Painful Truth: When is a troll not just a troll?

Online trolls often portray themselves as racist, homophobic or sexist even if not in real life. Why?

Poe’s Law explains why the internet went insane over Star Wars the other day.

Poe’s Law (not written by Edgar Allen) goes back to the early days of online discussion. It states that, without a clear indicator, parodies of extreme views will be indistinguishable from sincere views.

Ask a Grade 9 English teacher sometime about how many of their students thought Jonathan Swift was serious about eating Irish babies.

Poe’s Law is so well embedded in the DNA of the modern internet that trolls have weaponized it for their own amusement.

What happened last week was that a small clique of trolls started a hashtag on Twitter: #BoycottStarWarsVII. Because, as they explained, it didn’t have enough white people in it. One of the leads is black! The horrors!

So the first two or three participants in the #BoycottStarWarsVII tag spewed as much racist vitriol as possible.

Then they were joined by A) several real racists and B) quite a few more trolls. As soon as normal humans started to notice the hashtag, a massive, angry backlash formed that soon comprised 94 per cent of all the tweets, according to website’s analysis.

Poe’s Law is at play in two ways here. First, a lot of the people seeing and writing about the hashtag for the first time thought there was some kind of genuine movement involved. That was never true. It was just a couple of jackasses doing it for kicks, the way you might throw rocks at hornet’s nest to watch them swarm about in fury.

Second… I’ve mentioned “trolls” and “real racists” but it’s literally impossible to tell which is which, or if there’s any meaningful distinction between the two.

The people who started the hashtag have referred to themselves as trolls via Twitter before. They openly wanted to get the hashtag trending, to make it visible and to stir up exactly the sort of response that it did.

So you might think that they don’t really believe any of the vile, “white power” sentiments they were deploying. But if you track back through their tweets, they’ve been saying stuff like this for months and months, picking different targets, but always using racism as the base layer of their trolling.

So are they trolls who use racism because it’s shocking, or are they racists who like trolling? No one can say.

Compare their case to Joshua Goldberg, currently under arrest in the U.S. A guy in his early 20s from Florida, he was a world-class troll, creating multiple personas, some of whom fought with one another. Each was extreme – some right wingers, some left wingers, some calling for the extermination of the Palestinians, others for white power, others for locking up anyone convicted of “hate speech” in re-education camps.

One of Goldberg’s personas was a supposed ISIS sympathizer. The ISIS persona sent along links to bomb-making websites to a supposed wannabe terrorist – who was actually an FBI informant investigating Islamic extremism.

Goldberg isn’t Muslim, he isn’t a terrorist… but he went along with someone he thought was serious because that was the role he was playing.

Intent matters, but only so far. If your intent is to stir up trouble and piss people off, and your only tools are virulent racism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism, how are you really any different from a real racist, misogynist, or anti-Semite?

On the internet, there’s no difference.

Read Bob Groeneveld’s Odd Thoughts online this week at

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