What’s in It for the Trolls?

Ken Liu’s “Thoughts and Prayers” shows how the cruelest of online harassers convince themselves they’re doing the right thing.

Glitching images of a young woman's life.
Sarula Bao

A researcher who studies digital culture and online harassment responds to Ken Liu’s “Thoughts and Prayers.”

At the very end of 2018, a new Louis C.K. set at a New York comedy club was leaked. In the set, he railed against the Parkland survivors, suggested that trans and gender-nonconforming individuals were infantile for expecting others to respect their pronouns, and told a bunch of other unfunny jokes at the expense of marginalized people. C.K. spent about 45 minutes not simply ignoring his past transgressions, but throwing a pity party about how badly he’s suffered since his transgressions came to light.

For a comedian who once pointed to George Carlin’s incisive critique of those in power as foundational to his own comedy, his transition from liberal, “speak truth to power” comedian to conservative, anti-PC troll seems perplexing and incongruous. It is also deeply saddening for former fans of C.K. (including me) who had hoped he would be a positive example from the #MeToo movement—someone who could admit his failings, make amends, and support survivors. But in reality it was entirely predictable. And Ken Liu’s story “Thoughts and Prayers” gives us a few clues as to why.

When reading Liu’s piece, I was reminded again that the terms troll and trolling are maddeningly overused in popular culture. Trolling has come to mean everything from merely derailing a conversation with a purposefully nonsensical or impolite comment to actively harassing women with death and rape threats on Twitter. It’s a kind of linguistic shield that creates an easy way for abusers and harassers to dismiss their toxic behavior as “just trolling.”

In her excellent book about trolls and online culture, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, Whitney Phillips suggests that trolls are united in their search for “lulz”—or unsympathetic laughter—but their motivations are manifold. (During the 2016 presidential campaign, Phillips wrote a piece for Future Tense about why Donald Trump shouldn’t be called a troll.) The RIP troll “Heartless” in “Thoughts and Prayers” demonstrates this complexity, suggesting they participated in the harassment campaign for multiple reasons: in part as a response to the frenzied, advertising-driven media spectacle that occurs in the wake of mass shootings, and in part by what they see as a family’s insincere and hypocritical attempt to turn public grief into political action. At the same time, by offering the ways in which various family members are affected by the trolling campaign, Liu offers an important proviso. He requires us to take a deeper look at the ways in which trolls themselves might (mis)apply the term as a way of deflecting from the more disturbing consequences of their actions.

Liu’s story also reminds us that trolling is as much of a cultural problem as a technological one. Trolling culture is supported by and embedded within misogynistic logics. Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny argues that misogyny is the policing, combative arm of patriarchy. We can see this in Liu’s story as the trolls twist Haley’s image to fit their needs. They create deep fakes (pornographic images using the face of one person superimposed on the body of another) and lob particularly nasty gendered insults toward her mother and sister.

Trolls in many cases embody what sociologist Michael Kimmel marks as the kind of “aggrieved entitlement” that he suggests characterizes a particular class of angry white men, who view the gains of women and minorities as somehow a threat to their own social position. Instead of directing their ire at policies favored by politicians and corporations that have led to more automation, stagnant incomes, and a shrinking middle class, they aim for those they see as the “real” problem: immigrants, women, the LGBTQ+ community, people of color, Muslims, etc.

Of course, tech companies bear some of this burden as well. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter become what sociologist Jessie Daniels refers to as “force multipliers” as their algorithmic logics and politics amplify the troll’s effort. Individuals are subsumed into chaotic, often leaderless mobs, while trolling victims are singled out and become scapegoats in a system that champions visibility over privacy and accessibility over safety.

But most trolls get it upside down: While their motivations for “trolling” might be understandable (and at points even admirable as Liu’s RIP troll articulates—who isn’t frustrated by the clickbait-y media environment in which we live?), their targets are almost always those who occupy marginalized social positions. All of this ultimately leads the troll to have a distorted sense of what punching up vs. punching down looks like. So even though most of us would likely say that trolling behaviors are aberrant, and that we would never engage in them, this kind of inverted worldview allows the troll to see the behavior as justifiable and admirable. And the fact that trolls often frequent spaces like Reddit, 4chan, YouTube, voat.co, etc. makes sense, as it allows this inverted worldview to be perpetually reinforced by others. As I’ve argued in my book and elsewhere, spaces like Reddit implicitly trade in casual misogyny, racism, and homophobia/transphobia.

It’s important for us to recognize that trolling is never not political, even if the trolls themselves may not view their behaviors as such. For example, Liu’s troll suggests that media amplifies grief in ways that are motivated solely by clicks, views, and advertising dollars.
This suggests an underlying sense of how the world should work vs. how it actually works—the core material of politics. So, it’s easy to see why the troll (and the norming of trolling behaviors as just the price of participating online) has been championed by the so-called alt-right/alt-lite. For example, figures like Steve Bannon, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Mike Cernovich harnessed the power of #Gamergate supporters and their facility with the kind of trolling Liu articulates in his story, to build an army of mostly young, mostly white, angry men who became a prime base for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

That brings us back to the Louis C.K. problem—that is, the tendency for a certain class of liberal white men to retreat into troll territory in the face of movements like #MeToo. Liu’s story, and the troll figure in particular, offers some deeper explanations for why this shift might occur. It highlights that trolls are embedded in a system that is unequal and unjust, but not necessarily for the reasons they opine. Instead of looking inward and learning from his transgressions, Louis C.K. lashes out at those who have much less power than he does. Much like Liu’s RIP troll, C.K. has inverted cause and effect. He views the Parkland survivors as undeserving of the media coverage they’ve received because somehow they haven’t “earned” the right to speak.

Implicit in this critique is another one: that they are too young, too outspoken, and too idealistic. Instead of engaging with the hard questions of why he violated the women he did and how his actions are embedded in a system of power that continues to shield many perpetrators from consequences for their actions, his deflections suggest a callous disregard for the survivors of his offenses. Such is the logic of Liu’s RIP troll as well. In offering a bunch of different and often contradictory reasons for mobilizing against this particular family, Liu’s troll hides behind dubious claims to suggest that it’s more than just about the lulz. But it’s really, always about the lulz. And that, perhaps, is the real problem.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.