By William Engel
“Troll Inc.” gives us an inside look at one of the most notorious and reviled subcultures in America today – the internet trolling community. Particular focus is given to Andrew “Weav” Auernheimer, one of the most notorious and dangerous trolls in the history of the internet.
I recently sat down with Mr. Russell to get a better idea of what he set out to prove by making this documentary.
WILLIAM ENGEL: How did you first get involved in the world of trolling? What inspired you to start making this documentary?
GEORGE RUSSELL: I had literally no idea what a troll was when I first started the film. I was reviewing books at PopMatters.com, so they would send me thick non-fiction books to read a couple times per month. And one of the books they sent me was by the Forbes writer Parmy Olson; she was the first person to write a book on “anonymous”, that whole hacktivist thing happening in 2011 and 2012.
So this book mentioned some guy named Andrew Auernheimer, and called him the world’s most famous internet troll. I had no idea what an internet troll was, so I had to go look it up online. And I was like, “Wow. This is a part of the world I know nothing about.”
For me, it was a total newbie experience. I thought, “Wow, this is an amazing little subculture here,” and it reminded me of things like the punk movement – these little subcultures of America that completely develop on their own, outside of the influence of mainstream normal culture. And then they take those mainstream things and pervert them and transmogrify them and change them, and have their own little thing with their own language and initiation rules.
It’s just a fascinating little world, and it has a dark side too. There’s a lot of negativity, there’s a lot of things you could call harassment. There’s a lot of stuff going on, there’s a lot of opinions on it, and there’s a lot of ways to look at it, and that’s a great place to be for a documentary filmmaker.
This world [trolling] is so toxic that most people won’t want to make a film about it, and I needed a topic that other people hadn’t covered, and was its own kind of thing.
ENGEL: I noticed that during the film, some of the people you interviewed spoke of “disrupting the status quo” or “exposing the flaws in our society”. I want to ask you: do you think that all trolling is done because of some greater motive, or do you draw a distinction between meaningful trolling and trolling that’s just done “for the lulz,” as they’d say?
RUSSELL: I think once trolling becomes serious, then it’s no longer actual trolling. It just becomes propaganda or politics. I think the real spirit of internet trolling started out as performance art.
To me, the best story to use to explain trolling is the story of the very first internet troll. It was actually a woman, and she formed an anonymous account on Usenet. Are you familiar with what Usenet is?
ENGEL: I’ve heard of it.
RUSSELL: It was one of the biggest online discussion groups in the 80’s and the mid-90’s, before AOL. This was for academics and computer programmers who used the internet before anyone else got on it.
There was a troll, and her account name was Netochka Nezvanova, which comes from a Dostoevsky novel. And she would go into these discussion groups of people talking about sincere academic subjects, like weather patterns or how to design a better widget, and she’d just completely disrupt them. She’d force their arguments to absurd extremes, and take these insane positions that she didn’t actually believe just to disrupt their conversations. But she was doing it as an art form; the way she wrote was very verbose, artistic and poetic.
And I think most internet trolls base themselves on that kind of work. There has to be some element of humor in what they do, even it’s just the most negative, laughing-at-someone-falling-down-and-hurting-themselves kind of humor. It still has to have some element of humor, and if you don’t have that, i don’t think it’s actually trolling. I think it’s harassment or propaganda.
It can be political, but it still has to have that humor.
ENGEL: On a similar note, I remember someone making an offhand comment about the difference between trolling and bullying, but it was only glanced upon. What do you think the main distinction between those two things is?
RUSSELL: Well, there’s a lot of grey lines between this stuff. Somebody may try to defend themselves and say they’re “just trolling”, when they’re just bullying and harassing people. If you try to bring this online trolling behavior into the real world – you know, calling someone when they don’t want you calling them, or doing something to actually mess with their life – all of those things cross the line into bullying or harassment.
And, again, trolling has negative elements to it. It’s not some happy-go-lucky, fun thing. Part of it is what I see as the product of the alienation of modern life. It’s people sitting behind computers, not having communities, forming these online anonymous communities and lashing out at the people they’re upset with. There’s a lot of hilarious, awesome things that happen in trolling, but there’s also a lot of negative things.
ENGEL: A lot of ugliness.
RUSSELL: Yeah, yeah, but you can’t focus on just one or the other. I think the problem a lot of people have when they write about [trolling], or make films about it, is that they go to one extreme or the other. It’s either, “I’m gonna defend it and call it the greatest thing ever,” or, “It’s the worst thing ever and we need to shut all of this down.” There is a middle ground, where you can look at it as an anthropology, try to understand why it’s happening, and appreciate it when it’s bordering on an art form without participating or signing off on it when it’s hurting people.
But again, I think you have to draw a distinction and say that trolling is not hurting people. If you’re harassing someone or bullying them, you’re not trolling them.
ENGEL: From the people you’ve spoken to, do you get the feeling that trolls have any ethical code? Is there any line that even they won’t cross?
RUSSELL: No, because trolls are not centralized. They come out of programming and computer hacking culture, and there’s not just one kind of hacker; there are hackers that wear white hats, there are some that wear black hats, and there are some who are in the middle. And trolls are kind of the same way.
There’s funny, hilarious trolls that would never think to purposely hurt somebody’s feelings, and then there are “trolls” who really go out of their way to hurt somebody and destroy their life. And again, I don’t think you can call those people “trolls”. I think you just call them harassers, because if you call them a troll, you’re not being precise. Some guy with a Twitter account who’s saying hilarious things and tweeting at Donald Trump is closer to a troll than someone who’s out there trying to hurt people.
Again, there has to be that element of humor to it.
ENGEL: On the subject of “Weev”, near the end of the film he talks about seeking out negative attention and getting pleasure from having people angry at him. Why do you think he does this? Is there a psychological reason he seeks that out?
I just think it’s kind of unusual to not only not mind that, but actually enjoy it.
RUSSELL: Yeah, I talked to a lot of people who all had opinions on that, and no one had a really good answer beyond, “That’s just who he is.” And when I asked him that same question, his response was, “This is my character. I don’t have a choice in the matter.”
So I don’t know what the truth is, honestly. I present a lot of different viewpoints in the film, and I tried to stay away from extremes on either side. There were some people who said, “He’s great, he’s the savior of mankind,” and there were other people who said, “He’s the worst person in the world and he should be in prison for the rest of his life.” So I tried to stay away from those extremes and paint a more realistic picture of him.
But at the end of the day, he’s an enigma. He’s got a massively huge IQ, and in real life he’s polite and nice; it’s his online persona who does the trolling. And I honestly think it just comes from growing up in computer programming culture. I really think his character is borne out of being into computers at a very young age, and being wrapped up in this culture that a lot of people don’t even know about.
ENGEL: What, above all else, do you hope your viewers will take away from this film?
RUSSELL: Hopefully, they’ll watch it ’til the end. I have a time lapse footage montage, and I kind of wrap the film up in terms of message there. Everyone I felt had a strong point of view is encapsulated there.
One of those things is that the media is complicit in this entire phenomenon. Without the media, there would be no trolls; they would have no audience, and they would have no one amplifying their message.
The reason Andrew Auernheimer is because, you know, journalists made his career begin when they wrote articles about him that made him seem like a total hero badass. Even though he hedged it, and the writer tried to throw in some criticisms here in there, you came away from the article thinking Andrew could take over the world. None of this is true, but that’s what you thought when you read the article.
So, to me, I think that’s the main message of the movie. Our world creates the environment for these trolls to exist, and to just point your finger at the troll and say, “that’s a bad guy” is to forget that a world exists for them to thrive and be successful in.
It’s an outrage culture world, where every new story is designed to get the most clicks and be the most outrageous. That Gawker troll on CNN wasn’t lying when he said, “It doesn’t matter if the story’s true; it matters whether people click on it.” I think that’s the ultimate message of the entire film. The media are acting like trolls, in that you don’t have to prove what you say; you can just say it, hope a bunch of people click on it, and move on. So there’s an entire industry based on this now, and it’s kind of like that Gawker version of journalism. Print the rumor, print whatever’s likely to get clicks and don’t worry about the substance.
In a way, Weev is just like a symbol in the film. The film is certainly about him, but I wanted it to be about this bigger themes, and for him to be this avatar that takes us through them. It’s hard to pull that off, but I hope that by the end, people figure that out.