Encounters with the nastiest people on the internet

Two new books on internet trolling reveal that the geeks, hackers and misanthropes who are wrecking people’s lives are mainly young, male Americans — but with a fair smattering of Brits and Aussies

6 June 2015

9:00 AM

6 June 2015

9:00 AM

Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web Joseph M. Reagle Jr

MIT, pp.240, £19.95, ISBN: 9780262028936

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture Whitney Phillips

MIT, pp.256, £17.95, ISBN: 9780262028943

It is almost a century since the Michelin brothers had the brainwave of supplementing their motorists’ guide with information about fine-dining establishments. Their star-rating system had become a mainstay of lifestyle reviews long before the Internet came along. In the digital age, this work has been comprehensively crowd-sourced: the immense success of review sites such as Yelp and Amazon has been built on the voluntary input of users. In theory, it should have been a consumer rights utopia. But product reviews are big business — and where there is lucre, there are shenanigans.

‘Astroturfing’ — the posting of fake reviews by competitors or business owners — is just one of a number of nefarious practices catalogued by Joseph Reagle in Reading the Comments. In recent years California-based Yelp has found itself the subject of several lawsuits, and a Federal Trade Commission investigation, following allegations that the site used the threat of unfavourable coverage to extort advertising revenues from hundreds of small businesses.

The nexus of publishing and advertising is, of course, perennially fraught. Witness the recent goings-on at the Daily Telegraph, whose chief political commentator resigned in February claiming the paper had compromised its coverage of the HSBC scandal for commercial reasons. Online comment manipulation is no different: strip away the algorithmic complexity and it’s the age-old story of people and businesses scrabbling for attention and influence.

Reading the Comments is not, however, a treatise on digital-era business ethics. As Reagle astutely observes, there is much more to online comment than just rating books and restaurants. Even the simple act of ‘liking’ a Facebook status — or an Instagram picture, or a Tumblr post — is a form of online comment. Regular users of social media are locked in a perpetual loop of appraisal and validation; and a growing body of research suggests this is having a detrimental impact on self-esteem and emotional wellbeing. A generation steeped in the curation of online identities is increasingly starting to think critically about its pernicious implications.

The trouble is that this narcissist aspect has been part of the internet experience from the very beginning. Some of the earliest web content to ‘go viral’ were the Hot or Not videos — in which people posted footage of themselves online and invited others to rate their attractiveness — that inspired the founders of YouTube. The fluid inter-facing of identity, approval and social status is woven into the very fabric of digital culture. It is powerfully addictive.

Whitney Phillips puts the likers and manipulators to one side and focuses exclusively on the haters. This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things is a fascinating study of some of the most unpleasant people on the internet — the sorts of folk who invade memorial pages for teenage suicides and post cruel, gloating messages or images of nooses for no reason other than the sheer transgressive thrill of inflicting emotional pain. Like a 19th-century anthropologist studying a remote indigenous tribe, Phillips has embedded herself among the sophomoric denizens of 4chan, the hugely popular troll forum. Her subjects, a motley collection of geeks, hackers and misanthropes, are overwhelmingly youngish males, mostly American but with a fair smattering of Brits and Aussies; they communicate in argot and their banter is often explicitly and unapologetically racist, misogynistic and homophobic. Their historic raison d’être is the pursuit of ‘lulz’ — a bastardisation of the ubiquitous ‘laugh out loud’ acronym, denoting mirthless cruel laughter.

Phillips avers that these young men are taking their lead from the US cultural mainstream. She cites the Fox News network’s sensationalist coverage of the ‘Birther’ movement — the campaign by right wing Americans to destabilise Barrack Obama’s 2008 election campaign by calling into question the authenticity of his American birth certificate — as one of a number of examples of US corporate media winking at atavistic racial chauvinism. Online trolls, she explains, are merely ‘cultural dung beetles’, revelling in society’s ordure. Indeed, though the same might be said of just about any category of hooligan at any point in history.

This community of merry pranksters has undergone a remarkable split in recent years. When the hacker collective Anonymous, which grew out of the 4chan message boards, achieved widespread visibility through its role in helping foment 2011’s huge Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, stalwart trolls took vocal exception to seeing their milieu suddenly inundated with activists hell bent on trying to make the world a better place, adulterating their nihilistic oasis with earnest talk of social justice. Cue a schism, which persists to this day, between self-styled ‘lulzfags’ — who are in it purely for the ‘lulz’ — and the idealistic newcomers, disparaged by the former as ‘causefags’ and ‘moralfags’. Alas, nothing is sacred these days.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Houman Barekat co-edited (with Mike Gonzalez) Arms and the People: Popular Movements and the Military from the Paris Commune to the Arab Spring.

'Reading the Comments', £17.96 and 'This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things', £16.16 are available from the Spectator Bookshop.  Tel: 08430 600033

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • Sharon Fruitcake

    An enlightening piece. I always thought the Michelin guide to be a bit of a fad. If it doesn’t cater for one’s needs then other folk will (and have) come up with far better systems of reviewing and pushing marketing content. Pushing marketing content, that’s what it was always about, that never changed and people nowadays are just as stupid as they were then.

  • Peace Out Anon
  • Jamie Johnson

    …LMFAO!!! So…there was a book written about the everyday shit that people do on the internet…The LULZ that will ensure will BE GRAND!!!! What I think is funny about this is that ‘trolling’ started as just normal joking banter, and it began with IIRC chats. Generalized human behavior attributed to generalized narcissism. I wonder how far that was stretched…lol. It begs the question: How much of this book is actually based on a standard of criteria vs inferred referential data?

    • Tura Zatana

      So you think it’s funny or “lulz” when innocent children are mocked and their special snowflake status is questioned? If so, send me a friend request.

  • Rick Carufel

    This looks to be books written by people who have no first hand experience with the issues they think they have expertise. First book, there is no ethics in American Business, end of story. The second is completely wrong when she says the main trolls are young men. It has been my experience that the main trolls are women. Ane it fails to make the distinction between the harmless but annoying forums trolls and the stalker troll who once they target a victim will stalk them across the internet searching for everything the victim has posted and replying with a personal attack. The stalker trolls run in gangs and are out to cause real damage to reputations, careers and livelihood. They also dox people posting personal info to harass and terrorize. Watch for my book on the subject from someone who has been the target of stalker troll attacks, “A Murder of Trolls”

    • Verbatim

      I’ve been the victim of an online stalker troll who ‘followed’ me around music messageboards. Finally, I twigged when he’d try and talk to me under a new pseudonym at each new site, thereafter using sarcasm and invective. This went on for over 3 years – when I had to leave each site – and I finally used psychology to rid myself of this menace; I posted on one of the boards that “I think my stalker is secretly in love with me”. (I am over 60 and a grandmother!!) Somebody replied, “Oh, you should feel very lucky to have a toy boy”. Instant fix; with that he immediately let go, removed his hooks and never ever bothered me again (though he continued to use my words and ideas as his own for another 18 months).

      Got to use a bit of psychology to get rid of these fruit loops. Sad people.

      • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

        Methinks she doth protest too much.You are a rude and offensive person who brings this on yourself.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Over the past decade and more, a particularly virulent troll has been posting that I’m Japanese rather than British. Totally illogical (and need I state, WRONG) but the Daily Telegraph, Times, Independent, Spectator … have provided a forum for this seriously deranged Internet correspondent. So shouldn’t the UK MSM be banning contributors that post, “Only Caucasian Brits resident in UK should be permitted to post on UK publications”?
    Jack, the Japan Alps Brit

    • Gilbert White

      I always thought you was Yoko Ono posting from the penthouse suite at the Dakota and getting high on passing clouds!

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        That’s pretty high on the improbability scale. Try, “small planet the other side of Betelgeuse.
        Jack, the Japan Alps Brit

        • Gilbert White

          Fair enough Jack have enjoyed walking in the forests around your way!

  • Reba Lee

    At least the term Ass Hat was not used

  • Gilbert White

    Like pirate radio in its time everything the people generate spontaneously is usurped by the government given time. All the switch and bait lies used by the labour party since 1945 and they complain about trolls! Now we have discus and those of us using poor technology cannot post so easily.

  • LG

    I would like to nominate trace9 as one of the nastiest trolls on the internet.

  • Verbatim

    Internet trolls on sites like this one (and many more besides) are a significant deterrent for me posting now; not because I interact with them but because they have lent credibility to the notion that those who write in the comments sections are haters, nut-jobs and all round evil trolls. So, I’m making myself scarce for fear of being bundled under that terrible label.

    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      Best form of defence is attack. Verbatim.You are one of the biggest trolls on the Spectator website.Abusive and nasty with it.

      • Cyril Sneer

        Do shut up.

    • The sooner we have a system of identity verification for all online accounts the better.

  • achilles3207

    too bad you’re all a bunch of fags and nobody cares bout you, so you desperately try to tell yourself they do to make yourself feel better by posting gayboy articles like this lmfao yall are all lame i’ll kill all of you fuck with me see me in reality any of you i’m easy to find you know where i’m at clowns hahahahahaa!!! ur weak

  • achilles3207


  • Grant Melville

    It would interesting to see some analysis of how trolls can be manipulated by others to serve an agenda. I’m no conspiracy theorist and I’m really not interested in the politics of journalism, but I have noticed one or two oddities which suggest something fishy is going on. For example, the censorship employed by the left-leaning Scottish ‘Herald’ newspaper, which is quite outspoken in its support for homosexuality and ‘same-sex marriage’. I remember some time ago that I read an article on ‘The Herald’ website in that sort of vein, and once I’d read it, I moved on to the comments. There was a fair scattering of fairly nasty homophobic* remarks, uniformly misspelled and frankly risible. I decide to add my tuppenceworth and wrote out a short paragraph couched in moderate and sensible terms about what I believed, i.e. ‘same-sex marriage’ wasn’t a good idea. My comment was rejected on the grounds that it was offensive. So, someone at ‘The Herald’ who was moderating the comments was quite blatantly letting every unbalanced troll who raged incoherently against homosexuality post their comments, and excluding anything which resembled moderate, thoughtful, and principled opposition to the LGBT agenda. This, I believe, was intended to skew the public perception of people who oppose the LGBT agenda and make them seem like a bunch of raging, semi-literate bigots. It’s a subtle form of propaganda.

    * And I mean homophobic in the real sense of the word – people who are either frightened of or hate people with homosexual tendencies, in contrast to those who simply oppose the LGBT agenda on moral or other grounds.

  • Sidney

    Who cares, Facebook Memorial Page Trolling is hilarious XD.