RIP Trolls: Social Critics? Just Sick and Offensive?

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.

Related Care2 Coverage

Justice for Phoebe Prince: First of Six Teens is Charged in Bullying Suicide Case

Death By Bullying: Another Teenage Suicide “Father” Confirmed Anti-Choice Internet Troll


Photo by sboneham


pam w.
pam w6 years ago

Trolls are "social critics" in the same way that grafitti vandals are "artists."

colleen p.
colleen p6 years ago

Christina B.

are the trolls on your forum real ones or are people on your forum blithering idiots? people even think the police can take away your computer for being a "troll".

they only take your stuff if you are getting to cozey with minors.

take this site, the people here think any slight disagreement is trolling. better yet "you have a differnt opinion than me and the topic at hand. because you talk about it you are a troll"

you don't go into a burger resturant and demand a chow mein pizza.
so you don't say Eskimos should be allowed to wear fur, on a site where people would let their child die before a flea does.

Christina B.
Christina B6 years ago

I was annoyed by the suggestion that trolls are "social critics". Sometimes, I just think people write articles with absolutely no meaning at all.

Trolls crave attention. They may be very smart individuals, but their trolling comments have nothing to do with promoting discussions or offering counter-arguments. They just like creating havoc. It's as simple as that. As a mod in another forum, I should know.

peggy p.
peggy p6 years ago

since values and morals are mostly taught by example, this says something very disturbing about humankind....

K s Goh
KS Goh6 years ago

Thanks for the article.

colleen p.
colleen p6 years ago

Bridget M.

what is worse, meaning it or not? if the people who trolled that dead girls memorial were "christain" and the dead girl and her family not christain, or if she were lesbian-momosexual(the people of Lesbos island want their name back) they they would be protected by free speech. I think, but they indrude on territory and attack an individual.

if anything, many should strive to be a RIP troll for these nutters. rape your free-speech powers and do it.

Kimberlee W.
Kimberlee W6 years ago

And, at any rate, I didn't do this anonymously.

Kimberlee W.
Kimberlee W6 years ago

I have to admit - I did do a "Troll" drive-by on my ex's RIP, not on FB, but on some site and on Classmates.
I felt I had to since this person not only beat and raped me with impunity, but I found out that he's been stalking me for almost 18 yrs. without my knowledge.
Because of this, my relationship with my brother and sis-n-law have been irreparably damaged.

So - YEAH - it's been 8 months since I did it and I'm still waiting to see if any guilt surfaces.

I have a feeling it won't.
But I still feel terrible when it happens to innocents.
From what I've been able to piece together, my rapist was innocent to NO ONE.

Bridget M.
Past Member 6 years ago

Trolling may be covered under the constitution as free speech, but it is still disturbing to see people upping the ante with the amount of cruelty they can inflict on others. The anonymity afforded by the Internet is intoxicating for the worst offenders, but I suspect that many would be just as rude in person if they felt it was justified. It seems like we're not all carrying the same rule book when it comes to general cordiality.
Care2 is a venue for personal commentary and debate, but certain subjects invariably cause trolling behavior to rise to the surface. It isn't quite as vicious as the RIP trolls, but it is sometimes less about fair debate and more about insulting one's opponent and their allegedly inferior belief paradigm. Security in one's beliefs does not require attacks. Intelligent discourse and respect will get you further than the degradation of nasty words and trolling.

colleen p.
colleen p6 years ago

by which kind? give an example. I will laugh if you mean saying "Heifter international is great, I will buy some poor people in Africa a family of goats, they can breed goats, milk the goat, make cheese, sell baby boy goats for food, grow more goats, make money off the hides"

or "lol, this iz balls, grow a spine and take an ethnic/racist/sexist joke"

ah. I'm just mad because I don't know how to get money from the meat industry for troll'n this sites animal welfare. that would be great. I'd ask for 4,000 a month to advocate eating our barnyard friends.

Or do you mean trolls as left/right wing'ed screaming ninnies? bible humping homophobes.

really. I don't think people on this site would know they are trolled or not. If I say "oh no Eskimos are eating seals, let's force them to convert to fake meat, and make factories for such on their homelands. They can be hired to work in it"

I get friggen green stars for that.