Redefining the word troll, it’s all about control

Politicians love using the word troll to attack their online detractors. My creepy stalker usually gets this term wrong, along with his use of ‘sock-puppet’.

But they generally get the context wrong. I have long wondered if it was deliberate stupidity or a plan. My creepy stalker usually gets this term wrong, along with his use of ‘sock-puppet’.

Now there is evidence that such hijacking of the term may well have been deliberate.

It will undoubtedly thrill those responsible to know that the abusive comments and emails they have sent me over the years – mostly when I was running the Blogocracy blog at News Limited – were actually upsetting.

Although such abuse was a very small percentage of the tens of thousands of comments the site received, there is something debilitating and disquieting about knowing that someone took the time to write to abuse you in the most base terms, wished you actual physical harm, or worst of all, wished harm upon your family. Being a bloke, I probably got off fairly lightly too: look no further than the recent torrent of online abuse targeting women for proof.

To put it plainly, I have nothing but contempt for those who engage in this sort of behaviour, and am happy to see them pursued and exposed. But I am also a fan of online discussion more generally, whether it be on social media, on blogs, or in the comments section under stories in the mainstream media.  

Trolls and abusers can hurt. You should see some of the hateful emails I have received over the years, mostly sent through anonymous email accounts. The voicemail messages are worse…because you can hear the hate in their words. They don’t frighten me but they do sometimes get through the armour.

Such interactions have significantly changed the nature of the media environment, giving voice to sections of the community who have never before been able to contribute. These developments are not the democratic panacea cyber utopians sometimes pretend they are, but they are a vast improvement over the top-down media models of the past, where the audience was relegated to the role of passive consumer. We need to be careful not to let this abuse discourage us from pursuing online interactions in a way that enhances democratic participation.

There is a reason why the team here at WOBH keep a light hand on moderation…and it perhaps one of the reasons why the blog is growing…people can and do have a say.

What particularly disturbs me is the way in which sections of the mainstream media and others in positions of power use the worst of what happens online to condemn all that happens online. One manifestation of this is the way in which the word “troll” has been appropriated by sections of the mainstream and redefined.

The word once had quite a specialised meaning limited to a particular sort of disruptive behaviour, but it has now become a catch-all term to describe any behaviour that some journalists and editors deem inappropriate. Their responses to what they call “trolling” often seem less about combating abuse than reasserting their role as gatekeeper, to restore to themselves the right to decide who gets to speak in public and who doesn’t. It is what US academic Susan Herbst calls “the strategic use of civility”.

I think we have a good handle on trolls here at WOBH.

Another aspect of this sort of gatekeeping is the demand by certain privileged people inside and outside the media to end online anonymity. On the surface this seems like a reasonable idea, but it is really just an assertion of power.

It is very easy for those with the institutional backing of, say, a political party, a trade union or a newspaper to demand that everyone use their own name when entering online discussions, but it isn’t that simple. Without that sort of institutional support, and without the experience of involvement in public discussion, many ordinary people feel vulnerable – anonymity is the one tool they have to level the power differential.

Probably the most hypocritical aspect of the “concern” some in the mainstream express about online abuse is their willingness to turn a blind eye to their own shortcomings. They not only assert their own right to unfettered free speech, but actively encourage from some of their most highly paid employees the sort of abusive behaviour they condemn in others.

Ahem…David Fisher…Duncan Garner…yes…you guys.

As a result, some idiot calling people names in a comment thread is defined as a “troll”, but a high-profile columnist who provokes anti-gay sentiment in a major newspaper is a “hard-hitting journalist”. I mean, who didn’t laugh in disbelief when shock-jock Ray Hadley joined last year’s “anti-trolling” campaign run by the Daily Telegraph in Sydney?

Twitter has been so revealing.

Online abuse doesn’t arise in a vacuum. It is part and parcel of the sort of aggressive, adversarial approach to public debate encouraged by some of our major institutions, from the courts to the parliament to the media itself. We are right to be appalled by some of its worst manifestations, but we also have to be smart enough to realise that campaigns against trolling, or bans on anonymity, are less to do with concerns about civility than they are about exercising control over public debate.

There are plenty people in positions of power and authority who simply don’t want ordinary people to have a voice in the public sphere and we shouldn’t let them set the rules of engagement.

And that there is why the media were so loud in squealing about their rights…they don;t want others having access to what they have, they are simply protecting their patch.


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  • Mr_V4

    Charlotte Dawson anyone?

    • Travis Poulson


      • P1LL

        I would do more than sniff Trav ;P

  • OrphanIsland

    Grand Unification is simply standing in space and observing.
    Understanding the psychological metaphors. (c 2013)

    … sorry Cameron, couldn’t help myself -.}

  • Bunswalla

    I ventured across to the Stranded (I mean Lyn Prentice’s hate blog) earlier this week to see what the reaction would be to JK’s sound spanking of John Campbell. i don’t often go there for two main reasons – I often feel like gagging or retching after a short time, and I always feel the need to go and have a shower afterwards to get some of the grime off.

    It’s interesting to see how lprent has hijacked the term “troll” to basically shut down anyone with a viewpoint, comment or even question that might disturb their cosy little world-view. I don’t need to spell it out – we all know.

    In the online “debate” (and I use that term in the loosest possible meaning) anyone with a slightly dissenting view had a smug comment underneath from lprent, along the lines of “Simple trolling – simple solution, a ban for a week”.

    Not one of the comments could be called trolling in even a very broad definition of the word, it was just a way to shut down anyone with the temerity to question their world-view. One of the many great things about WOBH is that comments aren’t moderated either before or after posting (very rarely some are removed for legal purposes or if they’re particularly offensive, and fair enough). Nor does anyone get banned on the whim of the world’s greatest sysop.

    At the Stranded you either toe the line or you’re out, meaning it becomes an increasingly irrelevant circle-jerk run by an idiot with delusions of grandeur. On this blog dissenting views are welcome and responded to generally in a fair way. I agree on most occasions with a lot of what’s posted. Sometimes I disagree passionately and often I’ve been shot down when I take a contrary view to the majority. There’s a big difference between being shot down and shut down, though!

    • Patrick

      Just remember those heartbeats while on the Stranded are not recoverable, they are gone, your life is shorter. Why waste valuable time on that site looking at the socialists circle jerk each other?

      • cows4me

        Perhaps we should have a contest on how long it takes to get banned from the Substandard, I think i lasted about two weeks before I was told to take a hike, of course I was devastated.

        • williamabong

          Sorry cows can’t happen, most of us are already banned from the weeping sore that is the strandard, mine took two days,and I didn’t even try, I signed on under another email and that lasted a week.
          Perhaps a better contest would be how many different alias you could get banned under, the other thing is when you leave there you always feel like you need delousing.

    • axeman

      Ah yes the SUB-standard is really a quite sad little corner of the Internet; a dark, miserable, depressing little site where bitter people go to rant and moan and groan
      They have succeeded in becoming a collective joke. Perhaps they could try winding the frothing union fundamentalist wingnuts in?
      lyndaprent and the self described “tolerant” Socialists so easily become the intolerant Fascists they profess to abhor. Kind of typifies the whole left wing problem really doesn’t it?

      • Mediaan

        Yes it does. Call themselves liberal, but are the planet’s fastest fascisti.

    • AnonWgtn

      I go to the Stranded to see if the same old crappers are still spouting – most of them still living the 1959 Strikes.
      I go to do as Sun Tzu says in the “Art of War” – “Know thine enemies”.
      Fortunately, they are almost all a waste of a laugh but pays to keep an eye on their thinking if that is possible – to think that is.
      They could be good for Labour, but it is too late know, if they grew up and put forward some helpful policy except just slanging everything National does on a personal basis.
      This is going forward 2013 not 1950.

  • cows4me

    Troll, denier, whatever it’s one side wishing to control the language and ultimately the argument. Journalists must feel particularly aggrieved as they no longer hold the high ground like they use to. In times of old the column in the paper was usually the final words on the matter and only the very lucky got to challenge their musings if the editor let a letter be printed. The establishment set the language and the message, both are now on the back foot. They are use to the rules working in their favour, look at the crocodile tears cried over Vances email leaks, it’s not suppose to work that way. The playing field no longer runs down hill in their favour, it’s being levelled as we speak and they are not too pleased with the prospect.

    • Mediaan

      The Letters from the community are the first newspaper page I turn to. The most interesting part of our Fairfax newspaper in Christchurch. But the quality, as you say, is deteriorating.

      Then, gloomily and reluctantly, a duty, I read the Editorial whilst on that page. Never much in it, and the same relentless focus on earthquake and property trivia as in the rest of the newspaper, which is deeply boring after three years of it.

    • FredFrog

      I’d also add “racist” to the two words you highlight in your first sentence.

  • peterwn

    Two things here.
    1. I will not waste my time commenting on a blog or on-line MSM article if it is likely to be delayed or killed at moderation. I – am sure others feel the same – this is why Whaleoil and Kiwiblog are so successful.

    2. If newspapers are so concerned that blog commenters should use their real names, perhaps they would like to byline their editorials with the writer’s name.

    • williamabong

      Complete agreement, Stuff is the worst, they stifle debate by holding disenting comments long enough to allow debate to follow their chosen line, hardly a debate when only the houses viewpoint gets heard, but about par for Fairfucks.

  • BobaJob

    Thanks for that Whale, appreciate your sharing that. You and your teams experiences made me feel sick and angry to begin with. But as I read on I gained a real sense of empowerment.

    I get it.


  • Jman

    I’ve always thought of a troll as someone who goes out of their way to deliberately spoil a conversation/thread/discussion. They do so by employing tactics like changing the subject unnecessarily, throwing around insults to provoke reactions and making obviously nonsensical arguments. To be a real troll they also have to have a high traffic volume. After all, making one inflammatory posting isn’t doing much harm but incessant posts, trying to derail multiple threads is what gives the troller away. It’s all in the intention as to whether someone is a troll or simply stupid.