You may have seen a certain tweet make its way around the internet last week. This tweet, sent by a far-right Canadian YouTuber and podcaster well-known for promoting men’s rights and white supremacy, was a blatant troll message designed to provoke reactions and go viral. You probably saw a lot of your friends quote-tweeting it with funny commentary or political smackdowns that were highly cathartic at that moment. I don’t blame you if you got some enjoyment out of dunking on an admittedly easy target. On an increasingly unusable hell-site like Twitter, you have to take pleasure where you can, particularly as the platform seemingly descends into irrevocable toxicity. I don’t seek to judge or scorn any people who joined in with what was, at the time, a fun time. Lord knows we could all use a bit more of that. However, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with this cycle and how it only exacerbates a problem with deeper and tougher roots than we are often aware of. This creep wasn’t putting his misogyny out there to show off how ‘intellectual’ he was: He did it for attention, and he received it in spades. His follower count went up too.
It’s become much harder to navigate the treacherous waters of the internet in the past couple of years, as right-wing hate groups bolstered the mainstream world of politics and rhetoric previously considered career-killing has become the foundation of the current discourse. We used to tell people to simply ignore the abuse so as to ‘not feed the trolls’, even as it became abundantly clear that such tactics were naïve at best and actively harmful at worst. Yet there’s a power to that simplicity, especially now as we’ve seen countless people make highly profitable careers out of being well-fed trolls. There is an entire financial ecosystem built on the backs of trolling marginalized people and convincing a primarily cishet white male audience that their self-victimization is valid if they pay enough money to someone else’s Patreon account.
Pick any major moment in pop culture from the past five years and the chances are you’ll find dozens of blogs and YouTube channels and shoddily produced podcasts dedicated to screeching about how feminism or diversity or brainwashed liberals ruined them for ‘real fans’. Carl Benjamin managed to turn his YouTube hatred of Anita Sarkeesian and vocal support of GamerGate into a goldmine. Before Patreon finally banned him, he was pulling in around $12,000 a month with conspiratorial anti-feminist screeds. He ran for the European Parliament as a UKIP candidate (and lost). Search for Brie Larson or Kathleen Kennedy on YouTube and you’ll find countless people racking up the clicks with baseless rants that rely on anti-feminist views and harassment.
Part of the reason we shouldn’t engage with this crap, even to condemn it, is because the algorithm does not discriminate against which clicks are ‘good’ and which ones are ‘bad’. If you retweet something just to dunk on it, it’s still a retweet, and Twitter will only see that as further proof that this is what people on their platform want. YouTube is notorious for this, to the point where the majority of search options for people like Brie Larson, Rian Johnson, and Anita Sarkeesian and are these hate rants. The same logic applies to every tabloid or questionable news outlet that writes deliberately baity headlines to get those rage clicks. That’s obviously emblematic of a much deeper issue that goes beyond a tweet or two, but the basic business model remains intact. It’s good for engagement, and as the market flakes apart and ad revenue gets smaller, you can hardly blame everyone for doing what they can to stay afloat. Except we totally can.
When professional troll Milo Yiannopolous was banned from Twitter after racially abusing Leslie Jones, it didn’t take very long for his career to dry up. He quickly became hilariously irrelevant, but his downfall from ‘bad boy of politics’ to has-been only further exposed how horribly relevant Twitter trolling became to our crumbling political foundations, and how utterly flimsy its strength is. This was a man who essentially made a career for himself by being a d-bag on Twitter. He had other revenues of trolling, of course, but it was those tweets that garnered him the most power. The ecosystem of pundits, mouth-pieces, and ‘all sides are equal’ debate requires people like Milo, and they’re kept busy by that trolling. Every journalist wants to be the one who interviews someone like him and gets lots of YouTube plays for ‘absolutely destroying’ them by asking basic questions in a forward manner. We still operate from this quaint viewpoint that if we expose the rot, it will go away. Really, all that does now is let it further fester until enough people start to like it. It doesn’t help that the default mode of politics nowadays is to pretend that such obviously abhorrent and damaging people, saying stuff they probably don’t entirely believe because it gets them attention, is valid engagement and worthy of our civility.
What trolls like the ones discussed do with their obviously baiting tweets is cloak themselves in an image of pseudo-buffoonish safety, making themselves seem much stupider and therefore more harmless than they actually are. The idea that we can point and laugh, try to reason with them, or ‘destroy’ them with our arguments merely empowers this façade, pushing it to the forefront until there is suddenly a hell of a lot of people and groups funding their insidious ideas. The short-term catharsis isn’t worth it, not when there are entire corporate infrastructures in place to benefit the bullies and abusers who harness these broken models. So, if we must participate, let’s not do it through quote tweets or replies or anything that could be used as positive engagement for the people wishing to profit from our ire. Screencap away or harness your subtweeting prowess for some true meme glory. We certainly still need to refute violence like this in all its forms, but the system as it stands does not benefit those who are in the right. Until it does, or until Jack Dorsey has a Scrooge-style awakening, we have to fight in new ways.
Header Image Source: Pixabay (LoboStudioHamburg)