Fight From the Inside

By attacking systems rather than individuals, trolling can be elevated from harassment to sabotage

I was 15 years old when I started trolling. It was 2004, and I was a total shithead: My interests were largely New Atheism and getting high, and I felt a lot of affinity toward libertarian politics. I spent my time reading up on the proto-Truther movement (this was a few years before Loose Change would consolidate 9/11 conspiracy theories) and commenting on articles in High Times magazine. I wore a thick, disgusting hemp-rope necklace everywhere, sometimes accented by a princess necklace with a pentagram, and I poured over every occult conspiracy about the towers I could find.

Web 2.0 was still just a dream of venture capitalists at this point, and the internet was more a collection of stand-alone pages than a suite of interlocking platforms meant to sustain maximal interactivity. But comment sections carried the seeds of that dream of a web defined by user-generated content. On High Times’s site each article ended with a disclaimer that began “WARNING! FREE SPEECH BELOW!” and went on to promise that the subsequent comments would remain unmoderated and unendorsed. It was a perfect place for someone who was invested — at the level of identity and, in a budding way, politically — in weed culture to learn about court cases and legislation and weed-centric events or art, and to stir some shit.

And stirring shit there was easy. If you wanted everyone to yell at you, all you had to do was cite a study linking marijuana to lung cancer. If you wanted them all patting your back, all it took was channeling Lupe Fiasco a few years ahead of time: “I really think the war on terror is a bunch of bullshit.” Though the comments section was pseudonymous and disorganized, it nonetheless functioned like a community. And like many small communities, it didn’t take much investigation to understand what divisions it was founded on. Making friends just required toeing a bright line — and causing a bit of chaos, for fun or to make a point, was as easy as stepping over it.

If your goal was to be a part of the community, you had to learn to swim with the sharks. You became part of the shiver, and were obligated to snap at anyone who wasn’t

If your goal was to be a part of that community, you had to learn how to swim with the sharks. You became part of the shiver, and so were obligated to snap at anyone who wasn’t. That included folks who didn’t buy noting marijuana’s possible carcinogenic properties as nothing but Reefer Madness-style propaganda. Crossing the line just meant jumping headlong into a shark pit, knowing you wouldn’t make it out without losing some flesh. But I eventually found that there was a third way: Shed a few drops of my own blood and turn the sharks on each other. And all I had to do was keep that line in mind.

Ninety percent of the comments on the High Times site were clearly coming from one of two political types. Commenters were either (a) a “Republican who smokes weed”–style libertarian, obsessed with personal choice and resentful that the War on Drugs could ostensibly mean that even they might face consequences; or (b) a well-meaning liberal, excited about decriminalization as an act of conscience, rather than as part of any opposition to the carceral state or in service of any larger goals. But peace between the types was relatively easy to keep: Everyone agreed on “fuck the government” — George W. Bush was in office, after all — and the history of moral panics made it easy to caricature the anti-marijuana opposition. Ideological disagreements among the site’s readers remained largely unspoken. No one extrapolated, say, from the War on Drugs to the prison-industrial complex, because this would start a fight, and no one wanted that.

But trolling, of course, is about lovingly exploiting such potential rifts and reopening wounds — especially in a way that doesn’t get you banned. So every once in a while I would wade into a thread and suggest that the issue at hand had systemic causes. Not because I was knowledgeable or even convinced of that then — recall that I was functionally a libertarian at this point — but simply because I knew that it would piss off the libertarians, whose frothing would attract the liberals. By the time the latter came in, it would be easy to slip out of the conversation, knowing that I had done my bit to disturb the peace. At that point there I wasn’t doing it in service of any ideological ends that I was conscious of, but only because seeing stasis and then causing chaos was enjoyable. But it was also very strange and instructive to see people on both sides sacrifice the finer points of their ideas in service of keeping together a community of interests. It suggested the vortical power of community, and the political potential of disturbing it.

The transcripts of those fights are lost now, and the peace that I was intent on disturbing has lasted. Libertarian-liberal consensus on marijuana legalization gives the issue the appearance of being nonpartisan, and so has helped it make the leap to legislative change, from California to Maine. While the consensus was making that push, though, it was simultaneously elevating Texas Representative Ron Paul from a local crackpot to a national meme. And while Ron Paul 2008 wasn’t chiefly responsible for the Tea Party and its fascist alt-right children, those movements inherited some of their adherents and organizational strategies.

Capitalist class war divides people along identitarian lines in order to conquer them, but it finds equal use in unifying groups along other identitarian lines as well. Knowing where those unifications fissure and learning how to take advantage of those cracks is a key tactical aspect of resistance, whether in industrial fights like those against the dismantling of unions or in disrupting an ideological consensus forming online.

Trolling, in the sense I’m using it here, is an intentional disruption of such online communities, producing dissensus among groups that could be allied to serve repressive political aims. There are other forms of trolling as well, of course: on the right the term (and the techniques it implies) is often used to obfuscate harassment; intimidation; doxxing; and insular community-building by way of conspiracist thinking (from Truthers to fake news), platform building (from 8chan to Gab), and culture (memes, mostly). Disrupting the consensus formation in these spaces or others is one way to hit at the heart of these community-building tendencies, shut down their spread, and allow for other solidarities to be built against these capital-backed unifications.

Decoupled from organization and agitation, trolling simply becomes a means of reproducing the antagonisms that exist, only under a different name. But refusing to engage on this level leads to a situation where people can be blind-sided and beguiled by the new names, as with all of those who learned of the alt-right only through Clinton’s speech or Trump’s election. A general ignorance of internet communities and how they have evolved over time is what permits the narrative of the “well-dressed fascist” to propagate, while eliding names like NRx, Men’s Rights Advocates, and even Gamergate from the discussion.

Effective trolling means dispensing with the illusion that an argument on the internet is like a moderated high school debate, with points awarded and winners crowned, and treating it like what it really is: a discussion between multiple humans in a privately owned public space that does not end with complete victories and defeats but persists with consequences that unfold over time. The things you say online affect people, both those you talk to directly and those who see and don’t speak. Those arguments or interventions aren’t likely to change someone’s fundamental understanding of the world — any more than anything short of a change in material conditions will — but they will affect the way those fundamentals become expressed. And those expressions become bonds of consensus and, eventually, solidarity; the libertarian-liberal consensus that backed Paul in 2008 had a material basis in class dynamics, but it also had a history of argument and discussion that brought that basis into concerted political action.

Trolling can be as much an act of empathy as of cynicism. And trolls are never as affectively detached as they might wish or pretend to be

Take, for instance, the way that social media platforms are designed for clarity of interaction. The material basis of how easy it is to post to Facebook or Twitter comes from the need to drive users to use the platform in such a way as to be commodifiable for the platform owner, which is most successfully accomplished by generating a bunch of information that can be collected and sold. Internal discussions among UI designers and futurists and corporate psychologists result in a product streamlined to flatten interactivity (tweeting, for instance) and consumption (reading tweets/ads) through integration into circuits of social capital — a well-curated feed becomes as crucial as the production of quality content.

Recognizing how social media is designed is crucial to figuring out ways it can be weaponized. The right-wing troll Milo Yiannopoulos is a prime example: His use of social media’s reliance on professionalization through real-name policies and verified users allowed him to build a cult of personality that carried out his harassment campaigns. In an earlier era of the web, pseudonymity would have made that much more difficult, but it also would have allowed him to continue his attacks through various names once he was caught. The same professionalization that abetted his tactics also made his eventual ban from Twitter all the more final.

Trolling from the left requires keeping in mind that the higher stakes in professionalized social media presents both opportunities and difficulties. Leftists should not shy away from exploiting formal tools that the platforms supply, like taking the time to report a bunch of right-wing shitposters on a hashtag now and then, even while continuing to advocate for better implementation of such tools. But we must also learn to work against the platform’s prescribed uses. For instance, learn to create and curate burner accounts that are as locked down as they need to be for what you want them to be able to do.

Trolling doesn’t always need to be elaborate, of course. Sometimes it means throwing a wrench in the general direction of a machine, like swinging the tenor of a Reddit discussion with a strategic half-dozen downvotes. Other times, it means identifying a friend or comrade who needs assistance and peeling off some of their trolls by engaging in diversionary tactics. Trolling can be as much an act of empathy as of cynicism. It has never been the sole domain of those with an agenda against convictions. And trolls are never as affectively detached as they might wish or pretend to be. Acknowledging this vulnerability can be a source of strength.

Trolling an individual is one thing; trolling as part of a group is another. But trolling a system is another thing entirely and comparatively unpracticed. This is where trolling ceases to boil down to harassment and begins to take the form of sabotage. It is a means by which you practice the various ways to stop things from working. Sometimes that means derailing a conversation with pigpoopballs; other times it means putting on a piece of performance art with a friend to see just how much bullshit the community around you will take. It can also mean tactically breaking things on platforms — whether technical or social.

The point is that platforms, as well as people, have vulnerabilities. It’s important to learn how to make things break before you need to. I learned the value of this trolling the music site last.fm, circa 2007. The site then was built on three core services: the Audioscrobbler, which made charts of the music you listened to display on your page; the Radio, essentially a primitive version of Pandora or Spotify; and a social-networking component, which included a “shoutbox” on every user/musician page, a blog, and an extensive network of groups and forums created and run by users. The Audioscrobbler was (and likely remains) the big draw, but back when Facebook had only recently emerged from its college-student-only phase and Twitter had barely started, the social network was also an important tool, providing last.fm an active, contentious community. It was also easy to troll.

Like many sites, its transition to a “Web 2.0” model — user-generated content and interactivity to capture it within the control of corporate owners — was slapdash. Its social-networking features were forum-based rather friend-based, as we’re now used to, which meant it relied on infrastructural aspects like the markup language BBCode. On a basic level, this meant that you could surround a word with “[u]” and “[/u]” to underline it, rather than using HTML tags. Some last.fm users quickly realized that a combination of BBCode tags could create text that broke whatever page it appeared on. Embed enough lists on top of each other, and the thread could suddenly have a horizontal width about 700 times that of your average laptop screen, making the effort to reach the next thread substantially more laborious. Add enough modifiers and the humble letter j could be made to cover the whole screen and make the page unusable.

Trolling an individual is one thing; trolling a system is another thing entirely. It is a means by which you practice the various ways to stop things from working

But the automated future isn’t here yet, and human moderators are much quicker to ban you for exploiting the technology than playing the long game. Disrupting consensus sometimes requires that sort of nuclear option, but typically the best way to do it is to dive in deep, and find weaknesses in the social rather than technical affordances of platforms.

This can involve some tactical role playing. Whenever I found a thread that seemed to be forming a consensus around some libertarian platitude — for instance, that people had a right to protest but not to inconvenience others, or that the subprime housing crisis was actually caused by its defrauded victims, or that Occupy consisted mainly of entitled whiners — I would adopt a labor-slowdown-like tactic of adhering to the rules of the community by the letter, using a character I developed precisely for this purpose: that of a pretentious recent college graduate. (This was less like film acting and more like professional wrestling; I turned select aspects of myself up to 11.)

I would avoid being directly abrasive or condescending, but would use my character to jump headlong into the sharks, intending to get devoured. As I got good at this, I could pretty much guarantee one of two outcomes when I intervened: Either the thread would die, or the conversation would pivot from consensus to annoyance and dissensus.

I used this technique in 2012 to hijack a thread titled “Girls in Video Games” on soleone.org’s now-defunct forums. The thread was started in response to Anita Sarkeesian’s raising money on Kickstarter to fund a short for her Feminist Frequency video series, called Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. This was about a year before Gamergate, and the thread began innocently enough, with posters offering sentiments along the lines of “this seems neat but I don’t know.” The response was muted, but it largely amounted to “this is feminist propaganda,” and was being pushed by one of the more influential moderators. In character, I was able to antagonize other members of the forum into stating their reactionary beliefs as clearly as possible, and shifted the ground subtly under them during the ensuing debate. For instance, when someone claimed that feminist video-game scholarship had existed for 20 years (in order to insinuate that Sarkeesian’s work was unimportant), I would first and foremost agree. But my character’s pedantry meant that I would celebrate all scholarship and criticism. (“All video-game scholarship matters.”) In practice, that meant digging up and sharing feminist video-game criticism, old and new, in a way intended both to undermine the person I was arguing with while at the same time sharing the criticism and art that was actively changing the face of video games at the time. While my interlocutor continued to talk about the earlier work, anyone following the thread would eventually see him appear to be willfully missing the point and insisting only on his own stubborn attitudes.

At the same time, of course, they would see me being a pedantic shit. But the point of this sort of trolling is not to win hearts and minds, but to upset the assumptions of the space and its inhabitants. Crucially, keeping in mind what your antagonists’ aims are isn’t just about knowing how to piss them off as a person; it’s about the performance. When an industrial saboteur chooses a target they know how to break, it is not an expression of a grudge against that particular machine but a matter of the broader implications of that breaking. Similarly, exploiting the fissures in ideological consensus requires choosing an individual target, with the goal of disrupting the broader system. Sometimes that’s a matter of identifying an unpopular moderator and pressing them; other times it is shedding some blood to bring the sharks to feed.

Back in 2004, when the left was last handed a shattering and, to some, inconceivable defeat in a U.S. presidential election, liberals responded by huddling into a corner, starting some partisan sites like Daily Kos and the Huffington Post, and declaring victory. One of the only ways to forestall a repetition of similar concessions is to actively sabotage them, as and where we can. Any platform or publication that can’t imagine beyond correcting spelling or claiming hypocrisy will be as useful now as they were in the Bush years, and should at the least be mocked, although preferably subverted.

So report your racist uncle for a real-name violation, litter the user-generated-content hell with strategic propaganda, and practice social disruption. If this is done in conjunction with collective organization against fascism and capitalism, the left has a chance to not just interrupt the growth of fascism but build toward solidarities in practice and continue to fight the class war in every place it is waged.

Ben Gabriel is a technical writer, the editor of Island Demeter, and a member of #spamfm.