Sticks to jab into the soft spots in our culture

Adrian Chen at the New Yorker looks at what HanAssholeSolo and his apology tell us about the harassment culture on Twitter.

The apology is a fascinating document, in part because it is addressed to his fellow Internet trolls. “My fellow redditors,” he wrote. “First of all, I would like to apologize to the members of the reddit community for getting this site and this sub embroiled in a controversy that should never have happened.” The_Donald is a community of more than forty thousand users that has become the beating heart of Trump’s online grassroots army, producing a steady stream of bite-sized pro-Trump propaganda tuned perfectly to go viral. Within this community, the Internet is treated as a venue for bombastic Trumpian fantasy, completely detached from the real world. Users see themselves as engaged in a great “meme war” and call Trump their “God Emperor.” The derision and scorn heaped on them by outsiders—Quartz has described The_Donald as “a cesspool for unabashed racism”—only seems to make them stronger. Provoking strong reactions is seen as an end unto itself. HanAssholeSolo apparently subscribed to that philosophy until the moment that he felt public scrutiny coming down on him.

“I would also like to apologize for the posts made that were racist, bigoted, and anti-semitic,” he wrote. “I am not the person that the media portrays me to be in real life, I was trolling and posting things to get a reaction from the subs on reddit and never meant any of the hateful things I said in those posts.” As he told it, he had lost himself in the thrill of virtual provocation: “As time went on it became an addiction as to how far it could go with the posts that were made.”

It was tempting to write these words off as a lazy shirking of responsibility. Surely, only a psychopath would think that using the N-word or posting a photo of a burning Quran were harmless acts. Every few months, it seems, there’s a new psychological study that shows a connection between doing terrible things online and doing terrible things in real life. (The Times’ Anna North recently wrote about a study linking online trolling with psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and sadism.)

Trolls often justify their offensive behavior by insisting that they are simply doing it for “the lulz”—the laughs—and that they use offensive language as sticks to jab into the soft spots in our culture. I used to believe that such a detached approach was possible. The adherents of the hacktivist collective Anonymous, which emerged from the same message boards that would later feed into The_Donald, were fond of homophobic and sexist language even as they supported political goals generally in line with liberal values of equality and social justice.

But what “soft spots in our culture” is it possible to jab by calling women cunts and whores? Surely the only relevant “soft spots” are the ones that see it as a bad thing to bully subordinated people – and why would we need to poke those particular soft spots? Why not keep our jabbing of soft spots for soft spots that we actually don’t want, like rot in an apple? What work of de-rotting or firming up or disinfection is performed by targeting women or brown people or foreigners on Twitter? I just don’t see any point in that form of poking at soft spots.

These days, though, when I think of the lulz, I think of the notorious troll Andrew (Weev) Auernheimer. In the early twenty-tens, Aurenheimer was hailed as a geek hero for embarrassing technology companies such as A.T. & T. and LiveJournal by exposing security vulnerabilities with a trollish bravado. He also said a lot of racist and anti-Semitic things, but his many liberal supporters wrote these off. He was just trolling, they thought. Over time, however, his statements became more extreme. Today, he is a very sincere neo-Nazi and a frequent contributor to the white-supremacist blogosphere. After CNN announced that it had discovered HanAssholeSolo’s identity (the network chose not to publish his name), Auernnheimer called for a harassment campaign against CNN employees and staffers. “We are going to track down your spouses,” he said. “We are going to track down your children.”

Yet some libertarians were saying look out, look out, CNN is a powerful corporation, look out. Yes, CNN is a powerful corporation, but individual CNN reporters are not. They’re not the right kind of soft spot to jab, especially when the president of the US is so busy jabbing them himself.

Over the past few years, this kind of troll radicalization has become commonplace. In 2015, Joseph Bernstein, a writer for BuzzFeed, noticed a burgeoning online political movement that wove together two strands of the Internet’s message-board subculture. One strand comprised “threatened white men”—racists and anti-feminists who spread their extremist ideology online because it wasn’t acceptable anywhere else. The other strand was made up of nihilistic Internet trolls, like Auernheimer, who said that they were in it for the lulz. These individuals were prodigious creators of memes and online culture that often succeeded in crossing over into the mainstream. The new hybrid movement, which Bernstein called the Chanterculture, after the notorious message board 4chan, redirected this anarchic collective creativity toward political ends. It combined “age-old racist and sexist rhetoric with bleeding-edge meme culture and technology,” Bernstein wrote. Eventually, Chanterculture helped create the conditions for the rise of the alt-right.

And so we got Donald Trump. It’s all been a bit of a disaster, hasn’t it.

I have little doubt that, on some level, HanAssholeSolo genuinely viewed his online actions as detached from reality. The use of pseudonyms is an important feature of the Chanterculture, and while the users themselves often make appeals to safety or privacy, the effect of all these pseudonyms is to create the illusion of the Internet as a place where we can be something other than ourselves. On the wide-open plains of the Internet, the Chanterculture argues, offensive speech is not a problem, because one can simply turn off the computer or visit another Web site.

Ah but no, you see, because many people who use the Internet use it as themselves, with their names attached, often because that’s part of their work. Just visiting another Web site does nothing for people in that situation.

This idea feeds directly into the ideology of the alt-right, whose adherents see online outrage sparked by words, which they believe are little more than characters on a screen, as proof that the real goal of “social-justice warriors” is to silence them.

For HanAssholeSolo, though, his gif episode showed him what most of us instinctively know—that our online lives are intricately woven into our real ones, and that freedom of speech is not an excuse for a lack of empathy, even “behind a keyboard.” This was “an extreme wake up call,” he wrote in his apology. “To people who troll on the Internet for fun, consider your words and actions conveyed in your message and who it might upset or anger. Put yourself in their shoes before you post it.”

Not long after it was posted, HanAssholeSolo’s apology was erased from Reddit, along with the rest of his posts, but it lives on preserved as a screenshot on the Internet-culture database Know Your Meme. One would like to imagine that other trolls might read it and quit their idiotic hobby. Of course, this is hopelessly naïve. The trolls have gone pro.


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