How the Trolls Stole Washington

Mr. Bungle was a lone wolf, but trolling could also be a communal activity. On 1990s Usenet groups, users would post in-jokes and provocations in a bid to flush out naïve newcomers. And with 4chan, an anonymous, anime-obsessed message board started by a teenager in 2003, trolling charged beyond its online vicinity and into the offline lives of distant strangers. In the most notorious incident, 4chan trolls latched onto a Myspace page memorializing a seventh-grader who had killed himself, ridiculing the child’s recent disappointments and seizing on grammatical errors in posts from mourners. (One had called him “an hero.”) Soon they were placing harassing phone calls to the boy’s parents and snapping prank photos at his grave.

Internet trolls work by exploiting the gap between the virtual and the real. They float, weightless and anonymous, across the web, then reach out and rattle people who are pinned down by fixed ideologies, moral codes and human emotions. Any attachment to principles — even really basic ones like “don’t torture grieving parents” — gives the troll an opening. Stretching back to Mr. Bungle, trolling was always about the distance between people who care and people who don’t. The people who cared always lost. Often, they were counseled to detach as much as the trolls had: to withhold their outrage, to not “feed the trolls,” to pretend there was a real distinction between doing horrible things and meaning them. So the trolls scampered on to their next targets, amassing more followers along the way.

It was during the summer of 2014 that internet trolling boiled over into a mainstream crisis. It began with a seething, accusatory blog post about a video-game developer named Zoe Quinn, written by an ex-boyfriend. What seemed like a small, personal conflict managed to explode into a culture war, complete with bomb threats and harassment campaigns. First came the nihilistic trolls, some even hoping to compel…

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