Yesterday, President Obama came down to the University to have a little chat onstage with five or six “young leaders,” college-age and younger, and to pep-talk at them about getting involved in politics. A few hundred people were in the audience, and something like 12,000 were watching the livestream; I was in that second group.
The organizers of the event opened a sidebar for comments. That wasn’t a good idea.
As the lights went up, about thirty or forty people made more or less the same comment, “I miss him,” “Nice to hear somebody who’s truly presidential,” “What a difference.”
Then the trolls came on. One kept going on about “BARRY SOETORO” and repeating “GO BACK TO KENYA.” When the camera swerved to one of the Young Leaders, this troll’s contribution to discourse was “That nose– OY VEY.” When someone named Freedman spoke, his name appeared in the now well-known antisemitic brackets as “(((Freedman))).” As the conversation went on, the loquacious zorg was reduced to typing again and again “Nobody cares” and “SHEEEEIIIT.” Another troll was reiterating Trump slogans, irrelevantly, just for the aggression high.
So that’s where we are in America in 2017. If these dolts had been causing a disturbance in a public venue, the management would, uncontroversially, have been empowered to eject them. The fact that they were stupid racists would also have been noted. Who knows what else might have happened IRL; even liberals have tempers.
But lacking the courage to appear in person, the trolls just cluttered up the screens of the people who were trying to watch the event. Unfortunately, the University of Chicago, perhaps putting too much faith in the power of free and unconstrained discourse, had omitted to add a “Hide comments” button. So the trolls trolled on. For a moment I considered logging on and telling them to shut their idiot Nazi traps, but realized that this would just be giving them the attention they craved.
The troll is a person who takes advantage of a public forum in order to discourage, inhibit or destroy that which makes it a public forum. The troll enters rational discourse with no intention of committing rational discourse, only that of subverting it, and for no constructive purpose. (At least not in the immediate. Perhaps destroying democratic forums in general corresponds to somebody’s game plan, e.g., as part of the construction of a new era of dictatorship.) In brief, the troll shits in the swimming pool and provokes all the other swimmers to get out.
This was, in its way, a response to Obama’s advice to get involved in politics and find ways to make life better for those around you. The troll wants to raise the cost of doing that. The troll wants all decent people to get disgusted by the very idea of political engagement.
Of course, the trolls were impotent to crash the actual event, and the inconvenience of being reminded of their existence didn’t ruin my day, or even my half-minute. But the trolls are living on the tolerance of others, a tolerance they don’t show anyone else. For reasons of fairness and public access to a public good, let’s throw them out until they agree to some ground rules (i.e., cease behaving like trolls). Free speech for the enemies of free speech is a waste of good speech. But we are living in the era of the trolls, not just disrupters of conversation, but rapists, hijackers, and pirates of the economic, ecological, sexual, etc., domains.