The Only Winning Move Is Not to Play: Roosh V, Trolling, and the Game of Masculinity Online


If the last cou­ple of years have taught us any­thing, it is that it is tough to be a woman online.

Of course, #GamerGate is the most well-known exam­ple of women get­ting pun­ished for using the Internet while female. Game devel­op­ers like Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu and fem­i­nist crit­ics like Anita Sarkeesian and Leigh Alexander have dealt with every­thing from hacks and DDoS attacks to harass­ing phone calls to rape and death threats with their own home address­es attached.

But they aren’t the only women in the tech world who are under fire. Last year Ellen Pao’s law­suit accus­ing the Silicon Valley ven­ture cap­i­tal firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers of gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion, while unsuc­cess­ful, got peo­ple talk­ing about the “woe­ful gen­der ratio” in the tech indus­try. Soon after, she led a cam­paign to clean out the most noto­ri­ous hate forums on Reddit, a move for which she was tar­get­ed by an angry mob wield­ing racist and sex­ist tropes as their weapons of choice.

In such an envi­ron­ment, we might be tempt­ed to cel­e­brate when the tables are turned and a misog­y­nist who advo­cates for the legal­iza­tion of rape (seri­ous­ly) gets a sub­ject­ed to the troll treat­ment. Recently the noto­ri­ous “neo-masculine” pick up artist Roosh V (aka Daryush Valizadeh) announced the can­cel­la­tion of a series of meet-ups in cities across the globe. According to The Huffington Post:

I can no longer guar­an­tee the safe­ty or pri­va­cy of the men who want to attend on February 6, espe­cial­ly since most of the mee­tups can not [sic] be made pri­vate in time,” he wrote on his site on Wednesday. “I apol­o­gize to all the sup­port­ers who are let down by my deci­sion.”

He also reports that he has been doxxed, that his family’s home address was made pub­lic on the Internet by the “hack­tivist” group Anonymous.

Now, Roosh V has encour­aged his fol­low­ers to dox ide­o­log­i­cal oppo­nents in the past (the phrase “what’s good for the goose is good for the gan­der” comes to mind) but that doesn’t mean it is eth­i­cal to use his tac­tics again­st him. On the con­trary, I argue that it is just as bad, if not worse, when social jus­tice activists use troll­ish strate­gies like bul­ly­ing and doxxing to pub­li­cal­ly shame their harassers.

This is because trolling oper­ates as a kind of game online, one in which the win­ner is the one who can elic­it the most intense emo­tion­al respon­se in their tar­get while main­tain­ing an aloof dis­tance them­selves.

Pictured: The catch-phrase of trolls every­where

Anita Sarkeesian described the troll men­tal­i­ty in a TED Talk in 2012:

We don’t usu­al­ly think of online harass­ment as a social activ­i­ty but we know from the strate­gies and tac­tics that they used, that they were not work­ing alone, that they were actu­al­ly loose­ly coor­di­nat­ing with one anoth­er.

This social com­po­nent is a pow­er­ful moti­vat­ing fac­tor that works to provide incen­tives for play­ers to par­tic­i­pate, or per­pe­tra­tors rather, to par­tic­i­pate and to actu­al­ly esca­late the attacks by earn­ing the praise and approval of their peers. We can kind of think of this as an infor­mal reward sys­tem where play­ers earn “inter­net points” for increas­ing­ly brazen and abu­sive attacks. Then they would doc­u­ment these attacks and they would bring them back to the mes­sage boards as evi­dence, to show off to each other – kind of like tro­phies or achieve­ments.

According to this logic, the pri­ma­ry audi­ence for trolling behav­ior is not actu­al­ly the tar­get of the harass­ment but rather one’s fel­low trolls, who one wish­es to enter­tain by cre­at­ing annoy­ance (or anger or fear or despair or…) in the life of a mutu­al­ly dis­liked third party. The tar­get is more like a game piece then a com­pet­i­tive play­er in this game.

Since trolling is a game that revolves around emo­tions, it is unsur­pris­ing that it often winds up revolv­ing around gen­der as well. In a cul­ture where women are con­sid­ered to be less in con­trol of their emo­tions, being pro­voked into hav­ing an emo­tion­al respon­se becomes a fail­ure of mas­culin­i­ty. The forms that trolling often takes reflects this gen­dered ide­ol­o­gy; trolls often use gen­dered insults (fag­got, pussy, bitch, cunt) to aggra­vate their tar­gets and when they obtain the respon­se that they want­ed, they will some­times declare vic­to­ry by telling the tar­get that they “got raped.”

This is true whether or not the troll is a man and/or the troll’s tar­get is a woman. After all, as the famous New Yorker car­toon says, “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” and nobody knows what gen­der or sex­u­al­i­ty you have, either.

In fact, as Whitney Phillips points out,

There is no trolling cen­sus; there is no stat box to click when­ev­er you encoun­ter some anon on 4chan. Sometimes the trolls would self-identify as this or that, but even these details were sus­pect. They were trolls, after all. Even dur­ing my research on Facebook, which was more direct­ly par­tic­i­pa­to­ry (on 4chan I was pri­mar­i­ly an observer, while on Facebook I was able to embed myself with­in a group of RIP trolls), trolls would often joke about telling me noth­ing but lies in between telling me what they swore was the truth

Rather than being about ver­i­fy­ing the “true” sex and gen­der of an Internet user, the game of trolling is about a per­for­mance of mas­culin­i­ty, an occu­pa­tion of a mas­cu­line posi­tion and a rel­e­ga­tion of the tar­get into a fem­i­nized one.

Take, for exam­ple, Julian Dibbell’s descrip­tion of one of the first well-known trolls in Internet his­to­ry: Mr. Bungle.

Mr. Bungle was a res­i­dent of LambdaMOO, a text-based online com­mu­ni­ty where users would cre­ate char­ac­ters to chat and some­times role play with one anoth­er, describ­ing the actions they take to build col­lab­o­ra­tive sto­ries. Using a pro­gram called a “voodoo doll,” Mr. Bungle took over the char­ac­ters of fel­low play­ers and assigned vul­gar and dis­turbing actions to those char­ac­ters again­st their will:

He com­menced his assault entire­ly unpro­voked, at or about 10 p.m. Pacific Standard Time. That he began by using his voodoo doll to force one of the room’s occu­pants to sex­u­al­ly ser­vice him in a vari­ety of more or less con­ven­tion­al ways. That this vic­tim was exu, a Haitian trick­ster spir­it of inde­ter­mi­nate gen­der, brown-skinned and wear­ing an expen­sive pearl gray suit, top hat, and dark glass­es. That exu heaped vicious impre­ca­tions on him all the while and that he was soon eject­ed bod­i­ly from the room. That he hid him­self away then in his pri­vate cham­bers some­where on the man­sion grounds and con­tin­ued the attacks with­out inter­rup­tion, since the voodoo doll worked just as well at a dis­tance as in prox­im­i­ty. That he turned his atten­tions now to Moondreamer, a rather point­ed­ly non­de­script female char­ac­ter, tall, stout, and brown- haired, forc­ing her into unwant­ed liaisons with other indi­vid­u­als present in the room, among them exu, Kropotkin (the well-known rad­i­cal), and Snugberry (the squir­rel). That his actions grew pro­gres­sive­ly vio­lent. That he made exu eat his/her own pubic hair. That he caused Moondreamer to vio­late her­self with a piece of kitchen cut­lery. That his dis­tant laugh­ter echoed evil­ly in the liv­ing room with every suc­ces­sive out­rage.

Ultimately, it was deter­mined that Mr. Bungle was actu­al­ly sev­er­al peo­ple in a dorm at NYU, who would take turns man­ning the key­board while “sur­round­ed by fel­low stu­dents call­ing out sug­ges­tions and encour­age­ment.”

These vir­tu­al rapes were upset­ting to the cit­i­zens of LambdaMOO not because they caused any phys­i­cal harm but because they sub­ject­ed tar­gets to non-consensual acts of dom­i­na­tion over their online per­sona. Mr. Bungle turned (dig­i­tal) bod­ies into toys for his/their own amuse­ment instead of expres­sions of their own­ers’ agen­cy. It (like, arguably, all rape) was less an act of sex­u­al grat­i­fi­ca­tion and more an attempt to con­sol­i­date power and assert con­trol. The var­i­ous oper­a­tors of Mr. Bungle proved their mas­tery over the Internet as well as other users to one anoth­er by turn­ing their own avatars into weapons again­st them and rev­el­ing in the angry and painful reac­tions they elicit­ed from their vic­tims using gen­dered and sex­u­al­ized cul­tur­al tropes.

Modern trolls recre­ate Mr. Bungle’s tech­niques using var­i­ous means. For exam­ples, hack­ers in the MMORPG Grand Theft Auto Online essen­tial­ly recre­at­ed Bungle’s sig­na­ture stunt using a mod that would enable trolls to take over the avatars of their fel­low play­ers.

Some mod­ders choose to make other play­ers bend over, and then pro­ceed to use a sex ani­ma­tion from a dif­fer­ent part of the game to thrust into them repeat­ed­ly, thus mak­ing it look like they’re rap­ing them. Depending on whether or not the mod­der has made them­selves invin­ci­ble, vic­tims can’t do much in respon­se once the mod­der is done.

Other trolls attempt to wield power over their vic­tims using dif­fer­ent, less flam­boy­ant (but per­haps ulti­mate­ly more dis­turbing) kinds of tools like doxxing and swat­ting (“when a per­son calls police and claims to have com­mit­ted crimes like mur­der and says they’re hold­ing hostages in the home of the tar­get of the ‘prank,’ which results in a SWAT team burst­ing in and haul­ing inno­cent peo­ple out at gun­point”). These tac­tics are, I argue, yet anoth­er form of vir­tu­al rape. They are an unwant­ed vio­la­tion of the target’s pri­va­cy and an incur­sion on their auton­o­my for the pur­pos­es of con­trol­ling their behav­ior. It is a threat, express­ing to the vic­tim that they had bet­ter shut up and stay off of the Internet or else their abusers will harass them in real life as well as online.

Thus, while it might feel sat­is­fy­ing to sub­ject some­one like Roosh V to a taste of his own med­i­cine, to do so is to play along with the game of trolling, to rein­force its rules and to accept the notion that online cul­ture should be gov­erned by a dog-eat-dog men­tal­i­ty. It sug­gests that we buy into his vir­u­lent sex­ist ide­ol­o­gy: that we agree with him that the fem­i­nine equates with the incom­pe­tent, the inex­pe­ri­enced, the over­ly emo­tion­al, that to be fem­i­nized is the ulti­mate insult, the ulti­mate pun­ish­ment for fail­ure. It pre­vents us from imag­in­ing new kinds of online com­mu­ni­ties, ones that oper­ate accord­ing to a dif­fer­ent set of rules and that don’t equate toxic per­for­mances of mas­culin­i­ty with power and suc­cess.

And yet, the age-old wis­dom that one shouldn’t “feed the trolls” is also inad­e­quate. Ignoring the game of trolling means allow­ing it to con­tin­ue in the shad­ows, means turn­ing a blind eye to those who have been tar­get­ed by harass­ment mobs.

Instead, I sug­gest that we take con­trol of the play­ing field itself, hold­ing plat­forms like Twitter and Reddit (among oth­ers) account­able for how they man­age their com­mu­ni­ties. Much to the cha­grin of trolls every­where, the tech indus­try is start­ing to lis­ten. Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman have con­tin­ued Ellen Pao’s work over at Reddit, ban­ning even more hate­ful sub­red­dits and work­ing to devel­op a Content Policy that will cur­tain mob­bing and harass­ment. And Twitter’s CEO Dick Costelo recent­ly admit­ted:

We suck at deal­ing with abuse and trolls on the plat­form and we’ve sucked at it for years. It’s no secret and the rest of the world talks about it every day. We lose core user after core user by not address­ing sim­ple trolling issues that they face every day.

I’m frankly ashamed of how poor­ly we’ve dealt with this issue dur­ing my tenure as CEO. It’s absurd. There’s no excuse for it. I take full respon­si­bil­i­ty for not being more aggres­sive on this front. It’s nobody else’s fault but mine, and it’s embar­rass­ing.

We’re going to start kick­ing these peo­ple off right and left and mak­ing sure that when they issue their ridicu­lous attacks, nobody hears them.

Everybody on the lead­er­ship team knows this is vital.

If users make it unprof­itable for plat­forms to allow the game of trolling to con­tin­ue in their back­yard, then we can make those plat­forms more inclu­sive. And yet, if we reg­is­ter our dis­plea­sure via boy­cotts and refusals to engage with a ser­vice as it devel­ops, we allow pro­duc­ers to believe that “peo­ple like us” (what­ev­er that may mean: women? minor­i­ty groups? any­one who doesn’t enjoy a social media expe­ri­ence that resem­bles the Wild West?) aren’t worth cater­ing to in the first place, a posi­tion that is already ide­o­log­i­cal­ly tempt­ing enough in cer­tain bro-centric cir­cles in Silicon Valley.

Instead, those of us invest­ed in cre­at­ing a bet­ter web most con­tin­ue to provide feed­back to plat­form cre­ators, work at crowd­sourcing effec­tive com­mu­ni­ty norms and give devel­op­ers some­thing con­crete that they can take to their investors to serve as evi­dence of the finan­cial incen­tives attached to inclu­siv­i­ty. We need to make it clear that we have always been a part of these spaces, that our con­tri­bu­tions to the devel­op­ment of these com­mu­ni­ties are inte­gral to their con­tin­ued suc­cess, and that we will not pas­sive­ly accept their descent into social chaos. Social media plat­forms are obsessed with gath­er­ing user data and mon­e­tiz­ing it. so let’s give them lots and lots of data to chew on. Let’s make it clear that the trolls are bad for busi­ness rather than stoop­ing down to their level.

After all, the only way to truly win the game of trolls is not to play.


Megan Condis

About Megan Condis

Megan Condis is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Her book project is titled Playing Politics: Trolls, Fake Geeks, and the Game of Masculinity in Online Culture. She is also a regular contributor to Unwinnable. You can play her original games, based on her dissertation research, for free on her website at megancondis.wordpress.com or you can follow her on Twitter @MeganCondis.