Opinion: The Internet of trolls | #TrollCabal and the Civic Commons

by Yemi Adesanya


The internet provides access to a sea of information and affords everyone an opportunity to communicate with almost anyone anywhere in the world. An undergraduate in a remote university in Zaria can, with internet access, tweet at president Donald Trump, and with much luck, the American president gets to read his tweet, at least. REMARKABLE! But many worry about the downside of too much of this good thing: lack of authority over the web space, anonymity and invisibility confers extra boldness and meanness on people. “You’re depressed, lol. Why don’t you go jump off a bridge!”. Many otherwise potentially useful discussions degenerate into name calling or escalate into real fracas. Once a high-octane political twitter exchange degenerated into e-pugilism and later became an actual physical combat in Abuja’s Sofa Lounge. True story.

Some do it for the lulz, others for likes, retweets, and high notification count; free speech is the new black, who needs humanity? However, this strain of disinhibition is not new, neither is it peculiar to cyber-interactions, it is a human condition; according to Milo Yiannapoulos (a self-proclaimed “cultural libertarian” and “free speech fundamentalist”), “[h]uman nature has a need for mischief”. But where does one draw the line, when can we conclude that your unalloyed freedom of expression has crossed a line? When can we all agree that the thinness of my skin is not the issue and that you have taken your dark humour too far into the night? Should whether I am mad or not be the indicator of your lack of manners? Or is there an objective code or measure of acceptable behaviour and netiquette? On the other hand, doesn’t an insistence on a rigid format of interaction hamper pluralism and robust discussions? Would a stiff approach to informal interaction not become an excuse for maintaining cliques and in-groups online; or could it not be a means of retaining real or perceived influences, privileges, and entitlements? If we could overcome the tendency for moralistic prescriptivism in expressing dissent, addressing conflict and disagreement, perhaps we could make more room for broader and smoother examination of cultural, social and political ideas among virtual strangers.

Don’t Feed the Troll

The popular definition of trolling describes it as deliberate disruptive and provocative online messaging. A troll is described as “a user who contributes to a discussion with deliberately erroneous, disturbing or challenging information, with the intention of provoking a strong reaction from other users”. The definition, and resultant labelling is largely an assertion of the table manners of liberal civility, but it could just as easily be a tool for dismissal and exclusion. Thus, if you disagree vehemently, even if you make a great point worthy of consideration in the discourse at hand, you are likely to be dismissed: “Ignore the troll, don’t humour him with a response”. What is framed as a demand for politeness then becomes a tool for hushing up constructive debates, especially in our highly stratified African society, helping to maintain the existing gulf of social distance rationalised by age, position, wealth, or other venerated achievement.

The moral dilemma of ensuring inclusivity as well as etiquette in e-deliberations underscores the brilliance of self-identifying as a troll and creating a community of trolls. It is a pragmatic defence of the right of everyone to be heard; an immune system in response to traditional sensibilities threatening to shut up the unruly and the irreverent. #TrollCabal is a sub-culture that is taking root on Twitter, encouraging civil discourse while leaving room for dissent and disputation. By deploying humour and sarcasm, and honing debate and argumentation skills, participants can revel in their freedom of expression and hope to become guardians of liberal democracy. Trolling is being deployed as a tool for social cohesion rather than exclusion: “We all are trolls; now that we got that out of the way, shall we have a meaningful discussion?”.

Being upfront about trolling is also a humble brag, affirming the community’s mastery of sarcasm, wit, parody, and playful performance in the criticism of political, social, and cultural anomalies. #TrollCabal’s 4th Convener, Ose Anenih, who tweets as @Papadonkee, embodies this fully.  He dishes a smooth blend of biting sarcasm and an excellent use of language sometimes sprinkled with mockery, but without coming across as rude and without employing raw expletives. In contrast to the consensus that the goal of trolling is sowing discord and upsetting people, humorous breaks in the flow of discourse then becomes the norm within #TrollCabal, recognising the inherent difficulty in discussing divisive topics and reinforcing the culture of civic engagement regardless. Indeed, it is opined that “trolls are not the disruptors of the originary communities of Internet culture, but their defenders… [trolls are] standing up to power and homogenization, and keeping open the possibility of the Internet as a zone of freedom” 

Silly Citizens

#TrollCabal is evolving into a space for harnessing the unbridled energy of the young and the considered positioning of the older generation for meaningful debates, theorising, and fostering political and social cooperation as a catalyst for action. With constant engagement, a civic commons can emerge to augment, or replace, our fragmented real life discussions and ineffective parliaments, and reawaken a new cultural identity. This we hope would replace marginalisation and fragmentation with social cohesion, personal liberty, and social justice which would transcend social, political and geographical boundaries and harnesses shared interests for progress.

Citizenship is no longer limited to periodic voting and perfunctory compliance with tax laws, citizens are encouraged to challenge political ideas, make sense of available facts and information, debate reality and reconsider rigid opinions, set actionable agenda, and influence policy. The style of deliberation adopted by the cabal is that of playfulness that satirises real life politics and harnesses the social infrastructure of the new media, without a rigid distinction between seriousness and sarcasm.

Acts of parody, humour, and satire have been deployed throughout history as tools for communicating discontent, challenging norms, rebuking real political actors, and criticising social and political action. Many popular TV entertainment and talk shows regularly parody political personalities to highlight absurdities or to slyly deride actions and decisions they disagree with. This “silly citizenship” as coined by John Hartley (citation), is a better tool for participation than dry and bald academic criticism, combining laughter and play with meaningful deliberation on topical issues. This is clearly more constructive than swallowing – hook-line-and-sinker – the staged and managed publicity outputs of media capitalists on behalf of politicians and the government. Such opportunities for communitarianism, bonding, entertainment, imagination, artistic expression and creativity should attract more people to modern citizenship.

From Famzing and LMAO to Action

The election that ushered @Papadonkee in as Convener was in itself an experiment in democratic norms and the defence of citizen’s rights. The humour, creativity, verve and vigour with which his team handled the campaign generated much interest in the elections and is a testament to the power of sarcasm and parody of real life institutions to ginger citizens to civil action. Compared to the immediate past election which recorded only 690 votes, a total 16298 votes were cast, out of which @Papadonkee got 62% to defeat Jaja – his closest competitor who got 36% .

The campaign also sparked a debate about the right of cyber-citizens to anonymity, with @Papadonkee’s opponents’ attempt to undermine his credibility or, better still, get him disqualified for adopting a donkey as an avatar instead of his own photograph. The ensuing debates about a person’s right to anonymity online, and whether a person’s photo or full name is what qualifies as social media identity has not yet reached a landing. The outgoing convener also used the electoral process to highlight the importance of the independence of electoral officers, and the African issue of ‘sit-tightism’.

[#TrollCabal Convener @Papadonkee]

Urban Dictionary defines ‘Fam’ as “a word used to describe your people. The ones that you can trust dearly. Someone you consider family”; the slang has its origin in the word “family”. ‘Famz’ {verb} is a related word in popular usage in the Nigerian social media space; it means to “act as being too friendly or familiar with someone you don’t know”. To say someone is famzing paints a picture of familiarity with a complete stranger, as if with a family member. @Papadonkee’s FAMS agenda (pronounced /famz/) resonates with this spirit of camaraderie, a brilliant expression and interpretation of the #TrollCabal brief. The Cabal, under his leadership, will work to promote

  • Freedom –  (of speech and trolling, right to anonymity, sustainable trolling, data access, and freedom to cook or not)
  • Accountability – (Electoral reforms, including ensuring independence of TrINEC, and creation of the Office of the Vice Convener)
  • Momentum – (Partnership and membership drives, inclusive and social developments for all demographics, cross-border trolling, and troll research & development)
  • Security – (Direct messaging privacy and anti-terrorism laws, combatting cyberbullying and related offences)

The agenda is at once witty and humorous – taking a jab at the perennial feminist debate on Nigerian Twitter about the modern woman’s domestic responsibilities, promising partnership with popular parody handles like @DPRK_News [North Korea’s parody news handle], while concurrently addressing other serious issues of privacy, anonymity, and internet access to those without it. Doxing is a real problem on the internet – with private exchanges and intimate photos often leaked, as are other potentially embarrassing personal information. The Convener’s manifesto also sarcastically referred to the threat to freedom of expression by the Nigeria’s CyberCrimes Act and such other legal delimiters of freedom of expression guaranteed by the constitution. With a lot of work, play, and luck, through public deliberations and debates on real world challenges, citizens can hope to prompt, stir, goad, or mock themselves or the government to action.

Real abuse also remains rife in many cyber interactions, from misogynic and racial slurs to harassment and wholesale bullying on account of sexual orientation, religion etc., mockery of personal loss, as well as intimidation and threats of personal harm. We have seen derisive tweets at Nigeria’s popular media personality – Funmi Iyanda, and similar ones mocking Michelle Obama for not having a male child. One hopes that with continuous playful engagements, trolls will touch hearts and minds and eventually entrench a culture of sensibility and sensitivity to the human behind the avatar.

Pew research’s latest publication highlights the concern that uncivil and antisocial behaviour will hurt the exchange of ideas – in fact only 19% of respondent said they ‘expect the internet to be “less shaped” by harassment [and] trolling’. #TrollCabal offers us some optimism about the internet’s future – what do we stand to lose by following @Papadonkee’s call to set aside the rigoristic hunt for politesse and prescriptivism? Can we journey into political and social discourse, trolling one another equally, in a manner devoid of the seriousness, censorship, and systematic subjugation that plagues the real world? We can? Welcome to #TrollCabal! Follow @Papadonkee and @TheTrollCabal on Twitter.

Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

Yemi Adesanya is the first Vice Convener of #TrollCabal. She was appointed by @Papadonkee in fulfilment of his campaign promise to create the office of VC. Yemi is an accountant and risk manager who loves reading, writing computer programs, playing Sudoku and working out. She is the inventor of The Game of Giants, and Jungle card games, and the author of Musings of a Tangled Tongue, a collection of poems. She tweets as @toyosilagos.

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