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When Internet Trolls Attack — And Win

You probably know that James Gunn, director of the two Guardians of the Galaxy films, was fired by Disney when some of his old tweets came to light. The tweets contained offensive jokes about rape and pedophilia. You likely have a strong opinion about his tweets if not the Guardians movies, and you likely consider Disney’s decision either overstepping and ill-advised or totally understandable and appropriate.

But let’s not dodge the issue. Gunn was ultimately fired due to an attack by Internet trolls.

And they won.

Without their intervention, the old tweets would have stayed buried. Many on both sides of the political aisle think it’s good they came to light, whether to keep those Hollywood sinners in check or to uphold social justice. But make no mistake, the trolls had neither noble goal in mind.

They disliked Gunn because of his anti-Trump views, and so, rather than engage with him like responsible citizens, they decided to ruin Gunn’s career. And they succeeded.

It wasn’t about vengeance or justice. It wasn’t even petty revenge. It was punishment of someone for his worldview. And the trolls are good at what they do. They’re experts at doxxing and digging up. They aren’t mere bullies or blowhards. They work fast and dirty.

Perhaps you appreciate the outcome of their digging up Gunn’s tweets, but the motivation for the trolls’ scheme had nothing to do with keeping women and children safe on the Guardians set. And indeed, they’ve done it before.

Corey Feldman just filed a restraining order against trolls who sent rape threats, apparently inspired by Feldman’s #MeToo statements. Patton Oswalt’s post about his wife’s death attracted ugly comments from trolls who took issue with Oswalt’s political stance. J.K. Rowling has been targeted endless times (and is damn good at taking them down).

Leslie Jones of Ghostbusters left Twitter after nonstop harassment. Kelly Marie Tran, who played Rose in The Last Jedi, deleted all her posts off Instagram after harassment and threats by trolls who were angered by her inclusion in the film. Both experienced racial slurs and rape threats. Imagine some of the screeds here on Medium about Ghostbusters and its female cast and TLJ and Rose, amplified by 200 decibels. That’s troll-level mockery and misogyny about Jones and Tran, who both were simply playing a part in a film.

That’s the crux of trolls’ endeavors. They want to punish people for their choices and thoughts, especially if those choices and thoughts run counter to their own. Trolls are arrogant and entitled; to them, daring to disagree with their opinions is worth losing one’s livelihood.

Trolls aren’t confined to the Internet. Anyone who’s worked in retail has encountered customers who demand that they lose their jobs for a simple mistake. On occasion, these customers succeed. The techniques are similar: stalk and harass the employee, bring the mistake or flaw to the attention of a higher-up, pitch a fit, and wait. And it works.

It works because people mistakenly believe that most people do the things they do in order to serve a clear motivation, first and foremost Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

According to the hierarchy, humans’ actions primarily serve their basic needs there at the bottom. Then they seek measures of safety, then social interaction and a place in society, then a higher level of being. But the hierarchy of needs has a fatal flaw: all of these items are positive.

This may be because Maslow focused on his studies on the healthiest and smartest 1 percent of society. But common sense should tell us that people do not always want things to be positive, and many people react poorly when their choices are questioned or their ideas challenged. The store is out of the product they want? Get the cashier fired!

When a manager hears a customer’s complaint, he thinks he’s hearing someone plead for their own positive needs, such as feeling good, safe, and accomplished. But many customers are actually using the negative hierarchy of needs…and that one starts at the top, as evidenced by the number of customers willing to risk jail time or food poisoning in order to attack an employee.

So, what do we do about trolls? There’s not much we can do besides rid ourselves of all technology that allows such free and anonymous communication. And we don’t want to do that, plus something something free speech.

What we can do, though, is remember that trolls are neither anomalies nor harmless. And we would do well to remember that the trolls aren’t trying to save lives. They’re trying to wreck them.

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Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list:

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