Twitter Has Turned Us All Into Trolls

The other night, I discussed with a friend the case of Justine Sacco, the PR person who famously tweeted vile racist garbage before getting on an 11 hour flight with no WiFi and landing to find herself with no job and half of the internet making fun of or being angry at her.

I said out loud that “she shouldn’t have been able to get work” after doing that, before realizing that was a fundamentally bonkers way of looking at things, even if it only meant briefly - what acts should deem someone totally unhireable forever? It isn’t that Justine was or is a bad or good person, or indeed whether she should or shouldn’t be fired - it’s about the fact that I, or others, had a certain bloodlust for the doomed individual - the main character - and we wanted to see a satisfying end of the story, even if said “justice” in our minds involves them being left jobless. To quote the New York Times:

The furor over Sacco’s tweet had become not just an ideological crusade against her perceived bigotry but also a form of idle entertainment. Her complete ignorance of her predicament for those 11 hours lent the episode both dramatic irony and a pleasing narrative arc. As Sacco’s flight traversed the length of Africa, a hashtag began to trend worldwide: #HasJustineLandedYet. “Seriously. I just want to go home to go to bed, but everyone at the bar is SO into #HasJustineLandedYet. Can’t look away. Can’t leave” and “Right, is there no one in Cape Town going to the airport to tweet her arrival? Come on, Twitter! I’d like pictures #HasJustineLandedYet.”

It’s the ingrained Internet Justice and Entertainment Matrix that I think Twitter has carved into my brain - the instinct of finding those who have done wrong, everyone looking at how wrong they are, and the ensuing justice of what must be done with this doomed person? It’s also the sideshow of knowing someone messed up bad, and watching publicly either as a passive (by sharing their doom) or active (by actively contacting important people in their lives) drama plays out like a reality TV show where the audience also controls the flow of information (correct or otherwise). It’s the action of “Twitter, do your thing” - letting the world know but also asking their employer for a comment, knowing that they’ll likely fire them because no corporation has any idea what to do with a Twitter mob other than fire people.

It’s a simple situation usually - someone makes a bad tweet, or is caught on video doing something bad. Someone screenshots the bad tweet - so that the person in question cannot delete it, of course - or reposts the damning event, and everybody looks at it and agrees it’s bad, shares it, and everyone begins getting outraged. Depending on the level of bad, someone @ messages their employer, and the employer likely fires them. In any case, people then go through their tweets and find places they’ve messed up before, or things that they can give a bad faith reading to, screenshots said tweets, and everybody gets more laughs.

These situations are exacerbated sometimes through the actions of the person in question - responding to people making fun of them, doubling down on their opinions, or apologizing/taking back what they said long after the time it’d be useful to do so. People tend to love to “post through it” - and this leads to more screenshots, more making fun of them, and them deleting their account when it all becomes too much.

In fact, what we used to refer to as ‘trolls’ really just refers to most of the people that used Twitter. We have all become trolls, trolling the people who mess up and uniting with our fellow trolls to troll them further. When they respond to us, we continue to troll - we want more fun, we want more blood, and thus we are going to get it by trolling them. We likely don’t consider most people trolls because the lighter practices - quote tweeting, retweeting people making fun of them - are more passive than they are active - but they are trolling. Which is fine, but it’s what we’re doing.

Anyway, it can also not be a laugh cycle - it can be a “look at this asshole” situation - where people want to see justice done to someone who they have decided is bad, and used the glorious speed of social media to expedite said justice.

Sidebar: this is not me morally defending the actions of horrible people. If you do something horrible, you are facing the classic “buy the ticket take the ride” situation, and that’s on you. In fact…

What I’m writing about is not around situations like the Ellie Kemper situation that Charlie Warzel just covered for Galaxy Brain, but Charlie makes a really good point in what happened:

I don’t mean to get in the weeds of Kemper’s politics/upbringing/potentially problematic family, etc. I’m not trying to suggest she’s good or bad or anything, really. But her example is a particularly thorny flattening facilitated by multiple online systems interacting with each other.

This specifically applies to what I’m talking about - when people fuck up online, deliberately or otherwise, and how Twitter turns their situation into entertainment, and, indeed, flattens their entire life into whatever they’ve said recently, whatever can be dug up by searching their social media and Google, and keeping a weird form of news cycle going around their lifes’ mistakes. Warzel specifically points out a way in which social media fuels this - interesting or entertaining stuff gets shared, and nuance is rarely as fun or interesting to share with people:

They are either the King of Bastards or The Scorned Victim - there is no entertaining middle ground, and every new nugget of information that backs up the King of Bastards angle has the chance to start the cycle anew. We hunger each day for new entertainment on the bird website, and we enjoy watching people we do not like get their just desserts. We generally have a good sense of what’s bad, and what people we don’t like, and we generally want to see them embarrassed, but we generally do not know what exactly we want from them. We want to see where they’ve been bad, and know exactly how bad they are, which requires research, and once we have that research, we can put that research on Twitter and get our licks in - we can judge them, we can make fun of them, and more importantly we can feel better than them - we are good at social media, we know not to say bad things (and if we’ve said them before, we’ve long-since deleted them), and we are also in the moral right as we know what we would have done, and whatever that is, it’s better.

Twitter is, at its heart, a place to show off to your friends about how smart, cool or interesting you are, and these pile-ons are a fascinating and engaging group bullying activity - they allow us to get together with our friends to hate and love the same things, and all agree that we’re better than the person in question. When it’s around politics, it’s likely that the person doesn’t have the correct opinions (ours), and as a result they get in an argument with someone we know who has the correct opinions, and thus we screenshot and share or quote tweet and all get a laugh about how stupid they are, and how smart we are.

The problem is that Twitter is never satisfied. To get out of a situation where you mess up, you generally want to apologize - which most people are terrible at - and then say nothing else for a bit as to not make yourself part of the news cycle again. The problem is that most people either clearly posted the thing in question believing that they were right to say it, and thus stick around to argue their corner - which only gives all of us the means to troll harder and deeper. We’re all participants in a troll culture we used to loathe, because it’s fun as hell and it’s happening to bad people, or at least people we’ve decided are bad.

Take Bean Dad, for example, a pile-on I was absolutely part of. He was absolutely an asshole to his kid, and the context he added to the situation around how their relationship works did not help, nor did the fact that he has a ‘heightened style’ he writes in, apparently. He doubled, tripled and quadrupled down in his replies, and naturally people searched his old tweets and found many bad tweets, ranging from racism to anti-semitism - all bad shit that sucks, and shows he’s a bad guy. He eventually apologized, covering both the situation with his child and his previous tweets in such a way that I’d describe as “as good as possible considering the circumstances.” Was he an asshole? Yes. Did he deserve to get made fun of? Yes. Did he deserve to get CPS called on him? I don’t know. Did he need to answer questions about his family life to NBC News? I don’t know.

But the vast Twitter Troll-engine was such that in 17 or so tweets, this man had graduated from “podcast asshole” to “abusive, racist anti-semite” in 24 hours - Twitter was not interested in whether he was sorry anymore, they were interested in his bad acts, spreading said bad acts, and making sure everybody knew who he was and how bad he was. This isn’t even to say he is or isn’t a bad guy - what he said previously was vile and offensive, his story framed him as a big asshole (apparently they had a bowl of pistachios between them and were laughing the whole time? He didn’t mention it. Might’ve helped!) and by the time he’d sought to make amends, Twitter’s judgment had become too weighty to solve with an apology. He also didn’t help himself by being brusque and flippant with how people felt his story was abusive - he very much bought the ticket, and the ride was already being taken before he thought further.

Cause and Effect

The problem is it’s fun. People love talking about stuff they love, but even more about stuff they hate - it’s enjoyable, it’s exciting to hate stuff, and it’s fun to hate things with other people. I am not going to pretend as if I don’t enjoy finding someone’s dumb thing online and saying “hey, everyone, check out how dumb this is!” and maybe even searching their old tweets to see if they’ve been done before. It’s the America’s Funniest Home Videos of social media - we love watching people fuck up online, and when it’s not funny, we love knowing that the person in question is getting in trouble.

Why? Because on some level, I think we all feel that there are plenty of assholes we know in real life that don’t get their just desserts, and we want to see, and in some way be part of seeing justice done. We know that racism is a problem in society, so when someone is racist and shitty, we want to see something done about it. We know good from bad, and we want our accounts to be pro-good and anti-bad, and thus when we see Twitter find a bad person, we want their ass too. I think it’s more nuanced than the mob with pitchforks, as this is so much more outward facing - we want to be morally right, but also up with the latest trends, which involves finding and making fun of things when they happen in the right amount. Warzel refers to this as turning us all into brands:

The social internet promised us deep human connections — the sort that requires nuance and patience for messiness — but instead, it’s just turned us all into brands. Brands are monolithic. They are purposefully devoid of nuance. A brand is supposed to evoke a blunt emotion (Luxurious! Dangerous! Dependable! Built to last!) and are meant to remain consistent through space and time. Once you are ‘Built Ford Tough,’ it’s expected you remain Ford Tough for quite a while. There are cars to move off the lot.

I don’t think he’s 100% correct - I think that people do want nuance and that nuance is reflected in this case through the specific judgments they make in these cases - but I fully agree that there is an outward-facing element to these trolllings. Who you are choosing to dunk on is absolutely a personal choice - the conflicts you associate with and the damnations you choose for the person in question are who you are. If you are anti-Bean Dad, you are pro-good-parenting and anti-abuse. The problem is we very rarely know when to stop, and even if we do know when to stop - if we just contribute a retweet, or a reply - we are part of a larger system of trolling that is impossible to stop once it gets momentum. Their lives have been condensed into ultra-shareable troll pellets of screenshot quartets and funny jokes at their expense.

I also think that it’s not an issue of depth of our human connections, but the way in which Twitter (and social media) compresses people and their situations into shareable assets by design. By making everything static slices of life, this activity isn’t simply possible, it’s easy.

And, really, what do we actually want from the person, and what redemption can they truly seek? If they mess up and apologize immediately, and explain themselves with transparent and satisfying answers, will that stop Twitter making fun of them? Twitter expedites the emotional-judicial process that (within a friend group or a work environment at least) usually operates over the course of hours or days - you mess up, you apologize, the person is mad, they get over it, or you keep messing up and you’re not friends anymore, or you get in trouble at work. Or, of course, nothing happens to the person who did these things in person, and we generate resentment toward those who do not face consequences for their actions.

That’s why Twitter specifically is so successful at helping you take offense for other people. When something bad happens, and it’s not directed at us, we choose to take offense as if it happened in front of us. Social media has always been an artificial way of viewing the world, and through it we want to experience a kind of artificial justice applied to artificial bubbles of time, and we want to see it applied in a similarly expedited fashion. And in many ways, the morality of social media and these mega-dunk situations is just like the rest of our shareable content.

Sadly, the things that we’re offended by are often not the same from person to person, which is why this experience is so fun to engage with when it’s your side of morality. However, the same muscles we exercise to dunk on a racist asshole are regularly used to attack those we might agree with. Take Taylor Lorenz’s entire situation with Clubhouse, and the ensuing national TV hits against her. Taylor Lorenz stated that Andreessen (rather than Horowitz) used a slur, and the same quote-tweet screenshot dunk parade began within the right wing side of social media. Taylor had quickly corrected her statement and deleted the tweets, but the screenshots had been taken, and she was damned and dunked upon by some of the worst people in the world for the same reasons that we enjoy dunking on the Bean Dad guy - it aligned with their morality, and it was fun to enjoy hating something with friends.

It isn’t the same situation (nor is it done with the same intentional level of bad faith) - but it is the same process, enabled in the same way, enjoyed in the same way, just by awful, shitty people who care more about the world fitting their morality than the world actually being that way. They intentionally remove the context that might change their narrative (Taylor apologizing, the fact that Horowitz actually said the slur), and manipulate the narrative themselves (framing the power dynamic in a way that makes the billionaire VC somehow a victim) to make it more entertaining.

And…it can happen on my side of the moral compass too. Screenshots are bubbles of information that also lead you to simplify the existence of a person to a moment in their life. Context is rarely added, and when it is it’s hard to swallow - how could a person who’s otherwise good say this shitty thing? - and the outcome of that equation is usually “they are bad.” It is, to paraphrase a friend of mine, self-righteousness propaganda - you are told what to like, and what to believe in, and what to be mad at, and because it’s delivered in such a way that’s imminently shareable and easily enjoyable, why bother arguing or researching? And I’m guilty of it! Because it’s fun! If we do research, we use it as a means to confirm what we want it to confirm - that they’re a big asshole with no redeeming features, or potentially a worse asshole than we ever realized.  We want to be cool, we want to be liked, and we want to be righteous.

We share cool places we’ve seen, music we’re listening to, things we love and hate, but also things that are emblematic of what we believe in, and join in the justice parade so that we can share these morality bytes and be seen as a cool and good person. We have learned to experience fantastical vistas and wonderful events through social media - so why not the vicarious experience of getting mad at someone or outraged at something?

I don’t even know what the takeaway is, beyond an overwhelming concern about how information and emotions travel and are transposed onto other people. We want to be like our peer group, we generally want to agree with people that we agree with the ideas and principles of, and as a result we want to agree with their morals too. We admire them, we consider them better or similarly-read to us, and thus we join in with them and believe what they believe, even if the truth is more nuanced (and boring) than it may seem.

There is a level of hypocrisy that exists here that I'm absolutely guilty of - that we are constantly speaking out against hate and fighting against hate, but we are, in the right situations, ready to hate the everloving shit out of something if we deem it worthy. We are ready to troll it into dust, and use that dust to make little shareable pellets that are fun to laugh at and remember with our friends.