Comment is free...but trolling is sacred

 by Martin Belam, 18 September 2011

This week I braved the potential troll hordes of the interwebs with a piece for Comment Is Free about the trolling phenomena, commissioned as part of our coverage of the prison sentence given to Sean Duffy for some unsavoury internet posts mocking the deaths of teenagers. Given the subject matter and the potential audience, I think I got off quite lightly in the comments, especially after it ended up with the headline “All you trolls out there – come out and explain yourself”.

I took part in the comment thread that followed, and thought I might gather together some of my responses to the debate here.

One of the first things that people picked up on was my claim that James Delingpole rhymes with “troll”. Not so, argued people, sometime via Twitter at some length. I answered:

“Several people have pointed out to me that Delingpole (long o because of the e) does not rhyme with troll (short o because of the double l).

I grew up in the East End of London, where all O's are born equal. (Except Leyton Orient perhaps).

To get the joke, imagine it being shouted by an angry EastEnders actor: ‘Oi! Del-ing-powull, you ain’t nuthin but a fackin’ trowull

(Round my way, we grew up near a school named after George Monoux, 16th century Sheriff of London, which we all referred to as George Monnucks. It was quite the shock a couple of years ago when the buses started saying the names of stops, and introduced us to the concept of George Mono)

Incidentally, James has written a couple of cracking pieces about trolling himself on his blog - ‘On the malignancy of trolls’ and ‘Seven types of troll: a spotter's guide’”

A couple of people picked up on the fact that I had referred to the common usage of the dismissive phrase “Tory troll” on Comment is free. TheGoldenCrumpetII suggested it might be because Tories are natuarally trolls, or trolls are naturally Tory. I don’t consider disagreement, per se, to be trolling, and replied:

“@TheGoldenCrumpetII - or, as it might be put on another news site:

‘The interesting question here is whether Libtards are natural trolls, or trolls are natural Libtards. Of course, both could very well be true.’

I think it would be a pretty dull place here if we didn't have people both above and below the line who expressed opinions we didn't agree with, whether that is party political or any other issue. If nothing else, it gives you the opportunity to challenge or reinforce preconceptions”

Another user, @Danut, suggested that my use of the phrase in the article amounted to trolling in itself, and raised the vexed issue of “astroturfing”. I responded:

‘Isn’t it trolling to only draw attention to the accusations of ‘tory trolls’ on the Guardian website?’


I picked ‘tory troll’ in the article as one of any number of examples I could have chosen, but I only included one due to space considerations. I thought, to be honest, that my point that ‘disagreement’ isn't necessarily trolling might be better served by someone above-the-line and who has a ‘G’ badge pointing out that ‘tory troll’ is just as lame a way of trying to deflect an argument as saying ‘Guardianista’ or ‘Libtard’ is.

‘It also ignores the problem of astroturfing etc and the fact that there are organized groups who do spam message boards to make it appear that their are a lot of people who support their particular cause.’

Astroturfing is an interesting development. In the steam-powered days of old, people used to do ‘letter writing’ campaigns to newspapers, particularly at the regional level. That gave the editor a choice. They could run one letter out of the campaign, or a couple, or they could fill the whole letters page with them and run a front page splash about the ‘outrage’ and ‘resident fury’ over the issue of the day. The key thing there was that, whatever the volume of ‘input’ in terms of the number of letters, the editor controlled the volume of ‘output’.

Comment threads don't work like that.

If you can muster twenty people to descend on a comment thread, all twenty, providing they keep within the bounds of the community guidelines will get published.

Again, I’d fall back on my argument that trolling can be in the eye of the beholder.

Anyone who follows the environment threads on this site will say that they can sometimes be swamped by people with a particular viewpoint - and that this is paid lobbying and astroturfing and utterly unacceptable. Delingpole argues that the same thing happens in reverse on the Telegraph. In a digital age, the question for users, editors, and software developers, is how we deal with this. Maybe it just means the other side have to organise better?

And the line between malicious astroturfing and lobbying is a fine one.

I used to work on software that counted online votes for competitions and awards. If you got a sudden burst of activity that you could track back to one specific place on the internet, did it mean that someone had done something naughty to try and hijack the vote? Or did it just mean that a round-robin email had just gone round an office saying ‘Please vote for my brother who is up for this award’ - which you’d probably say is reasonable behaviour.”

There was a widespread debate on what really constitutes trolling on the Guardian’s site. @dogsbodyNYC asked the question:

“Does a troll only put forward beliefs that he does not genuinely hold (so as to provoke anger for no reason other than ‘the lulz’), or can a troll also put forward statements that they do genuinely hold? Personally, I would consider the people who always comment on the fashion/celebrity columns with comments like ‘Why is the Guardian writing about this? This is not news?’ to be trolls, even though they probably do genuinely believe that the Guardian shouldn't be writing about what they consider frivolous matters.”

That is a subject dear to my heart - having just been involved in the revamp of our fashion site.

“I don't know if they count as trolls, but I certainly find one of the most tedious things we ever have to commit to our database to be: ‘I’ve left a comment here to tell you how unimportant I found this article. So unimportant, in fact, that it was important enough for me to register an account with the Guardian in order to tell you all about it’. Sali Hughes is brilliantly acerbic on the subject.”

SleepingTarsia suggested that sometimes a Guardian article deserves to be trolled.

‘Martin, a simple question and hopefully (for you) a simple answer. Have you ever read an article in the Guardian that was so badly written you couldn’t understand how it got published?’

The one above?

No, seriously SleepingTarsia - interesting post. In one sense you would expect everyone at the Guardian and Observer to be bound by a cabinet-style collective responsibility about what we publish, so you are unlikely to see ‘G’ badges piling into a comment thread to criticise an author. We do publish about 400 articles every weekday, though, so surely it would be impossible for anyone to agree with all of them, even the most loyal member of staff?

A thing that often perplexes me is that one of the things that makes Comment is free very different from the comment pages of other digital newspapers is that we deliberately commission pieces from people who don't toe ‘the party line’, but by publishing it on here some elements of the community seem to think every piece has been blessed as the ‘official’ view of the Guardian. Even when we run a ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ piece at the same time to complement each other.

As I say in the article though, I don’t think disagreeing with the author is ‘trolling’. IMHO things like trying to introduce 9/11 conspiracy theories into every thread is trolling. Shouting ‘This isn’t news’ on articles you aren’t interested in is trolling. Saying ‘Typical ZaNuLiebore’ or ‘ConDemNation’ in any comment isn’t just trolling, but tedious unimaginative trolling.

But saying ‘you know what, if Greece pulled out of the Eurozone it wouldn’t actually be the end of the world’ or ‘The left’s view that prison is there to rehabilitate not punish is morally bankrupt because of x, y and z’ is debate. It is about style.

Personally, I’m happy to go and engage in the comment threads on sites like The Times and The Telegraph if I’m interested in a topic, and put across a different point of view from their editorial lines without getting moderated. And use my real name and have people realise that I work at the Guardian. You can argue politics without being a dick.

(For irony’s sake, I should probably now sign this comment as Angry-English-Taxpayer, Airstrip One, EUSSR)”

There were a couple of people who suggested there was a problem with the choice of illustration for the article - in that it depicted trolls mostly as men. I thought I should address that:

“A couple of people, including @QuietRiotGirl and @terua, have mentioned the gender composition of the troll images on the article above. I did the image crop. I nudged together the strip of thumbnails that Lucy Pepper has on her blog post. Then I rotated it 3 degrees anti-clockwise, because when you include an image of a webpage on another webpage, it is generally good practice to offset it at a jaunty angle and adda thin border to make it clear that it is an image, not an intrinsic element on the page. Then I cropped it in the middle, at the right aspect ratio for our article templates. I paid absolutely no attention to the resulting gender make-up, but I’d hate people to think that the way I processed the image reflected any gender bias on Lucy’s part. Read her blog post for the full profiles of all the trolls she illustrated - it is beautifully observed.”

That did provoke one concerned reply from FinneyontheWing:

“Jesus, Martin's gone meta... what do we do?”

As I mentioned, given the potentially explosive nature, there was very little moderation on the thread necessary, and I was able to sign off with:

“By the way, I should say thank you to everybody who has contributed to this thread. You can imagine that I did approach writing the article with more than a little trepidation at what the reaction might be. A lot of you are represented by usernames and avatars that don’t particularly identify you - I’m not a journalist or a columnist, but I’ve got my face, real name, and ridiculous job title out in the open. But I think this has been a really good thread, and some people have contributed some great explanations of why they are motivated to comment in the way they do on this site and on others.

Plus, because you started posting ASCII art, I’m given to understand that I would have now ‘won the internets’ - if only Bella's initial*Packs up desk, dons helmet. Grabs whisky flask. Gently pats moderators on back*’ hadn’t already won it by being the best comment I’ve ever seen left by a ‘G’ badge on this site.”

And the best thing anyone said about me in the thread...

“Nice article and you’ve got a really cheeky and knowing smile there.”

You might also be interested in:
‘Don’t be a dick’ - the golden rule of news website comment threads” - September 2011
The ongoing debate over anonymous comments on newspaper websites” - March 2011
In praise of... newspaper website comments” - August 2010
‘Real name’ comments on news websites - the up and the downside” - May 2010

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