Ever since a Twitter troll was elected 45th President of the United States, the Twitterati has agonised over who to blame. But since it was Twitter that gave American voters unfettered access to Donald Trump’s brain, they really ought to be blaming Twitter itself. It’s not possible to say anything balanced or nuanced in 140 characters — that’s a format for jokes, insults and outrage. If you want to seize the world’s attention today, you must troll or be trolled on Twitter.
And since this is the one skill at which Trump is utterly unrivalled, he’s now busy trolling both America and himself. When a man with barely any followers once tweeted him in the middle of the night to say: ‘I firmly believe that @realDonaldTrump is the most superior troll on the whole of Twitter’, Trump retweeted it to his millions of followers: ‘A great compliment!’
Emily Hill and Alex Krasodomski-Jones, a trolling researcher, join the podcast:
In 2017, our ability to write books, act in films or even govern appears to be measured in Twitter followers, not talent. So there will be no stopping Trump or his disciples here in the UK, Katie Hopkins and Piers Morgan. Were it not for Twitter, Hopkins would be a failed Apprentice candidate, not a highly paid commentator for Mail Online. Morgan would be a disgraced former newspaper editor, not a television host engaging in Twitter spats with J.K. Rowling. Unless Twitter ends, there will be no end to them.
At its worst, trolling is utterly repugnant, a sickening spectacle, and no one gets anything out of it. This was the case last year when Leslie Jones, star of an all-female remake of Ghostbusters, was hounded off Twitter after the alt-right tweeted racist abuse at her. It was also the case in 2013, when a PR consultant named Justine Sacco was hounded off Twitter by anti-racists after she tweeted: ‘Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!’ But whereas the forces of good Twitter, quite rightly, felt bad for and fell in love with Leslie Jones, almost no one sympathised with Sacco; they thought she’d revealed herself to be a racist — and therefore a vicious troll.
No one ever points out that the difference between a troll and a troll victim is as complex as that between a terrorist and a freedom fighter. Nor that being trolled can have unbelievably positive results for your career. The pop star James Blunt, for instance, has reinvigorated his fanbase as a result of retweeting all the abuse he gets on Twitter. He has been hailed (in a Buzzfeed article viewed almost a million times) as ‘the trolliest troll of all Twitter trolls’ and millennials love him for it.
Blunt must relish getting trolled — and so do many journalists, though they’d never admit it. I once sat in a restaurant with someone who’d written a perfectly innocuous article for Grazia magazine and became positively giddy when her bleeping BlackBerry showed she was being trolled as ‘a feminazi’ by hordes of maladjusted losers on Twitter.
As Jamie Bartlett explains, ‘Being trolled by strangers on the net gives you the chance to show how hard things are for you, how right you were, and how noble and magnanimous you are in sharing your suffering with the world.’ In his book The Dark Net, he notes, ‘It is very rarely mentioned that the victims of trolls are far more often privileged, wealthy, happy, and successful than their perceived oppressors, who are often frustrated, jealous, and lonely.’
Bartlett’s theory is neatly encapsulated by the example of Owen Jones, who announced this month that he was ‘taking a break’ from Twitter because he couldn’t stand the abuse he gets. Owen is the author of two best-selling books, Chavs and The Establishment, and has amassed half a million followers. But he didn’t just close his account and shut up shop. He posted a sanctimonious, self-pitying 1,000-word status update on Facebook that attracted 10,000 ‘likes’, 2,400 comments and 1,000 shares. And three days later he was back tweeting out articles and videos. He got a lot of attention, bolstered his media profile and further maximised his earning potential. Meanwhile, all those who ‘trolled’ him remain as poor and ignored as they ever were — and vilified to boot.
The term ‘troll’ is not borrowed from fairytales — it refers to a method of fishing. It is, in the words of internet expert Derek Powazek, ‘a behaviour online where someone would leave a lot of lures to snare people, to entice them to get angry’. If you are not famous, you might feel that you’ve been trolled for years before Twitter was even invented by highly paid opinion-formers and pundits whose views you don’t agree with but have had to listen to on programmes such as Question Time.
Before Twitter, you’d shout impotently at them on the television when they said something you didn’t like. Now, you can tweet your rage straight at them online and — if they read all their tweets — they’ll hear you. But one must never, but ever, make such excuses for a troll. So one must not point out, for example, that Owen Jones has made a lot of money claiming to be the ‘voice’ of the ‘disenfranchised’ and now doesn’t like it when the ‘disenfranchised’ find they have their own voice, thank you very much — and use it to swear at him.
The same goes for fashionable Twitter feminists who have won fame claiming to speak for anyone who has a vagina. I’ve lost count of the number of women who tell me (privately and in the strictest confidence) that they’re sick to the back teeth of being told ‘How to be a Woman’ by Caitlin Moran. One says she particularly hates Moran’s claim ‘I now live in Crouch End and my walls are painted in fucking Farrow and Ball and I have a cleaner but I will feel working-class to the day I die.’ She wants to respond, ‘Your cleaner has a name, she’s not a pot of paint and you’re not fucking working-class, are you?’ But if she tweeted that at Moran, this would constitute abuse, which is what ‘trolling’ has come to mean.
It is acceptable to be almost anything in the 21st century except a Twitter troll — for there is no person more despicable and deserving of punishment, especially when tweeting rape and death threats. I have been threatened with rape in real life, so I do know how unbelievably ill-making it is. But at the time I was alone with a drunk man in central Moscow who could have done it if he’d wanted to — it wasn’t a threat tweeted at me over the internet. And since he didn’t do it, he would not have deserved to go to jail for saying he would.
Yet when two Twitter trolls sent drunken threats of rape and worse via Twitter to Caroline Criado-Perez, who campaigned to put Jane Austen on the £10 note, and were sent to prison, Criado-Perez hailed it as a ‘brilliant day for women’. No one questioned how one privileged middle-class woman with 37,500 Twitter followers (currently represented by the Wylie Agency for a book about the ‘gender data gap’) sending two of life’s losers (one of whom was a 23-year-old woman) to jail for writing offensive words represented some sort of victory for women.
Feminism used to be a battle for equality. But now, if you were to listen to Criado-Perez and co., you’d think it was the fight for special victim status. Several prominent Labour MPs have launched a campaign to ‘Reclaim the Internet’. And yet since a Demos Twitter survey last year found that half of the misogynistic language came from women, this is really just a movement for women of high status seeking to silence women of lower status who want to send crude tweets at them.
We should be defending freedom of speech, saying: ‘I disapprove of what you tweet but I’ll defend to the death your right to tweet it.’ But this is not the ‘correct’ narrative. We are supposed to cheer en masse, instead, for Jack Monroe, who won £24,000 in libel damages from Katie Hopkins after malicious tweets upset her. Monroe didn’t prosecute on her own account, though — she did for the rest of us, saying, ‘I hope it teaches people to be a bit nicer to each other.’
What it’s taught me is the only way I’ll ever get anywhere in this life is if I get mercilessly trolled on Twitter. All I need to make it, à la Monroe, are enough hate-filled tweets to fill ‘six A4 ring-binders’. And as long as I’m not raped or killed in real life I’ll be laughing. Overnight I’ll go from a penniless hackette no one has rightly heard of to the reincarnation of Joan of Arc with 98,000 followers. If no one else has quite grasped the miraculous power of being trolled, Monroe seems to understand precisely what it’s done for her. Thanks to her Twitter fanbase she managed to crowdfund a cookbook in a single day. Now her Twitter bio reads not ‘cookbook author’ or ‘campaigner’, but ‘Ask not for whom the bell trolls; It trolls for me’.
As long as Twitter continues to dominate western society, and all our worth is summed up by the number of Twitter followers we have, the election of Donald Trump will simply be the ultimate symbol of a simple truth: that the only surefire way to triumph is to embrace the joy of trolling.