Ever since a Twitter troll was elected 45th President of the United States, the Twitterati has agonised over who to blame. But since it was Twitter that gave American voters unfettered access to Donald Trump’s brain, they really ought to be blaming Twitter itself. It’s not possible to say anything balanced or nuanced in 140 characters — that’s a format for jokes, insults and outrage. If you want to seize the world’s attention today, you must troll or be trolled on Twitter.
And since this is the one skill at which Trump is utterly unrivalled, he’s now busy trolling both America and himself. When a man with barely any followers once tweeted him in the middle of the night to say: ‘I firmly believe that @realDonaldTrump is the most superior troll on the whole of Twitter’, Trump retweeted it to his millions of followers: ‘A great compliment!’
In 2017, our ability to write books, act in films or even govern appears to be measured in Twitter followers, not talent. So there will be no stopping Trump or his disciples here in the UK, Katie Hopkins and Piers Morgan. Were it not for Twitter, Hopkins would be a failed Apprentice candidate, not a highly paid commentator for Mail Online. Morgan would be a disgraced former newspaper editor, not a television host engaging in Twitter spats with J.K. Rowling. Unless Twitter ends, there will be no end to them.
At its worst, trolling is utterly repugnant, a sickening spectacle, and no one gets anything out of it. This was the case last year when Leslie Jones, star of an all-female remake of Ghostbusters, was hounded off Twitter after the alt-right tweeted racist abuse at her. It was also the case in 2013, when a PR consultant named Justine Sacco was hounded off Twitter by anti-racists after she tweeted: ‘Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!’ But whereas the forces of good Twitter, quite rightly, felt bad for and fell in love with Leslie Jones, almost no one sympathised with Sacco; they thought she’d revealed herself to be a racist — and therefore a vicious troll.
No one ever points out that the difference between a troll and a troll victim is as complex as that between a terrorist and a freedom fighter. Nor that being trolled can have unbelievably positive results for your career. The pop star James Blunt, for instance, has reinvigorated his fanbase as a result of retweeting all the abuse he gets on Twitter. He has been hailed (in a Buzzfeed article viewed almost a million times) as ‘the trolliest troll of all Twitter trolls’ and millennials love him for it.
Blunt must relish getting trolled — and so do many journalists, though they’d never admit it. I once sat in a restaurant with someone who’d written a perfectly innocuous article for Grazia magazine and became positively giddy when her bleeping BlackBerry showed she was being trolled as ‘a feminazi’ by hordes of maladjusted losers on Twitter.
As Jamie Bartlett explains, ‘Being trolled by strangers on the net gives you the chance to show how hard things are for you, how right you were, and how noble and magnanimous you are in sharing your suffering with the world.’ In his book The Dark Net, he notes, ‘It is very rarely mentioned that the victims of trolls are far more often privileged, wealthy, happy, and successful than their perceived oppressors, who are often frustrated, jealous, and lonely.’