By now, we've gotten used to describing internet trolls in the parlance of warfare: their frothing ranks are an "army" and memes are their weapons. And for good reason. Russia hires keyboard warriors to shift public opinion in the comment section. The Islamic State makes slick memes to sway potential recruits. The Pentagon is investigating the military utility of image macros. And, of course, Donald Trump was elected thanks to "meme magic," according to legions of shitposting pseudo-occultists.
Whitney Phillips, a 33-year-old academic at Mercer University, has written two books on the topic of trolls, their motivations, and effects. Her latest book, The Ambivalent Internet, was written with her colleague Ryan M. Milner during the run-up to Donald Trump's election victory, a particularly fertile—and, according to Phillips, newly politicized—time for internet trolls. It's slated for a 2017 release.
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In 2004, when Facebook was starting to roll out across college campuses, Phillips had just received her bachelor's degree in philosophy at 21. It was too late to join the fledgling social network (which was restricted to students only at that time), she told me in an interview over the phone, and her engagement with the internet at that point could be described as utilitarian at best. Her first encounter with a troll didn't happen until 2008.
It was her own brother.
"My brother is liberal, he's feminist, he's totally gay-friendly and open-minded," Phillips said. "So I'm sitting at the table with him and his friends, and I watched them switch from their normal conversation register to their trolling register with my own eyes. It was like they were wearing masks, and then they would jump in and out of it."
At the time, Phillips thought of trolls as occupying a subcultural space, but throughout her PhD studies she started seeing them as propping up the cultural status quo. No matter the real-life beliefs of the trolls, Phillips felt that their language and jokes online all seemed to reinforce an ideal of white masculinity. She began to view trolling as a pastime for the privileged—people who can afford to joke about rape without thinking about the consequences, emotional or otherwise.
"When you occupy a privileged position, you have the choice whether or not you can take your own word seriously, or the words of others," Phillips said. "You can essentially fetishize just punchlines of situations without actually being impacted by racism. You don't have to think about the lives being impacted."
These ideas percolated during Barack Obama's presidency, and they were brought into sharp, nightmarish relief during the election run of Donald Trump. In speeches, Trump courted white supremacists and closet fascists, and blew great gusts of hot air over the smoldering coals of misogyny, xenophobia, and physical violence.
"When you occupy a privileged position, you have the choice whether or not you can take your own word seriously, or the words of others"
It wasn't surprising to Phillips, then, that legions of online trolls became Trump's loudest base of support and spawned a so-called white nationalist movement marked by the familiar tactics of "just lighten up," irony-heavy trolling. But it was troubling to her.
"You have to be agnostic about the relationship between trolling and Trump's victory because there's no solid data to suggest a causal relationship," Phillips said. "But the detachment that trolling normalized was almost an encouragement, within certain circles, to have that ironic response. And Donald Trump metastasized in that crevice while everyone was so goddamn busy being ironic."
"My response as an academic is tertiary to my response as an American citizen," she continued, "and as a citizen I'm horrified."
Nearly a decade after Phillips began her journey into the darkest corners of the web to try and understand what lurks there, many of those elements have lept out of the shadows and onto the confirmation podium at the National Mall. Her upcoming book The Ambivalent Internet will explicitly touch on the role of trolls in modern American politics, which, as the book's name suggests, is rather Janus-faced.
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Trolling might be the traditional domain of reactionary elements online, but recently progressives have started adopting similar tactics and branded themselves the "dirtbag left." These people are not above the brigading, ostensibly joking harassment, and irony that's become the trademark of pro-Trump trolls, but wielded for good instead of evil.
"Trolling can be a very effective strategy because it trades in the sensationalism that thrives in a click-based web economy," Phillips said. "It can be used to go after regressive positions, and I often think that's hilarious. At the same time, it's predicated on a highly gendered logic and the idea that I'm going to take away your ability to choose what happens to you and I'm going to dominate you. Is that something we want to normalize?"
The ultimate answer to that fraught question—which comes at a time where activism and protest are arguably necessary by all available means—remains to be seen. But in the meantime, Phillips said, she's going to work on being more earnest.
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