I just found out that I’m an Internet troll. This revelation, although shocking, is unlikely to change my life, given the source.
This coming week’s TIME cover story is about Internet trolls. I am thankful that it’s not another Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton cover, because I just don’t think I could handle that sitting in my bathroom magazine rack one more time.
Writer Joel Stein handled the trolling topic not particularly well. Of course, with TIME’s audience being a combination of doctor’s office waiting rooms, old folks’ homes, and the mailboxes of everyone that pays $2/year for the glossy ink version, the bar is pretty low. He had to keep it fairly non-technical and un-scary, which he did. The truth is far worse and more troll-ish.
Stein wandered cleanly from trolling 101, “what is a troll?” to terrible (and in many cases illegal) practices as “doxxing” or publishing personal information online, and “swatting,” which is using false callerID information to call 911 and summon the local SWAT team to a target’s home. This isn’t mere teenage hijinks. Erick Erickson had the sheriff’s office show up at his home one night when swatters claimed he shot his wife–thankfully he has a relationship with the department or it could have gone badly (which is the point of swatting).
The article included a quote from Mercer University (in Macon, and Erick’s law alma mater) professor Whitney Phillips, who wrote a book on trolling. I have not read the book, and could not reach Phillips, who works at the Douglas County night school extension, a nondescript one-story office building about 5 minutes from Six Flags outside Atlanta.
These are mostly normal people who do things that seem fun at the time that have huge implications. You want to say this is the bad guys, but it’s a problem of us.
I must disagree with that definition. It’s not normal to want to ruin someone’s life. It’s sick and twisted. It’s what bullies and a-holes do. Maybe some people are good at hiding their secret sickness better than others, but most a-holes get exposed. (This is really the foundation of my entire argument against Donald Trump.)
The most enlightening part of the article is when I learned that I am also an Internet troll. Stein went right to the heart of trolling, the alt-right (he gave liberal trolls one sentence before segueing into Donald Trump).
Trolling is the alt-right’s version of political activism, and its ranks view any attempt to take it away as a denial of democracy.
In this new culture war, the battle isn’t just over homosexuality, abortion, rap lyrics, drugs or how to greet people at Christmastime. It’s expanded to anything and everything: video games, clothing ads, even remaking a mediocre comedy from the 1980s.
Yes, the alt-right is terrible, but apparently, I’m one of them, because I oppose many government policies that place the special rights of homosexuals over the universal rights of religious conscience, I oppose abortion because it’s killing, I dislike rap, and think most recreational drugs should remain illegal. I even refuse to see the new Ghostbusters, because (a) I heard it’s terrible, and (b) Bill Murray played by a woman is just not culturally enlightening or societally useful.
You see how Stein did that? He wrote one paragraph beginning with “The alt-right’s favorite insilt is to call men who don’t hate feminism ‘cucks,'” and “Republicans who don’t like Trump are ‘cuckservatives.'” Then he transitioned into the culture war, and “just over…” placing me inside the circle of alt-right people, who refer to me as a “cuckservative.” Because to a liberal, it’s impossible to separate people on the “wrong” side of these issues by association from true idiots.
I use social media, because it’s the way to reach audiences in 2016 when you don’t have a national newsmagazine to do it. I advocate for many of the issues that the trolls favor. Where I differ is I don’t issue death threats, personal insults, or comments on people’s appearance or intelligence. It’s just unhelpful, even though one good zinger might yield 100,000 followers.
I’ve noticed that even good people tend to slip right into troll mode on Twitter (and Facebook to some extent) and don’t give anyone the chance to explain themselves in 140-character bites. It’s a shame that in order to be heard, people feel they have to be a troll.
One remarkable omission in Stein’s piece is that the word “Russian” appears nowhere. The words “tweet bot” appear nowhere. The last half of the story is devoted to telling Stein’s personal relationship with his own troll, Megan Koester, a real person he met for lunch. His conclusion is Koester’s personal observation: “The Internet is the realm of the coward. These are people who are all sound and no fury.”
Stein countered with his closing line: “Maybe. But maybe, in the information age, sound is as destructive as fury.”
Such a dangerously naive statement as Koester’s has rarely been allowed by TIME’s editors, and even Stein’s retort leaves a gaping hole the size of Mt. St. Helens.
Trolls are not harmless. Many are in fact parts of criminal networks, foreign government-controlled agencies, paid political hacks, as well as the garden-variety crank. Up to 25 percent of Donald Trump’s 11 million followers on Twitter are in fact fraudulent accounts. This isn’t just a tiny problem that can be solved by “trust and safety.”
Viruses and password-stealing trojan malware are distributed on Twitter (and Facebook). Phony stories are planted which then go viral. Real stories are planted by outlets like RT (which Trump and his cohorts love) that promote the interests of foreign governments but look like real American news.
Believe me (as Trump would say, but really, believe me), government agencies are intimately familiar and continually engaged in what goes on in social media. It’s a very dark place where people like the ones Richard Muller commented about on Quora lurk.
But I’ve had a close friend, Dan Ford, who interacted with the Putin government, and were threatened with murder if he didn’t comply with their illegal demands. “We’ve learned that it would be cheaper to have you killed than to buy your shares” he was told.
When Dan reported this to the FBI, they told him that such behavior had become common under the Putin regime, and that there was nothing they could do. They suggested that he give up ownership of the Russian company he had cofounded. He did, losing all of his substantial investment, but saving his own life.
Not all the death threats are fake, and it only takes one real one to kill you.
The TIME piece presents trolling as merely a failure of polite, civilized discourse, no worse than the comment section of most political websites, where “flame wars” break out. (As an aside, this is one of the main reasons Erick insists on no comment section for The Resurgent.) It presents Reddit as some monstrous creation that promotes hate and squelches liberal thought. I found Reddit to be just the opposite. As a conservative, I got banned from just about all the liberal groups, when I wrote about topics like homosexuality, or Jesus. I finally got discouraged and just deleted my account.
By comparison, Reddit is wholesome and filled with cat videos versus Twitter.
For the purpose of Stein’s tiptoe through the Internet tulips, I am, by the liberal definition, a troll. That’s the problem with liberal definitions of anything. They’re not just wrong, they’re dangerously incoherent.