If you’ve been on the internet at all today, you’ve been bombarded by two relentless story threads: Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” and Michael Brutsch’s outing as Reddit’s notorious commenter Violentacrez. Question of the day: what do these two events have in common? Answer: troll politics.
Digital-age trolls have been around long enough to constitute a complex and multi-faceted subculture, but it’s probably fair enough to describe trolls as those who post deliberately inflammatory or provocative comments in online fora, usually to disrupt the conversation by completely pissing off those who are taking part in it. An anonymous poster who comments that “all feminists are bitches” in a blog about women’s rights, for example, stands a high chance of turning a civil and productive exchange into an acrimonious exchange of hurling insults. And this is actually the point: trolling is a highly effective strategy for causing a discussion’s own participants abruptly to abandon it, to drop a complex and nuanced topic discussed civilly and rationally (i.e. what are the details of your tax plan?) for an utterly simplistic topic driven by outrage and unadulterated affect (i.e. you’re not even an American and were probably born in Kenya!). Trolling has also been understood as a practice that tests the limits of free speech and civil discourse, to see exactly how far one can go and how much one can get away with before getting banished or silenced.
Both of these dimensions of trolling have defined the Romney-Ryan campaign, where it has long seemed that they are less interested in winning the election than they are in screwing with the election system’s most fundamental features to determine which of these might ultimately be dismantled altogether. Any conversation about substantive political issues (what should our policy with Libya be?) can be interrupted with an incendiary accusation (you didn’t call it an act of terror until 14 days later!), which encourages the discussion to devolve into a shouting match of one kind (it was one day! no, it was 14 days!) or another (he called it an act of terror! but he didn’t say terrorist attack!). This tactic quickly leaves the critical substance of the important question behind, while also pressing at the limits of political conventions to see how much a presidential candidate might actually get away with. And of course it never matters whether what a troll says is truthful or not, because trolls make statements solely for their effect rather than for their content.
In the debate last night, Mitt proudly boasted that as Massachusetts Governor he asked for the names of women qualified to serve in senior government positions, prompting his team to subsequently arrive with “binders full of women.” This quickly spawned a visual comedy of images on tumblr that doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon. Even though the story turns out not to be true, the phrase itself sticks because (in addition to the inherent weirdness of its office supply imagery) it contains some kind of suppressed truth about Romney’s apprehension of women, his rhetorical emptying-out of the material and intellectual presence of real women into flat pieces of paper that can be stuffed into notebooks and won’t talk back when they’re carried from place to place.
Michael Brutsch is a man who took real women and flattened them into pixels: among his other contributions to the online world, he dedicated vast amounts of time to collecting photos of underage girls from their Facebook sites without their knowledge or permission, and then posting these photos under the name of Violentacrez on the subreddit page he created and moderated named “Jailbait.” Brutsch took his online handle from a blog called Violent Acres that featured first-person accounts by a woman who shared remarkably frank stories of her past experiences of abuse and the legacy of violent rage which she subsequently lived out before settling into a rather conventional life. The stories regularly rode along the ridge of the unbelievable, and the comments regularly accused the blogger (whoever she or he may be) of inventing these stories, perhaps even inventing the persona herself. In adopting a version of this name, Violentacrez seemed to be adopting the freedom of identity-creation granted by internet anonymity, and used that freedom to make countless contributions to Reddit subgroups on racism (like Jewmerica), misogyny (Creepshow), and the sexual exploitation of minors (like Jailbait).
Adrian Chen, who wrote the Gawker article that outed Brutsch, describes the uneasy relationship between a troll’s online and real-life personas:
The extent to which trolls separate, or fail to separate, their online and IRL lives is as varied as people themselves. There's an idea of the troll as an information age Jekyll & Hyde, with the anonymity provided by the internet playing the role of Hyde's serum that transforms the mild-mannered geek into a monster. Observers often cite the psychological theory called deindividuation, which argues people literally lose themselves when granted anonymity.
One might of course argue that Romney utterly lacks the anonymity that defines the troll. But it’s almost as if by practicing troll politics, Romney has become anonymous in some deeper and even creepier way, a man everyone recognizes but no one knows, and who may not even know himself.