Dylann Roof discussed his motivations for killing nine in a Black Church in Charleston, North Carolina. He answered the FBI investigator’s question by stating: “It’s pretty much the internet…. All the information is there for you.” His statement refers to a larger trend of online hate speech being directed towards offline violence. This also occurred when Arnita Saarkesian cancelled an event because someone emailed her, saying that they would commit a mass murder if she spoke at Utah State University. Yet the police there felt there was no risk to students. This assumption changed when the posting involved a black man and police in Ferguson. The Supreme Court ruled that online threats are not necessarily illegal when deciding a case where a husband wrote he would like to see his wife’s “head on a stick” on Facebook. Most recently, as hate-type violence rises in the offline world, there are critical questions we must ask about the connection between online communities and offline violence. Trolling and trolls are a type of collective behavior that satisfies the emotional desires of racists or sexists.
The common assumption that internet activity is “fake” is also not helpful or an accurate analysis of the internet. According to Pew Research Center, 68% of adults are Facebook users. While on Facebook, a person can tag a friend in a picture, post on a person’s wall for their birthday, consider adopting a pet, donate to a charity, or let someone know you are graduating. This time can be filled with meaningful details that are shared within social networks; it can involve scanning news sites as I do on Twitter, or catching up with your favorite sports teams. The internet provides a different element than radio or television does: social interaction. This interaction can be positive or can be negative. It is the intention behind actions that often is not discussed when trolling is covered by media outlets, bloggers, and even academics. I do not deny that, to a degree, anonymity gives commenters a sense of freedom, which can result in certain behaviors.
Specifically, the belief that anonymity and computers change behaviors has been held by academics as well as online news media. The suggestion often goes “Don’t Read the Comments.” In many ways, this assumes that online behavior is radically different than offline behavior. Without face to face confrontation, it’s assumed that behavior is more uncivil. It is argued that in situations of anonymity on the internet, instead of breaking down boundaries, interaction is based on an “us versus them” expectation. This can also be thought of as “me” versus “them” in which the perception of users is that they are part of a social group. This is a common explanation for why the comments sections are racist, sexist, homophobic or anti-Semitic, which is theorized by Tom Postmes, Russell Spears and Martin Lea in their article “Breaching or Building Social Boundaries? SIDE-Effects of Computer-Mediated Communication.” In short, many users go from perceiving the interaction as being based on “me and you” to being “us versus them.” It is the “them” that is a placeholder for a man’s girlfriend, a black woman (see Southern Poverty Law Center’s reports from 2016 and 2017) or a feminist. This behavior can also be done by marginalized individuals, such as Hotep culture (See “Hotep Explained” by Damon Young). I do not deny that, to some degree, technology can influence behavior, but there is a stronger connection to offline reality. This behavior can be analyzed as more purposeful and fostered by offline language, political setting, structures, and institutions.
Trolling is a contested concept; just read the various definitions in the Urban dictionary. The Global Assessment of Internet Trolling (GAIT) provides a survey in which a person can indicate identification with trolling culture. Trolling often relies on attacking someone, usually based on their physical identity or social identification–e.g., race, gender, or sexual orientation. The normalization of trolling assumes that categorization is natural. Whether or not social differentiation is “natural,” the larger point is what we do with categorization. This historically has legitimated slavery, segregation, and even now legitimizes the gender pay gap.
The belief that racist, sexist, or homophobic language is done because individuals are online ignores the offline reality of these behaviors. This could also be reduced to “locker room talk” although this language occurs in many settings. This behavior in fact takes place because of social cues or who is in the room, i.e. men only. Thus, this language is tolerated, even expected, and excused in a variety of places and spaces. Therefore, the language used in the comment section of media reports is learned and encouraged as being “boys will be boys” or other euphemisms that protect the privileged. These euphemisms often legitimize rape culture and racist jokes. Those who teach this discriminatory behavior toward “others” use a space that is free from people of color to teach racism, free from women to teach sexism, free from others who are “out” to teach homophobia.
Some of this racist action is defined as backstage racism by Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin in their book Two-Faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and Frontstage. The idea that we whites act differently in certain spaces is not especially radical, as how you act at work and with a group of friends on a Saturday night is usually understood as different. It does not mean we are “less authentic” at work or “more authentic” with our friends. This also means that those who mean to foster racist sentiments that whites are superior, or men are superior, or both simultaneously, can create communities. Rather than seeing racism as part of a mental illness, or as someone being irrational, there is a clear intention and goal in people engaging in most such racist behavior. This also in part illustrates that there is not a clear transition from the “me and you” to the “us and them” behavior. Many online users perceive themselves as part of an “us,” e.g. white and male, and the “them” as substantially less than them in social status. At times this is heightened when group members that are historically oppressed reach a point of higher status, or if those in the dominant group fear diversity. This emotional response is also associated with voting for Trump as Trump voters often “fear racial diversity.”
This emotional satisfaction has been tested by computer-mediated studies. In a study authored by Erin E. Buckels, Paul D. Trapnell and Delroy L. Paulhus called “Trolls just want to have fun,” they found sadistic behaviors were associated with trolling. Thus, many trolls want to inflict pain, which is more than what is often included in articles about trolls. This should not be surprising as emotional defenses of racism are part of the dominant white racial frame theorized by Joe Feagin. Some argue that this behavior is maintained by certain internet platforms, such as Reddit, or by video games that have an “inherent” culture that includes sexism and racism. That is where the interjection that there is nothing “inherent” or “natural” about racism or sexism comes in. They are aggressively taught from a young age and can be unlearned (with great effort). If it is not clear by now, this also illustrates that there is a choice made in trolling, and all forms of harassment online and offline.
The “locker room talk,” which has been criticized by athletes, includes bragging about “moving on her like a bitch.” Thus, locker room talk is an extension of the larger rape culture and relies on men bragging about their actions. Sure, in many situations this could be bragging without any action, but given the consequences of this type of behavior in the case of Roof and Jeremy Joseph Christian, the most recent suspect in a hate crime or act of terrorism, this should be taken seriously. Locker room talk illustrates that the performance of masculinity is important in collective spaces, as is the practice of white supremacy. Such beliefs are part of a practice that is reaffirmed by others in communities. It’s important to recognize that key element of trolling as trolls often are encouraged by very powerful members of the white elite. Some elite white men encourage trolling of marginalized people, which is committed by their followers, such as in Gamergate. The negative behavior of specific white individuals, many being white Christians, is often removed from US culture, institutions, and society, thereby reducing it to an individual’s actions. Thus, white groups online, who are often white males, are mostly referred to as trolls, not “mobs”. Either people frame them as acting that way because of the anonymity allowed on the Internet or it is just “locker room talk.” These two frames leave whites to be innocent or at least do not recognize that the behavior is learned, happens offline, and is part of systemic white racism.
Gamergate is an example in which masses of men were attacking a few outspoken women like Zoe Quinn. Although Quinn characterizes it as mob behavior, others do not. In fact, of the 258 references on Wikipedia for Gamergate, only one website explicitly uses mob in its headlines. Only two people are quoted referring to the harassment in Gamergate as mob behavior, Quinn the target of the harassment, and Anders Sandberg, a University of Oxford research fellow. Even those critical of trolls such as Telegraph journalist Allison Pearson may describe them as a swarm, but still do not describe them as a mob. Pearson states that one troll “invited his unmerry men to join in the fun.”
Additionally, a somewhat lighthearted, or only modestly critical, framing of internet trolls is not isolated to Pearson, but part of the racial grammar of the internet. This racial grammar implicitly teaches children and adults negative racial stereotypes about people of color, while allowing whites as a group to be virtuous and innocence.
Trolling is indeed mob-like behavior, especially when encouraged by a leader online. The behavior is filling some psychological desire to inflict pain. Why else would individuals engage it for hours? Like hate groups and activist groups, the distinction lies in understanding if they aim to be constructive or destructive. This performance of toxic masculinity and whiteness online through online discussions or trolling is part of an emotional satisfaction that users use to perpetuate racist and sexist systems. The intent behind much trolling is part of a larger system of racism and sexism. It is an integral part of offline structures, institutions, and places; and this reality negates the naïve argument that you need to either reach out to a troll to “reform them” or that they would not be racist or sexist offline. The reform should come in organizations and communities with the recognition that trolling is verbal violence which can inspire physical violence. This important general point is articulated by terrorism expert Ehud Sprinzak in his book Brother against Brother: Violence and Extremism in Israeli Politics from Altalena to the Rabin Assassination. We need to ask ourselves if this trolling racist/sexist language does not benefit democratic dialogue and results in violence, why should it be tolerated in a democratic society?