Troll Hunting: Inside the World of Online Hate and Its Human Fallout
Hardie Grant, $29.99
In the online jungle of hunters and hunted the most vulnerable are the vulnerable, especially if they are women.
It was always too good to be true: the Web 2.0 dream, that the social internet would deliver a new, empowered utopia of civilised public conversation. A connected, democratised Arab Spring of a discourse, one that would transform politics by giving its suddenly vocal and enabled electorate ready access to the information that would, henceforth, drive informed policy.
We would know truth with no filter. We would demand it. We would speak directly to people of interest or authority. News would be transmitted raw, unmediated and unspun. We'd reach out to every other soul on the wired planet: collected peoples suddenly empowered through information, connection and conversation.
Troll Hunting, by Ginger Gorman
It worked out OK in places.
Knowledge systems are now laid bare to be mined by the curious or ignored by the determined. Facts are available, and mutable, as never before. And yes, we can talk to each other, almost all the others; that in itself being perhaps the biggest cultural revolution in history.
In media, the corporatised core of legacy systems was all but crushed before new titans gathered themselves and worked out how to first control then monetise a democratised chaos of information.
In politics? Well, the internet and social media have probably been a disaster, delivering a suddenly immediate and accusatory polity that needed to be gamed and so came to favour the gamers, political professionals who saw a new divide in social communication between fact and feeling and realised there were probably more votes in feeling. Slowly but surely earnestness has withdrawn from the game of power, replaced by an agile, precisely targeted, sometimes even subliminal, populism.
And then there was the great truth that dawned as the social media age unfolded and became ubiquitous: a lot of us were not very nice.
You could do worse than ask journalist Ginger Gorman about this last bit, she's been the target of invective, threats, the vilest of fearful abuse. The worst of it was some years back, a transcontinental tsunami of bile, and rather than cower, retreating quietly from the online fray – as perhaps her online assailants hoped she might – she has been consumed since by a determination to track down the perpetrators of this abuse, her trolls. To know them. To understand their methods and motivation. Troll Hunting documents that rather intense, and personal, quest.
It was 2010 when Gorman, then an ABC journalist in Far North Queensland, got something badly wrong.
"In retrospect the conversation was remarkable because of its ordinariness." Gorman was working on a cross-media project on discrimination against LGBTI people when she interviewed Peter Truong, Mark Newton, and their five-year-old son. Their image become the frontispiece for her ABC online gender project.
Gorman writes of how she'd asked an awkward question of the men on their experience of the adoption process: "… I was compelled to ask, 'Do you think there was a suspicion that this must be something dodgy? There must be some paedophilic thing going on here?' … Both Newton and Truong smiled at the absurdity of the idea they might somehow be suspect. 'We're just a family like any other family.' "
By 2013, in the United States, Newton had been sentenced to 40 years jail, Truong for 30, for conspiring to sexually exploit a child.
Gorman limped away, confronted both by her unseeing proximity to such utter evil and by a sudden, vicious and unstemmable stream of online abuse accusing her, at best, of a politically correct blindness, at worst of being complicit. She was trolled mercilessly.
She wrote Troll Hunting in catharsis; an attempt to reach an understanding of how that hounding happened, who its leading perpetrators were and why those men (almost only men) act to direct such hate-filled abuse to strangers, people only visible through the intimate, yet abstract, connections of social media.
Gorman would discover that she is anything but alone.
She worked with the Australia Institute to survey the incidence of Australian cyber abuse. The survey found that 44 per cent of the women among its 1557 respondents had experienced some form of online harassment, same for 39 per cent of men; add it up, extrapolate, and that is maybe 9 million Australians. Abusive language is the most common – 27 per cent – followed by unwanted sexual messages or images – 18 per cent – and death threats – 8 per cent.
In this online jungle of hunters and hunted the most vulnerable are the vulnerable, especially if they are women. Gorman walks us through the sad case of Charlotte Dawson, whose suicide in 2012 may or may not have been facilitated by online abuse pushing her toward that outcome, much of it gathered under the hashtag #diecharlotte.
The questions rattle: who would send these snippets of hate to a stranger? Is it a behaviour that was always there, in pubs and kitchens, and has simply been amplified by the immediacy and anonymity of the internet? Have we always quietly hated? Or is this a new human paradigm created by a confluence of social collapse, institutional frailty and nihilistic disenchantment; a change facilitated by digital instantaneousness, sweeping us up at a speed that is probably a little outside the capacity for calm human adjustment.
The last is probably true, and as Gorman interrogates trolls, victims and experts, she brushes against those issues: the online life – connected yet alone – the desperate inequality economics, the gender, sexual and racial politics that are the roiling soup of modern life.
The troll's intention and effect, she discovers, is to shock and disturb, to push the recipient to either distress or response. Gorman goes in search of motive, pursuing celebrity trolls such as weev and meepsheep in pursuit of some logical explanation that would make sense of online nastiness so widespread it has almost become a normalised vernacular.
In a way, to ask that question is to display a view of human conversation that lacks the nihilistic absence of empathy required to comprehend the answer. Trolling, they tell her, with what feels like a shrug, just is. For LOLS.The impact of those new formulas of discourse, however, are terribly real, for both individuals and the broader culture.
In this book, Gorman tugs back from broader social movements' implications to return again and again to the predatory individual, the world of the troll … it's a fascination driven by her own experience, but one that does this consideration of the dark side of online conversation the disservice of a nagging narrowness. She condenses what is now the dominant pattern of social, and therefore political, communication to a serial patchwork of isolated attacks.
Yet it's so much worse than that. An attack on the individual, by winged hordes of unknown, vicious haters is horrific, cruel and stultifying. It has real-world consequence.
But the greater real-world consequence lies in the assiduous appropriation of this new social mood to the ends of corporate and political power. That change has been transformative, a shift fatally disruptive to public civility in its broadest sense. This is a world in which "social justice warrior" is an insult, in which "Nazi" is a casual taunt thrown in fits of moral offence. A world in which the restless diversions and extremity of a Donald Trump are political exemplars.
It is possibly an unreasonable expectation of Gorman's book – so settled is it in the author's own quest for some glimmer of very narrow personal understanding – but a more significant accounting of the trolling world would document not just its isolated prevalence, but also its sudden normalisation. Lone tweeters still flock to torment, threaten and tease, but they are stirred cynically by figures of the established media and politics, people promoting fear, loathing and, yes, even their opposites, for their own ends.
Gorman and the other individual victims of idly malignant abuse are a little lost in the trees, but the forest, the sturdy trunks of civil culture, is quickly being clear felled. That's personal. But not.
Jonathan Green is the editor of Meanjin.
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