The redefinition of ‘troll’ in the last decade is a nothing more than a way of shutting down debate.
Are you an internet troll? You might not think so, but you’d be surprised.
Once upon a time, a troll was someone who was relatively easy to identify. According to Wikipedia, a troll is someone “who starts quarrels or upsets people on the Internet to distract and sow discord by posting inflammatory and digressive, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community”, while Urban Dictionary more succinctly describes them as “attention whores”. Trolls could be entertaining provocateurs, irritating distractions who pop up mid-debate, or genuinely abusive characters. You’d recognise it when you saw it.
But like many a bit of terminology, the word ‘troll’ has been expanded and bastardised, somewhat deliberately, over the years. Now, merely disagreeing with someone online will make you a troll. You can be as polite as you like, but if you dare to say that you think someone is wrong – worse still, if you actually prove that they are wrong – then you’ll be called a troll. If some mouthy celebrity is spouting off on some socio-political issue where they clearly don’t have a clue what they are talking about and you have the audacity to point that out, you are a troll. If you criticise someone who has been calling for internet mobbing, you are a troll. If you point out someone’s naked hypocrisy, you are a troll. Even merely criticising a politician makes you a troll.
You can probably see a trend here. By redefining a word that everyone already knows and associates with internet shitposting and bullying, you can then use it to shut down criticism. Politicians, of course, love it. So do the opinionated famous and the pseudo-journalists. Trolls are bad people who just say things to upset, and so when we call someone a troll, it is an invitation to not take them seriously. It means that someone can say or do the most outrageous things and then shut down any criticism with a single word. They become the victim and the person who might be calling them out on their bullshit claims or bullshit behaviour becomes the villain. Bullies suddenly reposition themselves as victims, and the powerful attempt to avoid being held to account by claiming that any disagreement is trolling.
This is partly a predictable definition slip – as words are overused, so their meaning becomes blurred. But it’s more a deliberate twisting of reality by the sort of people who have, historically, been immune to criticism, at least so publicly. In the past, politicians could make any ludicrous statement, movie stars could support any ill-defined cause and newspaper columnists grind out any moronic opinion with relative impunity. Social media gives them a much wider platform from which to preach, but it also allows the little people a right to reply, and the self-proclaimed elites don’t much like it. Politicians expect us to respect their authority, and celebrities demand our adulation. If someone tells them that they are wrong – however politely, and with however many facts that they might bring to the table – it is a personal affront.
Celebrities – and I use the word in the broadest sense, encompassing the ‘here today, gone later today’ stars of reality TV and so on – have an inflated belief in their own importance, and a slavering army of forelock-tugging supporters to ensure that the rampant ego is never plagued with self-doubt. It’s unsurprising that they are the least capable of handling criticism, correction or even mockery when they come up with half-baked statements, spread righteous hatred or otherwise act as though playing a fictional character in exchange for eye-watering sums of money gives them a special insight into global issues. They are, of course, allowed their opinions, however dopey they might be. But that doesn’t mean that they are somehow immune from criticism.
It’s no surprise that for people who are entirely wrapped up in their own self-importance, any level of criticism must come as a shock. It’s no surprise that they would see perfectly reasonable responses to their own very opinionated (and often fact-free) twitterings as beyond the pale – who are these peasants to disagree with me? I have no doubt that in the minds of the jolly important – the Blue Ticks and such – any disagreement is abuse, and for people to respond to their rampant egotism and self-righteousness and bullying tactics with either criticism or mockery is trolling of the worst order. The news media, equally uninterested in either facts or external criticism, will back them up with ‘woe is me’ stories about how some powerful politician, newspaper columnist or actor with hundreds of thousands of followers and global outlets for their every opinion has been bullied by some nobody online. Poor babies. Yet these are people who feel that they have to chip in on every news story with their opinions and expect everyone to be not only interested but appreciative and in agreement. These, surely, are the people that the phrase “attention whores” is more suitably applied to. Faced, then, with blowback, they cry “troll” and dramatically flounce off social media (though never for long – they quickly miss that attention fix).
As the saying goes, opinions are like arseholes – everyone has one. Put it on display to the world, and you have to be ready for the fact that not everyone will find it agreeable. Just being Anna Soubry does not mean that you are immune to criticism, even vigorous and angry criticism, no matter how much you might think that should be the case. To dismiss any critic as a troll – with all that the word implies to the general public – is to attempt to shut down discussion, and that’s not something that we should be encouraging. And it makes real trolling – the unpleasant and malicious sort – seem all the less important.