Many regard online misbehaviour as a serious problem. The German-language internet troll scene has its own language and slang. Who are these trolls, and what drives them?
Till Eulenspiegel was the original troll, a trickster figure originating in Middle Low German folklore whose adventures, jokes and stories were collected in chapbooks that are still popular in German today. The real Till Eulenspiegel is said to have been born in 1300 in Kneitlingen, southeast of Brunswick, where he bemused his contemporaries by taking literally hyperbolic or metaphorical folk sayings, and baking owls and monkeys instead of bread. In his 27th joke he took up a commission to paint a portrait of the Landgrave of Hessen. He showed the Landgrave an empty canvass and when asked why, told the lord that he could not see the painting because he was born illegitimate—a “whoreson”. In this episode, Till held up a mirror to his society, mocking it with its own deep-seated shame; no one would admit that they could not see the fictional picture.
“Hurensohn”—whoreson in English—is today one of the favourite insults in the lexicon of German “Trolltwitter”, a phenomenon that became known to the broader German internet-using public in the summer of 2016, when a post on Medium.com spoke about “the worst hate community on the net”. According to the post, the trolls originated from a community of Youtubers who had for years been stalking and mobbing a user called “Drachenlord”, alongside users from the hip hop forum Rap-update.de. Together with various co-trolls, they would create what their victims called “Sifftwitter”—which can be translated as something like “filth twitter”.
The accounts can be identified by their use of a similar linguistic code (“mett sein”—being bland to the point of stupidity, “Almans”—a derogatory term for Germans, Statement MEME punchline), by pseudo-political provocations, which never betray a particular political point of view, as well as by a clearly defined circle of common targets: a list of Twitter accounts made up of German speaking online journalists, activists, feminists and Youtubers. All of this is hardly original—they clearly follow the blueprint set out by the message board 4chan. Superficially, the trolls’ victims only share a few common traits, primarily that they are public figures online; they are all at least somewhat well-known people on the German-speaking internet. For the most part, the trolls’ victims come from the ranks of the German “middle internet”. But on closer inspection, one finds among these targets a disproportionate number of politically-engaged activists who work to counter discrimination against minorities.
The trolls themselves would explain their selection in these terms:
“What one loves to troll […] are super-morality and arrogant self-expression. It is notable that the trolled people see themselves as representatives of something, as opinion-formers, as pioneering thinkers. […] Online editors pride themselves on how they rule the internet or are regarded highly as lecturers, a trans rights activist argues how their high IQ is the main obstacle for communicating with less intelligent beings; an icon of the disability rights movement will never tire of telling stories about their heroism. You can see patterns emerging here.
These victims have a distorted image of themselves, a lack of self awareness, which makes them much more easily triggered. They cannot allow their worldview or their echo chamber to be disturbed.”
Trolls seem unaware that this description might apply with equal force to them, i.e. that they present an inflated self-image and, like any other internet user, construct their own alter ego online. The internet as a psychosocial construction kit for a digitally idealized identity: this notion pertains to trolls at least as much as it does their victims.
The trolls see themselves as playing the role of the anonymous avengers of the “anything goes” web, as representatives of an egalitarian, uncensored and therefore vulnerable form of communication, in which everyone can be addressed in public and where therefore everyone lays themselves open to attack—the trolls included.
But social media is not merely a space for public communication. It is also a platform for and form of publishing, and as such it must be open to criticism and attack. Establishing safe spaces by blocking users is understandable—this is, first and foremost, a form of self-defense in response to the flooding of accounts with mass ridicule and derision—but ultimately runs against the public character of social media. This is a dilemma which arises from the fusion of publication and communication.
There are many ironies in the troll’s self-image: they see themselves as the rag-tag defenders of the anonymous internet but do not shy from deploying homemade, rudimentary surveillance tools in the form of Twitterbots. These take screenshots of every post made by their (potential) victims, so a troll can easily select or click on the object of their mockery. Trolls are certainly unscrupulous enough to “doxx” their targets (i.e. release their private address) using, for instance, snapshots taken taken innocently by the victim from their own balcony. The rationalization proceeds along the lines of “I’m just going to leave this screenshot from Google maps that I’ve matched with screenshots of Facebook photos. It’s all good, they just live there, I haven’t done anything, cya”.
Seen from this point of view, trolls are little more than latter-day curtain twitchers, who leave acidic little comments on every last post made by their victims, and who betray their small-town bigotry when they—completely ironically, of course—dob in a feminist Youtuber to the police over a few crumbs of dope. This is what separates them from punks, with whom so many like to draw parallels.
Punks printed swastikas on shirts and zines, cut their faces open and screamed in the face of the establishment. But their provocations were always obvious: the irony was never dropped. The Punk sense of humour could be seen both on the surface and in its desire for self-mutilation which mirrored the violence of society. Not so the troll.
The troll’s provocation is often not even recognized as such; the anonymity of the net, where a troll’s ironic swastika rubs shoulders with a genuine Nazi’s “heil!” makes the distinction impossible. Online irony (just like irony in the streets) only works within closed groups whose members know each other and understand a certain common code, but not across the level, impersonal swaths of social media. The moment trolls leave the safety of their forums, stop communicating exclusively in closed spaces receptive to the wink-wink-nudge-nudge of their references and rhetoric, and become active in public, they are subject to the same rules as everyone else. The troll would do well to learn this lesson.
All too often, their actions really just amount to banal cruelty, and at their worst—in massive, targeted actions—to a witch-hunt carried out against individual users. Targets of such aggression can simply flee to the safety of a block-list, but if the malicious chatter behind the block, which one knows is still taking place, grows intolerable, their only option is to leave the platform altogether. The “Delete Your Account” button beckons.
No matter how non-discriminatory they claim to be in choosing their victims, trolls are thus indistinguishable from common bullies, who are also always able to rationalize their insults and cruelty. Bullies are also, one can rest assured, just people.
The troll’s defensive reflex, which consists of shouting “Satire! Satire!”, ignores the fact that real satire travels upwards, mocking and dethroning dukes, kings and popes—not one’s virtual neighbours, blameless apart from the fact that their online alter egos might be painted a bit too brightly and promoted a bit too enthusiastically.
Every time I attempt to understand the attitude and actions of the troll and come too close to sympathising with their position, I remember this line from John Perry Barlow’s “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”: “We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity. […] The only law that all our constituent cultures would generally recognize is the Golden Rule: ‘Treat others as you would wish to be treated’.”
One of these days even the Sifftrolls will need to renew their allegiance to the “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, so that they can play the role of a Eulenspiegel—holding a mirror up to society and its absurdities.