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Leith on life

The age of the troll

By Sam Leith   May 2012

Two pieces of wisdom today preoccupy me. One, whose originator is unknown, is: “Don’t feed the trolls.” The other—which I’ve heard plausibly attributed to the Guardian columnist Grace Dent—is: “Never read the bottom half of the internet.” The latter—a warning, essentially, against plunging into the foaming cauldron of madness in online comment threads—is a sort of preventative measure. If you don’t read the bottom half of the internet—the bit under the bridge—you stand that much less chance of finding yourself looking down on a hungry troll, with a billy-goat in your arms, and being overcome by temptation.

A troll, in internet terms, is someone who sails into a discussion just to mess things up. He is the poker of sticks into ants’ nests: the commenter who gatecrashes a rape survivor’s messageboard with a collection of Frankie Boyle jokes, or posts fake news stories about stock in forums for investors. The idea is not to contribute to the discussion, but to derail it. Online trolls thrive on rage, hurt and confusion. What they’re after is a rise. Hence: don’t feed the trolls. It only encourages them.

This stuff can get ugly. Trolls are, as I write, in the news because of the case of 21-year-old Liam Stacey, who used Twitter to unroll a stream of racist abuse as footballer Fabrice Muamba lay critically ill. Stacey was, controversially, sentenced to 56 days in jail. It was the racist component of his remarks, it’s worth noting, that landed him the custodial sentence: there’s no law against being offensive in general.

I don’t have any way of knowing whether Stacey is, when not behind a computer screen, convulsed with race hate. It seems perfectly plausible, though, that he was actuated not by personal racism so much as by the profound taboo on racist language itself. The troll need not be in earnest; he’s simply looking for whatever will provoke the greatest reaction. The more profoundly offensive we find a particular type of language—be it racist, misogynist, obscene, violent, or paedophilic—the more attractive it becomes to the troll. That’s suggestive. It makes the phenomenon something akin to an internet-wide return of the repressed.

There’s a detachment, there, too. It’s not a phenomenon that would be possible were trolls to see their victims face to face. Here is the moral disconnection made possible by anonymity or, at least, the mediated interactions of cyberspace. The relationship is between you and a screen. The process is doubly dehumanised: your victim is an abstraction; your troll-self a persona.

There was an oddly touching story not long ago about Noel Edmonds, who discovered that someone had set up a Facebook page calling for him to be killed. This page wasn’t, we can assume, in earnest: those soliciting assassinations tend not to do so on Facebook. But it upset Edmonds. He hired a firm that helped him track down the troll, a PhD student at a Kent university, and requested a face-to-face meeting in exchange for not involving the police. Edmonds said: “I could see there was someone young behind this and I didn’t want to see that person’s life ruined with a criminal record.” The student, when they met, was reportedly “shaking with fear and in floods of tears and saying sorry.” That’s the sound of the reality gap closing.

But though it’s a commonplace that trolls of the sort who baited Fabrice Muamba and Noel Edmonds are on the rise, what seems to me to have sneaked up on us is how much the methods and dynamics of trollery have entered the mainstream. Trolls are not marginal. The dividing line between the top half of the internet and the bottom half has become so blurred as more or less to have ceased to exist. The trolls have escaped. They’ve overrun the bridge. Troll speaks unto troll, and there are bits and pieces of billy-goat—blood, horn, fur, fragments of bone—all over the shop.

You can see trolliness in the Twitter feeds of drunken students. But you can also see it in entertainment: the “new nastiness” in stand-up comedy—using offensive     material to generate buzz—is troll-work. And you can see it in national newspapers. The extraordinary storm that blew up over an article by Samantha Brick in the Daily Mail—she claimed that women hated her for her beauty—was a prime example. The Mail was, effectively, acting as a “professional troll.” The article extracted 1.5m hits and 5,000 comments. It worked both ways: trolling and troll-bait. Provocation has always been a function of journalism, but it’s becoming an ever more central one.

There is a decipherable reason for this. Eyes on a page are eyes on a page. Retweets, whether in outrage or in endorsement, are retweets. The currency of the internet is not agreement but attention. So trolling—whose only raison d’être is the gaining of attention—is a central dynamic of modern media. It could, arguably, be seen as the characteristic communicative gesture of the internet era. We live in the age of the troll.

Modern political news management uses the methods of trollery to knock a conversation off-topic. If you can make a relatively nugatory tax on sausage rolls a front-page political talking point, you can count that what they call a #troll #win.

Provocation, reaction, attention: you value what you do only through the stretched eyes of your audience. And with each successive sortie, it takes more and more to get those eyes to stretch as far. It’s not a good time, not a good time at all, to be a billy-goat.

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