LOLing at tragedy: Facebook trolls, memorial pages and resistance to grief online
First Monday

LOLing at tragedy: Facebook trolls, memorial pages and resistance to grief online by Whitney Phillips



Abstract
This paper examines the emergence of organized trolling behaviors on Facebook, specifically in relation to memorial groups and fan pages. In addition to mapping the development of RIP trolling — in which online instigators post abusive comments and images onto pages created for and dedicated to the deceased — the paper also examines the highly contentious and ultimately parasitic relationship(s) between memorial trolls, Facebook’s social networking platform and mainstream media outlets. Recalling Oring’s account of disaster humor, the paper goes on to suggest that, inadvertently or not, Facebook memorial page trolling presents a pointed critique of a tragedy–obsessed global media.

Contents

Introduction
Project origins
Trolling and the interplay between hegemony and resistance
Gesturing towards a conclusion

 


 

Introduction

By all accounts, Chelsea King was the model American teenager. Pretty, smart and athletic, she was well–liked by her Poway (Calif.) High classmates, maintained a high grade point average and was involved in a number of extracurricular activities, including symphony and peer counseling. So, when Chelsea went for a run on 27 February 2010 and didn’t come home, her parents assumed the worst. Their daughter was responsible, an all-around good kid. She wouldn’t just leave. The Poway Police Department agreed, and over the next few days dozens of agents and thousands of volunteers scoured San Diego County for clues. In Poway itself, community leaders organized candlelight vigils and prayer circles (Relative, 2010; Schabner, 2010). On the Internet, well–wishers from across the country utilized Facebook’s networking platform to express sympathy and help cheerlead the search effort. The page “Chelsea’s Light,” for example, which was created by the King family almost immediately following Chelsea’s disappearance, amassed over 80,000 members within three days, while unofficial pages like “Help Find Chelsea King: Missing California Teen,” “Missing: Chelsea King” and “Help Find Chelsea King” pulled in tens of thousands of additional fans and group members [1], the vast majority of whom had never met Chelsea but nevertheless felt connected to the case (Facebook, 2010).

Then on 1 March, 30–year–old John Gardener III was charged with the suspected rape and murder of Chelsea King as well as the murder of 14–year–old Amber DuBois, a local high school student who disappeared in 2009 (Goldman, 2010). The following day, authorities made a gruesome discovery. Chelsea’s body had been dumped in a shallow grave beside Lake Hughes. She was 17 years old (Owens, 2010; “Confirms,” 2010).

Almost immediately, the slew of “Help Find Chelsea King” Facebook pages gave way to Chelsea King memorial pages, including “1,000,000,000 [sic] Million STRONG to Remember Chelsea King,” “In Loving Memory of Chelsea King <3,” “Chelsea King: RIP” and “RIP Chelsea King <3.” Best described as interactive newspaper obituaries or even virtual funeral parlors, these so–called RIP pages allow fans and members to post condolence messages, communicate with other users and keep track of group announcements. Although one must join a group or like a page in order to gain access to this information, RIP pages are often open to anyone interested in participating, making them ostensibly private but effectively public social spaces. As a result, the tenor, not to mention coherency, of comments is often mixed. The following is a random sampling of comments posted on “RIP Chelsea King,” a page with nearly 13,000 fans; all quotations are subject to a flashing neon “[sic].”

Chelsea. You were and always will be one of my best friends, you have changed the world and how things are going to be in so many ways. I will never forget all of our good times, i love you. Heaven is lucky to have you, look out for your family, send my best.

R.I.P Chelsea: I really hope that idiotic Killer gets put on death row ... He should never get to see the sun rise again!!! What he did was so uncalled for!! Hopefully some laws get changed around so this wouldnt happen again.

the world has become cruel and perverted, i believe that sexual predators should be castrated and shot . it is such a tragedy r. i. p. chelsea

There are no words to express the sadness in my heart , for Chelsea’s family. I as a Mother can “only” imagine the depth of their despair. What a talented and special girl, with such a bright future, taken...maybe someday the answer will be reveiled, but as for now no spoken words can erase the the tragic loss. I heard... her poem written in the “Dr. Seuss” style , that she wrote for College enterance...”Oh The Places I Will Go”... (RIP: CK, 2010)

Conspicuously absent from “RIP Chelsea King” were comments that, as one poster lamented, were a “disgrace to Chelsea’s legacy.” Although these comments had already been scrubbed (meaning the admin of the page deleted the comments individually or the responsible party was banned from Facebook, at that time resulting in an automatic deletion of all comments made under the offending profile), incensed reactions remained scattered across the wall. “The operator of this fan page needs to start deleting some posts and people, LIKE NOW,” demanded one poster. “This is sick what some have wrote.” Another commenter lashed out at an unseen interlocutor, stating “you’re really lucky i don’t know who you are ... i didn’t know Chelsea but she deserves some respect. how dare you even write something like that on a page dedicated to her. i hope one day i will meet you and slap the shit out of you.” Another poster insisted that the page admin delete everything, including the page itself. “All those who wishing to leave positive notes can go to the website set up for her by her family Chelseas Light, they can monitor it much more closely,” she suggested, resulting in a particularly heated thread. At least, it appeared to have been a particularly heated thread — several days after the thread began, only 15 comments remained, each referring to comments and profiles which had, at some point in the interim, been deleted. A man named Ervin, for example, apparently posted a series of offensive comments; a female poster lashed out against his insensitivity. “Erviiin shut up!!” she wrote. “ur horrible and disrespectful!!!! I feel sorry for you!!!!!! i wish you go to hell soon!” Several other posters referred to someone named Nick, whose comments had rattled the group. “I am so disgusted at your comment. She was some one’s child,” one poster commented. “youy are a huge asshole,” another poster added. “i hope something tragic happens to you and someone laughs in your face about it” (RIP:CK, 2010).

Such exchanges were common on all the fan pages and groups devoted to Chelsea King, with one major exception. “Chelsea’s Light,” the official Chelsea King memorial page, remained unscathed. There was however a very good reason for this, since unlike “RIP Chelsea King,” “In Loving Memory of Chelsea King <3” and “Chelsea King: RIP,” “Chelsea’s Light” did not publish fan commentary, an unusual move for a public fan forum. Instead, content was generated solely by page administrator(s). Fans were able to comment, but all threads originated from and were strictly controlled by the admins. Ironically, the conspicuous lack of nasty and abusive commentary on “Chelsea’s Light” only called attention to its prevalence on other pages. After all, why hermetically seal a container unless contamination is a concern? In the case of “Chelsea’s Light,” contamination wasn’t just a concern, it was inevitabie. Save for pulling the page entirely, lockdown was the only option.

And then things got really ugly. Shortly after Chelsea’s body was discovered, a San Diego man named Mike McMullen created the page “I Bet This Pickle Can Get More Fans than Chelsea King.” A play on “I Bet This Pickle Can Get More Fans Than Nickleback” [2], McMullen’s page featured a picture of a scowling, underwear–clad cartoon pickle gripping a crudely–PhotoShopped cutout of Chelsea’s head. Almost immediately, Pickle was flooded with offensive images and statements as well as the impassioned condemnation of users who “liked” the page in order to defend Chelsea’s memory. Not surprisingly, word spread quickly; a few days after it hit Facebook, a local ABC affiliate ran a segment condemning the page and its creator. When confronted by reporter Joe Little in a Facebook message thread, McMullen seemed unfazed, choosing instead to speak as the pickle itself. In response, ABC consulted Michael Mantell, a clinical psychologist, who argued that the page wasn’t hate speech — just hateful. “There is clearly something terribly wrong with [McMullen],” Mantell said, concluding that “There are not enough harsh words for him” (ABC, 2010).

Of course, McMullen wasn’t personally responsible for all the content posted on Pickle. He may have supplied a forum, but fans of the page supplied everything else. Indeed, given the absolute deluge of negative and X–rated comments, it would have been a pretty tall order to keep things family–friendly. Still, Joe Little raged against McMullen, and as evidence of his depravity referred to several damning screencaps ripped from Pickle’s front page. “Extreme butthurt,” wrote poster Tyrone Dickinanot. “WU TANG CLAN AIN’T NUTTIN TO FUCK WIT,” added George Everyman (the “fuck” was, of course, blurred, though “Dickinanot” apparently slipped past the censor). Little proceeded to reveal additional, and even more shocking, details about the page: someone named Francis Bagadonuts posted a Google Earth image of the home allegedly belonging to one of the posters who objected to the page and whom posters Tracy Balls and Tasha Salad proceeded to torment; someone asked if there were any nude pictures of Chelsea’s body; and, someone threatened to rape the sister and mother of someone who had defended Chelsea’s memory (ABC, 2010).

As shocking as this might have been for ABC’s audience, these comments were comparatively tame — much of what was posted onto Pickle was too risqué for prime–time television, and would have required so much pixilation as to render whatever image or comment indecipherable. In other words, ABC didn’ show the half of it. Furthermore, the segment failed to acknowledge — indeed, seemed wholly unaware — that the real story extended far beyond a single fan page. This was not just about Mike McMullen; this was not just about Chelsea King. Contrary to ABC’s assumption that “I Bet This Pickle” was an isolated (if reprehensible) event, the behavior exhibited on Pickle, as well as negative or otherwise ransacked Chelsea King pages, were the opening salvo of what eventually became known as Facebook memorial page or simply RIP trolling.

For the remainder of this paper, I will examine the emergence and popularity of this seemingly inexplicable phenomenon. Drawing from two years of interviews and participant observation, and pulling from Elliott Oring’s analysis of the Challenger space disaster, I will consider the relationship between RIP trolling and “traditional” (read: terrestrial) disaster humor. I will also explore Facebook’s role in the development of and subsequent backlash against this behavior, and will consider how and in what ways RIP trolls have harnessed Facebook’s own networking platform not just to harass the bereaved, but also to criticize what trolls believe to be the mindless histrionics of the modern 24–hour news cycle. The emotional impact of RIP trolling is undeniable. That said, and simultaneously, memorial page trolling pushes back against a corporate media environment that fetishizes, sensationalizes and commoditizes tragedy. In other words, there’s much more to say than one might expect.

 

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Project origins

I first heard about RIP trolling from Paulie Socash, a troll I’d worked with on a previous research project. Although Facebook had long been regarded as an all–you–can–eat trolling buffet, early raids were typically directed at individuals whom the troll(s) knew in real life, or whose log–in information was made public. In other words, these tended to be one–time, uncoordinated attacks. At the time I didn’t know why, I just knew that trolls had started to organize. So, at Paulie’s insistence, I created my first fake profile and watched in awe as the skies lit up with hundreds, maybe even thousands of trolls, all of whom flagged themselves as such with profile names harkening to various trolling and Internet references (“Paulie Socash,” for example, refers to an early meme featuring a particularly cartoonish Italian–American stereotype — orange skin, spiky hair, popped collar — who brags about having just been fellated, the result of which was “so cash”; my first profile, David Davison, was a nod to the years–old trolling joke that everyone on the internet is actually named David). It’s unclear how many people were behind this initial onslaught, since a single person could and usually would operate a number of profiles simultaneously. Despite the lack of concrete statistics, one thing was clear — whatever this was, it was big.

Almost immediately, troll profiles began befriending other troll profiles (identifiable by handle and profile picture), forming an anti–social network of sorts. All one needed to do was log in and scroll through his or her news feed, which would show exactly what was being trolled by whom — perfect for research purposes. Later in my process, and once the aforementioned tactic was no longer viable, I begin reaching out and interviewing individual trolls/groups of trolls, including my old friend Paulie Socash, Peter Partyvan, Wilson Mouzone, Soveri Ruthless, Frank Bagadonuts, and Pro Fessor, as well as a rotating cast of one– or two–time contributors, from whom I gathered invaluable and otherwise inaccessible data, including screencaps, gossip and concrete timelines. The following is based on these first– and second– and occasionally third–hand observations, all of which occur within and feed upon the resulting — and nearly instantaneous — media backlash.

Our story begins with a short yet heartfelt entry posted onto Facebook’s official blog. Written by staffer Max Kelley in October 2009, the post addressed Facebook’s changing attitude towards so–called memorial accounts. Up till then, Kelly explained, there was no way to deactivate a Facebook account once a person had died. Consequently, the dead person’s profile would occasionally show up in friends’ suggestion boxes (“Reconnect with Bill by posting something on his wall!”), prompting a number of users to complain. After considering their options, Facebook decided to implement a new policy: friends and family members now had the option to permanently memorialize the dead person’s account. Existing friends would still have access to their friend’s wall but would not receive any messages regarding that profile. Additionally, only confirmed friends would be able to search for the profile, and no one would be able to log on as the deceased — a move which could be interpreted as a preemptive strike against shenanigans (Topping, 2009). By implementing this policy, Facebook was deliberately positioning itself as a potential grief space, somewhere mourners could go, as Kelley stated, “to save and share their memories of those who’ve passed.” After all, he continued, “when someone leaves us, they don’t leave our memories or our social networks” (Kelley, 2009).

In mid–February of 2010, Lisa Miller of Newsweek praised these changes, arguing that “this is how we collectively mourn: Globally. Together. Online.” According to Miller, it was entirely appropriate that Facebook should provide networking support for mourners, an idea which reached full flowering with the subsequent (though wholly unexpected) popularity of RIP pages. Unlike a memorialized account, which functions as a snapshot of a person’s life just before he or she died, RIP fan pages allow anyone to participate in the grieving process. Suddenly the bereaved had a sympathetic outlet for their thoughts, feelings, and memories, which they were able to share with friends and strangers alike.

And then a woman was killed by a whale.

The date was 25 February 2010. That afternoon, Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau was thrashed to death by Tillikum, a 12,000 pound killer whale, as the two performed in front of a live stadium audience (Martinez, 2010). Within minutes of Brancheau’s death, trolls began uploading macros onto /b/ featuring a homicidal whale (“Killed the bitch cos she didn’t bring fishs”) as well as variations on Rule 34 (an unofficial rule of the Internet declaring that whatever “it” is, there is porn of it; if on the off–chance there isn’t, one is expected to promptly create or PhotoShop some). As frequently happens on /b/, the Tilikum meme began to incorporate additional memes, including references to the now–infamous “Epic Beard Man” video. In this video, which was uploaded onto YouTube about 10 days before Brancheu’s death, a passenger on a city bus captures an altercation between an old white man (of the eponymous epic beard) and younger black man. The white man wears a shirt that reads “I am a motherfucker”; the black man repeatedly calls for an ambulance, which he pronounces phonetically as “amber lamps” (“Epic Beard Man,” 2010). For whatever reason, /b/ found the phrases “I am a motherfucker” and “amber lamps” particularly funny, and when the RIP party spontaneously jumped from /b/ to Sea World’s Facebook page, an untold number of trolls flooded its wall with EMB references and Tilikum macros, including one which read “Should Have Called the Amber Lamps” (“E.B.M.,” 2010).

25 February also marked the date of Chelsea King’s disappearance, which only added fuel to the fire. Trolls who otherwise might not have been paying attention were already plugged into the 24–hour cable and online news cycle; consequently they were some of the first responders when people began creating and, more importantly, making public, dozens of fan groups and RIP pages. For the next few days, trolls split their time between Brancheu’s and Chelsea King’s respective pages, wreaking havoc with the admins of each and resulting in the first of many “trollercausts” (indicating a high rate of profile deletion, a state of affairs easily remedied by the creation of new accounts). A week later John Gardner was arrested, a development which led to the discovery of Chelsea’s body as well as the reopening of Amber Dubois’ murder case — which in turn generated a renewed flood of trolling. That same day, news broke that BBC presenter Kristian Digby had died of auto–erotic asphyxiation (Roberts, 2010), a story more interesting for the cause of death than the person whose death it was, at least for the American contingent. Taken together, however, this was an embarrassment of trolling riches.

A similar pattern was unfolding in Australia, which saw the near–simultaneous murders of eight–year–old Trinity Bates and 12–year–old Elliot Fletcher (Lund, 2010). Like their American and British counterparts, the ranks of Australian trolls exploded, sending the Australian media into a Facebook–bashing fugue state. Unlike American news outlets, however, which continue to conflate “cyberbullying” and “trolling,” Australian bloggers and reporters and even law enforcement knew precisely what they were up against (and incidentally were the first nation to take punitive measures against alleged trolls — see the curious 2010 case of Paul Bradley Hampson). Despite differences in media representations and legal interventions, Australian trolls quickly began sharing resources with their American counterparts; from late February onwards, American trolls were just as likely to raid Australian memorial pages as Australians were to raid American pages. After all, whatever a troll’s nationality, he or she would blanket his or her friend lists with invites to RIP pages and groups, which would be forwarded down the chain to the friends of friends, and the friends of those friends, thus introducing local tragedy to a transnational audience.

In addition to spurring the global popularity of memorial page trolling, Facebook helped ensure the development of an emergent RIP style, one which hews fairly closely to “traditional” trolling but which differs both structurally and in overall tone. Regarding the former, Facebook trolling was, from the very first moment, predicated on the conventions established by Facebook’s programmers; it was through the adoption of these protocols — which don’t just encourage but engender user enmeshment — that trolling became a fundamentally social activity. This differed greatly from most forum trolling and certainly trolling on /b/, since trolling in these contexts is almost always blindly anonymous. Trolls may work together during a particular raid, but they rarely stand still long enough to establish social ties and certainly don’t have a persistent online identity to which particular successes may be affixed.

Indeed, given the desire to maintain community ties after a profile had been deleted, and in order to contribute to and receive benefits from this emerging lulz economy, trolls on Facebook tended to stick with the same family of trolling names so that respawn accounts would have an easier time finding and being found by trolling friends. No matter how many times I died I would always come back to David, integrating this basic nominal building block into both first and last names regardless of gender (David Davison, Brittani Davidson, David Briggs); Paulie maintained two profile roots, Paul for male accounts and Leigh for female; Frank was Francis, Fran, Francois, or Frankie; Ruthless was Ruth or Ruthie, etc. In short, and although the following might seem almost tautological in its obviousness, trolls on Facebook became friends because suddenly they had stable names to call each other.

There is, of course, a flip side, since although persistent social identity lends itself to greater community cohesion, it also encourages the development of stable personae with which to have persistent conflict. Case in point, the ongoing war between trolls and anti–trolls. To compress nearly a years’ worth of virtual bloodshed into a single paragraph, the seemingly overnight popularity of Facebook trolling caused a great deal of distress for average users; a number of anti–trolling groups began cropping up, including “I Think Internet Trolls Are Losers,” “Stop the Bullying!” “Army against low life trolls” and “These cruel Facebook ‘trolls’ need to be locked up for attacking RIP groups.” Although many of these groups were created in earnest, most if not all were swiftly infiltrated by trolls, who shifted their focus from trolling mourners to trolling other trolls — hence the title “anti–troll” (and its corresponding objective, “anti–lulz”).

The most infamous of these anti–trolls is Mike Lonston, who in 2010 set to work doxxing, that is, revealing the real–life name, phone number, address and/or workplace of, as many trolls as he could. Lonston’s so–called “white knighting” spurred the creation of “Mike Lonston Week,” an organized pushback in which dozens of trolls cloned dozens of Mike Lonston profiles in order to gain access to anti–trolling groups and undermine Lonston’s influence within anti–lulz circles. Indeed, very little love is lost between “proper” trolls and antis; according to the former, the latter are tediously self–righteous at best and pathologically messianic at worst, often using the friends and families of the deceased as collateral in a war that, according to the trolls I’ve worked with, is more about ego and reputation than good–faith defense against the dark arts. Conversely, and unsurprisingly, the antis’ (public) position is that trolls are mentally ill criminals who must be stopped at any cost.

Whatever the true motives of either side, things have gotten quite serious quite quickly. Often spending weeks or months stalking their targets, antis amass stockpiles of incriminating screencaps and hand whatever information, including any and all doxx, over to the authorities. In America, such acts of (anti)trollish vigilantism have for the most part fallen on deaf ears, a point over which stateside trolls frequently gloat. In Britain, however, the stakes for British trolls are much higher — a point that antis, particularly Mike Lonston, have been quite successful in exploiting. Again, it is critical to note the ways in which Facebook’s platform influenced, if not outright determined, the behavior of its resident trolls, anti– or otherwise. You don’t see these kinds of drawn–out and highly personal pissing matches on /b/, or on forums where identity is either fleeting or simply non–existent; this is a Facebook–specific phenomenon.

In terms of tone, Facebook trolls take their cue from legitimate users; they scour the site for the most sensitive people and the most sensitive subjects. Due to the knee–jerk sympathies they generate, RIP pages are an attractive, almost obvious, choice. So Facebook trolls, perhaps to a greater extent than 4chan or forum trolls, laugh at death. They laugh at the body, they laugh at its destruction. They force their victims to confront precisely those things that motivate the popularity of memorial pages — fear of helplessness, fear of losing a loved one, fear of human parts. Thus RIP trolls post pictures of car crashes onto car crash victims’ pages. They post pictures of dead kids onto dead kids’ pages. They post movie stills from films like Dumb and Dumber captioned with the phrase “LOL YOUR DEAD,” PhotoShopped pictures of babies in meat grinders, and images of anally impaled corpses. On a page called “Suicide Prevention Day,” trolls spammed the page with a clip of Justin Bieber’s “suicide by cop” CSI scene, and on a page devoted to a drowned Australian boy, trolls posted pictures of the World Trade Center mid–collapse. Within the virtual and otherwise disembodied space of Facebook, which nonetheless courts embodied experience via photographs and emotional expression (quite literally a lived “body genre,” to borrow a term from Linda Williams), trolls emphasize the visceral, resulting in an aesthetic which both mirrors and monsters the objects of their ridicule.

That said, Facebook trolling is not confined to memorial pages. Quite the contrary — Facebook is a smorgasbord of trollable situations and people. One possible (and in my opinion highly likely) explanation is embedded within Facebook’s basic architecture, which positions the user as the subject of every sentence he or she utters, indeed as the center of his particular — and therefore the — social universe. Self–involvement, in other words, is built into the code; one is primed to take things personally. This is not to say that Facebook users are solipsists. But the relationship between user and content is and is designed to be solipsistic. After all the “I” — and a carefully — constructed, often fastidiously maintained ’I” at that — prefigures every interaction, and lends itself tlda particular brand of ego–investment and emotional sensitivity. Which trolls are only too happy to exploit.

Furthermore, to the extent that Facebook’s architecture encourages emotional investment in regular users, it encourages emotional devestment in trolls, thus ushering in increasingly outrageous and aggressive behavior. For every “real” user who is continuously reminded of and interpolated by their own “I,” every troll user is continuously reminded of and interpolated by the “I” they’re not, an ongoing process of emotional repudiation that explains why Facebook trolls frequently shift to the third–person to describe their own actions (and may also help explain the ease with which trolls detach from the havoc they wreak — in their minds, it’s not exactly them doing the damage). At first I was taken aback by this. I’d be having a normal, non–troll–related conversation with a collaborator, and suddenly he or she would mention some funny thing [insert that person’s troll profile] had done, as if the profile was an entirely different person. I eventually came to realize that in some ways profiles are different from the people behind the trolls.

Which isn’t to say that trolling personas are “just” an act. Obviously, the puppetmaster explicitly and directly dictates the terms of a given profile’s ambit, making him or her ultimately responsible for any and everything the troll profile does. While the person can be equated with the profiles s/he creates (“I am David”), the resulting profiles cannot similarly be equated with the person (“David isn’t me”); it is perhaps more accurate to say that trolling profiles, and trolling personas generally, fall somewhere between character and proxy and brainchild — a sometimes–rupture sometimes–slippage between the rl and online self that Facebook’s encoded solipsism inadvertently reinforces. Facebook, which primes both subject and object of trolling, is therefore an optimal stomping ground for trolls. During Facebook’s period of trolls gone wild, it may have been the Internet’s most optimal stomping ground — it was, and to a certain extent remains, a perfect storm of technological and behavioral siphoning.

Needless to say, Facebook trolling generally, and RIP trolling in particular, has proven to be a public relations nightmare for the Facebook brand (Hough, 2010; Lund, 2010; Dickinson, 2010). Indeed, from the moment that memorial trolling took hold, Facebook has had to walk a very fine line between protecting its users and protecting itself. In Britain, for example, Facebook finally agreed to implement the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) application — also known as the so–called “Facebook panic button” — which can be downloaded onto users’ accounts ostensibly to protect children from pedophiles but functionally to track and sanction trolls. In the U.S., Facebook has implemented a number of similar yet much less publicized policies, including “gray listing” certain profile names, analyzing users’ IP addresses and even blocking suspected trolls from sending friend requests, writing personal messages and commenting on friends’ walls (Hough, 2010); additionally they put together a so–called “Hate and Harassment Team” to police the site, augmenting their already robust algorithmic defenses (Helft, 2010).

As discussed earlier, trolls and Facebook have been engaged in an ongoing Battle of the Ban (“b&” to trolls). Even in the first few weeks of the RIP onslaught, before Facebook had any idea what hit it, one’s profile could be deleted without warning. Which is precisely why an individual troll might have five active profiles — just in case one or two died, there would be extra hands to carry on whatever raid. Around December of 2010, however, and as a result of the aforementioned policy changes, profiles became almost impossible to maintain. Even I had a difficult time keeping accounts alive, despite the fact that I was rarely more than a bystander (I do admit to occasionally trolling Tea Party/moral majority types, and was once banned from a group of white supremacists for complimenting a gun–toting, Confederate flag bracelet–wearing bigot for his taste in accessories — predictably, too close an accusation of homosexuality for comfort).

And yet trolls persisted; many established off–site strongholds on YouTube or Skype where groups could maintain ties even in the face certain profile–death. In many sectors, trolls have embraced these changes fully and now deal exclusively in kamikaze attacks, wherein a profile is created only to be destroyed — resulting in behavior that are much less organized (described by several collaborators as sloppy and uncreative, both from a tactical and stylistic standpoint) but in many cases much more vicious, since trolls know they’ll be b& soon anyway. We will revisit trolls’ reactions to Facebook’s reactions to trolls in much greater detail. For now, it is important to note that Facebook trolling is, and has always been, an environmental adaptation. Whenever Facebook made a move, so too would trolls. The particular steps might look a bit different, but the dance, which I will chronicle in the next section, remains the same.

 

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Trolling and the interplay between hegemony and resistance

A few weeks after yet another massive trollercaust, and on the heels of a Daily Mail article citing yours truly as an “expert” on RIP trolling, I threw caution to the ether and doxxed myself. Up until that moment, I’d been trading in publically accessible data, that is to say, information I could glean by digging through the links and likes of a few well&nash;connected trolls; with a few notable exceptions, Paulie being one, I’d only ever been spoken to, and only ever as one of my Davids. This would be the first time I’d presented my real–life self to the 20 or so trolls who made up this particular cabal, and certainly was the first time I broached the subject of research collaboration.

Unsurprisingly, their reaction was mixed. Some doubted my credentials as an academic; most doubted my credentials as a female. With good reason, since trolling on Facebook is predicated on yarn–spinning. Trolls were constantly cloning each other (creating identical accounts of friends or enemies) or simply pretending to be something else entirely. Paulie, for example, spent months undercover as a female Klanswoman (“all they do is play Farmville and send each other hugs”), and almost every troll I’ve worked with has created at least one alternate persona. For example Ruthless spent a summer as a kindly black grandmother named Ruthie, and Frank frequently trolled as Fran, who at some point adopted David as her only son (“Only on the interwebz,” he later wrote, “can you have a man (me) posing as a girl (Fran Stepford) become the mom of a boy (David Davidson) who is actually a girl (Whit)”). Even I gave in to this impulse, inventing with my research profiles an entire nuclear family complete with strained marriage (it was “complicated” with Paul Lee) and dopey tagalong brother (David, of course). “Oh you can trust me I’m writing a book” would have been entirely par for this course.

My gender was also an issue, as Facebook trolling, like trolling generally, is an absolute sausagefest. Nearly two years and dozens of collaborators later, I’ve encountered a mere handful of female trolls, only one of whom has been willing (though not at all eager) to chat via Skype. Those who are female, and/or claim to be girls irl, tend to affect and in some cases even amplify the same sexist posture and language as their male counterparts. There is, however, no shortage of female–presenting trolls, most of whom are playing at femininity in order to accomplish some unholy objective. As Ruthless, who at the time was trolling as Banme Anmarkzdies, explained, “I love trolling as a female, one of my favorite pastimes is making up some mock rape, abuse, neglect story that is my excuse for the way I am, and nine times out of 10 they forgive me, and then I just LOL & JK them.” Consequently my claim that I was an academic, and a female academic at that, would have seemed doubly suspicious. Luckily, Paulie vouched for me and for my work, which helped — until an especially paranoid contingent accused me of being Paulie Socash, a charge which still occasionally surfaces (I can hear Peter Partyvan now, clucking at what he’ll surely claim is a lame attempt to cover my tracks). Eventually, however, a number of trolls agreed to participate, reasoning that if I was up to no good, for example if I’d lied about who I was or what I hoped to accomplish, they’d eventually find out. And would respond accordingly. I accepted these somewhat ominous terms, and over the next few months asked an inordinate number of questions both privately and in group–chat settings.

The most consistent theme of these conversations was the seemingly natural and necessary link between trolling and the mainstream media. First, though, a caveat: while certain RIP trolls do indeed attack the real–life friends and family members of the deceased, and deny feeling any remorse no matter how traumatizing their behaviors (“I just hate everyone,” Peter Partyvan once explained in a research message thread, his noncommittal shrug almost audible), many trolls find “real” RIP trolling either uninteresting or downright distasteful. According to Wilson Mouzone, family members don’t deserve that sort of treatment, a position that both repudiates the most vicious RIP behaviors and calls attention to the implicit and widely accepted claim that “proper” targets of trolling have done something wrong or stupid or offensive enough to warrant retribution. Although Wilson doesn’t think family is ”fair game,“ he considers any public outpouring of grief “tacky and disrespectful” and simply does not understand the impulse to create, let alone publicize, memorial pages for loved ones — a very common sentiment amongst trolls. If someone they knew died, the explanation goes, they’d be sure to discourage even the simplest announcement, to say nothing of a public group accessible to any bumbling idiot on Facebook. In their minds, Facebook is always the wrong place and always the wrong time, especially when you’re dealing with real–life tragedy.

In short, although they don’t understand the impulse to grieve on Facebook, most trolls aren’t gunning for people experiencing “authentic” grief online (that there is such a thing as “authentic” grief is a major assumption on the trolls’ part, but is treated as a given). Rather, the vast majority of trolls’ RIP energies are directed at so–called “grief tourists,” users who have no real–life connection to the victim and who, according to the trolls, could not possibly be in mourning. As far as trolls are concerned, grief tourists are shrill, disingenuous and, unlike grieving friends and families, wholly deserving targets. The much–ridiculed statement “I didn’t know you but I’m very sorry you’re dead” is therefore seen as a flashing neon declaration of trollability. “This isn’t grief,” Paulie once argued. “This is boredom and a pathological need for attention masquerading as grief.” Interestingly, trolls would often court this response just to exploit users who were stupid enough to take the bait. Paulie was a master of creating and publicizing fake (well, “fake” unbeknownst to the people who would join) RIP pages for high–profile crime victims, particularly young attractive white women. As Paulie would often insist, the utter reverence grief tourists have for cute white dead girls (“they just love them”) perfectly captures the absurdity of expressing grief via wall–post. Indeed for RIP trolls, few things were more entertaining than creating a shrine to some dead stranger, allowing the group membership to swell, then ambushing the drive-by mourners with offensive content or other shenanigans, for example by “flipping” the page from something innocuous (“RIP [insert name of dead white teenager]”) to something outrageous (“Click ‘Like’ if You Think [dead white teenager] Deserved to Be Taught a Lesson”). To the troll, this was lulz at its finest.

Although he does not address RIP trolls specifically (or even trolls generally, or Facebook, or computers), Elliott Oring provides a brilliant model for precisely this sort of behavior, in some ways perfectly anticipating the tone and content of RIP humor. As he discusses in “Jokes and the discourses on disaster” (1987), the “tasteless and cruel” jokes that emerged in the wake of the Challenger space disaster — “Q: What color were Christa McAuliffe’s eyes? A: Blue. One blew this way and the other blew that way” [3] — function as a counterpoint to hyperbolic media coverage, a suggestion that directly challenges the long–held assertion that such jokes are either evidence of human depravity or serve a critical therapeutic function. Oring is wary of both extremes, neither of which addresses the media’s role in disaster joke cycles. After all,

Without imputing any malevolence to newspeople, it should be recognized that public disasters are media triumphs. They are what make the news. Indeed, our awareness of national or international disasters is dependent upon the media — particularly television news broadcasting. Furthermore, the frame for communication of information about a disaster is established by the media [4].

In terms of the Challenger disaster, this frame was one of patriotic and emotional horror. Images of the explosion were played again and again, each time accompanied by a wide–eyed newscaster who reminded his or her audience that this was tragedy of the very highest order. And yet these same newscasters skirted the fact that, by playing and replaying the explosion, they were forcing their viewers to watch seven horrific deaths. The emergent humor iterated this omission, calling attention to the uncomfortable truths that the media continued to exploit but refused to acknowledge. Additionally, Challenger humor tended to poke fun at the “human interest” aspects of the story that the media did feel comfortable addressing (and consequently fetishizing) — McAuliffe’s physical appearance, the astronauts’ last words, what they had eaten just before their deaths, and so on [5]. From this perspective, Challenger jokes are less about the astronauts themselves and more about the media’s incessant rhetorical framing. Oring suggests that:

[The media’s] insistent rhetoric of tragedy, grief, and mourning might well have been regarded as an affront and intrusion by a viewing public who felt that they were perfectly capable of determining their own emotional responses to the event. It was perhaps inevitable that a rebellion against such media homiletics might surface, and humor was the strategy of that rebellion [6].

Just as Challenger jokes undermined an established media narrative, so too does RIP trolling; unlike Challenger humor, however, which was confined to one catastrophic event, memorial page trolling is much more diffuse. Either by drawing a particular controversy to its logical (though frequently absurd and morbid) conclusion or by forcing grief tourists to confront an inverse–fetish (i.e., you’re already worshiping at the altar of this unfamiliar corpse, so here, let me show you a few more for good measure), or by baiting normal users into making death threats and then reporting their profiles for violating Facebook’s TOS agreements (a particularly joyous outcome for the trolls in my research group), memorial trolls revel in counter–hegemony.

Trolls’ reaction to Chelsea King’s death (or perhaps more appropriately, trolls’ reaction to the media coverage of Chelsea King’s death) provides a textbook example. By popularizing and subsequently bombarding the “I Bet This Pickle” page, trolls were impugning a series of highly theatricalized 24–hour news cycles devoted to one missing girl amongst thousands of missing girls. Furthermore the viciousness with which they dealt with Chelsea King “fans” suggests their utter disdain for anyone who walked in lockstep with the media’s coverage. As one poster on “I Bet This Pickle Can Get More Fans Than Chelsea King” lamented:

There are many rapes and murders happening throughout the WORLD. There are many parents mourning for THEIR dead children. Especially during catastrophes such as Haiti and Chile, as well as human trafficking efforts from third world countries, there is NO reason to blow Chelsea’s death to such proportions. It is not merely a mourning now, it is a glorification ... This in itself is inhumane. (Anonymous in jamesvpat, 2010)

A similar sentiment animated the “Chelsea King fans: why aren’t you helping to find Jalesa Reynolds?” page. Reynolds, a black high school student, went missing the same week as Chelsea King. Her body was discovered a few days after Chelsea’s but hardly caused a blip on the media radar. Chelsea was, to put it bluntly, a much more palatable victim: she was white, middle class, and photogenic. Consequently hers was the memory the nation, and subsequently users of Facebook, chose to memorialize, a point that Ruthless emphasized in a subsequent Skype chat. Of course, by creating the Jalesa Reynolds page, Ruthless wasn’t exactly taking a principled stand against racial and socio–economic bias in mainstream media coverage. As a general rule, trolls don’t take principled stands, they provoke. Not surprisingly, then, the Jalesa Reynolds page was used primarily to bait self–righteous white people who were scandalized by the suggestion that they cared more about a dead white girl than a dead black girl. That said, whether or not Ruthless intended to make a political point, a political point was indeed made.

Accidental politics is a common byproduct of trolling, even when trolls deliberately eschew any direct or deliberate agenda. For example in response to a repost of the Pickle/ABC segment, a group of collaborators — several of whom were mentioned by name in the original segment, including Frank/my mother — were delighted. Housed within this delight, however, was an embedded media critique. “LMAO,” wrote Frank. “‘THEY’VE ALSO THREATENED TO RAPE HIS SISTER AND MOTHER’ LOLOL,” wrote David Davidson (no relation). “that part almost had me in tears,” Leroy Freeman added, to which Frank responded, “Oh American media, how I adore your melodrama” (ABC Reaction, 2010). In most circles, such an exchange would qualify as bald–faced sociopathy. To the trolls, however, the joke was on ABC. Without doing the least bit of research, they ran a shrieking, hysterical segment, thereby feeding the very trolls they claimed to abhor. Of course, the media wasn’t the only camp throwing bones. Trolls did the same for the media, making these ostensibly mortal enemies the strangest of all possible bedfellows. Trolls needed the media to become hysterical, and the media needed trolls to terrorize; each side benefited from the overreaction of the other.

Never has this relationship been more conspicuous than in the wake of 2010’s spree of teen suicides. In the U.S. and in Britain, a number of teenagers — all white, many gay or otherwise outcast — took their own lives. Although there was nothing statistically anomalous about these deaths, the media declared a worldwide state of emergency. Given the common thread of social media (like most middle class white teenagers in the developed world, the victims had all been engaged in some form of online activity before their deaths), the emerging narrative, and subsequent moral panic, centered on so—called “cyberbullying,” which quickly subsumed trolling as the reason our teenagers kept dying. Mainstream outlets in America and Britain placed each story on a blood–stained pedestal, breathlessly pouring over every mean thing anyone ever said to the victim pre– and post–mortem, often jumbling the timelines so badly as to suggest that the RIP trolls were somehow responsible for pushing the (already dead) teens to suicide. In Britain, the Daily Mail lead this charge, often affecting the same gristly tone as the trolls they purported to condemn. “‘Help Me, Mummy,” the headline of one 2011 article began, quoting from a macro posted to 15–year–old Lauren Gelder’s memorial page. “‘It’s Hot Here in Hell’: A Special Investigation Into the Distress of Grieving Families Caused by the Sick Internet Craze of ‘Trolling’” (Carey, 2011). In effect, these articles merely reinscribe the same “sick and disgusting” language of trolls in order to maximize reader outrage, thus undermining their subsequent admonition that trolls should be sent directly to Siberia for exploiting other people’s grief for their own personal benefit.

In the spring of 2011, I found myself smack in the middle of this storm. I was contacted by Beth Hale at the Daily Mail in regards to Pro Fessor, a troll who had been terrorizing the U.K.–based memorial pages of one Natasha MacBryde, a 15–year–old who threw herself under a train, and Tom Mullaney, a 15–year–old who hanged himself in his parents’ backyard. According to Hale, Pro Fessor had been posting “pictures of the heads with lines coming out of them and words,” a.k.a. macros, all of which made light of the precise ways in which the teenagers died (“I caught the train to heaven LOL”).

Although I didn’t know Pro personally, Peter and Wilson did and put me in touch. After the standard expressions of wariness (was I really a researcher/was I really a girl), Pro agreed to help. Over the next few days, he sent me some of his favorite macros and explained how he got involved with trolling; like many of the trolls I’ve worked with, he was interesting and pleasant and somewhat nervous about providing “good” answers. Also like many of the trolls I’ve worked with, he shrugged off the presumption of sociopathy and suggested that trolling was the result of boredom as much as anything (though he did admit to finding the whole process quite amusing). In his interactions with Hale, however, he reverted to his trollish tauntings, boasting about his lack of remorse and playing up his perceived villainy. In other words, Pro gave Hale exactly what she wanted. Two weeks later, she published a fiery piece condemning the “vile and disgusting” trend of Facebook trolling, with particular focus on that monster Pro Fessor — who in turn reveled in his newfound notoriety.

Several months later, Hale contacted me again. Sean Duffy, the individual believed to be the real Pro Fessor, had just been arrested and charged under Britain’s Malicious Communications Act. She was hoping to write a follow-up piece, and wanted to gage my reaction. I’d already heard this news a few days earlier, from Pro himself — who was very much not the aforementioned plaintiff. After consulting with Pro and the rest of the group (when dealing with the press I have to be very careful; it’s my job to protect the identities of my collaborators, and as a result always run things by the troll(s) in question before I provide any potentially sensitive information), I explained in no uncertain terms that Pro was not Sean Duffy (and vice versa), and that the latter should not be held responsible for the actions of the former — a fairly critical tip that, oddly, yielded no reply from Hale. Either someone was listening or the authorities figured it out on their own, because from that point forward the alleged connection between Duffy and Pro was dropped. The reaction to this story was mixed. American trolls were amused by the media’s response, particularly the subsequent “Help Me Mummy” article, which incidentally featured Pro in a reprisal of his role as go–to Internet supervillain. British trolls had, and continue to have, a bit more to worry about. Not that it’s stopped them, in fact in some quarters has merely made the game more interesting.

 

++++++++++

Gesturing towards a conclusion

In this sense, the RIP saga is best understood as a textbook study in amplification. With each new death, be it violent or self–inflicted, Facebook trolls would feed on and exploit the ever–shriller media coverage, and the media would in turn feed on and exploit the ever–fiercer trolling response. Facing pressure from all quarters, Facebook was forced to take drastic, draconian measures, which trolls promptly subverted. The cries for Facebook to do something thus grew ever louder, giving both reporters and trolls further grist for their respective mills. It has been a monument to antipathetic symbiosis.

Although it is important see these forests for those trees, we must not discard the trees themselves. Yes, trolling emerges within a very particular mass–mediated milieu. And yes, there is ample precedent for these sorts of behaviors. But RIP trolling is not the same as laughing at the TV screen or telling a horribly insensitive joke in the privacy of your living room. Real people are really affected by RIP trolling, complicating any analysis that focuses exclusively on context. When dealing with particular people — parents especially, but also friends and family — it is much more difficult to maintain the emotional distance afforded by cultural criticism.

It’s extremely easy, for example, to place Tom Mullaney in an abstract category of British teen suicides, and to talk about trolls’ defacement of his memorial page as representative of a feedback response loop between trolls and the mainstream media. That is indeed what happened. But it is much more difficult to say so to Robert Mullaney, Tom’s father — which was precisely what I was asked to do during that fateful BBC radio interview. My analysis of the situation, namely that what happened on Tom’s page wasn’t about Tom personally, suddenly felt flat and inconsequential. Tom was someone’s child, and now he is dead, and whether or not the trolls intended for his parents to see those images they did, and they were devastated, and there is no theoretical framework that can make that ok.

Even Paulie Socash, one of the most — let’s say committed — trolls I’ve encountered, and whose standard response to criticism of trolling is an emphatic HEY GUYS THE POWER BUTTON IS RIGHT THERE, has at times struggled with particularity. He is, after all, a normal guy who also happens to be a troll, and the normal guy side of the equation (which, for the record, is really quite pleasant) doesn’t always align with his trolling persona. So when he messaged one afternoon to say that the inevitable finally happened, that he stumbled upon an RIP page dedicated to his son’s friend’s recently deceased sister, I knew he was genuinely concerned. I asked him what he was planning on doing. “Monitor it,” he answered, adding that if the trolling got out of hand (so far “real” fans of the page were ignoring the trolls, the fastest and most effective way to stop a raid in its tracks) he would create a new profile and send the admins of the page a personal message. Warn them, suggest they make the group private — which, he continued, the trollishness returning to his voice, is what they should have done in the first place.

I share this anecdote not just to humanize Paulie, and not just to suggest that memorial trolls have feelings too. They do, of course; just as the targets of trolling are real people living real lives and are subject to complicated and sometimes contradictory influences, the people behind the trolls are just as fully and perhaps even more conspicuously human. More importantly, however, the whole issue, from the slippage between troll and person behind the troll, to the media’s response, to Facebook’s intervention is inescapably, undeniably, often quite maddeningly messy. In honor of that messiness, I would rather offer an open–ended conclusion than pretend to throw my weight behind something more airtight. Thus I will assert no more and no less than the following: Facebook memorial trolling is deeply problematic. It is a site of resistance. It is a site of hegemony. It does real and significant emotional damage. It unearths truths about our relationship to mainstream media. It is simultaneously cruel and amusing and aggressive and playful and real and pretend and hurtful and harmless, as are the trolls themselves. It really is as simple and as complicated as that. End of article

 

About the author

Whitney Phillips is a fourth–year Ph.D. student and writing instructor at the University of Oregon, where she studies online culture, specifically transgressive humor within trolling communities.

 

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Carol Stabile for her generous feedback throughout the writing and research process, Henry Jenkins, danah boyd and Gabriella Coleman for their comments and support, and my various troll collaborators for their energy, time and insight. I would like to extend a special thanks to Paulie Socash, without whom I could not have discovered (let alone completed) this project.

 

Notes

1. At the time, the difference between Facebook groups and Facebook pages was negligible, at least for the end user — whether one joined a group or merely “liked” a page, information about that group/page would automatically appear in the user’s live feed.

2. Created in early 2010, the Nickleback/Pickle page was based on the similarly-titled “I Bet This Onion Ring Can Get More Fans Than Justin Beiber.” Like Justin Bieber/Onion Ring, Nickleback/Pickle was a runaway hit and amassed nearly a million and a half fans, successfully surpassing the fan count on Nickleback’s official Facebook page. Later variations on this meme included “Can This Poodle Wearing A Tinfoil Hat Get More Fans Than Glenn Beck” and “I Bet This Shoe Can Get More Fans Than Edward Cullin.”

3. Oring, 1987, p. 280.

4. Oring, 1987, p. 282.

5. Oring, 1987, pp. 280–283.

6. Oring, 1987, p. 284.

 

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Editorial history

Received 23 September 2010; revised 8 November 2011; accepted 11 November 2011.


Creative Commons License
“LOLing at tragedy: Facebook trolls, memorial pages and resistance to grief online” by Whitney Phillips is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

LOLing at tragedy: Facebook trolls, memorial pages and resistance to grief online
by Whitney Phillips.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 12 - 5 December 2011
http://journals.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle/3168/3115





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