In online debates there are always trolls and the victims of trolls.
A troll can be said to be someone who – with or without a personal investment in the issue under discussion – seeks to divert it from a reasoned exploration of whatever the issue is – in which both sides might learn something – by way of emotive statements to a series of escalating knee jerk reactions designed to reinforce existing prejudices and emnities.
The persona Donald Trump – as a front man for the team who write his tweets – is an archetypal troll. Nothing he writes leads to reflection or insight, everything leads to outrage, as he might say, “on both sides.” There is no commitment to any search for anything that might be objectively provable; the point is to construct a politically expedient narrative; “alternative facts” using “words as bullets”.
This might be seen as an expression of a ruling class in decline. The leadership of the United States, the most powerful country in the world, faced with the challenge of climate breakdown, simply denies that it is happening. This makes political debate increasingly delirious – because no reasoned discussion can take place when reality is denied.
While some trolls are true believers, some are operatives working for commercial interests, or agents for state intelligence services, or mercenary hacks hired by people like the Koch brothers to propagate their views.
This is the high tech equivalent of the way that the Labour Party relies on its members to get its leaflets out and the Conservative Party hires leaflet distribution companies. One reflects the power of conviction and voluntary commitment, the other the power of money.
There is a distinction in the most effective way to respond to these. The argument that “you should never wrestle with a pig because you both get dirty and the pig likes it” often applies, but sometimes you don’t have to get dirty. Three examples.
- Tory boy. Some mercenaries – or political operatives – tend to write short, emotive mantras, rather like a verbal drive by shooting. They really dislike being asked to explain their premises or taken up on a paradox in their own argument and simply go quiet or tend to repeat their statement; as though they are far less sophisticated than they are making out. One, who commented that he loved his country and hated socialists, couldn’t really cope with the point that the country he supposedly loves contains quite a lot of socialists – and we are as legitimate a part of it as he is. The denial of national legitimacy to political opponents has a whiff of civil war about it. One liner shock statements that seem a bit off the wall can be effectively challenged with a question like “Could you explain this please?” They very rarely can or do.
- Fossil Fule. The upsurge of justified concern about climate breakdown has led to a rash of sites targeted at for example, motorists – full of profiles – some of which might be people but some may be bots – all spinning variations on – climate change is natural, its just a money making scam etc etc – and commentators who pop up on campaigning sites with remarkably similar misleading claims about – for example -the lifespan of batteries for electric vehicles or the carbon footprint of manufacturing them. These claims are almost plausible and usually backed up with a battery of internet links to long scholarly looking articles to give them weight and are designed to intimidate people who are new to a movement and might be easily put off. The people posting these are often PR people for fossil fuel companies or foundations operating on their behalf. The best way to counter them is to research their claims and present them with the information that debunks them. There is always information that debunks them.
- Angry victim. Last year a group of far right Alex Jones supporters – fresh from picketing the BBC in defence of their hero’s online rants -decided to round off their afternoon by trashing Bookmarks, the TUC bookshop in Bloomsbury. As raids go this was more F troop than A team, and – although threatening at the time -gave the shop a huge publicity and sales boost so, along with their online film – which among other things showed a guy with a Donald Trump mask explaining to camera that he was going to wear it so no one would recognise him before he put it on – made the whole thing a huge own goal for them. People who had never heard of the shop before made special trips afterwards to check it out. One education trade union leader put up a post in the immediate aftermath of the raid pointing out that trashing bookshops is a step on the path to burning books – and received an avalanche of abuse from supporters of the English Defence League, and similar organisations. These were all emotional and abusive. Given that anger is a secondary emotion deriving from fear, I asked one of them why he thought what he thought. This was a response to the man’s conviction. there was no question that he personally believed in what he was saying. No one was paying him to do it. This required some research, ignoring some personal abuse, working out that the issue underlying everything else for him was that of of sexual abuse in Rotherham. From his point of view, this issue was as it has been presented by Tommy Robinson and a lot of the mainstream tabloids. The sexual abuse of vulnerable young women – all white – by grooming gangs – all Muslim. When you dig into this, the reality is not so simple. The men at the heart of this were Rotherham’s leading gangsters. They ran prostitution, drugs and taxis. While most of the firm were Pakistani Muslims, one of the taxi drivers – convicted of multiple child abuse in the case – was white. The key role in grooming the girls was carried out by the taxi company’s radio operators – both middle aged white women. The argument that “they never go after their own” was blown away by figures from the helpline for abused young women that was operating in Rotherham while this was going on – which reported that 10% of the girls coming forward were from a Muslim background – exactly the proportion of the local community that is. 90% of the victims in Rotherham were white because Rotherham is 90% white. This was on top of the overall figures, which didn’t cut so much ice with him, that the overwhelming majority of people on the sex offenders register at national level are white men – but no more overwhelming than their proportion of the population as a whole. Putting these points to him led to silence at his end.
There is an additional element to this, when false narratives are deliberately created on an industrial scale by state or commercial or political actors. Part 2 to follow…