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Trolls and the spaces created by trolling

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I’m sure you’ve heard, by now, about Violentacrez.

He was doxxed by Gawker and in the process called one of the Internet’s most notorious trolls. Indeed, his vile contributions to racist, misogynist, violent, generally offensive, degrading and depraved subreddits should give him the right to own that label. This supertroll lost his job upon being doxxed and is, according to Fox News, now looking to work in the porn industry. It’ll be interesting to see if any porn outlets are interested in hiring a creepy older dude to do what they can otherwise do without him: just steal his photos off of Reddit (or wherever else). He accidentally devalued his skill set.

His defense is that he viewed his work as Violentacrez as a game. Imagine, a game where the players are real, the effects are real and you get to hide behind your screen? It’s a pervert/creep/etc.’s dream.

I read the Gawker story with great interest. It’s well written and sheds light on a few corners of the internet that I have no reason to normally examine. I don’t need to see that creeps like Violentacrez exist by watching them peddle their vile garbage. As a woman, I’m acutely aware that men like Violentacrez exist.

Gawker has also faced criticism as they too are guilty for some of the crimes perpetuated by Violentacrez, though as far as I can tell they don’t host discussion boards dedicated to incest or dead women.

While much of the analysis has been dominated by the debate about outing Violentacrez, or the strawman arguments around free speech, there hasn’t been enough from what I’ve seen about what troll culture makes possible online.

Over at Racialicious, an excellent post was re-posted about some of the questions that the Gawker article raises. In the article, T.F. Charlton cites Whitney Phillips’ response and says,

1) troll culture is built on the assumptions of white male privilege, 2) individual trolls like Violentacrez are supported by a “host culture” whose values they reflect–in VA’s case, he was wholeheartedly embraced by fellow Redditors and tolerated by the highest levels of Reddit staff, and 3) there’s not that much difference between VA’s racist and misogynist trolling and the sensationalism of “corporate media culture.”

Trolls and trolling concern me for many reasons, including everything that is mentioned in Charlton’s article. But I want to frame the effect that trolls have on discourse in another way: with such extreme elements from the Right raging online against those of us from any sphere of oppression, what does this do to normalize and shift debate? Charlton (and Phillips) offer a good examination the role of more mainstream media outlets who gobble up stories that include the word “Facebook” in the lede. The reach that trolls (and extreme trolls) have on shifting political discussion goes further than the mainstream media.

The extreme hatred spewed from the Right online (and I keep referring to “the Right” because I simply cannot think of anything equivalent that comes from the “left”) normalizes and entrenches extreme discourse. If you believe in the theory of the Overton window, where extreme opinions help to mix and push along less extreme positions to a more extreme place, the existence of trolls who demonize, terrorize, dehumanize and humiliate from a position of [relative] power is dumped into the ether of ideas and further normalizes what should be considered to be extreme.

Consider Amanda Todd’s suicide where it took feminist bloggers to ask the question, wait… what the hell? A girl kills herself as the result of a man harassing her with photos of her own body and it’s dubbed bullying? In an age where deeply troubling misogynistic harassment can be called the same thing as someone having their lunch stolen, we must acknowledge that the Internet’s metre stick has been moved further to the Right than many people are ready to admit.

Comments from the serial trolls like Ann Coulter and Ezra Levant no longer shock us. Rather, these two maintain their positions of power, keep their TV spots and occupy the time of meme generators who do up a quicky “I can’t believe Ann Coulter tweeted this” image. Indeed, the left creates better memes, but to what extent? What is a Binder Full of Women?

Have we actually reached a place where it takes message boards where the sole purpose to peruse them is to look at teenage girls photographed as dead? Has the Internet really broken us?

Extreme trolls are also dangerous because the “left” has no real equivalent. It’s just not possible to troll someone from the “left” in the same way that many of us get trolled regularly from the Right. What’s the equivalent to someone responding to something I post with “You’re a stupid cnut”?

Somehow, the left’s moral high ground, with its “facts,” “research” and occasional “you’re an asshole” renders it unable to respond directly to these attacks. Our moral high ground is a liability.

Of course, there exists a massive plain between the work of a Violentacrez and your “average” Right-wing troll. But it seems so clear that it’s part of the same messy side of the Internet that destroys both discourse and people. One enables and normalizes the other.

I’m not arguing in favour of fighting one brand of vile garbage with another. I’m just pointing out a deficit that exists. If the Internet is ever going to be a safe space for many of us, especially young women and girls with myriad other identities, we need to fight back in a way that is both constructive and effective.

And we have to call out these connections when we see them.

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