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?
Photo by sboneham
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