Nowhere on the net is safe. The long fingers of trolling touch everything online — even an online forum that should be a sacred place for people who would rather spend their time strolling through the woods than sitting in front of a computer.
The trolls have come for the mushroom community.
On Facebook, there is a large international collective of people who are interested in mycology — foraging for and identifying mushrooms. These groups are massive by Facebook group standards: The biggest one, “The Mushroom Identification Forum,” has 111,000 members.
Like with bird-watching, you don’t have to be a scientist or professional mycologist to become fairly capable at identification in the field. Hunting for mushrooms involves a pleasant stroll outside; it’s something for a nature lover to do on a weekend perambulation. And if you’re lucky, you get something delicious to bring home for dinner. It’s the vegetarian version of deer hunting.
Of course, the thing about mushrooms is, you definitely need to know exactly what species you’re eating, or else you could literally, well, die.
For this reason, these Facebook groups are essential to budding fungi lovers. They’re the easiest and fastest place to get advice on whether or not you’ll shit your pants out all night from eating something.
But whenever there is an online community, there’s drama.
According to a former moderator of the Mushroom Identification Forum group — who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation — if you turn over the harmless and happy surface of the group, you find a campaign of disinformation growing like, well, a fungus.
According to the former mod, who’s now involved with a splinter mycology group, the drama started when a few of the Forum’s 15 mods and some seasoned foragers in the group colluded to play tricks on rubes and n00bs by making up fake common names for mushrooms. Mycologists prefer to use the scientific names, since common names can vary regionally. If you really know your stuff, you’d say that a bright orange edible mushroom is Laetiporus sulphureus, not merely “chicken of the woods.”
The mods, along some of the experts of the group, would slyly switch words in common names when someone posted a photo asking for an ID — for example, by calling a harmless mushroom a "death angel." There is no such shroom with that name; rather, it’s a mix of two deadly mushrooms’ names: "death cap" (Amanita phalloides) and "destroying angel" (Amanita bisporigera). To serious shroomheads, this is, apparently, a ~very funny~ joke.
The fake common-name prank took an ugly turn when a few trusted IDers in the group pretended a fungi was named “faggot cap.” Tim Sage, the admin of the big main group, said that moderators didn’t ban the people who did this, but they did tell them to stop.
Other moderators admitted to BuzzFeed News that the common-name trolling took place, but they insist that it was never actually dangerous, and that they would never suggest a poisonous mushroom was safe to eat. In fact, trolls in the group did just the opposite: claiming that innocuous mushrooms were deadly or psychoactive.
One troll who used the name Lasse Asal (not his real name, he told me over Facebook DM) got kicked out of the group recently for doing just this. A woman posted a photo of some mushrooms she found, and Lasse immediately commented, “those are highly poisonous i would not recommend touching them barehand.” The fungus was never precisely identified, but the idea of poisoning through skin contact with a mushroom is purely a joke. “I wanted to scare her,” Lasse told me.
Mods kicked him out of the group for this post.
The ability to accurately identify mushrooms is hard earned. You have to spend time out in nature, you have to find the mushrooms, and you have study their scientific names. You also have to learn what mushrooms grow in which areas and what season. The impulse for these self-taught experts to laugh at rubes in mycology groups on Facebook is somewhat understandable. Mostly, they’re not making fun of an earnest person who wants to learn. What attracts their ire are people who violate the mores of the group by doing things like posting a blurry photo of a mushroom, seeming overly eager to eat an unknown mushroom, or being stubbornly wrong about IDs.
Trolling new members or outsiders is a well-trodden path in many internet communities. Making up fake mushroom names is motivated by the same impulse that drives people on 4chan to use “triforce” as a litmus test (newbies can’t figure out how to properly post three triangles onto the board). This kind of harmless trolling is how online communities establish who is in-group and solidify their sense of community. This is a kindler, gentler form of trolling than the kinds of actual abuse and harassment we associate with trolls these days.
The group “Clueless turds who know nothing about mushrooms!” is where the true mushroom experts of the main group go to make fun of the amateurs who post particularly uninformed questions or make bad IDs. This group is smaller (about 800 people) and comprises mostly screenshots of people’s bad posts from bigger mushroom groups. There’s also the occasional mushroom meme.
Jerry Dye, one of the members of Clueless Turds, explained that newbies can be irritating, and that’s why they get trolled. “The pranksterism seems to stem from many people posting pictures of the same species asking for IDs,” he said. “Take, for instance, the pheasant back mushroom. It gets posted about 10 times a day; all someone would have to do is scroll down a page or two and have their answer, yet they must ask for an ID on it anyway.”
In addition to those searching for edible mushrooms, some people are looking for psychedelic mushrooms. These magic hunters tend to be "clueless turds" who get trolled hard; they’re weekend warriors who don’t care about the noble art of mycology. Similarly, there’s a type of mushroom called chaga that is sought after for its supposed health properties. Newbies are often overly eager to find these, and it’s become a running joke for the pros that any mushroom is chaga.
“I think the most common troll thing to do is to say, ‘Please cut your mushrooms off at ground level when harvesting and don't just tear them out,’” said Dan Long, one of the moderators, who in real life is the former president of the San Francisco Mycological Society. “People get triggered and start pontificating why that is a wrong statement.” The debate in mushroom foraging over cutting versus pulling is complicated, but let’s just say if you’re an expert, you know exactly when it’s OK to cut and when you need to pull, so telling people to always cut, for example, is misleading.
But a lot of people in these groups are entirely new to identification, so trolling this way is potentially dangerous,” said Keiran Sunflower, one of the main group mods. “Members are great about reporting these things and getting admins in, and we all stress absolute certainty on IDs before handling or consumption.”
Apart from the misinformation campaigns, there’s another vein of more garden-variety crude humor running through these groups, which tend to skew male. The mod who wishes to remain anonymous said that once a conservative Christian woman was offended by how often sexual language was used to describe mushrooms in the big group. She apparently quit in disgust and started a new, sex-free group. Sage, the current admin, doesn’t recall this particular incident, but said it wouldn’t surprise him if it happened. “Mushrooms are the reproductive portion of the fungal organism, so sex jokes and phallic humor are not uncommon,” he said. Mushrooms do indeed have “volva” (that’s a real part of a mushroom!).
The group “Edible Wild Plants/Mushrooms And The ID Of Plants, Trees And Mushrooms” has a long note at the top posted by the admin, explaining the rules. It warns: “Anyone making rude/crude jokes/comments about sexual organs will be removed from the group. Also anyone telling someone to eat something toxic/poisonous or [who] blatantly has no idea what the plant/mushroom is will be removed.”
I’ve enjoyed lurking in these mushroom groups. There’s something wholesome and sweet about seeing photos of mushrooms mixed into my regular feed of political groanings and baby photos. I like having a window into the lives of people who are much more outdoorsy than I am, and I’m touched by their love of nature. It’s this family-friendly aspect of mushroom identifying that made me surprised to learn that it’s just another internet hotbed of trolling.
The anonymous mod has a theory about why these groups turn to trolling. “It all goes stir crazy during the winter,” he explained. When the weather turns bad, foragers get cooped up inside and turn to Facebook. “The answer is winter. The off season.”
The reproductive part of a mushroom is called a "volva," not a "vulva." Do NOT make this mistake with a human.
Katie Notopoulos is a senior editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Notopoulos writes about tech and internet culture is cohost of the Internet Explorer podcast.
Contact Katie Notopoulos at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.