It’s a truth not widely acknowledged that a well-practised troll can appear identical to the extremist they are trying to ape.
That, in somewhat inaccurate terms, is a paraphrasing of Internet user Nathan Poe, who argued back in the heady days of August 2005 that:
“Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humour, it is utterly impossible to parody a creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake for the genuine article.”
The relevance of this adage was brought back to many over the controversy of the #BoycottStarWarsVII hashtag that started trending on Twitter ahead of the launch of a trailer showcasing the latest in George Lucas’s sci-fi series.
On face value the tweets appeared to claim that since one of the lead characters in Star Wars: The Force Awakens is black – Finn, played by John Boyega – the film’s creators had conspired to create anti-white propaganda.
The backlash was predictable, if a bit over-the-top. But then came a counter-backlash in the form of those complaining that much of the media had been tricked by the alleged boycotters.
Writing for Esquire, Luke O’Neil linked the hashtag back to 4chan, asserting that a tiny proportion of the tweets were sincere.
30% blog post links
15% the aggrieved
10% content farm spam links
— luke oneil (@lukeoneil47) October 19, 2015
Later Wired, one of the sites to report the story, amended its article to assert that “while the intention of @DarklyEnlighten’s original tweet isn’t clear, the hashtag has since been jumped on by others making racist and anti-Semitic comments.”
But O’Neil went on to make the following point in his article:
“No reporter would file a story based solely on the deranged ramblings of an anonymous, obviously disturbed person screaming on the street, so why do so many of us continue to do this when it comes to isolated pockets of Twitter users?”
As he pointed out, it was an enticing story for a reporter. Drama on the Internet coincided with an opportunity to be outraged about racism, which in turn linked to the Star Wars series, which was trending anyway because of the trailer release.
Outlets such as the Right Dishonourable that ran the story should have done checks to confirm that at least some of the boycotters were sincere (as appears to be the case given the state of many of their Twitter feeds).
But one of the problems of reporting online is that so many people are anonymous, or sketchily documented, that it is hard to make those phone calls to confirm a story. The pressure of regularly updating a blog also encourages journalists to cut corners.
Hacks should be careful not to believe everything they read on the Internet, and also put stories in their proper context. But in the meantime it’s still great fun to laugh at online rage.
Image Credit – Mace Windu, March 2012 by Chris Isherwood