Internet trolls have a pretty terrible reputation. Mind you, that’s probably because they’re known for doing pretty terrible things. Run a search for the last month or so and you’ll see what I mean. The McCanns have been subjected to a torrent of online abuse; a man who threatened to “violently rape” a young mother on a football forum was fined £1,500; and a Minecraft developer left his job because fans of the game weren't being very nice to him on Twitter.
The term “troll” has become shorthand for more or less every nasty scumbag on the internet, and there’s no denying that’s exactly what these people are. But this accepted meaning is actually a relatively new definition of the word – an easy, evocative, catch-all term to slap into headlines about any old sadistic weirdo doing something cruel via their internet connection. Five years ago – and this will come as no surprise to anyone with a basic capacity for remembering things – trolling meant something very different.
There are plenty from this old guard still lurking around the online undergrowth who consider their cyber agitation to be an art form – a calling, even. They see trolling as a form of political protest – something that can benefit society – and are frustrated that it’s been debased by idiots sending racist abuse to singers and footballers from anonymous Twitter accounts. Instead, they say, it’s a longstanding internet subculture that consists of pushing the boundaries of offensiveness, mocking anyone who takes themselves too seriously and exposing hypocrisy.
One person who holds this particular point of view is Zack, who I’ve previously interviewed for my book The Dark Net. He’s a 30-year-old self-described troll from Sussex who laments the state of modern trolling. “Threatening to rape someone on Twitter isn’t trolling,” he explained. “That’s just threatening to rape someone. On Twitter.”
Zack – and others like him – claim to “troll in the public interest”, using an array of tactics they’ve refined over many years of pissing people off online. His favourite technique, he explained, is to intentionally make basic grammatical or spelling mistakes, wait for someone to insult his writing and then lock them into an argument about politics. He showed me one recent example that he’d saved on his laptop, where he’d posted what appeared to be an innocuous, poorly written comment on a popular right-wing website, arguing that right wingers wouldn’t be right wing if they read more. An incensed user responded and Zack immediately hit him with a barrage of arguments and insults that he couldn’t muster any kind of response to.
Zack is a member of several trolling groups, all of which he says are trolling in the public interest – or, as he puts it, “questing”. A kind of cyber neighbourhood watch, they seek out extremist, misogynistic or generally unpleasant groups and start trolling them. One group, for example, is “Blue Pill”, which was set up to target “Red Pill”, a men’s rights subreddit that allows users to discuss “sexual strategy in a culture increasingly lacking a positive identity for men”. That roughly translates to: a water cooler for guys who believe men are openly oppressed in today's society, where 95 percent of CEOs on the Fortune 1000 list are male and female bosses earn 35 percent less than their male counterparts. Blue Pill exaggerates, satirises and mocks Red Pill; trolling – they say – in the public interest.
Trolling as we now know it is a creepy hobby carried out by lonely people filling the well in their soul with the tears of strangers. But in instances like this, it’s hard to argue that it’s not a little funny. Riling up users of an internet forum is never going to change the world, but it’s nice to know there are people out there giving up their free time to aggravate those who deserve a little aggravation.
Far from a new phenomenon, Zack is harking back to the roots of trolling, which is a pastime almost as old as the internet itself. The introduction of the World Wide Web and America Online in the early-90s saw a dramatic rise in the overall number of netizens, many of whom flocked to a raucous and uncensored collection of message-boards, which were collectively known as “Alt” (short for alternative). In 1992, experienced users in the Alt group alt.folklore.urban started “trolling for newbies”, posting something that would coax the new users into making themselves look foolish, while simultaneously letting the initiated know exactly what they were doing.
So the word doesn’t actually refer to some greasy emotional terrorist firing out abuse from his suburban hovel, but rather the slightly less sinister technique of trolling a baited line to see what bites. Zack’s spelling errors were his baited line, and in the 90s it was his way to constantly – and perhaps somewhat pointlessly – push at the boundaries of offensiveness.
At the time, most trolls – like the majority of internet users back then – were libertarians (or anarchists, who also saw the transformative power of an uncensored computer network) who thought censorship was archaic in the new digital world. Trolls often pressed offensiveness into the service of this ideology. On one occasion they repeatedly posted an innocent-looking link – accompanied by captions like “I’ve been feeling down, here’s a link to a poem I’ve written” – to Oprah Winfrey’s “Soul Stories” chat board. The link directed whoever clicked on it to hardcore porn.
Zack also used to Goatse strangers (where you post an innocuous-looking link that directs to an image of a naked man spreading his butt cheeks apart), and tells me it was highly enjoyable. “It’s fun to offend someone who is so ready to be offended,” he says. “It’s circular – they’re too ready to be offended, you offend them and it proves you’re right.”
Possibly the most notorious trolling group of the early-2000s – and one of the first to veer away from exclusively pointless piss-taking (though still keeping one foot firmly planted in that field) – was the “Gay Nigger Association of America” (GNAA). In case you hadn’t already guessed from the name, the founders – a group of mysterious, highly skilled programmers – created and disseminated extremely offensive material with the aim of upsetting bloggers, celebrities, popular websites and anyone else they decided they wanted to bother, all under the banner of “sowing disruption on the internet”.
The group claims to be anti-racist and has launched various attacks to highlight examples of racism in the media. During Hurricane Sandy, for example, they spread a fake rumour about African-Americans looting people’s homes and stealing domestic pets – an attempt to demonstrate how shoddy mainstream reporting on African-Americans can be. It worked: the story, presumably evading any kind of fact-checking process, was reported by several mainstream media outlets.
A later group, LulzSec, went into their attacks with a similar mentality, hacking Fox.com’s website in 2011 and leaking swathes of information after a presenter on Fox News referred to the rapper Common as “vile” on air. Over the next few months they claimed responsibility for a number of other attacks – against the FBI, The Times and The Sun, among others – until the group’s leader Sabu cooperated with the FBI, revealing the true identities of other members of the group and effectively hanging it out to dry. Semantic anoraks (surely the worst kind of anoraks) might argue that LulzSec were more “hacktivists” than trolls, but their agenda seemed to be much the same as Zack’s and the GNAA’s.
There are others who troll in pursuit of a political vision, though don’t necessarily go about it in the most sympathetic way. According to Old Holborn – who’s been dubbed one of “Britain’s vilest trolls” by The Daily Mail (something he seems to wear as a badge of honour) – pissing people off is a good way to keep society alert.
He tweets and blogs constantly, his face hidden behind a Guy Fawkes mask. But without that he’s not nearly as intimidating; meeting him for coffee, he turns out to be a well-dressed, fast-talking middle-aged man from Essex, doing well for himself in recruitment and computer programming. He’s most infamous for his attacks on the families of the 96 Liverpool fans who died in the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, so is understandably viewed as a bit of a prick by anyone aware of who he is.
“You could call me a gob-shite,” he tells me. “Always have been. I’m very anti-authoritarian.”
He describes himself as a minarchist, someone who believes in the smallest possible government – “We just need someone there to protect private property; everything else, we can work out ourselves” – and sums up his worldview as: “The government should just leave us alone.”
Trolling is his way of causing trouble for the system. “I want to be the itch – the grain of sand in the machine,” he says.
In 2010 he stood for Parliament in Cambridge, wearing his mask and frustrating the Electoral Commission by changing his name to Old Holborn by deed poll. Around the same time, he marched into a police station in Manchester wearing the mask, carrying a suitcase full of £5 notes to pay bail on a pub owner who’d refused to enforce the 2007 smoking ban.
It’s hard to see what defacing the memorial page of a south London rapper – another notch on his digital bedpost – has to do with minarchy, or really anything other than cruelty. But he says he fears a silent and obedient society, arguing that a world where everyone is offended will lead to self-censorship. He sees it as his role to prod and probe the boundaries of offensiveness, giving the rest of us a bit more room to breathe.
"TROLL HAS BECOME A BLANKET TERM FOR ANY HATEFUL DICKHEAD WITH A HARD DRIVE"
Perhaps Old Holborn does sometimes set out with a genuine political purpose; it’s true that worrying too much about offending other people can eventually be calamitous in a free society. However, I also believe his trolling has something to do with the infamy he enjoys, as well as the strong chance that he just enjoys bullying people. I mean, there’s no way to defend the targeting of Hillsborough victims, regardless of the conceptual spin you put on it.
I suppose the problems with trolling are a) that some trolls seem to miss the line between satire and offensiveness, and b) this issue of the word becoming a blanket term for any hateful dickhead with a hard drive. For each misogynist takedown, there’s a Peter Nunn, who was jailed this week for threatening to sexually assault Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy. And for every attack on a legitimate target, there’s some waste of bandwidth leaving indefensible comments on someone’s Facebook page.
The solution for those “trolling in the public interest” would surely be to just forego the term itself and start working under another collective moniker – “agitators”, perhaps, or basically anything that doesn't represent what the word "troll" has come to represent. A name that could clearly distinguish between those targeting people or organisations that deserve to be attacked, and the vindictive sociopaths attacking innocent web users for their own amusement.
Then again, it’s not always that clear cut. Old Holborn falls into the second category as much as he sets out to occupy the first, and those who do intend to "troll in the public interest" are just as likely to end up descending back into campaigns that lack any clear sense of purpose. During one of Zack’s far-right trolling episodes, for instance, someone uploaded a naked photo of him that they’d found online. It didn’t faze him. He hit back immediately.
“You shouldn’t deny yourself,” he wrote. “If looking at the pics makes you want to touch your penis then just do it… if you want I can probably find you some more pictures of my penis – or maybe you’d like some of my ass also? Or if you want we could talk about why regressive ideologies are a bad idea in general and why people who adopt them are likely to have a much harder time in understanding the world than someone who’s accepting of progress and social development?”
He continued along this theme for a while, peppering insults against the far-right posters in among quotes from Shakespeare and Cervantes. For Zack, this was a clear win. His critic was silenced by the deluge, which occupied the comments section of the website for several hours.
“He was so incapable of a coherent response that he resorted to digging into my posting history for things he thought might shame me – but I’m not easily shamed,” says Zack. “More importantly, I could demonstrate how foolish it is to try to dismiss an argument because I’ve posted naked pictures before.”
But what was the point? I ask him. I thought you were trying to expose far-right groups?
“Yes, and by posting the naked photos, that caused it to be picked up outside the group and draw attention across the site. So the group I was trolling got a much larger audience than they would have done had it remained a bland argument. This is what trolling’s all about – creating an interesting scene to unfold, thus getting more people to think about the issue being raised.”
Do you think you succeeded in doing that? I ask.
There’s a short pause. “I dunno, but it was fun. So it doesn’t really matter if it was otherwise fruitless.”
Jamie Bartlett is the author of The Dark Net