Troll Culture Goes Mainstream

It's more than just Washington.

The New York Times had an interesting article last week called “How the Trolls Stole Washington”. Beyond the political discussion, what fascinated me was this idea that trolling was a form of counterculture movement that goes beyond the individual troll.

Mr. Bungle was a lone wolf, but trolling could also be a communal activity.

I’d always looked at internet trolls as an individualized activity purposefully connected with the outside world only inasmuch as it was intended to incite others and garner attention, regardless of how negative. However, I left this article with the impression that there is a connection between those who operate within this troll culture that I’d never considered. And that a variety of factors, both political and otherwise have arguably taken troll culture mainstream, in a sense.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that trolling has become so “accepted” (for lack of a better term) that we often see trolling techniques and behavior used as tools for enforcing more widely accepted norms. The tactic of public shaming of people who are deemed to have offended some norm, for instance, seems to me a trollish technique often applied recently for enforcing more mainstream cultural beliefs. And we celebrate individuals who use trollish techniques against those we oppose - even I admit I’ve enjoyed things like John Oliver posting ads on Fox News designed primarily to incite an angry response from the other side. Or Jimmy Kimmel trolling Donald Trump at the Oscars.

But I’m beginning to wonder if we’ve given up too much by accepting the means by which trolls operate, even if we still generally don’t accept the anarchic counterculture that trolls stand for. Did we end up empowering the trolls by accepting the legitimacy of their techniques? As Amanda Hess notes in her article, these are techniques designed to be divisive, to prey on those who care. Those of us who do care can only mimic the behavior but never truly wield it with force. If we fight on their terms, we will continue to lose.