angry online troll

Who Let the Trolls Out?

How Fandoms Brings Out the Worst and the Best in People.

Alright, folks, let’s go through this again. If you pay any sort of attention to the various fandoms, especially on the internet, you might have noticed that there is a lot of negativity going on. Whichever fandom you belong to or look at, the social media and comment sections are filled with rage and abuse that seems to drown out any sign of positivity and enthusiasm.

These days, trolls and angry nerds have set their sights and crosshairs squarely on Amazon’s massive The Lord of the Rings adaptation, The Rings of Power. This in itself is nothing new. Every year seems to bring with it another release from a beloved franchise that gets attacked for one reason or another. What beautiful lives we must all lead when mere entertainment franchises can provoke such anger.

What seems to be different in the past couple of years is how unproportioned the negative and toxic reactions are compared to what is actually put forward as the reason for the complaint. Is there something hidden within the cracks and crevices in our fandoms? Something we might not see at first glance? Having researched the fandom phenomenon for more years than I want to admit, I have, perhaps against my better judgment, become something of a troll hunter. You know, a bit like in that hilarious Norwegian fantasy comedy from 2010 by André Øvredal.

Trolls are everywhere. Here in Norway, trolls are also an important part of our myths and folklore. Tales tell of a troll king living inside the hill near the neighborhood where I grew up – one of many similar myths and stories in our country. And our Norwegian fairy tales tell of adventurer Espen Askeladden who challenged a troll to an eating competition. Little did the troll know that Espen poured all the porridge into his backpack, which he had strapped to his stomach, and then used it to trick the troll to cut its own stomach, killing it.

Norwegian fairytale troll
From a Norwegian puppet dramatization for children. It’s pretty grim.

These days, the Norwegian troll is most often seen in our souvenir shops – and online. It is the latter we’re hunting today, even if the two kinds share many of the same mannerisms and weaknesses. Hiding in the dark places of the various fandoms, these trolls might not turn to stone if exposed to sunlight, but let’s shine a light on them anyway and see what happens.

Look back at your favorite film or series franchise. Maybe you’re a fan of Star Wars or Doctor Who. Is fantasy more your thing? The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, then. Chances are that you’ve been in one discussion or another about the perceived qualities and flaws of these franchises. Whether you eagerly jumped in or were dragged there more or less against your will, chances are too that the discussion became pretty heated, especially if it happened on social media. Do you remember that guy who seemed determined to insult as many people as possible in every comment? Or the one who wanted everything to be about politics? How about the angry guy who didn’t want minorities in his or any franchise or even women in leading roles? And I say “guy” here because they usually are.

Not all of these are trolls, but many are, and like the hooligans and bullies drawn to football matches or demonstrations just to escalate and make trouble, these scour the internet for discussions to ruin. The resulting toxic environment makes any sort of sane debate next to impossible.

Trollhunter Dovregubben
A troll from Trolljegeren (The Trollhunter) by director André Øvredal.

So how do you hunt a troll? And why would you? Reasons vary, but for me, it is because I dislike bullies, and exposing them for what they are may help them rethink how they treat others. That, and a little schadenfreude, of course. Just a tiny bit, but I would be lying if I said it wasn’t there.

When it comes to The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, the particular brand of toxicity seen online makes these particular trolls easy to bait. Just throw out a hook on social media and reel it in. When faced with a potential troll, be rational and question what the troll says in a calm manner. Answer questions with questions and de-escalate whenever you can, regardless of how nasty it is. If it is a real troll you’ve caught, his facade will quickly melt away, leaving racism, misogyny and general malice for all to see.

Sometimes the trolls are of a particularly malicious kind. In one recent example, I was browsing through one of the many discussion threads about The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power on Facebook. The topic of the hour was the recent official statement about racist threats against certain cast members, and I was sad but not surprised to find that a majority of the commenters doubled down on this racism. Comment after toxic comment told us how people of color had no right to be cast in a series about Middle-earth, and one or two even went as far as to say that the cast deserved the racism and the threats.

Rings of Power Miriel
The inclusion of Cynthia Addai-Robinson as Queen Regent Míriel in The Rings of Power has sparked racism online.

Racism, misogyny, threats and personal attacks are nothing new in toxic fandom. What is new in recent years is the increased use of social media as an amplifier and means of anonymity. Like keyboard bullies, these morons force their way into more or less civil debates and start screaming about their perceived grievances, be it the skin color of an actor or what’s wrong with strong female lead characters. And with the anonymity afforded by the internet, these trolls find it easy to dehumanize, often forgetting, or more often choosing to ignore, the very real people on the receiving end.

It is happening in just about every fandom to some degree, and in some cases, it is so malicious and widespread that it fundamentally changes franchises, and not always for the better. This, in turn, is more fuel to the fire, as large parts of the fandom complain about said changes.

To quote Kyle Mackenzie Sullivan from the YouTube channel Trekspertise:

The films and TV series that we love, that we personally identify with, have been going through a bit of a rough spell lately. What I mean to say is: Your favorite fandom is on fire!

-Kyle Mackenzie Sullivan, Trekspertise

But is there hope? Will it be better in the future? I was asked this when I was a guest on a Norwegian Star Wars podcast earlier this summer. I wasn’t sure at first. I have spent so much time pondering why it is like it is now and how we got to this point. But I think it can be better in the future, but it will be worse first.

Today, social media is the trolls’ biggest amplifier, giving them a shield of anonymity from which they can harass, dehumanize and hate. Social media platforms are full of “troll accounts”, which are secondary accounts created for the sole purpose of going after and harassing other people online without risking the user’s main account.

But social media is evolving at a rapid pace, and with the increased use of video chat and online profiles, this anonymity might gradually be pushed back as we again get more and more used to seeing faces and hearing the voices of the people we communicate with. It will be slow, but I believe that if the trolls don’t adapt in some way along with it, the future social media will make it harder for them to hate and harass. At least online.

Trollhunter Light
Shing a light on a raging troll. From Trolljegeren (The Trollhunter) by André Øvredal.

And countering the trolls and toxic fans are the ones online celebrating positive fandom. You’ll find examples in every fandom, but staying in Middle-earth, channels such as “Nerd of the Rings” and websites such as “The One” celebrate JRR Tolkien’s fantasy world in a positive and uplifting way. Here you can find videos about lore, interviews with cast and crew and general Middle-earth-related news. I have to admire the stoicism on the part of these and many others in the face of near-constant attacks by trolls and toxic fans.

Looking at the various social media platforms and channels of content creators, a couple of things become clear: It is easier to click on a negative headline. Negativity sells, after all, and clickbait works. But you’ll get further with positivity, and you’ll definitely make more friends along the way.

So let’s try to be positive. And if you see some comment online that triggers you, take a deep breath and ask yourself this question: “What will I gain from throwing myself onto the keyboard to type a mean comment?” And more importantly: “Who might I hurt?”

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