The trolls have come to Twitter.
The social service, which has become the central channel for some of the best of America’s political conversation, has now fully inherited that conversation’s less appealing side: The trolls who use the pretext of conversation for everything from vitriolic attacks and to ill-informed attempts at political education that imitates a conversation, without being one.
Trolls were, like much of web culture, born and defined by the young men of 4chan. A troll is defined, in the words of BuzzFeed troll expert Katie Notopoulos as “someone who is purposely antagonizing someone, but not in a reasonable way.” And politics long had its own species and subspecies: There are the ranters and haters who drove virtually everyone else screaming from political blog comments sections sometime between the 2004 and 2008 elections; and there are their upscale cousins, with paid gigs as strictly partisan media critics, their jobs eased by having assumed their conclusions about the pervasive bias against their side.
My old colleague Jonathan Martin was the first to point out to me that some of the names in the first category — hateful emailers and blog commenters, scornfully convinced of Barack Obama’s Kenyan heritage on one hand, or the media’s secret racism on the other — had begun popping up in our @ mentions column of TweetDeck, accounts with cryptic names and double-digit follower counts. They vary in their vigor depending on whose candidate appears to be losing; the ObamaBots have been particularly insistent of late, as other liberals fail to rally to the president, while only a core of conservative trolls care deeply about Romney.
They are joined by their better-polished, and often equally sincere, official counterparts. You can recognize them, in politics, by a certain didacticism: They ask rhetorical questions whose answers they already know, seeking to educate their interlocutors of the obvious truth of their position, and to educate their followers by the raw power of their Socratic wattage. On the left, Media Matters pioneered trolling-as-media criticism with, among other things, an obsessive catalogue of what an official there once conceded to me was “ankle-biting” media criticism with a sustained, obsessive, and low-impact assault on Politico in 2007. That group continues to work the Twitter refs broadly, but has largely moved its energy to picking fights with the conservative media. Each side has a distinct historical style: Media Matters dossier-centric approach has a taste of the Purge. Now the right is re-enacting the liberal group’s unfocused beginnings, with deep and strange assumptions about the operations of the news industry. Its style is closer to Genghis Khan's, making up in energy what it lacks in organization.
There are partisan media critics whose arrows often hit their targets: Mickey Kaus and Bernie Goldberg on the right, and David Brock (though not so many of his minions) on the left, have the benefit of having been working journalists, and having a general sense of how good, and bad, newsroom decisions are made. At the core of the trollsphere, by contrast, is a sense of conspiracy: The media is shaped by secret cabals (the feared and defunct liberal Journolist, the right-wing octopus of corporate media ownership, etc), and simply reading the tens of thousands of words produced by a news organization isn’t enough to understand it: You need also to understand the secret motives and whispered conversations audible only to initiates.
Twitter offers an easy but ultimately unsatisfying solution for politicos, reporters, and more fair-minded partisans who reckon with them: The ability to block them.
But because they are, at their core and like the 12-year-old boys who invented the form on 4chan, desperate for attention, any engagement is a reward. Twitter also allows users to block trolls; but blocking is a form of engagement, and serves as a kind of thrilling encouragement and subject of discussion in the fervid trollsphere.
The trolls ultimately turned the comments sections of blogs into scorched earth. Jonathan and I abandoned our POLITICO comments sections during 2007, and our community managers here at BuzzFeed have been startled by the nastiness that comes with covering politics.
The trolls destroyed comments sections; they could wind up rendering Twitter close to uninhabitable by the end of this intense election cycle. The first step though, is acknowledging the problem, and so we offer, above, a simple taxonomy of five leading types of trolls, with some of their best (in both senses of the word) exemplars.
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
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