How trolling became the new political normal.
We have entered a universe that is not just post-truth, but also post-critical.
The utopian spirit of 68
It was certainly a good idea. In 1978, Jon James developed the CommunityTree program in San Francisco. It was a variant of Bulletin Board Services' technology, which was then in vogue, that enabled computer users to leave messages on a virtual platform. James went one step further: users could really start conversations with each other. The message board became a forum.
This distant ancestor of the internet made people like James dream of a community whose members would be permanently connected to each other and would be free to talk without jammers like greed or the state. It was the time that young programmers were fully aware of the utopian spirit of 68. According to them, LSD and technology would entail the new man in a new world.
Initially everything seemed to go well. CommunityTree was a virtual sanctuary for online conversations, there were no moderators and restrictions. Everything was possible.
Until 1982. In that year Mac computers were being introduced to the schools of San Francisco. In no time, students had managed to gain access to CommunityTree. The students - almost exclusively boys - found the more esoteric conversations mostly boring and decided to raise some hell. They tried to attract attention by being aggressive and provoking.
It was a perverse game that broke up the virtual community in no time. The hippies didn't stand a chance against the trolls...
Trolls are therefore about the same age as the internet itself. It is difficult to give a clear definition of who or what a troll is. But trolling always comes down to a form of sabotage: it makes a substantive conversation or a genuine discussion impossible. This is usually done by provoking strong emotional reactions among the participants in the conversation.
The most suitable means to do this is provocation: bringing up aspects that have nothing to do with the actual conversation, attacking people personally or just behave like a totally whacked individual. It doesn't really matter, as long as there is provocation and the conversation is sabotaged.
The troll not only sabotages the conversation, he - it is usually a he - also ensures that all attention is drawn to him. So it is a way to manifest itself, but in a negative and very destructive way. Because trolling has to do with a form of self-confirmation, you probably cannot eradicate it. It's the online variant of bullying in the physical world.
However, it would be the wrong to just throw everything into one pot. In the virtual space, trolling has grown from a spontaneous form of bullying to a widespread political communication technique. Political parties or groups often organize themselves in troll armies - also known as sockpuppet armies - that subsequently bombard certain people, discussion forums or groups with accusations, nonsense or disinformation. The purpose? To undermine a certain balance on a platform or making the platform's functioning as a discussion place impossible.
The more aggressive a troll is, the easier he can be put away as one. But there are also more subtle forms of trolling. For example, you have trolls or groups of trolls that do not come out so aggressively, but constantly spread wrong or misleading information so that a discussion eventually capsizes. Or there are the trolls that claim to sympathize with a a certain movement or case, but deliberately trigger internal debates which ultimately creates an irreversible division. By the time these trolls are exposed, the damage is already done.
Thus trolling as a political technique has been around for a while. But what we are experiencing today is the evolution from trolling as a political technique to a form of political behavior. Many politicians today unmistakably act like trolls. The best known example is of course Donald Trump. Almost every tweet he throws out into the world can be classified as trolling. After all, the tweets are always intended to arouse strong emotions that make a debate impossible. They also ensure that all attention is drawn to his person.
Trump does not only troll on Twitter. Almost everything he says and does comes down to a form of trolling. Every public appearance serves to provoke and to attract attention. A form of destructive self-affirmation that is extremely effective within our attention economy. Even when Trump chews the media out, it gives him hours of extra air time (by the same media outlets). And meanwhile it doesn't have to be about his policy.
In a world where the distinction between online and offline is becoming increasingly blurred, trolling thus becomes a form of behavior that manifests both off and online. The troll has become a character of flesh and blood.
Perhaps the best-known example is Milo Yiannopoulos. He worked at Breitbart and became famous for the lectures he gave on American campuses. However, those lectures were not classical lectures, it was more like live trolling. Yiannopoulos took to the stage in absurd outfits and was particularly interested in insulting as many people as possible. His lectures were not intended to inform or to come to a debate. From the outset, the aim was to create a riot that would resonate both on- and offline. And that worked wonderfully well. These days, trolling is the fastest way to fame.
Trolling has become a dominant form of political communication these days. And yes, that's a problem. After all, against the provocation, any criticism is useless. The troll knows as well as the critic that what he claims is incorrect or an exaggeration. Criticism is simply a means to get more attention.
It means that we have entered a universe that is not just post-truth, but also post-critical. The critical, informed citizen, the investigating journalist or the reflective intellectual - symbols of democratic counter-power - have become not only powerless, but especially meaningless when trolls dominate.
Because trolls are constantly able to redirect all attention to themselves, there is also a serious lack of information. In a landscape in which provocation is the norm, brutal emotion increasingly takes precedence over information. It results is an acute lack of public knowledge about what policies are being implemented, what decisions politicians make and what effect that has on people's daily lives.
Trolling also serves the purpose of not having to talk about content. It is a smoke screen. In that smoke screen, citizens are expected to make their democratic choice...