I’d never heard of professional trolls until I watched a Kali Muscle video on YouTube recently. After his antics ended, YouTube made its usual “you might also like” suggestions. I clicked on one purporting to be about how nobody should take Kali’s exercise advice. But the video wasn’t about that. It was just some twenty-something guy doing a voice-over to a video by the person I’d just watched, talking shit, making a lot of ad hominem remarks, but saying nothing instructive or constructive–basically, a shitty imitation of MST3K schtick. I’d stumbled upon a professional troll.
This guy, Infinite Elgintensity, had a YouTube channel overflowing with gleefully hateful videos where he would just re-upload other people’s content with his commentary. He even had fans–his “Army of Trolls”–sending him videos of them trolling fitness types in real life, walking up to gym rats, cellphone camera on, picking arguments, hurling insults. He has over 50,000 subscribers and presumably makes a decent penny off ad revenue for his videos. He also has an official website where he sells merchandise. Anyway, it made me realize that some people are taking trolling to a new level: They’re professionalizing it.
Online content creators all have to deal with trolls. They generally dismiss them by repeating mantras like, “Creators create while haters hate,” etc. And, until I ran across this guy, I thought they were right. But this kind of trolling blurs the line between hater and creator. There’s videography (however mediocre), graphic design, some form of public relations, merchandising, and a need to provide a consistent narrative from one video to the next. When haters become creators, could trolling become an art form, even a profession?
In a March 2015 article, Radio Free Europe interviewed blogger Marat Burkhard who claims an agency in cahoots with the Russian government employed him briefly as a professional troll. He said his job was to launch faux attacks on Russian ideals in the comments sections of websites so that his coworkers could then nobly defend Russia and make the “troll” look like an uninformed asshole. The New York Times published an article a couple months later supporting his claims and outing Putin-allie and lucrative government contracts recipient, Evgeny Prigozhin, as the brain and moneybags behind the operation.
While Burchard saw himself as a professional troll, Jaime Cochran considers herself an artist and comedian–the self-proclaimed “Andy Kaufman” of trolling, according to a 2013 interview with Vice, the writer of which described Cochran’s trolling collective as a “group of digital Voltaires.” Cochran sees trolling–or, at least, her version of it–as a misunderstood, nuanced art form. Her Twitter profile, @asshurtmacfags, describes her as an “ethical avant garde cyber bully.” In a 2012 interview, one of her cohorts, Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer, told HuffPost, “The thing about trolling is that you can use a little bit of deception to expose the true nature of the character that you’re talking with.” In other words, trolling is performance art that makes the audience and any interlocutors both its subject and constituents.
Another socially-conscious performance artist cum troll is Mike Melgaard who garnered internet fame in 2015 for a series of well-received trolling pranks where he pretended to be an online customer support rep for companies who came under fire by the far-right for liberal policies (e.g., Doritos’ rainbow-colored chips, Target’s gender-neutral toy aisles, Campbell’s all-male-family soup ad). He managed to skewer outraged customers, often without them realizing they were the butt of a practical joke. Of his motives, Melgaard told HuffPost, “I find it absolutely heartbreaking that these people are so narrow-minded and unaccepting of others’ views that they mistake everything as a personal attack on how they feel the world should be. I like to believe that what I am doing is productive partly because it sheds light on this type of thinking and how foolish it is.”
So it seems trolling isn’t so bad; or, at the very least , it seems some self-described trolls are elevating the practice to something of an art form while others are going so far as to make a business of it. Mashable blogger Heather Dockray, in December 2015, described the practice as a “rhetorical strategy”, interviewing academic types who described it as potentially prosocial and “affiliative” (i.e., community/bond-forming) behavior. Dockray argued that an effective troll can serve as a rallying point for the downtrodden and marginalized. She sees trolling as a spectrum of online transgressive and subversive behaviors aimed at exposing and ridiculing hypocrisy and bigotry. And where do the “traditional” trolls lie on that spectrum? To her, the type of behavior we tend to think of when we think of trolling (think rape victim bullying, think gamergate) isn’t on the spectrum at all. The rise of the new trolls has redefined the term, and the regressive, antisocial traditionalists are no longer in the nomenclature.