The Care and Feeding of Your Troll

Season 1: Episode 4

Trolls. You’ll find them in every corner of the Internet. During this episode, explore the landscape of trolling online, its impact on individuals, and its impact on the Web. Some people are fighting back in new and interesting ways. Baked goods included.
Published: August 7, 2017

Show Notes

Help form a more inclusive world and Web.


Veronica B.: There are people on the internet who take great satisfaction in driving other people bananas. We call them trolls. Most often people will tell you to never feed a troll. Well, that’s good advice until there’s better advice.

Kat Thek: Troll Cakes Bakery and Detective Agency.

Mia: Hi. I’d like to order a Troll Cake.

Veronica B.: That’s Mia calling in. She’s ordering a special cake for one of her trolls. Kat Thek is the person who bakes the cakes and delivers them.

Kat Thek: What’s the comment that you’d like on the cake?

Mia: “Looks like a baby. Awful.”

Kat Thek: You’d like it to say, “Looks like a baby. Awful.”?

Mia: Yes, thank you.

Kat Thek: Okay, great.

Veronica B.: A stranger wrote, “Looks like a baby. Awful,” on one of Mia’s Instagram posts, so now Mia’s getting that comment baked into a cake.

Kat Thek: That is going to look really beautiful on a cake. Can you send us their username? We will track them down and mail them a cake that says, “Looks like a baby. Awful.”

Mia: Great. Thank you.

Kat Thek: No problem.

Veronica B.: Trolls, you’ll find them in every corner of the web and they come in every shape and size from annoying little flicks that tick you off with a stabby little insult to more offensive racist, sexist, misogynist, or frankly life threatening online harassment. Today, we’ll feed the trolls, stand up to them, learn who they are, how to cope with them, and how to beat trolls at their own game. I’m Veronica Belmont and this is IRL an original podcast from Mozilla. As a human being on the internet, I’ve had run-ins with trolls for years, and it doesn’t really make it any easier to be a woman who works in tech and previously video games. Man, some of it you expect, when you put content out on the internet it’s kind of like you have a big target on your back, but it’s the level of the vitriol and the, I don’t know, specificity of it that really starts to wear you down. It’s one thing if you don’t like my show, for example, but saying it’s because you don’t like my stupid voice, well, I probably don’t need to know that. The cruelty, it’s one reason why I switched careers a year ago to try to really get away from it. I almost didn’t do this podcast because of it. I didn’t know if I was ready to open myself up to that kind of attention again. Of course, I wonder if even mentioning that it has affected me makes me more vulnerable to the attacks, but I want to understand trolling without glorifying it, to talk about it without validating it, if that’s possible. Let’s give it a shot. Let’s get back to Mia and Kat. Kat runs Troll Cakes Bakery and Detective Agency from her Brooklyn Apartment, and it’s exactly as it sounds.

Kat Thek: Trolls Cakes are mean internet comments put on cakes and then sent to the person who made the comment.

Veronica B.: Mia is her customer today. She stopped by Kat’s apartment to witness the work in progress.

Kat Thek: All right, I’ve been baking. We’ve got one ready to come out. Okay, so we’ve got ourselves a troll cake here. Really, it’s a brownie, and the reason for that is brownies mail better than cakes so I do troll brownie cakes.

Mia: It smells amazing. I feel like I just haven’t had a brownie in ten years. You know? “Looks like a baby. Awful.” Yeah, well I’ve often gotten made fun of or I’ve felt insecure about looking like a baby, because I do like 15 and I’m 21 so it does make me feel bad. Sometimes I think, “Whoa, I can’t believe someone feels so upset about the world that they’re angry at someone they don’t know.” Maybe I do understand that, but I can’t believe they’re actually writing it to me. I mean, there’s plenty of people I didn’t like just by looking at their profile, but I didn’t write them.

Kat Thek: Okay, so I’m going to ice it.

Mia: Do you want them to taste good?

Kat Thek: I want it to be the best cake you ever gotten in the mail, because if you get a lousy cake in the mail, if you get something that has salt instead of sugar, it feels like we’re playing dirty there. If you get a really nice cake, there’s something obnoxiously high road about it. I think it’s aggressively nice in a way that is upsetting … Sorry. I have all my letters separated into these little baggies so they’re easier to find. All these letters are edible. Okay, so we’ve got … We need, “Looks like a baby. Awful.”

Mia: This is so funny.

Kat Thek: You know it.

Mia: It’s so cute.

Kat Thek: Oh wait, we’re not done yet. There’s a whole spectrum of trolls. I don’t think troll cakes are good for really violent trolls or really obsessive trolls, and we don’t take those kinds of cases. If you have a stalker, you have a stalker and there’s not a cake that’s going to help that. I think what they’re really doing is just yelling, “Hey guys, I’m an idiot. Can you see what a big idiot I’m being?”

Mia: I think sending the cake, I don’t really feel spiteful about it, but I think it would be funny for someone to see something like you thought that was just going out into space because it’s on the internet but it didn’t.

Kat Thek: Yeah, I’ve definitely thought about people getting a cake in the mail and instead of being reflective, just being like, “Ahh, who mailed me this cake?” The idea of someone furiously eating a cake of their own nasty internet comment is hilarious.

Mia: I feel like I would be excited to get any cake, so yeah …

Veronica B.: Kat mailed the, “Looks like a baby. Awful,” troll cake the very next day to Alabama. If I find out what the person receiving it thought about getting a delicious troll cake in the mail, I’ll for sure let you know. Kat’s company motto is, “See something, cake something.” Cheeky revenge ploys aside though, online harassment can really hurt people IRL. Everyone and anyone online can be a troll target at any time, but we know that women, minorities, and members of marginalized communities are especially at risk. Part of the problem is that more often than not people don’t realize how serious an issue this really is.

Lauren Duca: I think that there is this dumpster fire rhetoric with which we talk about the increasing toxicity that defines our worlds right now, and a lot of that happens on the internet. There’s kind of this shrugging off of, “It’s the internet.”

Veronica B.: This is Lauren Duca. I had a chance to meet her in late June when she spoke at a Mozilla event in San Francisco called A Night for Internet Health. Lauren is a columnist for Teen Vogue. She’s become a frequent troll target since she was a guest on Tucker Carlson’s TV show on Fox News last December. That interview didn’t end well. It didn’t go very well either. They argued.

Lauren Duca: Now that you bring up Teen Vogue, we treat young women like they don’t have a right to a political conversation-

Tucker Carlson: It sounds like dumb propaganda-

Lauren Duca: … and you can’t be-

Tucker Carlson: … threatening the sovereignty of religion-

Lauren Duca: … enjoy Kylie Jenner’s Instagram-

Tucker Carlson: It doesn’t even mean anything.

Lauren Duca: … and worry about the future of this country, and those things are not mutually exclusive.

Tucker Carlson: All right, I’ve got to go. You should stick to the thigh high boots. You’re better at that. Lauren, thanks for joining us.

Lauren Duca: You’re a sexist …

Veronica B.: She said, “You’re a sexist pig,” but her mic had been cut by then. It was the end of an aggressive interview where both Tucker and Lauren traded barbs and insults. You can watch it online and make your own decisions on who was right and wrong. Since that interview, Lauren has faced a dogged campaign of online hate and harassment just for sharing an opinion on television.

Lauren Duca: I’ll be like, “Oh, I got Photoshopped into a gas chamber today,” and Tucker Carlson is actually pushing the button. Someone will be like, “The internet.” There were men who would actually email me and be like, “I would never allow my daughter to do that,” and it’s, “Sir, that’s literally patriarchy.” That really put me at the forefront of these conversations we have about harassment, and stalking, and death, and rape threats. Really things like those concentration camp images happen constantly all the time.

Veronica B.: Imagine your own inbox filling up with death threats, doxxing threats, rape threats. Doxxing, if you don’t know, is the super fun trend of finding and publishing someone’s personal information like their home address and phone number online typically as an invitation to further harassment.

Lauren Duca: Then it all sort of hit me at once. Unrelated to the deluge of toxicity that was happening in my inbox, I was harassed in a Lyft. It was actually not a huge phenomenal deal, but it was this visceral in-person experience and I lost it. I was sick for five days, I never get sick. My immune system just completely crashed, and I felt physically … I took a physical toll that very obviously had been connected to the compounding of constantly seeing these things and this evil in my inbox.

Veronica B.: Now Lauren has to endure constant trolling as part of her job, which is super frustrating. She calls it a Troll Tax.

Lauren Duca: For female writers it means a tax that steals time, steals energy, costs productivity, lessens their ability to compete, to promote themselves, to network. Just also for the anybody who in any way presents as a woman online, there is a danger of just a mental toll but sometimes a real world physical threat that I have had plenty of. What am I told? Get of Twitter. Are women just not supposed to participate in the public forum? The public forum is happening online, and women cannot just be told to leave it. That’s not a viable option.

Veronica B.: This is IRL an original podcast from Mozilla, because online life is real life. I’m Veronica Belmont. Like I said a little earlier, women in particular are targeted online. That’s why I’m spending much of this episode on how this online behavior affects my gender. That point Lauren makes that leaving Twitter is not an option, it really resonates with me. The internet is where our public conversations are taking place, and I want to be part of those conversations. Why should I leave if the troll is the problem? What is a troll anyway? It’s a word we use as a catch all for pretty much any objectionable behavior we see online including totally legit, if harsh, criticism. Whether it’s someone calling a journalist out for an editorial, or telling a stranger they look fat in that dress, or threatening someone with assault or with death, it’s all labeled trolling, which isn’t helpful.

Whitney P.: It just becomes a very unwieldy term that doesn’t tell us very much about what’s happening and sometimes can even minimize the real world implications of the things that happen online.

Veronica B.: This Whitney Phillips. She wrote This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things. It’s a book on how our culture is built to allow trolls to thrive.

Whitney P.: Trolls are often framed as being deviant, as being the other, as being the bad guy. Right? Really, the behaviors that trolls engage in, or what gets described as trolling, there’s a lot of behavioral and rhetorical similarity to “every day non-trolling behaviors” in terms of the way that people speak to each other online or de-contextualize people’s emotional experiences online.

Veronica B.: It’s like socially sanctioned now too. It feels like it’s become a part of our day to day discourse on the internet and sometimes in person.

Whitney P.: I agree. It establishes, “This is how things are, and therefore I’m not going to resist it. I’m not going to question it,” and it ends up replicating the same logical move that, “Boys will be boys,” occupies. The problem with something like, “Boys will be boys,” yeah maybe they will be, but if you have the expectation that young men are going to behave in sexually aggressive or whatever the expectation is, then when it happens there’s less of an impulse to push back or say, “Hey, this is wrong. It shouldn’t be this way. You shouldn’t be doing this.”

Veronica B.: I’ve read that some trolls see what they do as similar to philosophers like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, which sounds pretty bizarre to me. Why do they see themselves that way? Does that make any sense? Are they asking the big questions, or are they just terrible?

Whitney P.: I think that some of those people are probably really terrible human beings, but I actually think a larger percentage probably don’t think of themselves as being the bad guys. I was embedded with a group of memorial page trolls in 20102011, so trolls who would taunt the friends and family of the recently deceased and then also people who were just engaging in the story, mourning for stranger essentially. The way that they described their behavior, they believed, sincerely believed that they were doing those people a favor, that next time those people would know better than to be so explicitly emotional online, that they were going to learn a lesson. Oddly, many of those participants kind of expected a thank you at the end of the process.

Veronica B.: Who are these internet trolls? What have you figured out about that through your research?

Whitney P.: These days, it’s really hard to try to make any generalized statements not just about motivations, which is always a question, but also who these people are, and where they’re coming from, and why they’re doing what they’re doing. It’s the very short and fast answer and upsetting answer is that we all have the potential to be trolls if we’re not careful about how we engage with others on the internet.

Veronica B.: That opens up so many questions, because I feel like sometimes I jump into these conversations and I feel like I’m having a rational discourse. Then five messages down the line I’m like, “Oh, actually I’m totally being trolled right now. I just fell into a troll trap.” Should I just not engage at all?

Whitney P.: In theory, people should be able to do whatever they want on the internet. I think that the idea of this, and what you’re speaking to, is don’t feed the trolls. Then the problem with that idea of, “Don’t feed the trolls,” is that absolutely falls into victim blaming logic, of, “If we don’t do a certain thing then we won’t get harmed. Therefore if we get harmed, it is one way or another our fault.” I think that that logic is so dangerous.

Veronica B.: Whitney Phillips has a new book out. It’s called The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online. You, dear listener, how are you doing? When you’re online, are you feeling safe and free, or are you getting hassled? If you are a victim of abusive trolling, there are places you can go for help, places like HeartMob.

Debjani Roy: HeartMob is an online platform working to address online harassment.

Veronica B.: That’s Debjani Roy. HeartMob is an offshoot of a street harassment program called Hollaback! Debjani can explain how the site works because she herself has used it.

Debjani Roy: For example, I was harassed online with verbal comments and threats of sexual assault. I could go on there, and I did go on there and share my story of what happened. Then I put in a request for people to put in positive comments to quiet down or silence the negative ones. I also asked people to provide me with some supportive messages. The other requests you can make are to have the harassment reported on the respective platforms on your behalf. You could also ask people to take screenshots of the harassment for you so you don’t have to look at it, because as we know a lot of this happens in large volumes and so it can be very overwhelming.

Veronica B.: Do you think there are any significant differences between online and offline trolling or harassment?

Debjani Roy: I think the key difference is that online harassment follows you everywhere. I mean, the fact that you have to experience it in a safe space of your home I think is what is very damaging. Also, the threats that are made are often not … they’re not just, “I’m going to come after you online,” it’s that, “I’m going to come after you at your house. I know where you work. I know where your family lives.”

Veronica B.: How have you seen online harassment and trolling evolve over the past few years?

Debjani Roy: I feel like it is absolutely unapologetic. I feel like these networks are strengthening. There is increased mobilization, increased organizing, and very little consequence ultimately.

Veronica B.: One of the tricky parts in dealing with this is deciding where the line exists between free speech and criminal harassment. Trolls hide behind anonymity and the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, the right to free speech. It’s kind of hard to imagine that politicians are at all interested in addressing the problem any time soon. I mean, just look at what some of this country’s most powerful elected officials will tweet on any given day. The United States isn’t the only country to entrench free speech into its Constitution. Countries like The Czech Republic, Finland, Sweden, and Denmark, for example, have similar clauses in their constitutions. In Canada, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees freedom of expression. Unlike the USA, Canada has laws against hate speech. A few countries do including the United Kingdom. The UK definitely takes trolling seriously.

Speaker 8: The Justice Minister, Chris Grayling, says internet trolls are cowards poisoning our national life.

Veronica B.: England and Wales toughened their trolling laws in 2014.

Speaker 9: The government is proposing tougher sentences for internet trolls, people who abuse others online. Members will say the maximum prison sentence should increase from six months to two years.

Veronica B.: It wasn’t just talk. British troll John Nimmo used to send rape and death threats online, and now he’s in jail with no computer. Okay, so far we’ve fought trolls by tossing them in jail. We have called on strangers at HeartMob to help us through it. We’ve even sent cake, and that’s no lie. There’s another way to handle trolling, troll them back. I’m kind of like a moth to flame when it comes to reading comments online. I know it’s terrible for me, but I can’t seem to make myself stop because sometimes there are these perfect comedic nuggets. A lot of the time, they’re made my Ken M. His real name is Ken McCarthy and I like to think of him as this white hat troll. He’s the kind of troll that isn’t out to harass, annoy, or hurt anyone. He’s just out to get a laugh and make jerks look like jerks. In other words, he’s trolling to make the web a slightly better place. Here’s one example. The headline of the article is, “America’s Best Brunches,” from Travel and Leisure. Here’s Ken’s comment.

Ken M.: “I was just telling my students that brunch, like many strange sounding words, is an example of onomatopoeia because it is derived from the sound one makes when enjoying a good meal.”

Veronica B.: Here are anonymous replies to Ken’s comment.

Speaker 11: “Were your students silly enough to believe you, Ken?”

Speaker 12: “The word you’re looking for is portmanteau.”

Speaker 13: “Brunch is actually a combination of breakfast and lunch. No wonder our teachers are under attack.”

Veronica B.: Ken again.

Ken M.: “You guys sound just like my students.”

Veronica B.: All right, here’s one more. This one shows how well Ken M can get under someone’s skin. The headline says, “The Most Irresponsible Officials in Washington D.C. are the Moderate Republicans.”

Ken M.: “I was just telling my students that today’s Republicans can be like unto that perennial pest, the male wasp, haughty yet servile, angry yet asexual.”

Speaker 14: “ … you you dog Liberal poisoning our young minds. It’s Liberal pigs who hate America and want it to become another Commi nation, you jackass pig … And I hope you see your maker soon, pig … you. Libs sucks.”

Ken M.: “Vulgarity is the fool’s fig leaf.”

Veronica B.: Fun to read if you’re in on the joke, and many are. There’s an entire subreddit dedicated to him. He’s been doing this for about four years.

Ken M.: It grew out of actual serious frustration with the toxicity of online news’ comment sections that I think we’re all familiar with.

Veronica B.: Do you feel you’ve pulled out any insights from the kinds of people that are spending their time doing this kind of stuff?

Ken M.: I resist making assumptions about what these people are like in real life. I think what’s is more interesting to me is these could be possible very decent and civilized behaving people in the real world, and they get some sort of strange jolt of satisfaction from being abusive online when they’re anonymous.

Veronica B.: Why do you do this? I mean, what kind of satisfaction do you get out of it?

Ken M.: I think cruelty is unfunny. It’s uncreative. It’s the opposite of creative, it’s destructive. I try never ever to be mean to anybody. I’m just trying to weave an increasingly absurd interaction each time, and it’s hopefully with a great punchline.

Veronica B.: What have you learned about the way people think and communicate online, like how they come together and come apart?

Ken M.: It takes energy to type out a thoughtful opinion and to actually just engage with another person as a person even though it’s online. I think that’s why a lot of people are so nasty, because it’s easier just to type a two word insult without any thought.

Veronica B.: It’s hard to police online behavior if that’s even something that’s possible. Is that even something we want? I mean, there has to be room online for a few flame wars and some misbehaving debaters here and there. I mean, it’s okay for some equal opportunity snidery on all sides of the fence. A good argument can sometimes just be a good argument. Frankly, I hope we foster some of that with this show, but online it’s too easy to see an argument evolve into dehumanizing, destructive, and possible criminal speech. Ken is right, it’s easier to mean than it is to be kind, and that discourages people from participating. Trolling shapes the system in a way that marginalizes other voices. When that happens, we all lose. Who knows where those unheard voices could take the web if we just let them speak. It falls to each of us to look out for each other. Offline, we know street harassment is a problem, and we step in when we can to help. Online, it should be no different. Find out how you can make a more inclusive gender equal web. Check out the show notes to this episode at IRL is an original podcast for Mozilla, the nonprofit behind the Firefox browser. Listen and subscribe through your favorite app and make sure to tell your friends, and tell your friends to tell their friends. Next time, ever think you’re being watched? Our next episode tackles internet surveillance. What does it mean to be free when everyone is watching? I’m Veronica Belmont, I’ll see you online until we catch up again IRL. Fact check, anti-Obama film muddy on facts.

Speaker 15: It’s not the reporter’s job to point out falsehoods. Try real journalism.

Veronica B.: Pointing out falsehoods is real journalism.

Speaker 15: Real journalism, we point out truthhoods.