various hippie peacenik types for the most part). In other words, people that the real me persona would consider arguing with but knew it wasn’t worth the time and effort to try a rational engagement — it was better, more entertaining, to make them mad through nonsensical postings, shock, or distorting their positions.

Content and style-wise, I followed the lead of other trolls I saw working those boards, but there was not really a hub to meet and discuss trolling or co-ordinate things I was aware of, which is quite different from today.

Whitney Phillips: How regularly do you do it and how do you decide where and how you’re going to be active?

Paulie Socash: Like many trolls, I work in spurts of activity and often take breaks for weeks or months. Mostly at this point, I decide to troll when there is an event that is important, breaking news to a certain group — something people get invested in spending time following online. And the decision to troll is really a function of audience size times individual investment. So the Japanese earthquake and tsunami would be a major event with a huge online audience of people slightly to moderately invested (mostly sympathetic but less likely to spend hours every day on it), but the revelation of an animal abuse video and the subsequent attempts to identify the suspects would lead to a smaller grouping of people with a very strong investment (ie animal rights folks who spend every waking moment online trying to “solve” the case). I’ll stick with the specific thing for a while until it burns out and interest is lost or moderators wherever I’m trolling delete everything and ban all profiles.

Whitney Phillips: Do you see yourself as belonging to a group or community? If so, how would you characterise that community? What’s its purpose?

Paulie Socash: To an extent, yes. But the community is very fluid — people come and go and return. And I’m not talking here about anyone who has ever trolled something for a few days or posts on 4chan. The community I see as my own is made up of trolls who have been at this for a while and take their anonymity seriously — we troll new, sloppy trolls as well (often by showing how unanonymous they are), by the way. Within this community there’s a constant joking back and forth about outing each other, and the decision to drop even the slightest hint about who one is in real life is taken seriously.

Despite the upsides for trolls of a network (which I won’t get into here), communities based on trolling are kind of a liability to trolls. If the point is to troll and remain anonymous, the more one socialises and lets out who one is outside of trolling, the more one undermines that purpose. People tend to actively troll less and let down their guard about personal info.

The purpose of the community … I guess is to exchange ideas and techniques, and to plan co-ordinated trolling. The underlying philosophical purpose or shared goal, anyway, would be to disrupt people’s rosy vision of the internet as their own personal emotional safe place that serves as a proxy for real-life interactions they are lacking (i.e. going online to demonstrate one’s grief over a public disaster like Japan with total strangers who have no real connection to the event). This latter point can be said of trolls, too. There’s a kind of interaction, in-your-face and disrespectful, that trolls would like to but can’t do in real life (for various reasons), so they do it online.

Whitney Phillips: Why is it necessary to be anonymous? Is anonymity important for free expression?

Paulie Socash: Anonymity is critical, in my opinion. It allows one to freely state unpopular positions (whether one’s own or not) without repercussions from those who think saying mean things should result in death threats or vigilante action. An open dialogue needs the fringes and radical elements, even when they are satirical, like A Modest Proposal [a satirical essay written and published anonymously by Jonathan Swift in 1729, proposing that Irish children be sold as food], which was, to an extent, trolling and just happened to be published anonymously.

Anonymous trolling also can act as a check for unexamined, poorly articulated examples of free expression. People who post foolish, unwise things online are certainly free to do so, but anonymous trolling allows for them to be called out and made to defend their positions in ways not always possible otherwise thanks to assumptions of a polite society (and, yes, I realise the paradox here in that trolls absolve themselves from such ownership of their words).

Whitney Phillips: How does your online activity relate to free expression? Do you regard yourself as a champion of free speech?

Paulie Socash: While I certainly take advantage of and support free expression in the abstract, I’m not a “champion” of people actually engaging in free speech online, especially the entitled, solipsistic nonsense the internet (and especially Facebook) is full of. Personally, I’d like people to do a lot less of expressing their opinions and emotions online — it’s pathetic, to be honest.

People should find better outlets for these things than a Facebook page where some billionaires are making money hand over fist off people’s feigned grief and involvement in some event or cause.

What trolls do, however, is push the envelope for what speech should be protected speech. Given the recent prosecution of trolls in places like Australia, what the US legislators and courts decide to do about online speech that pushes the boundaries is very important.

Whitney Phillips:Is there a moral/ethical component to trolling activities? Do you see yourself as protecting causes or individuals?

Paulie Socash: I can’t speak for all trolls on this, but most have some lines they won’t cross and things they take special interest in. For the most part, I’d say trolls are supporters of unfettered free speech and public access to everything (this goes along with filesharing and hacking and the like).

Whitney Phillips: Is trolling “political”?

Paulie Socash: Many to most trolls claim that there is no moral/ethical/political component to their trolling — if it has one of these, then it isn’t “actual” trolling but so-called “moral-faggotry”. This is obtuse, look-at-how-bad-I-am one-upsmanship and mostly false. All trolling has a political component and 99 per cent of trolls have some ethical/moral limits (for example, posting actual child porn is a line most will not cross for reasons beyond legal repercussion). The thing here is that repeated and predictable positions with respect to any issue reflect a lack of creativity or a set position that makes a troll very much like his targets. It is, after all, earnestness and self-righteousness that are the best things to attack when trolling, so having set positions of one’s own is a problem. Most trolls just avoid topics they aren’t willing to troll.

The bigger issue is whether the act of trolling represents a political action regardless of the individual’s intent. I’d say yes in the same way I’d say yes about graffiti or hacking or other behaviours that disrupt the expected flow of everyday life (in real life or online). It is a privileged group that can troll, but they/we are pushing back against status quo expectations of decorum because we can. We despise the smugness and arrogance of the average internet user or entrepreneur, but most of us also realise the real irony that everything we do drops more pennies in the pockets of those who control the actual virtual spaces. Honestly, Mark Zuckerberg has made millions because of trolls.

Whitney Phillips: Speaking of Facebook, what can you tell me about Facebook memorial page trolling?

Paulie Socash: The biggest media thing/moral panic related to trolling over the past year or so has been memorial pages for dead people on Facebook, usually those for dead white teenagers to 20-somethings. When these get trolled, a huge outcry follows from the thousands of people who obsessively watch the pages and then the media gets things wrong and makes a big stink. People are shocked that people could be so low as to say mean things about dead kids to their families or whatever.

The reality of this is simple: the vast majority of those who get large memorial pages on Facebook are cute little kids (Jamie Bulger) or pretty young ladies (Jenni-Lyn Watson, Chelsea King) or useful pawns for a cause (Tyler Clementi and other gay suicides). These memorial pages are decidedly not a place for friends and family to grieve (family and friends should be grieving together in private like normal people). In reality, these are havens for “grief tourists”: people who substitute online emotions and declarations of solidarity for real emotional relationships and friendship. Most memorial pages are not set up by friends or family; they are created by people who are too involved with the stories they read online or see on the news — people who derive some sense of self-importance and worth from being seen to care by strangers.

There are of course exceptions to this. There are indeed memorial pages set up by family that get trolled because your average user is too ignorant of the controls of the page given to them by Facebook (and internet culture in general) to deal with trolling. In some trolls’ eyes, these people are asking for it for being ignorant. The other end of the spectrum is memorial pages actually made by trolls to draw in grief tourists — I won’t say much about this, but the Jenni-Lyn Watson page was a prime example.

Whitney Phillips: How would you respond to the assertion that trolling creates a hostile space — or feeds into and replicates an existent hostile culture — for minority groups? What about the assertion that trolling is hate speech or harassment and therefore should be subject to existent legal restrictions? Should the current legal criteria of hate speech and harassment ever apply to online behaviours?

Paulie Socash: Hate crime legislation is stupid . . . as is hate speech, at least when prosecuted by governments for public spheres for adults (I obviously see the purpose in specific environments like a school that already have a ton of exceptions to free speech, but those aren’t quite “laws”). Seriously, if someone kills another person, isn’t that always a hate crime? Someone should do an extra life sentence for murder because they chose to target someone who is gay, black, Hispanic, white (oh, they don’t prosecute for that)? What about if the person murdered was a hippie, or a junkie, or a hobo, or a redhead? Does that count? Or how about rape? Isn’t rape always a hate crime already? It’s absurd that we even have these laws.

While there are exceptions to public free speech here in the US (specifically the “fighting words” exception that allows me to justifiably hit someone talking trash about me), prosecutions or enhancements based on supposed intent, especially those online, are positively Orwellian. The claim that there is any element of trolling that causes someone to be trapped and bullied and subjected to a hostile environment is outright ridiculous. You can log out of the public forum you are engaged in. You can defriend, block, retaliate, or whatever those who are obviously not being nice to you online. It isn’t like getting beat up or picked on while walking to the bus stop because you always have an element of control not present in real life situations — a logoff. The claim about kids online being naïve or otherwise easy targets is lame — where are the parents and their responsibility in all this? There’s a good reason that Lori Drew [indicted in case of “cyberbullying” a 13-year-old girl who committed suicide] was acquitted, and that went way beyond just trolling since she had a real life motive, apparently. The real question to ask with respect to teen suicides due to so-called “cyberbullying” is why kids today are so likely to kill themselves over it.

Privacy Is dead
Whitney Phillips is currently completing her PhD thesis on internet trolling at the University of Oregon

The full version of this interview appears in Index on Censorship magazine’s “Privacy is Dead” issue. For more details and to subscribe, click here