Trolls, for those unfamiliar with the concept, invade chat rooms and various kinds of social networking sites. They usually enter with false identities. The purpose of trolling is to create chaos and division. This is done for the “lulz” — trollspeak for entertainment value. Often troll attacks involve more than one troll and may include “trusted” long term site members, who like Russian spies in the suburbs, are not who they seem to be.
In the case of Shirley Sherrod, the primary troll was Andrew Breitbart whose previous trolling included the Acorn incident. He presented himself as a legitimate member of the media, which he is not. He went to Faux News and gave them a story. It was a ridiculous story, and his proof was a snippet of video. Because the people at Faux News are bigots, he was able to instigate, leading the “reporters” on Faux News to make further statements about the racism and hypocrisy of the NAACP and the Obama Administration.
This is similar to a recent online trolling incident that I witnessed. A poster, in an online social networking site for aspiring writers, opened a forum thread with a link to a 9/11 conspiracy video. The initial poster was not an actual troll herself. Think of her as a kind of site-Glenn Beck. She wondered what would have happened if Hitler had won the war, and speculated that “Some say ‘the world would have been a better place’.” The Jews hadn’t been explicitly mentioned yet, but the atmosphere was ripe. A troll entered and made increasingly outrageous remarks about the role “the Jews” had played in world affairs, thus stirring up some of the stupider people on the thread and getting them to agree with a few of his statements regarding Jewish bankers, and the culpability of “the Jews” on 9/11. Several of the trollees, came off looking like anti-Semitic, conspiracy wing-nuts or just plain idiots. Truth could be established by finding clips on Youtube. Anyone who disagreed was a hypocrite or would be accused of disrupting a legitimate conversation and being in favor of censorship. This led to a shitstorm of more threads denouncing two of those who objected to the blatant anti-Semitism and charging them with the capital offense of “political correctness.”
When Breitbart brought his clip to Faux News, that “fair and balanced” media outlet already believed that the Obama administration was filled with (reverse) racists and hypocrites. They had previously aired comparisons of Obama to Hitler. In this Bizarro World, the NAACP is a bigoted organization while the Tea Partiers are the true egalitarians. This made them easy troll bait — in fact whether or not they knew the story to be false – they were troll-collaborators. They not only bit, and didn’t ask questions or in any way investigate, but they went straight into righteous indignation and saw the video as proof of everything they already “knew.”
While it’s startling that the Department of Agriculture and possibly the President himself, got drawn into this, it’s a similar dynamic to what happens at social networking sites. Instead of acting rationally by first looking at the source and his track record, then actually interviewing Sherrod and getting a hold of the full tape, and finally saying to Faux News, “Dudes, you are being trolled,” the NAACP and the Administration both became entangled and defensive.
“We’re not racist.”
“Yes, you are and hypocrites!”
“Ok. We’ll show you! We’ll denounce her. We’ll make her resign because we’re not racists!”
There was no strategy in firing Sherrod. It was pure reaction without taking the time to think — an act of cowardice designed to prove to whomever was reading the threads, oops, I mean following the story, that they would not tolerate racism even in their own ranks.
Eventually, some real reporters did the job, and found the full video as well as the white couple whose farm Sherrod had helped save over 20 years ago, and to whom she referred in her story. The NAACP and the government apologized to Sherrod. Brietbart and Faux News did not.
As with any “successful” (from the troll’s point-of-view) trolling event, the troll walks away unscathed and unapologetic and “the teachable moment” is the revelation of the true character of those involved in the mess. Shirley Sherrod is a strong woman who has always done the right thing and will survive. Faux News is racist and manipulates others, but is also easily manipulated by anyone who offers “evidence” for its beliefs and is not in any way a credible organization.
And the Administration and the NAACP? They’d rather eat their own than ever be accused of hypocrisy or racism. Their defensiveness makes them weak and vulnerable to future trolling attacks and even more serious mistakes.