Handy guide for recognizing trolls in the Richard Armitage fandom
[This was my original planned topic for today, but I’ve modified it somewhat to deal with today’s events.]
We had another incident of fan-directed trolling in our fandom on Friday evening. Trolling usually escalates in frequency when Richard Armitage is doing something fans are excited about, because a troll loves nothing more than sucking up our energy. (For Star Trek fans, think of the energy creature who splits the Klingons and the Enterprise crew in ST:TOS The Day of the Dove). Since I personally find reading the drama around trolling exhausting, I thought I’d drop a few suggestions about the topic here. Your mileage may vary, and of course, you may have good reasons for responding to a troll. I have done so from time to time myself. However, one must always keep in mind that doing so means giving a malicious total stranger who is laughing at you a chunk of your positive energy for free.
In my opinion, there are two key principles in understanding how to respond to problematic fandom content on the Internet.
First, ask (a) to whom am I speaking? and (b) is that a person I really want to speak to? and (c) are they listening?
Second, ask (a) what am I accomplishing by speaking here? What is at stake? and (b) what really needs defending?
I’m not telling anyone not to respond to a troll, even though I wish we wouldn’t, but here are some things I try to keep in mind when I’m debating a response.
What a troll is (and isn’t) and how to recognize one
[I’m using “they” as a neutral pronoun in this post, incidentally, even though it bugs me grammatically.]
Here’s a definition. Paraphrasing that article, a troll is someone who intentionally puts something down in a discussion stream that they know will be highly controversial or inflammatory, solely for the purpose of provoking an emotional response from the normal audience for that topic in that medium. A troll in Armitageworld is usually either an outsider to the superfan community, or if not, uses a sockpuppet. These features are important because there’s a difference between trolling and controversy in discussion between known entities (intense controversy in fan discussion can causing flaming, but flaming usually has an object of contention — it doesn’t happen solely for the purpose of upsetting people), and a fan who says something controversial with their normal pseudonym is typically not a troll. Although some of us enjoy drama, there’s a different pattern to that behavior than that of a troll. (The lady in your church who is always the first to cry wolf about bomb threats is different from the person who calls your church phone anonymously with a bomb threat.) Similarly, and I can’t emphasize this enough, a fellow fan who disagrees with you about something or says something you find troubling and does not change their position even after you raise the issue with them about it is not a troll (or, as I read all too often these days, a bully). Reasoned disagreement, even if it doesn’t result in agreement, is a normal and acceptable part of fan discourse.
In contrast to controversial discussion, trolling is a specific behavior conducted for the purpose of the uproar it generates, which the troll enjoys. Its only goal is the fostering of bad feeling. The troll doesn’t care about the topic they are trolling about — they count on the fan to do that. Indeed, trolling only works because the fan cares about whatever the issue is more than the troll does. This frees the troll to say whatever they like, in order to see the fan squirm in response. The point of trolling is to make fans look silly, crazy, prejudiced, or worse. The troll enjoys seeing this reaction and knows that fans are regularly ready to provide it, which reinforces the troll’s feeling that fans are silly, crazy, prejudiced or worse.
Today we saw the manifestation of something which is not technically trolling, but many tweeps find disturbing — the penetration of non-fans into the stream of responses to Armitage’s tweets because he used the hashtag #Orlando. Some of this disagreement is legitimate. However, some of it is also conducted for the purpose of creating bad feeling. Such tweeps concentrate on specific issues and assemble to discipline people who are tweeting things they don’t like. While some fans were disagreeing with Armitage, non-fan accounts are generally recognizable as such. Whenever we’re talking about a political opinion (guns, immigration, whatever) there are people organized on Twitter to jump on tweets they disagree with and challenge the tweeter. Nothing can be done about this other than making one’s own tweets private, or blocking the people in question when they appear. If their words are particularly abusive, they can and should be reported to Twitter.
But back to the fandom. While every principle about recognizing a troll is a generalization to which there will be exceptions, most casual trolls on Twitter are not very well constructed. A little clicking around makes it easy to identify a likely troll simply by their Internet trail.
For instance, a frequent feature of a troll account is that it is often not very old. In the troll incident we experienced this weekend, the account was created in June 2016. I noticed its appearance on June 2. Additionally, a troll account is usually not well-integrated in the fandom. Most Armitage tweeps follow one or more friends who are also fans, or they follow a fan-related account. They like or retweet pictures or tweets about Armitage. In contrast, a troll is typically not following many other fans or fan-related accounts, if at all, and they are not followed by other fans. They may follow Armitage, but they don’t have a trail of content related to him among their tweets. So it’s always important to check the tweets a troll has made, as well as the following and followed — including not only how many followers, but who they are, because it’s easy to follow fake accounts on Twitter and make oneself look larger than one is. Another way you can check on a troll is to google the handle or pseudonym they are using. Although it’s not a hard-and-fast rule, most fans use variations on their pseuds all over the place on different platforms and social media (I use “Servetus,” “Michaela Servetus,” “@ServetusRA,” “Servetus_Armitage,” and so on. A troll, in contrast, doesn’t want to reveal their real identity or put such poisonous comments on well-established social media accounts, so they tend to use either a very nondescript pseudonym (increases anonymity) or one that appears practically nowhere else.
Another good way to recognize a troll is by the shape of their comments, which often seek to triangulate. Loosely understood. Triangulation is the attempt to bring other people into conflict who are not central to it for the purpose of redirecting emotion in ways that suit the triangulator. (Example: I ask my mom for ice cream. She says “no.” So I ask my dad, who says “yes.” If my mom sees me eating, I tell her “dad said yes,” ensuring that I get what I want, appear innocent, and deflecting her negative response to my father and away from me.) The effectiveness of triangulation relies on a very exact knowledge of the matter that is likely to disturb the person who is being targeted to provide the emotional response. This is not difficult with celebrity fans, who tend to get exercised about a series of not-very-well-hidden matters, no matter the celebrity. In the case of the troll, triangulation allows trolls themselves to magnify the conflict, without ever feeling the brunt of the negative emotion they generate and enjoy.
The triangular role can be played by other fans. So, for example, a troll might say something about a controversial issue in the fandom that will making differing segments of fans fight with each other in order to enjoy the spectacle. The conflict is between the fan and the troll, but other groups of fans are drawn into the fray as rescuers. A typical axis for this is any issue that relates to Armitage’s personal life. One group of fans will disagree with the content of the troll’s statement; a second will disagree that the matter should be discussed at all; soon the fans are fighting with each other as the troll — the actual source of the conflict — watches with pleasure. This effect relies on the fact that fans almost always identify more with their individual pictures of Richard Armitage than we do with each other.
Most often, though, the triangular role in our fandom is played by the notional Richard Armitage. The troll says something I don’t like about Armitage — not to me directly. These comments are often phrased in a way that makes the need to respond appear necessary in order to defend myself against the allegation that I am bigoted or that Armitage is not worthy of fan admiration. As a result, I confront the troll on behalf of Armitage but also on behalf of my own good name, rescuing both him and myself (victims). We saw this this morning when fans began defending Armitage for the way he treats his fans. Or, a classic case of this occurred in the summer of 2014, when a well organized group of three twitter accounts started tweeting that they wanted refunds on their Crucible tickets because they claimed to have learned something they didn’t like about him. (I say well organized, because although the attack was clearly coordinated by a troll or trolls, they had taken care to organize it far enough ahead of time that it took more digging than usual to discover the evidence.) Naturally, fans jumped in to defend Armitage. This defense had the effect of amplifying the matter that the fans didn’t want to discuss. The triangulation here provokes the response from the non-involved party, i.e., the troll attacks Armitage, and that is where the conflict should lie, between persecutor and victim. However, the technically non-involved fan defender of Armitage is drawn in as the rescuer and provides the predictable emotional thrill for the troll. This strategy is most effective if the issue gets lots of play and lots of fans pile on for the defense, which proves to the troll that they are crazy defenders of their crush. If the first effect above also occurs (fans fight with each other), that is an added bonus.
What to do about this? The only one I can change is me
I said above that I think there are two key issues in contemplating a response to a troll. The first — who am I speaking to? — is important for behavior; the second — what is at stake / what needs defending? — is important for one’s state of mind.
First, the question of who is speaking to one, and to whom one is speaking. To me, this is one of the most pernicious problems of social media and it’s taken me years of facebooking to understand it. My college bestie posts an article on Facebook, and I respond. I don’t have to — she’s just throwing it out there and not directly asking for my comment. A total stranger who is friends with her in some other context foreign to me responds to me charging me with being a homophobe. The first question is: am I actually being spoken to? Maybe or maybe not. Then: who is this person to me? No one. So why do I care what she thinks about me? The second is: am I a homophobe? I would say on the whole, no, although no doubt I have prejudices that might be examined, my life shows that I am not. She has no way of knowing this because she has no information about me beyond her interpretation of a single comment. The correct response is clearly not to get into it with her, because why do I care at all about what an uninformed stranger thinks of me?
Applying this to trolls, a troll is a total stranger who knows only one thing about me — that I’m crushed on Richard Armitage and likely to react negatively on certain issues related to him. That’s enough to provoke me, certainly. A total stranger says something to me about something I’ve said something about that could be a vulnerable point. I check them out and they are not identifiable as a fellow fan and I don’t know them from any other context. Why would they be speaking to me if not to provoke? This is someone I need not to respond to. Block or mute if necessary. I would argue this also goes for people who join on a discussion on the basis of a popular tag. No one is required to speak to total strangers who say mean things. Why would I? This essentially constitutes a refusal to respond to manipulated attempts to triangulate.
Which gets me to the second issue: the defense of Armitage.
This has been an issue in the fandom as long as I’ve been a fan and probably longer — the need we feel to defend Richard Armitage. In fact, I read an hour or so ago that Armitage’s reason for deleting his tweets was to keep fans who were defending him from being bullied by trolls. I don’t see everything, so I didn’t see any evidence of this, and I find that explanation implausible, but if it’s true, it would be a bit disturbing. Years ago we coined the term Armitage Protection Mode (APM) to delineate a behavior that all of us fall into from time to time. Because the thing is — the man has been living independently for three decades and he doesn’t need us to defend his words, his career, his actions, his role choices, his relationships, or anything about his life. He makes his own decisions about deleting tweets and they should not be about us. If Richard Armitage needs me to defend anything about him, he’s really in much worse shape than I think. And the odds that he has time to defend me rhetorically against against Internet trolls are really low. In short, he’s a grown up guy with a life in which his fandom is not central and he doesn’t have time any longer to be concerned with individual fans. He has a mum and doesn’t need thousands of mothers; he has an agent and a successful career and friends who actually know what is happening in his life (as opposed to us; we’re just guessing), and I don’t know how many professionals watching out for his interests. In that light, this is one of my all-time favorite blog posts in the fandom, ever, one that has grown more valuable in retrospect. So I’d ask myself, before deciding to respond to a troll — if I think I have to respond to a total stranger who is provoking me on purpose in order defend Richard Armitage, why do I think that?
There was a classic case of this last summer when someone who felt spurned for an autograph in the Vancouver airport began a malicious twitter campaign and, although the actual conflict was between the tweep and Armitage, successfully triangulated fans rose to the bait. My position on that: Richard Armitage knew what he was doing, he was in enough contact with the person to be able to speak to her, if he had wanted to say anything more than he did publicly, he certainly could have. If he didn’t think he needed to justify himself — so why did we? Instead, and predictably, fans jumped up to defend him and gave that troll all the attention and emotion she needed to feed off for weeks. I think the answer to that was not that we needed to prove that Richard Armitage is a good person to someone who claimed to have had an unsatisfactory experience (he is who he is, however that is, and my argumentation won’t change that), but rather we needed to bolster our own beliefs that Richard Armitage is a good person.
And if it’s down to that — if my defense of Armitage is down to having to state what I need to believe about him and thus providing the outrage that makes a total stranger happy — then I can go back to point one. Why do I need to justify my attitude to a complete stranger who knows nothing about me? Especially if the point of their attack is to get me to respond for their pleasure?
Please feel free to share your own experiences with dealing with Internet trolls.