RIP trolling — in which anonymous persons leave less than kindly, if not downright mean and cruel, remarks on Facebook and other social media profiles of the deceased — would seem to be, hands down, one of the most despicable phenomena to arise on the internet. What kind of individual spends their time posting hateful comments on memorial pages, many for teenagers who have died tragically in accidents or in ways more terrible and violent?
In Loling at tragedy: Facebook trolls, memorial pages and resistance to grief online, an article in the online journal First Monday, University of Oregon Ph.D. student Whitney Phillips examines the “emergence” of such “organized trolling behavior”; highlights the “parasitic” relationship among RIP trolls, Facebook protocols and mainstream media outlets; and suggests that such behavior is — hard as it is for most of us to consider — a sort of social critique. Those who engage in RIP trolling are engaging in a “pointed critique of a tragedy–obsessed global media,” by calling into question “grief tourists” who “have no real–life connection to the victim and who, according to the trolls, could not possibly be in mourning”; whose expressions of sorrow are not truly authentic but rather, according to one “Paulie Socash,” the result of “boredom and a pathological need for attention masquerading as grief.” RIP trolls who seek out Facebook memorial and fan pages “laugh at death” and “force their victims to confront precisely those things that motivate the popularity of memorial pages — fear of helplessness, fear of losing a loved one, fear of human parts.”
RIP trolls also, says Phillips, seek to call into question the mainstream media and, in particular, its focus on cyberbullying:
Mainstream outlets in America and Britain placed each story on a blood–stained pedestal, breathlessly pouring over every mean thing anyone ever said to the victim pre– and post–mortem, often jumbling the timelines so badly as to suggest that the RIP trolls were somehow responsible for pushing the (already dead) teens to suicide. In Britain, the Daily Mail lead this charge, often affecting the same gristly tone as the trolls they purported to condemn. “‘Help Me, Mummy,” the headline of one 2011 article began, quoting from a macro posted to 15–year–old Lauren Gelder’s memorial page. “‘It’s Hot Here in Hell’: A Special Investigation Into the Distress of Grieving Families Caused by the Sick Internet Craze of ‘Trolling’” (Carey, 2011).
According to Phillips, media coverage simply serves to reinforce and “reinscribe the same ‘sick and disgusting’ language of trolls in order to maximize reader outrage.” By focusing so much emphasis on the trolls’ despicableness, the media are engaging in the same sorts of behavior that they criticize RIP trolls for.
So are RIP trolls the unsung social critics of our times in the manner of no one less than the ancient philosopher Socrates, who once characterized himself as a gadfly stinging the lazy old horse of Athens into action?
It is possible that leaving a comment on a Facebook memorial page for someone you don’t know may mean the most to the commenter, who, on learning about something terrible — a teenager who committed suicide — feels the urge to say something. While we’d like to think that such collective expressions of grief bring far-flung strangers together as a community, the point can be debated. The RIP trolls may, as Phillips says after her research (which included embedding herself amid Facebook trolls), be seeking to wake us up to our practicing “grief tourism.”
But certainly there are other ways to offer such critique and without using language so nasty that it cancels out whatever thoughtful aims were intended. Saying that such trolling is “horrifying and offensive,” Rebecca Greenfield writes on The Atlantic Wire:
This isn’t to say that some sort of commentary can’t and shouldn’t be made about the way the Internet responds to death. But RIP trolls aren’t proving any points.
Adrian Chen on Gawker questions Philip’s academic discussion of the RIP trolling phenomenon. One is often told not to “feed the trolls”; an extended discussion of the meaning of RIP trolling could rather be said to lavish those who engage in such with a ten-course banquet.
Phillips also falls into a trap that often catches scholars and journalists who hang out with trolls: the impulse to justify trolls’ actions with intellectualizing, and to take too seriously trolls’ self-mythologizing as harmless tricksters and their opponents as humorless bores. The fact is, anyone who would anonymously post a bloody corpse on the memorial page of a teen girl killed the day before in a car accident is a bad person. And it means something that the worst trolling is usually done by young, white men, against young women, gays, and minorities—some of whom are forced off the internet forever as a result of rape and death threats.
RIP trolls are sociopaths, not cultural critics.
It goes without saying that internet trolling is something we’d all rather do without. Having received some quite distasteful messages on some things I’ve written over the years (in particular when the topic was vaccines and autism), my preferred way of addressing trolls is to ignore them, a strategy which Phillips herself calls “the fastest and most effective way to stop a raid in its tracks.”
Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that trolls who take advantage of the anonymity offered by the internet can ever be extinguished without heavy-handed policies that smack of censorship. Perhaps the best antidote to the depravity of RIP trolls is to focus on fostering values of respect, compassion and empathy in our children, in our communities, in their and our face-to-face interactions with each other, and to emphasize that — just because you are interacting with others online — those same values must still be practiced in equal measure.
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