Part III in Blog Series: We're Not Mad: Counter-Trolling and Marginalized Online Identities
Situating trolling within a jester context is simply one way to conceptualize trolling in such a way that it is not, fundamentally, a negative act. Jestering helps us to think about trolling in the context of a performative action: the performative act of transgressing boundaries. Although traditionally, as far as trolling is concerned, these tend to be boundaries of morality and political correctness, this does not inherently limit us to these boundaries in particular. What if, instead, the boundaries were the culturally imposed boundaries of normativity? What if trolling, like jestering, was able to provide the "unpermitted experience."
Case studies and examples of counter-trolling are hard to come by. In order to find one, one must be willing to sift through endless posts on online forums, comment sections, and twitter conversations, while simultaneously possessing knowledge of the actual identity and social-political orientation of the multiple online users involved. At best one is left with a hunch, nothing certain. The best practice is simply to go to the troll themselves. But, if you thought outing yourself as a troll was risky, imagine outing yourself as a counter-troll.
I do know, for a fact, that self-identifying counter-trolls exist. I was contacted by one recently who knew I was working on a project about feminist trolls online. She said she would be willing to speak to me, but entirely off the record. She also claimed to have a group of friends who also identified as feminist counter-trolls, with concentrated efforts on the meninist redpill sub-reddit. However, because she was unwilling to reveal the username of her online avatar, I was not able to obtain any specific material to examine or use as a case study. I think it is important here to note that if this is a case study in anything, it is a case study in the incredibly real threat that women and other marginalized identities online face every day, as well as the very real danger we face online when we fight the status quo. For now, it appears that these trolls need to remain under the bridge.
So no, as much as I would like to give you examples, all I can do is spew out theory: and give some somewhat less precise, less relevant examples, but hopefully ones that still remain within the frame of discussion, nonetheless.
This is the bell hooks hotline. I have been lucky enough never to feel the need to use it (I do have it saved in my phone). However, it seems to have come in handy for others:
It is "a phone line that automatically reads quotations from bell hooks." The inventor of the line claims that, "the idea is to pass that off as one’s own number if you’re in a dicey situation, afraid to give out your personal cell phone number or outright reject somebody."
While the bell hooks hotline is in no way the perfect example of counter-trolling, it hits on many of its major tenants. The first is that it operates within the original oppressive system, operating under the assumption that, "Of course, any woman you ask certainly will, and must, give up her number." This is similar to how counter-trolling still contains the word "trolling": acts of counter-trolling utilize the same practices as the original act of trolling, and when done well, turn these practices on their head using their own mechanisms. The other thing about the bell hooks hotline is that the act of knowingly giving it out, as well as the automated interaction it facilitates, is incredibly performative. Instead of simply giving out a landline (what most people I know do), it actively spouts feminist rhetoric at the recipient. In doing so it challenges the "norm" of female non-agency from a safe and protected position: one's true identity is protected, as well as one's physical safety, just as with acts counter-trolling. In doing so it allows the otherwise "unpermitted experience" of calling the individual out on their misogyny. However, I think it's also easy to see why the bell hooks hotline is nowhere near my dream example. While still an act of deception, it has less to do with creating the performative identity I associate with online trolling. The act is made up of several discrete units, it switches mediums, and let's be honest: it's not online.
My other example is actually that of a troll gone wrong. Last summer I decided to take some summer courses, but to swap universities: from a prestigiously liberal university, to a prestigiously conservative one. When I arrived on campus a hazing scandal was underway. Apparently a fraternity's hazing manual had been leaked onto a forum only accessible to those with a "said-conservative-prestiougious-university.edu" email address. "But don't go on there," someone told me. "It's just the absolute dregs of the internet." So of course, I had to go.
It was best on the forum to assume that everyone was a troll. Even those complaining about a lack of financial aid were trolls, setting themselves up be taken down in a disgusting spectacle unlike any other, while they themselves looked on. The forum had several troll avatars with established personalities. Rumor had it the accounts were passed down through the years. A less than frequent poster, although deeply necessary, was that of the token "shit-lib": the extremely liberal, idiotic, feminist-preachy-hippy, always having her rights taken away.
The avatar image for the shit-lib personality was this meme, minus the writing. This made responses to anything she posted practically ready made.
The problem with this avatar, while clearly a desperately grotesque caricature, was that it inadvertently facilitated legitimate, although pseudo and performed, debates between itself and the other established avatars. It seemed that at times, this troll was playing the game a little too well. In a way, this troll permitted an unpermitted experience: of being an incredibly liberal "shit-head," on a highly conservative campus--of remaining visible in a place where real life visibility felt risky.
I often found myself wondering, what if this person was trolling being a troll? Baiting misogynists and racists with distorted feminist rhetoric? But it couldn’t be, I’d tell myself. It just admitted to literally eating shit for its supposed health benefits.
Then again, for a counter-troll, that could have been part of the game.