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This weekend we’re watching: Don’t feed the trolls

This weekend we’re watching: Don’t feed the trolls
'The Hater' prudced by Naima Film (Supplied)

Trolls, flamers, bots and sock-puppets: what are they, where do they come from and why won’t they just stuff off?  In the wake of the documentary Influence, this week, we look at The Hater, a 2020 Polish thriller drama about the ongoing war between the people (democracy) and the trolls (fake news campaigns).

Trolls upon trolls upon trolls – incorrigible, insufferable, inescapable – are posting comments on social media. They are everywhere and on particularly controversial articles involving Donald Trump, Putin or corrupt members of the ANC, they come in hundreds.

Trolls are named for their similarity to the trolls of Scandinavian folklore: antisocial, antagonistic, abhorrent creatures which make life difficult for travellers. Trolls are the descendants of flamers. Flaming is posting insults and offensive content (often laced with profanity), on social media. The Internet provided the angry people of the world with the anonymity to unleash hellfire – all their hatred and aggression – without having to face the consequences, and thus the flamers were born.

Trolling is a more refined form of disruption. Trolls aren’t just looking for a release; they’re also after influence. The ultimate goal of a troll is to disrupt a space, either for their own amusement or as a means of discrediting others.

If you’ve spent much time on the internet, you might have heard the saying “Don’t feed the trolls”, (a piece of advice which basically encourages others to ignore them, since any engagement with a troll merely fuels their fire), but the truth is that it’s very difficult to win against trolls, and even ignoring them helps them.

The primary tactic of a troll is subversion: sowing doubt and confusion about something and provoking those who disagree with them into an emotional response, thereby poisoning the platform with toxic animosity; but if you ignore trolls, they often switch to a secondary tactic – diversion (also known as spamming): posting irrelevant content, thereby normalising tangential discussion and diluting a virtual platform.

It’s not always obvious that spam is posted for the purpose of diversion, but if social media becomes a place where lengthy irrelevant comments about “bottom enlargement cream” become the norm, then people stop reading the comments entirely, and the online voices of “normal” people are muted.

Diversion trolls are typically less harmful than subversion trolls, so it is normally best not to feed the trolls, and simply ignore them. However, it is important to correct fake news. Whenever you have the energy to calmly correct false information being spread by a troll on a given platform, the balance in the fight against misinformation is pushed slightly towards truth.

The Hater is a 2020 Polish thriller drama about the ongoing war between people and trolls.

 The Hater (Hejter)

“Verba Volant Scripta manent.” Words fly away, writings remain. These are the words which the professor says as Tomasz is expelled from law school. Having chosen to take written exams rather than an oral examination, and subsequently caught out for plagiarism, he squirms in his chair, desperately searching for a way out of the pit he’s dug himself into. There isn’t one.

His studies are being funded by the Krasuckas, wealthy stuck-up family friends. They represent everything Tomasz desires – a support system of money and love, a powerful family unit, a mother who lives in the lap of luxury, a father who commands respect, and a beautiful daughter who haunts his every thought.

Alas, life is seldom so kind. Tomasz’s parents aren’t in the picture, he cannot find work, the Krasuckas ridicule him constantly behind his back for his attempts at sophistication, and their beautiful daughter emotionally trolls him with provocative teasing, which is downright cruel.

This is where monsters are born, at the bottom of the abyss when there’s a lot to prove and nothing left to lose. By chance, Tomasz lands an interview assignment with a dirty PR agency. The assignment is a presentation proposing solutions for a client who is facing allegations from a social media fitness influencer. Under goals, it lists “loss of popularity among social media users. Reduced public profile”.

Tomasz summarises his proposal saying, “attack is the best form of defense. If our client suffers due to FitAneta’s accusations, why shouldn’t we do the same to her?” What he essentially suggests is sock-puppetting the influencer.

Sock-puppeting is creating a large number of fake accounts in order to flood a page with vitriol or create the illusion that the public holds a particular opinion. It’s become a common tactic of right-wing populists, and it may be the reason why any article criticising Trump elicits an alarming number of trolls making moronic comments in his defense, despite his so obviously being a walking pimple of a man. Large-scale sock-puppeting sometimes uses bots (sock puppets which post and communicate more or less autonomously).

Tomasz’s proposal is executed perfectly; even though it would only take a little observation to see that the negative comments and photos are fabricated, the influencer is utterly discredited. Verba Volant Scripta manent. He gets the job. From there, it’s just a hop and a skip to political espionage …

The Hater is similar in some ways to the neo-noir black comedy thriller Nightcrawler, which is also currently available on Netflix. In Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal plays a stringer (a freelance photojournalist), who records violent events late at night and sells the footage to news stations. Both films explore how “healthy capitalist competition” so easily corrupts and manipulates the vulnerable by positively reinforcing harmful practices. In both films, self-pity and self-preservation are the main ways the protagonists rationalise their progressive moral decay.

When The Hater begins, Tomasz is a creep; a loner with sunken eyes and a gelled up hairstyle, which is failing to look like David Beckham’s. By the end of the film, he’s a deceitful, spiteful, merciless troll; more terrifying than Voldemort or Darth Vader. Voldemort doesn’t exactly blend into the crowd, what with his not having a nose and all that, and you can hear Darth Vader’s breathing from a mile away; but Tomasz could be your next-door neighbour and you’d have no idea. Statistically, you probably do know at least one secret troll.

Character development in The Hater is akin to that of Joker, matching the transition of the film’s scope from small-scale betrayal to epic pandemonium, with the character metamorphosis from outcast to instigator. It is also similar in its humanising of the villain and contextualising their villainy – when you see what they’ve been through, you can almost forgive them for what they become.

Every troll has a story. It doesn’t justify their being a twat on the internet, but such behaviour is born of insecurity, frustration, and lovelessness, not just hatred. The question of how to feel about Tomasz has clear ramifications for how we understand trolls in the real world, and there are lessons to be learned from the moral deterioration of this sociopath-come-Bond-villain.

The Hater errs slightly on the side of sensationalism, but the ending shies away from theatrics. It is delicate, almost undetectable, nothing more than the twitch of a cheek, and yet it could not be more potent. DM/ML

The Hater is available on Netflix.
You can contact This Weekend We’re Watching via [email protected]

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