A Researcher Spent 4 Years Embedded With the Internet's Worst Trolls

To understand the troll you must become one yourself.

Jason Koebler

Jason Koebler

If you're consuming a mainstream media story about "trolls," they're probably going to be cast in a bad light. But why do trolls troll, and what do they get out of it? And why does the media often willfully pretend to not understand them?

To find out, Humboldt State University professor Whitney Phillips embedded with trolls for four years. She spent countless hours on 4chan and even created a troll pseudonym on Facebook to interact with, perhaps, the worst trolls on the internet: The people who troll the friends and family members of recently deceased teens.

Phillips has just published This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things, a book that argues that, while trolls may do some pretty objectively terrible things, their tactics are often informed by—and sometimes indistinguishable from—those of the mainstream media.

Turns out, the status quo—internet troll says or does terrible thing, media reports terrible thing, troll trolls media more, media reports on that—works for everyone involved. Trolls want the attention and the feeling that they're influencing a major media organization, the media organization gets some easy stories that sell. The cycle continues.

In fact, even those Facebook trolls are often responding to the culture they've been brought up in, one that teaches us that's brought us "grief tourists," those serial commenters on the Facebook pages of dead strangers. Are trolls really any worse than them?

This week on Radio Motherboard, we talk with Phillips about her book and why, exactly, she decided to venture into the world of trolling for so long. Before and after, some Motherboard staffers talks about our experiences both trolling and being trolled. As always, thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, consider subscribing to us on Soundcloud or iTunes. And thanks to our sponsor, Casper Mattresses, which allows us to take a bit more time with this thing every week. Check them out and use code VICE, for $50 off any order.