As an avid Internet and social media user, I’m tired of “trolling” being an excuse for people to spread harassment and false information online.
Websites and applications such as Reddit, Twitter and Yik Yak—which allow for varyind degrees of user anonymity—are frequent breeding grounds for hate speech written under the pretense of trolling. Sexist, transphobic and racist content that is often targeted at other users is not addressed or taken seriously, as we offer the excuse, “Well, they are just trolling.”
The recent “#BoycottStarWarsVII” Twitter campaign in response to actors of color being cast in the new film Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a rare case of Internet trolling becoming a mainstream, viral sensation. The Twitter campaign called the film racist and anti-white for casting people of color in the predominantly white Star Wars franchise.
The few Twitter users who started the campaign are being labeled as trolls and their sincerity to the campaign has been downplayed. There is no hint that these users were just simply trying to drum up controversy with a ridiculous claim. Just scrolling through their previous tweets, it’s apparent that they’re committed to spreading hateful content about all different topics.
The overwhelming outcome of the campaign was actually positive. A majority of Twitter users defended the movie and praised its diverse cast while simultaneously shutting down the racist users who started it all. It seemed that virtually nobody was fooled by the extremist tweets. Mainstream media outlets were rightfully in agreement that greater representation of race in film was something to celebrate rather than disagree with for a white supremacist agenda.
When we downplay the intentions of these trolls, however, we reinforce the idea that racism, sexism, transphobia and other problematic views are not actually a real problem. This campaign has been labeled as extreme, dramatic and not necessarily reflective of the current views of Americans.
This is problematic because these kinds of racist and oppressive views are very much upheld in political and social institutions in America. It is a very privileged perspective to believe our nation is beyond or above these oppressive views—and that they only exist in the form of mischievous Internet comments. Although the overwhelming reaction to the campaign was criticism and disgust, there were genuine arguments supporting the campaign to uphold the whiteness of the film franchise.
I truly believe those we label as trolls aren’t just faking their beliefs for the thrill of controversy. People who are truly anti-sexist or anti-racist would understand the implications of trolling and wouldn’t waste their energy spreading hate speech. Those who spew hate behind the moniker of “troll” do not hold ideals that stray far from those who commit hate crimes or those who are members of established hate groups.
Sometimes, not all Internet trolling is bad—we can all appreciate harmless jokes and memes. But when trolling is used to excuse discriminatory and hateful behavior directed at others, we should reevaluate our position as apologists in the Internet landscape.