The Royal Family announced a crackdown on internet trolls yesterday when they published their own guidelines on how they wish to tackle the abusive trolling directed at the Duchess of Sussex and the Duchess of Cambridge online.
But what exactly constitutes trolling? As with so many phrases that spring from the web, ‘trolling’ has mutated and evolved over the past two decades. To understand it now, and to think about what these maligned beasts might look like soon, we need a short history of trolls.
Trolling begins in the early message boards and forums of the early nineties. Far from having anything to do with bridge-dwelling beasts, ‘trolling’ was fishing terminology : ‘bait trolling’ meant hanging some juicy bait behind a boat and waiting to see if something bites. Online, this meant posting something provocative or offensive and seeing if you could fool someone into thinking you were serious.
Trolling was, in many ways, a bit of an art form. People might work for weeks for the perfect moment to drop the perfect bait, then sit back and watch the horrified reactions or blazing arguments it caused. In this sense, trolling is a firmly established British tradition. An episode of Brass Eyeor a copy of Private Eyeshould be enough to convince you of that. When I first wrote in defence of trolling, Sunderland fans were flying a 30ft banner over St James’ Park gloating at their rivals’ relegation.
But things changed. Sunderland got relegated, then relegated again, and ‘trolling’ went sour. Suddenly celebrities, politicians – anyone willing to stick their head above the parapet – became fair game for abuse and harassment. Satire and provocation gave way to death threats and racial abuse. ‘Internet Trolls’ were making front page news, not for hijinks, but for criminal convictions.
Many of the original trolls were horrified. This wasn’t trolling – this was abuse. Rather than poking fun and provoking a reaction, it was a tool of censorship and silence, in many ways the polar opposite of everything that ‘trolling’ had once meant. And even while we were coming to terms with these new trolls, it all changed again. Suddenly, everything was trolling.
The right of reply guaranteed by social media has always felt uncomfortable to some. For all its sins and flaws, it is undeniable that at times these digital platforms have offered voices to the powerless and brought new, critical eyes on the powerful. In the furore about online abuse, legitimate criticism started to be lumped into the same category. Publicly expressing a dissenting opinion was enough to be labelled as a troll, and legitimate criticism could be discounted as just more trolling, bundled in with the death threats.
It didn’t stop there. ‘Trolling’ became a job, not a pastime. Rumours emerged, then stories broke, detailing ‘troll farms’: halogen-lit offices populated by hundreds of paid-up staffers whose ‘trolling’ was part of campaigns by foreign to sow discord and disinformation in foreign countries. The exploits of Russia’s IRA are by now the most well-known, but recent reporting from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) identifies 48 states where formally organised social media manipulation takes place, up from 28 the year before. The true number is likely higher than that, and the numbers are on the rise.
So what is a troll? Is it an internet satirist? A criminal harasser? An information warfare operative? Anyone with an opinion? It’s hard to say, now – like ‘Fake News’, the word ‘troll’ has come to mean all of these things and more. With the government moving to regulate social media companies, this kind of amorphous thinking is troubling. And, whilst it is absolutely right to crack down on abusive, threatening comments about the Duchess of Sussex and the Duchess of Cambridge, there needs to be an ongoing examination of what constitutes verbal abuse and what is satire or criticism. Stamping out illegal activity online is a worthwhile aim, but it’s important we’re careful. Dissenting political opinion must be preserved at all costs. And perhaps a little offensiveness, ridicule and satire might be worth defending too. For that, we need a few good trolls.