Please, Do Not Feed the Trolls!

Let me ask a rhetorical question: If I tell a joke that no one on the planet understands except myself, am I guilty of a crime? Of course not, and similarly, comedians are not compelled by law to be funny. If someone tells a joke that you do not appreciate, you can leave the performance. The onus is on yourself to leave the situation thanks to the freedom of speech. When bullies pick on our children, we do not run over and discipline someone’s child, but rather we explain to our child that others can be mean and we must have enough confidence in ourselves to ignore them. A modern proverb that expresses the same sentiment is ‘let the hater’s hate’.

The definition of the word satire is a work that ridicules vice or folly. The subject is either directly stated or implied by the situation, and has often been a form of equalizer between the masses and the powerful few. For example, ancient Greek playwrights wrote comedies about the city’s leadership, and medieval kings had jesters in their court. When Aristotle was asked what piece of art best described the spirit of Athens, he directed the inquirer to the satirical plays of Aristophanes. The tradition was carried on to the Roman Empire, where the modern classifications of satire took their names from the authors who first employed them. In the first century B.C., Horace wrote plays that depicted famous personalities who made common mistakes we all do, thereby making them look human and giving the viewer a great laugh. Later in the first century A.D., Juvenal would perfect the form of satire that was rife with ridicule and sarcasm, often evoking rage and motivating the audience to address the evil being identified in the play. We call these classifications ‘Horatian’ and ‘Juvenalian’ respectively. Both of these traditions have continued on to this day, and have often had great effect upon society.

The year is 1729. The Protestants of England have conquered the entire Emerald isle, and have been exerting their dominance over the Catholics by denying them the right to self-government, by depriving them of hereditary property, and even by stripping them of civil rights. Many in England were reaping the benefits of such a relationship while the Irish themselves were declining into poverty, overpopulation, and joblessness. Society at large in England was content to look the other way, until Jonathan Swift writes a very controversial pamphlet, A Modest Proposal. In it, he suggests that England could help Ireland overcome its issues through a very simple method. The Irish mothers who are saddled with so many mouths to feed and no source of income with which to provide for them, he suggests, would do well to sell their young to English landlords. Swift assures the readers that, “A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragoust.” The women would of course be compensated for their loss. Thereby alleviate Ireland of its excess children and its poverty.

The reader is filled with a sense of disgust for the depraved author and sympathy for the deprived people of Ireland. The literal suggestion that the English landlords consume the Irish is also a metaphor for the relationship between the two nations. Jonathan Swift fills his pamphlet with all sorts of arithmetic and graphical analysis that, at the time, was vogue for the mercantilistic society. The Irish themselves, according to one scholar, are reduced to the same terminology used for livestock. Once described as animals, it is a logical step to compare them to meat, and from meat into a price-per-pound. Such inhuman descriptions caused the English to consider their treatment of the Irish and the descent of the situation slowed. A decade later, the Irish would experience a frost-induced that decimated the population. England then sought to improve conditions of the Irish, building up cities and spurring economic development. Finally, in 1782, the Irish were given back their autonomy.

Modern examples of satire include Sinclair’s novel Catch-22 satirizes bureaucracy in the military, Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove pokes fun at how the United States and Soviet Union still fight bitterly even in the face of certain and mutual destruction, and everyone today is familiar with either Jon Stewart’s Horatian The Daily Show or Stephen Colbert’s Juvenalian The Colbert Report. Historically, satire is a form of entertainment, for those who recognize it as such, and the object and audience are separate entities, unless the object were sitting in the audience that night. Sometimes that is the case, and the satire is performed anonymously using masks and penned under pseudonyms in order to protect the satirist from the ire of the powerful.

Now imagine you are an author of satire, and your victim and audience are one and the same. There is something about the group that just seems wrong or deserving of shameful, yet they don’t admit to it or try to improve themselves. Making these carefully covered character defects obvious to the audience of course causes such horrific rage and makes the satirist into a villain of epic proportions. Safety for the troll can be sought in the guise of anonymity when possible, such as in the internet where one’s real identity and assumed identity are separate. In this context of the internet, the term has a double meaning. A deep sea fishing ship is said to be ‘trolling’ when they tie some bait to a long line and drag it behind them to attract fish for their nets, and a ‘troll’ is an awful, little monster of mythology who lives under bridges and terrorizes passers-by. Both are accurate descriptions of the behavior of trolls, who lure in their victims with an irresistible piece of bait and then watch on with glee as the victim displays an overreaction of comic proportions. Thus, we have the concept of the “troll”, which is oddly both a noun, a verb, and an event. Trolls troll others using their cleverly crafted trolls, and after which one could say they had been trolled.

The comedian Andy Kaufman was a master at this craft before it was ever made a splash on the internet. He made his start working night clubs telling jokes no one thought was funny or playing records no one wanted to hear until he was either kicked off the stage or the audience stormed out. He eventually developed a ‘foreign man’ impersonation who himself was quite terrible at impersonations, except for a very impressive rendition of Elvis Presley. After impressing the crowd with his song and dance, he would revert back to the ‘foreign man’ for his outro, causing the audience to think they just witnessed a hopelessly foreign person make his big break into entertainment. This act would be immortalized later in his sitcom performance as Latka Gravas on the show Taxi. Later, while performing at colleges, he was often heckled by the crowd to perform the Latka routine. These audiences he would torture with reading the novel The Great Gatsby. When the audience realized he was serious and couldn’t take it anymore, Andy would ask them if they wanted to hear a record instead. The record was Andy picking up where he left off from the novel. These audiences would march off in frustration with his unwillingness to entertain, not realizing he was entertaining himself at the audience’s expense.

I recently read a great article about the influence Andy Kaufman had on a ten year old boy living in Memphis during the great wrestling match between the joker and the professional wrestler Jerry “the King” Lawler. Kaufman had been baiting the audience for quite some time with videos poking fun at the accents and ignorance of the southerners. Andy offered a $1000 prize to any woman who could defeat him in a wrestling match, and he backed it up with claims such as, “I’m not saying women are mentally inferior to men, because when it comes to things like cooking, cleaning, washing the potatoes, scrubbing the carrots, raising the babies, mopping the floors, they have it all over men. I believe that. But when it comes to wrestling, getting into the wrestling ring, there’s nothing up there, they’re all oatmeal north of the eyebrows.” When he finally faced the crowd they were calling for his blood, and Andy gave it to them. In what seemed a horrible tragedy, Lawler performed a double pile-driver on Kaufman who had to be carted away in an ambulance.

The two would meet later on Late Night with a young David Letterman. The two continued to fight even on the set, invoking much censorship of the dialogue. The crowd still hated Andy Kaufman bitterly. Unbeknownst to them, Andy and Jerry had worked out the entire performance beforehand in secret, Andy was unharmed, and the bitter animosity was very real yet inspired by fake events. Thus, Andy’s charade demonstrated the sins of pride and wrath within the cities denizens, while also inflaming their sense of chivalry. Looking back on the events, Andy Kaufman is regularly described as one of the finest performance artists ever and many been inspired to be themselves and not what the audience calls for. His biography was the source for the 1999 biopic film Man on the Moon portrayed by Jim Carrey. Andy Kaufman demonstrated much bravery by inciting the audience and subjecting himself to their ire; he rarely hid behind a false identity (Tony Clifton notwithstanding). By combining Andy’s comedic style with the safety of anonymity afforded by the internet, the perfect stage is set for modern trolls.

Trolls on the internet have a very simple goal: to elicit the maximum response from the minimum stimulus. A very common example is when someone who makes a spelling error is the corrected by a very condescending manner by a troll, who has also ‘inadvertently’ made another spelling error. The original author lashes out in anger like in the following example between our ‘victim’ and our ‘troll’,

“There going to the park, today,” says Victor.

“Don’t you mean ‘their going to the park’? You imbecile. Learn to spell,” Troy declares.

“I can’t believe you! You arrogant, condescending, piece of trash! I hope you burn eternally, you hateful person! And by the way, its THEY’RE!” Victor is clearly finished, but obviously upset.

“My bad,” an unfazed Troy mentions before leaving, feeling very entertained.

It is this disparity in the reactions that motivates the troll. It is the illusion that we are arguing with someone who holds and equal yet opposite stake in the conversation that allows us to work ourselves into a frenzy as we prepare to do dialectic battle. And then, after we have launched our first well planned and maybe well worded attack on our enemy, they abandon all of their positions and walk away. We allowed ourselves to be set off by perhaps a few choice words. Troll accomplished.

The floodgates opened between 1995 and 1997 in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. A domestic terrorist named Timothy McVeigh detonated a car bomb in the basement of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The blast killed 168 people, 19 of which were children under the age of six. It remained the most destructive attack in the United States until the September 11th, 2001 attacks. Using the AOL online forums, anonymous persons created fake ads for tee-shirts commemorating the event with catchy, dark humor such as, “Visit Oklahoma … It’s a BLAST!!!”, “Putting the kids to bed… Oklahoma 1995”, and “McVeigh for President 1996”. To facilitate ordering these shirts, a name and number of an unsuspecting victim named Kenneth Zeran was included.

This poor man was bombarded with harassing phone calls at all hours of the day every two minutes. Essentially, ringing off the hook until he was forced to disconnect the phone from the wall. AOL took down the fake ads, but they were replaced with even more, some proclaiming “Forget the rescue, let the maggots take over – Oklahoma 1995” and “Finally a day care center that keeps the kids quiet – Oklahoma 1995”. Again, they included the name and number of Kenneth Zeran. After a similar response, Mr Zeran attempted to sue AOL for the actions of its users. The court logically ruled in favor of the freedom of speech and AOL, and poor Kenneth was not only victimized by the trolls, but also forced to pay the legal fees of the defense. It was a huge victory for freedom of speech and anonymity on the internet.

Since then, the troll has become a common denizen of the web, and trolling a very popular pastime. It is a common expression that “there is a troll within all of us”. The website Urban Dictionary allows the internet community to propose and vote on definitions for jargon used in our everyday lives. The entry given for the troll is, “or simply troll in internet slang, is someone who posts controversial, inflammatory, irrelevant or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum or chat room, with the primary intent of provoking other users into an emotional response or to generally disrupt normal on-topic discussion.”

Exploits of the trolls, if sufficiently ‘lulzy’, have been cataloged in another website, the Encyclopedia Dramatica. It is a wiki-like website filled with bigotry, misogyny, spelling and grammatical errors, misinformation, conflations between fact and opinion, and plenty of satire. The original .com website was taken down a year ago in 2011, but has since been replaced by a Swedish hosted, second version. The website describes itself as, “Encyclopædia (lol Second Edition) is a central catalog for organized reference pages about drama, memes, e-pals and other interesting happenings on the internets. ED is also the final arbiter of truth and human destiny, and can be used to settle any dispute, anywhere, evar.” Not clearly stated is that the website is “not safe for work”, view at your own discretion.

Sometimes this humor over-steps its bounds. The poor victim is constantly harassed and belittled, doing much psychological harm. They give up fighting and start to accept the awful statements being lobbied at them, and sometimes these stories end in tragedy. For example, a young girl in Michigan was battling a terminal disease in 2009. Her grandmother and her neighbors were locked in a terrible feud over probably nothing important. The neighbors would post cartoons on the Facebook page of the neighbor’s mother, Jennifer Petkov, laughing at the inevitable death of the young girl. Petkov’s husband built a coffin the young girl’s size and drove up and down the block blasting the horn. The motive was allegedly revenge for her children not being invited to the sick girl’s birthday party, understandably so in my opinion. The neighbor-mother would go on to physically beat yet another neighbor, and would plead guilty to assault and be sentenced to probation and psychological evaluation.

This event is not unique, but it is also not truly trolling. The victim was intended to be the grandmother, while the butt of the joke was a sick, young girl who didn’t even have a Facebook account. Where as trolling is one-off and intended to rile our emotions, this event was a constant and brutal attack designed to drag down a family already under duress. What we have here is an entire family waging a sort of psychological warfare on a family that hadn’t done anything to merit the attacks; an average of twenty million birthdays occur every day on Earth, and I’m sure this family isn’t invited to many others, so why attack this girl? Events like this have come to be known as ‘cyber-bullying’, and many states have begun the legislative actions needed to make this a crime just like it’s low-tech cousin, verbal assault.

This is a difficult line to walk, and the questions we must ask can be uncomfortable. What are we willing to tolerate in defense of ‘free speech’, and what goes too far and constitutes an act intended to cause harm? In the unfortunate and untimely death of the victim, what would be the difference between aggravated suicide and murder?

Fortunately, while the gears of government grind slowly towards liberty and justice for all, many websites are starting to improve efforts to prevent such awful acts from being perpetrated and to help society understand this new development in communication. At Wikimania 2006, Jimmy Wales (founder of Wikipedia) hosted a special seminar titled “Identifying Trolls”. Many websites are now requiring that users sign up with an email address to prevent truly anonymous postings in the event a crime is committed. The national dialogue on trolls is in full-swing, with many television shows ranging from news to comedy weighing in on the issue and painting situations in different lights for us to consider. Just as we have come face to face with such social aberrations as racism, homophobia, and conventional bullying, I am confident we can arm our children and even our adults with the capacity to recognize a troll and how to walk away before situations do escalate out of proportions.

On a recent episode of South Park titled “Cash for Gold”, Trey Parker and Matt Stone identify a vicious cycle of selling jewelry that is expensive, ugly, and of dubious ownership history to America’s senior citizens living off of government assistance. They purchase the tacky bits hoping to leave something behind for their children, thus they are easily exploited. The children then take the jewelry to pawnshops where they are bought back for less than pennies on the dollar, where it is then melted back down and reformed into new items. Stan, taking matters into his own hands, calls in to the popular online shopping channel to confront the salesman with a well-crafted troll. “Yeah, hi. Um… You should kill yourself. What you do is sort of unjustifiable, you know it’s unjustifiable, and you don’t care. You are the definition of evil. Kill yourself.” The faceless character hocking trinkets becomes obviously shaken, inspiring the senior citizens watching the program to continue his efforts. At the episodes conclusion, after an old lady insinuates he lacks the balls to do it, the man finally kills himself on television yet off camera.

Here, using satire, the ingenious creators of South Park have perfectly framed the issue. One feels compassion for Stan’s plight and the mistreatment of our vulnerable elderly folks, while on the other hand the actions result in the death by aggravated suicide of a person. All the while, the entire event is portrayed in a humorous light; the salesman is faceless, the old folks even sound old-folksy, and everything about the shopping channel is fabricated, right down to the “13 carat Panzo-topanzanite ring” being sold at the time of the troll.

While society grapples with this demon, there are forces at work who would like to use this as a rallying cry for internet censorship. In 2003, Great Britain passed a law banning “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”. Although the language leaves an uncomfortable amount of room for interpretation for my American sensibilities, I recognize the fact that the law has only been used twice. One for harassing the parents of a recently deceased girl and another for attempting to incite a riot, both of which are beyond the pale of freedom of speech. Even in America, we recognize the right to peaceful assembly, but we suppress unruly mobs in our cities and towns. Australia recently passed a law banning internet users from “causing offense”, although this is about to put to the judicial test in its first use where the government eavesdropped on a consensual web-cam transmission in order to levy the charges. China and India are considering their own legislation that would force companies such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter to yield to their demands if they wish to do business within their borders.

America currently has no ‘anti-Trolling’ laws on the books, but that is about to change. The state legislature of Arizona has passed a law, HB 2549, that imposes a prison sentence on “any person with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend, to use any electronic or digital device and use any obscene, lewd or profane language or suggest any lewd or lascivious act, or threaten to inflict physical harm to the person or property of any person.” That is right. The law explicitly states that “annoying” someone is a punishable offense. Does this law go way too far in trying to reign in cyber-bullying? You bet! Is this law unconstitutional with respect to the first amendment? You bet! The torrent of negative attention this bill generated caused it to be sent back to the legislature for amending where it reportedly died on the floor. Although the water is under the bridge, I still beg these questions: Isn’t the mission of government to protect the rights of citizens, even when we are too busy to pay attention? Why do we need to complain so loudly and remain so constantly vigilant over these people we repeatedly elect to represent us? Does anyone else feel trolled by Arizona’s legislature?

Such broad censorship has been the hallmark of authoritarian regimes across time and space, both fictional and real alike. It is the essence of why we fear realities suggested by Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Orwell’s 1984, the former Soviet Union’s control of propaganda, and even the recent attempts of the United States and the Eurozone to reign in the internet community using legislation such as SOPA, PIPA, and ACTA. The Revolutionaries that generated the anti-colonial sentiment among the American colonies were branded as enemies and terrorists. Yet the most vocal, Thomas Paine, would be instantly recognized as a brother to modern trolls when he asked in Common Sense, “How is a tiny island [like England] supposed to govern a continent [like America]?”

The internet is a quasi-international domain that exists everywhere and nowhere, being perpetrated by brilliant programmers and open communities the world over. It has usually erred on the side of individual freedoms rather than on behalf of authoritarian governments, and it makes me wretch when I think about how governments do in fact censor the material their people can receive. Just imagine if one nation had the power to censor the internet for all nations, and then you get a feel for why no nation should be allowed to censor the freedom of the internet anywhere. I believe we can strike a balance in the war over intellectual property without trampling people’s right to modify existing content, but I do not believe it is ever okay to prohibit people’s freedom to communicate in their own ways, so long as their actions do not have a long term impact on others’ rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Comedy, even if ill-received, has always been protected throughout time, and no joke ever resulted in an untimely death. From an amateur’s perspective, this case is open and closed right now. Freedom of speech is sacred to Americans, and now that we have tasted it we feel compelled to extend it to all of humanity, including internet trolls.

I predict that the internet will continue this trend of integrating our real and assumed identities across the reaches of the world wide web. This will make anonymity harder to attain, but will also generate bolder trolls who dare to say what they want anyways in a way that would ring true with Andy Kaufman if he were alive to see it today. The more cowardly ones who refuse to give up the shroud will be forced into a smaller and darker corner with the rest of the hateful types. However, we must prevent even this trend from progressing too far. Authors have always been allowed to print satirical and critical works under pseudonyms; indeed, how could a government hope to insert themselves between the author and the printer? Today, we treasure their efforts as bold attempts as speaking truth to power and alerting the masses about an injustice that slowly creeps up on them while they are busy living their lives. We should have some similar protections for those who would use a pseudonym responsibly to disseminate their works even on the internet, lest we crawl down the same path that authoritarian regimes attempted to leap directly.