“I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election… if I win,” declared candidate Donald Trump, smirking like a trickster, mere weeks before the most contentious election in a generation.
Jaw wagging commenced and lengthy think pieces were published. Was he a fool, a fighter, a fascist, or a troll?
Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, while working on the Manhattan project, found that many of the top-secret documents were not kept securely. He could have submitted this observation to a superior officer, instead, he taught himself to pick locks and crack safes. He left prank notes to physicists all over Los Alamos. (Convincing one that he had lost all of the atomic secrets to a spy.) Very quickly, better locks were installed.
He was known throughout his life for his playfulness and disregard for authority. He had an interesting philosophical justification for this misbehavior: social irresponsibility.
Trolling was not invented on the internet. It is interesting, a bit sad (sad!) that people have not looked deeper into history to study this phenomenon. Journalists have attempted to define the phenomenon and have come up short.
Some have deemed it anonymous harassment, but the point is that it is harassment with a goal. Urban dictionary goes a bit further but still fails to get the point, saying that it is harassment with the goal of inciting anger.
I would like to expand Richard Feynman’s definition: “Socially conscious provocation with goal of exposing weakness and hypocrisy.”
The original troll has to be Diogenes, the self-proclaimed “Socrates gone mad” and the founder of the philosophical school, Cynicism. He made his life an example, living without possessions in a barrel in the middle of the town square. The histories are full of hilarious stories of him mocking elite Greeks, including Alexander the Great (Alexander found him staring at a pile of bones, with Diogenes explaining, “I am searching for the bones of your father but cannot distinguish them from those of a slave.")
Stephen Colbert, before his recent incarnation, was a classic troll. His character, an obscenely patriotic fool who saw the world in black and white, was able to lampoon the right wing during George W. Bush’s presidency. He exposed the hypocrisy: the selective Christianity, the fake bravado, and the doublespeak.
Hugh Troy was an illustrator and "practical joker” that served during WWII. One of his most famous pranks was to create a “flypaper report” that he would submit to Washington, reporting on the number of flies caught in the mess hall. The practice immediately spread to bases around the world; it remains a fantastic comment on bureaucracy.
Some have claimed that modern art is an elaborate prank meant to expose the vapidity of today’s elite. There are many other suspected trolls: from flat-earthers (mocking believers of conspiracy theories) to Fred Phelps (mocking racists).
OK, but how are trolls “socially conscious?”
Tech companies and the military use “white hat hackers” and “red teams” to test their security. A system is not really secure until these skilled “enemies” have attempted to break in.
Perhaps, we should look at trolls the same way. The current mantra on the internet is “do not feed the trolls,” meaning, do not respond to a troll’s attempted provocation.
Better would be, “do not be a hypocrite.” Expose your ideas to debate, fix their weaknesses, and emerge with a more robust synthesis. In fact, a strong argument for free speech is that it makes you troll-proof. Look at how easily dictators are mocked outside their fiefdoms.
Even more difficult, and beneficial, would be to look at successful examples of trolling and try to learn. (Extra points if you can learn from an example in this article; put it in the comments)
Unfortunately, with the sifting of American society and the formation of echo chambers on social media, trolling is probably in its infancy.
I'm an entrepreneur and I teach math, history, economics, and fitness. I'm looking for arguments.