Language and Power: Stop Saying Troll

Troll Warning: Image of a troll
silhouette in a red triangle.
From WikiCommons.

Trolls are happy to be trolls, mostly. They like the term; it conveys power. They have driven a lot of good people off the internet in their large-scale acts, and just made it an unsafe place in an everyday, small-scale, nasty way.

Whitney Phillips, author of This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture says – Stop Saying Troll. Trolls like being called trolls, because it both gives them deniability (“just trolling,” rather than systematically harassing or using hate speech). It also centers the harasser rather than the victim, by looking at what the “troll” is doing rather than the experience of the target. Phillips writes:

The term “troll” has come to subsume all kinds of antagonistic online behaviors, regardless of whether the participants would describe themselves as trolls. I am wary of this new framing (in my research I was exploring a very specific, subcultural sense of the term), and whenever possible avoid using the term as a behavioral catch-all. Instead, I prefer to describe online antagonism in terms of the impact it has on its targets. So, if someone is engaging in violently misogynistic behavior, I call them a violent misogynist, as “troll” implies a level of playfulness that tends to minimize their antagonistic behaviors, or at least establish a firewall between the embodied person and their digitally mediated actions. (“I’m not really a racist, I just play one on the Internet” doesn’t account for the fact that, regardless of what might be in someone’s heart, his or her actions have a real and demonstrable impact on those forced to read yet another racist statement online.)

Just as problematically, the “troll” framing—which is so often used with either the implied or explicit caveat “just trolling,” i.e., “not a big deal/stop being so sensitive/learn how to Internet”—also casts aspersions over those who do not want to constantly deal with identity-based antagonism online. In short, referring to nasty online behaviors as “trolling” frames online antagonism as a game only the aggressor can win, most apparent in the phrase “don’t feed the trolls” (which I critique here). In the process, use of trolling as a behavioral catchall privileges the aggressor’s needs and interests and right to free expression over those of the people they target. It’s the troll’s world in this model. Everyone else is just living in it. And that gives these “trolls” far more credit than they actually deserve.

 I always think that pondering how we frame and discuss problems is worthwhile. The troll discourse emerged more or less organically and isn’t going anywhere soon, but I like this analysis and it’s well worth reading.

Leave a Reply