Please Advise! Does Trump Prove US a Nation of Trolls?

He wins because web's mean 'losers' turn out to be most white male Americans.

By Steve Burgess 30 Mar 2016 |

Steve Burgess writes about politics and culture for The Tyee. Find his previous articles here.

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Troll nation next door? We assumed trolls were a tiny, cyber-magnified minority -- until Donald Trump won big by echoing their insult-laden attacks.

[Editor's note: Steve Burgess is an accredited spin doctor with a PhD in Centrifugal Rhetoric from the University of SASE, situated on the lovely campus of PO Box 7650, Cayman Islands. In this space he dispenses PR advice to politicians, the rich and famous, the troubled and well-heeled, the wealthy and gullible.]

Dear Dr. Steve,

What do you feel are the key issues being raised by the U.S. presidential campaign?


A. Plant

Dear Plant,

Thank you for your excellent question. There are many issues being raised during the tumultuous nominating process of America's major political parties. Will American refugees overload our social services? Will Ted Cruz' immediate family vote for him? Will the fact that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump agree on free trade cause a rift in the space-time continuum?

But here to my mind is the biggest question being raised by the current campaign:

Is the Internet an accurate reflection of society?

The history of the web is a history of trolls. Was there ever a virtual Eden where enlightened discourse flourished, unsullied by racism, misogyny and pointlessly vicious attacks? Some say the fall came in 2003 with the arrival of 4chan but in fact online trolls were in evidence long before. Those seeking a bygone era of Internet purity might have to go back to the net's origins as a communication medium for the scientific community. Certainly as soon as the Internet became a public forum there were those who exploited the anonymity of online posting to vomit up the bilious contents of their souls. Every login should come with a warning: Here be monsters. It's a full moon every night and slavering beasts are loose on the moors.

Trolls have changed over the years. There's been a steady devolution. Early trolling episodes often sprung from an anarchic creative spirit that has a long and inspired history in art, popular culture and politics. That sort of higher-level trolling still goes on today (e.g. the recent online poll to name a new ship for Britain's Natural Environment Research Council. Leading vote-getter: "RRS Boaty McBoatface." Other candidates included "RRS I Like Big Boats & I Cannot Lie.")

But these days when we think of trolls we usually think of the depressingly common variety that clog every comment thread -- not graffiti artists but just random assholes with spray cans. Note the recent example of Microsoft's online artificial intelligence bot, Tay. Programmed to respond to online input -- poor little Tay just wanted to be liked -- she ended up spewing genocidal Nazi talking points and just generally embodying the worst that humanity has to offer. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey did warn us about the dangers of A.I., but at least the HAL 9000 computer didn't sabotage the mission because astronauts Frank and Dave were Jewish.

Yet many who despair at the tone of Internet debate have taken comfort from a widespread assumption. We like to think of the Internet as a funhouse mirror that exaggerates the dark elements of modern society. The ugly content that seems so prevalent is not reflective of society at large, we reassure ourselves. It's just a group of troubled losers with more time on their hands than people who have real lives to live. Online trolls punch above their weight because the Internet is all they have. There aren't really that many of them.

Enter Donald Trump. Whatever else he might be -- blowhard, buffoon, Berlusconi West -- Trump has become a measuring stick. More than any previous Republican fear monger, Trump has revealed that trafficking in the very worst traditions of political debate can be a winning strategy, at least in the primary stage of the election. In the process Trump has raised the question of whether the Internet is truly a different world than the one we live in. Could that constant flow of online sewage in fact be an accurate gauge of American public opinion?

Trumps troll numbers

Consider the Washington Post/ABC News poll from earlier this month. While Hillary Clinton led by nine points overall, Trump held a 49 to 40 lead among white voters, a lead built largely from the support of white men. Among those without college degrees Donald "I love the poorly educated" Trump led by 24 points.

Think about that a moment. Everything Trump has done, everything he has said -- it all runs together into a bubbling cesspool of hatred, idiocy and implied violence -- has left him with a near majority of support among white American voters. Is it really possible now to claim that the average online comment thread is an aberration? Hasn't Trump demonstrated that the hateful, the misogynistic, the racist, the willfully ignorant are in fact a winning coalition in Republican politics?

Recent media stories have made the claim that Trump draws support from many people who respond to his message of popular discontent but do not necessarily agree with all of his outrageous views. On the one hand there may be some truth in that. On the other hand, there is a white power tattoo. That was the embarrassing fact that apparently escaped a PBS news crew that focused on Grace Tilly and her North Carolina family who claimed to be Democrats now supporting Trump, apparently representative of Donald's new mainstream appeal. Tilly, as the PBS story failed to note, had an "88" tattooed on one hand (common neo-Nazi code for "Heil Hitler") and a white power symbol on the other.

Click the link to the People magazine story. Then read the comments. And ask yourself: are the monsters only virtual? Or are they real?

Don't look under the bed.  [Tyee]

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