When I was younger, I did a little light trolling.
Nothing major – at least, I think nothing major. That’s one of the major issues with online harassment: You often aren’t fully aware of the damage. I grew into adolescence during the transition from online chat rooms and forums to social media, and I abused all three. I selected an avatar that was not my face, donned a cape emblazoned with a chat handle embarrassingly weighed down by misspelled words and numbers, and used this anonymity to occasionally berate strangers and classmates alike.
My generation never really learned not to be an idiot online. Our parents just naturally assumed that we knew not to be idiots in real life, so that would translate to our online selves. It often did. But for a lot of young boys, it didn’t. We were taught to safeguard our identities from predators, but just sort of expected not to seek out our own prey.
I had thought, for the last five years or so, that it was getting better. Stories and movies raised significant awareness about the considerable harm cyberbullying does, and the country seemed to be moving slowly towards tolerance of differing religions, sexual orientations and so on. This tolerance is a natural troll-killer. I thought my former life and those still clinging to it were nearly extinct.
Then, we elected a troll for our new president. And during his ascension, we gave the greatest troll of our generation a legitimate and elevated platform.
I thought I understood Donald Trump’s use of Twitter. He would say things he probably didn’t mean just to get a rise out of people. I’ve seen it every day in the online gaming sphere for as long as I can remember. He would do it until he was caught crossing the line. Every media entity in existence tried to catch him crossing the line. We were blind, however, to the fact that many regular folks from all over the country have been gently extending that line for eight years. They – the 50-ish parents leaving angry comments on my stories from behind a football logo avatar – are tired of being politically correct. And we’re all going to pay.
Enter Milo Yiannopoulos, the British deity of trolldom. I learned of him through writing about Gamergate, a movement entirely based – no matter what they tell you – on forcing women and alternative viewpoints out of video games. His legions harassed dozens of women. Some had their addresses and other personal information posted online. Others had speaking engagements at colleges canceled due to false bomb threats, which made Milo’s squeals about free speech infringement after protesters shut down several of his recent college talks just delightful.
I forgot about Milo for most of 2015. It wasn’t until he attached himself firmly to Trump’s coattails – his former boss, Steve Bannon, is now the White House’s chief strategist – that he rapidly began to attract mainstream notoriety. He kept doing anything he could to draw our ire. He terrorized Leslie Jones. He went on every podcast he could, saying God knows what.
I honestly thought people would see through him. On a recent appearance on “The Bill Maher Show,” he told the host in no uncertain terms that he was, in fact, trolling. But it worked beautifully. He had a lucrative book deal and his day job at Breitbart, and he was booked to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Milo’s two-year run of invincibility ended this week, however, as podcast footage surfaced in which he thanked a priest for teaching him about sex as a boy and seemed to defend relationships between men and underage boys. He lost his deal, resigned from Breitbart and was pulled from the conference. What he said was heinous, but it feels a little odd that this, after literally years of horrible statements and acts, was what caused the shoe to drop. My guess is that conservatives, happy to use the openly gay Milo as an example of their support for homosexuals who share their values, finally lost their stomach for him when he dipped a little too far into his sex life.
Another dash of karmic justice hit when Milo attempted to defend his statements by saying that he, as a victim of sexual assault, felt he could say whatever he wanted on the subject. This guy carried a mattress around at his Columbia University appearance, mocking the student who did the same in protest of the administration’s handling of her sexual assault. Give me a break. You don’t get to terrorize victims, then claim you are one.
Even PewDiePie, YouTube’s golden boy who’s made millions from mostly gaming-related videos, was smacked down for one of his videos featuring two men holding a “death to all Jews” sign. PewDiePie, whose real name is Felix Kjellberg, lost a deal with Disney and was reprimanded by YouTube over the statements, which were first noticed by the Wall Street Journal.
PewDiePie is far from the only gaming YouTuber doing things like this, but Kjellberg and Milo both learned a hard fact: There are different rules for branching out of your online bubble into mainstream success. Unless, I guess, you are the president.
But cutting down the most visible trolls isn’t enough. We have to do more to stop younger generations from rising into their place. Many of Milo’s most devoted followers are men ages 18-22. I have noticed more and more “TrumpArmy69” names popping up in my “League of Legends” queues. A whole new crop of mostly young men are growing up in a world reverting to a lack of consequences for their online actions. In fact, they may even see trolling as a vehicle to success.
I am not sure what the answer is. Parental supervision, I imagine, is the best remedy. But I am not a parent, so I can’t really say how easy or common that is. I have long been in favor of some sort of mandatory online etiquette course in high school, given the damage to yourself and others you can do while plugged in.
Maybe there’s no clear answer. But we do, however, need to make consistent strides, or I’ll be writing columns like this every week. And no one wants that.