On Trump and trolls

First published in The Guardian, August 2016

As the past few decades have shown, the trolling mindset is awesomely well adapted to a digital age. It ignores rational argument. It ignores evidence. It misreads, deliberately. It uses anything and everything somebody says against them. To argue with trolls is to lose – to give them what they want. A troll is interested in impact to the exclusion of all else.

Trolls themselves are hairy Nordic creatures who live under bridges, but trolling doesn’t take its name from them. It comes from the Old French verb troller, meaning to hunt by wandering around in the hope of stumbling upon prey. The word made its way into English as a description of similar fishing tactics: slowly towing a lure in hope of a bite.

Then, in the early 1990s, a Usenet group took up the term to describe some users’ gleeful baiting of the naive: posting provocative comments in hope of attracting an outraged “bite”, then winding up their unwitting victim as thoroughly as possible.

In this, trolling is a form of bullshit art. “The essence of bullshit,” argues the philosopher Harry Frankfurt in his 2005 book of the same name, “is not that it is false but that it is phony”.

Both a liar and an honest person are interested in the truth – they’re playing on opposite sides in the same game. A bullshitter, however, has no such constraint. As Frankfurt puts it, a bullshitter “is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false … He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose”.

Once again, impact is all. The total absence of knowledge or expertise is no barrier to bullshit. In fact, it helps. The artistry lies in knowing your audience, and saying whatever is needed in order to achieve a desired effect.

Here’s another neat neologism: clickbait. In use since 2011, it brings trolling’s fishing metaphor into explicit play. Online media thrives on clicks. More is always better. Headlines drive clicks – meaning the data-driven optimization of linguistic click-enticement is now one of journalism’s finest arts. You Won’t Believe How Little Many Stories Have To Do With Their Headlines.

Content itself is beside the point – as the very use of words like content suggests. The moment you start labelling every single piece of writing in the world “content”, you have conceded its interchangeability: its primary purpose as mere grist to the metrical mill. Dangle the tasty lure, and wait for the fish to bite.

We live in an age of ever-increasing bullshit. Whenever someone, somewhere decides to pass a passionate comment on something they know nothing about, the whiff of bullshit is in the air – mingled, if their comments are engineered to provoke, with the stink of troll.

We need a new phrase for this kind of aggressively emotive untruth; though hardly a new human phenomenon, it wields particular power in an age of endlessly recycled outrage.

Then again, shutting up about Donald Trump and all other professional trollshitters (a potty-mouthed portmanteau is the best I can do for now) might be a better tactic. Bullshit is a kind of conjurer’s incantation. Breaking its spell is a matter not so much of truth – however much we might like to believe it – as of disenchantment.

Like trolling, attention is its lifeblood: without a consenting audience, each withers. And the less time we waste on headlines and hand waving, the more we can focus on what’s actually going on.

In the end, bullshit itself is bullshit – someone else’s wishes for your thoughts. Don’t take the bait. Step back. Pick your words and your battles carefully – and never trust a headline that could have been written by satirical algorithm.