To voluntarily self-describe as a “troll” right now would seem like a perverse brag about threatening and verbally abusing women online from the cowardly comfort of an anonymous Twitter account. But if you’re a bit more familiar with certain corners of the social media site, trolls are some of the most entertaining people to follow.
The trolls I’m talking about are much different from the ones being debated by the confused media. They’re, in fact, the polar opposite.
In layman’s terms, a troll is just a wind-up merchant, and some of the funniest have perfected ‘trolling’ into something of an art-form. Tongue burrowing through cheek, they’ll often agree with something said by, for example, your standard bigot, and become progressively more absurd – reflecting a parody of the offensive tweeter – and push the eventually embarrassed mouthbreather to the limits of their stupidity.
You can read another explanation from Scottish comedian Limmy, the early trolling standard-bearer, here.
People who threaten women online – and, indeed, minority groups – are not trolls. They are misogynists, racists, homophobes and transphobes, in ways both abusive and subtle; ‘edgy’ dullards who mock disabled people because “political correctness” (a reactionary term used to decry common decency) is such a great tyranny on their own sheltered lives. It happens in the ‘real’ world too, of course, it’s just moved to a new medium.
It may seem pedantic but this misnomer is problematic. The misinterpretation of ‘troll’ has been elevated by a largely superficial debate in the mainstream media, which instead of pressing authorities to take online abuse seriously (not just when it happens to a handful of prominent columnists) has limited itself to chastening Twitter for perceived inaction.
The response has been panicked damage limitation. Twitter has started suspending accounts more frequently, but it takes two minutes to set up a new one and remain anonymous. The clampdown has also seen accounts disabled for having retweeted abuse, which as every experienced troll knows, doesn’t necessarily equate to an endorsement.
Twitter recently took down an account highlighting anti-Semitic tweets. Another, called @Anti_Racism_Dog, which simply ‘barked’ at racist tweeters, was also closed.
In short, Twitter, the media and everyone else with the platform to influence these debates, should stop conflating abuse with dissent – it’s the latter that exposes the former.