In late July and early August 2013, the stories of Caroline Criado-Perez, the bomb threats, and latterly, the horrific tragedy of Hannah Smith broke across the media, and as a result, the behaviour supposedly known as “trolling” was pitched squarely into the limelight. There was the inevitable flurry of dissections, analyses, and opinion pieces, and no doubt like any number of academics in similar lines of work, I was asked to write various articles on this behaviour. Some I turned down for different reasons, but one that I accepted was for the Observer. (Here’s the final version that came out in both the Observer and the Guardian.)
Like the majority of people, I have been mostly in the dark about how the media works behind the scenes. That said, throughout my time at university, I have studied areas like Critical Discourse Analysis and the language of the media, and over the past three years, my work has been picked up a few times in small ways by the media, so I probably had a better idea than many. I realise now, however, that even with this prior knowledge, I was still pretty naive about the process. I wasn’t too surprised, then, when I got a number of comments on the Observer article raising exactly the sorts of questions I too would have asked before I’d gone through what I can only describe as a steep media learning curve. There were, essentially, three main issues that kept recurring:
(1) Why didn’t you talk about [insert related issue here]? This other thing is also important!
(2) Why didn’t you define trolling properly? This isn’t what I’d call trolling!
(3) Why did you only mention the negative types of trolling? There are good kinds too!
All three questions are interrelated in various ways, but I’ve artificially separated them out because each gives me a chance to explain something that I’ve learned about what happens behind the scenes during the process of producing media content.
(1) Why didn’t you talk about [insert related issue here]?
The first lesson, and not such a shock really, was that the paper commissioning the piece chooses the topic. Rather like a school assignment, they set a sort of “question” that they want answering. In other words, you don’t get free rein to say whatever you like, and in this case, the Guardian/Observer asked me to write a piece that would roughly answer the question, “What is a troll?” They didn’t mean this etymologically or linguistically, but rather, motivationally. What makes trolls tick? Why are they doing this? What is the “type”? That already posed a problem for me given my ongoing campaign about how the term “troll” is defined (e.g. see here, and here, and my 2010 article for instance), but I figured that I would handle that in the article. We’ll get back to how that panned out shortly.
The next minor issue was that, also just like a class assignment, the commissioning outlet sets a word-limit, so you don’t get to say as much as you’d like either. The net result is that you’re forced to either tackle one point somewhat in-depth, or a few points more superficially. And that inevitably leads to omitting even closely-related topics, however interesting they are. In defence of the outlet, the blunt fact is that most of us don’t have the attention span to read a 10,000 word dissertation over our morning coffee, so you can’t really blame them for wanting to keep stuff short.
(2) Why didn’t you define trolling properly?
This next question is one that, for me, is a little frustrating, not because it was asked, but because in Draft #1 of the article, it was answered. (In case you’re curious, there were three drafts in the end – the first attempt that I wrote, sent, and got feedback on, the second, post-feedback attempt, and the third proof-reading version very close to the one that finally went out.) The second lesson in the learning curve was that whatever you write gets checked, primped, and edited before it goes live. In some ways, that was quite a relief. My Draft #1 structure wasn’t brilliant – Gyges came way down in the middle, and I am largely rubbish at the kind of attention-grabbing introductions that news articles need. In fact, the way academics are trained to write tends to be diametrically opposed to the way that journalists are trained to write. Academia is all about data, methods, and cautious results, whereas journalism is all about headlines, opinions, and sensational stories. Writing something remotely like the latter without losing the integrity of the former is hard work, and given that all our prior training pushes us in the ‘wrong’ direction, a journalistic editing process for an academic is probably even more essential than it is for someone entirely untrained.
In short, after the feedback about structure and style that I worked on in Draft #2, and the minor, cosmetic polishing in Draft #3, the whole piece was largely improved. The downside, though, is that you also have to accept changes that you would rather reject. So for instance, in Draft #1, the paragraph about the definition of the word “troll” was longer, and I had originally linked to the two articles that I’d written that discuss this problem in far more depth. (This is the best solution you have when neither the wordcount nor remit will allow you to discuss something in the piece directly.) However, I was asked to trim this paragraph down for Draft #2 since it was essentially outside of the scope of what they wanted, and when the final version went live, the two links were stripped out. I asked afterwards to have the CASS link put back in, and was told they’d look into it after the weekend, but since the main audience figures are usually in the first day or two, this is closing the door long after the horse has bolted. (Also, to press, they still haven’t restored the link. Such is life.)
The third lesson, which did surprise me at first, was that you get no control over the article’s headline and sub-header (the little blurb that comes underneath). On reflection, however, this makes sense. Headlines and their accompanying blurbs are displayed as previews on many sites like Twitter, Facebook and the news outlets themselves, and they’re used to catch the reader’s attention. Pick a dull headline, and no one clicks through, making it a waste of money and space all round. Pick something controversial, sexy, or infuriating, and that article could get a thousand hits per hour. On sites that have CPI advertising, this could equate to enormous revenue. (This very fact should also offer some insight into why certain outlets hire highly controversial “trollumnists” to produce articles that garner huge, infuriated audiences of people who cannot help but visit the page to vent their outrage.)
With the importance of these headlines in mind, most major outlets have people whose primary job is simply to produce headlines that drag readers in, kicking and screaming if need be. So, you hand in your piece, the attention-grabbing expert reads it, and then they stamp on the headline that they think will snare the biggest slice of the audience. However much you may dislike that headline and/or its accompanying blurb, unless it’s flat-out wrong, there isn’t much you can do. (My original suggestion, by the way, was, “Anatomy of a troll”. I can only wonder why they didn’t go with that…)
(3) Why did you only mention the negative types of trolling?
To this question, I could write almost exactly the same answer as above, but it’s easier to include actual excerpts. So, here are some deleted scenes from Draft #1 of the article:
Paragraph 2: The first issue is that we each have our own idea of what this word means, but we’re not all using it in consistent ways. We find “trolling” being used to describe sick jokes on Facebook, shockingly insensitive tweets , and threats of rape and murder. But we also find it being used in relation to on- and offline activism. For instance, when the Home Office recently sent a fleet of “illegal-immigrant go home” vans out to drive around the poorer parts of London, some wheeled out their own satirical, and occasionally strongly-worded “troll vans” to publicly vent their disgust. In short, we don’t have a fixed definition for what “trolling” means, and whilst some may think of this as a mere detail, as I have discussed previously, this issue potentially has far-reaching legal implications.
Paragraph 3: [About being outed, etc., mostly identical to final draft]
Paragraph 4: A first motive appears to be change, activism, and the righting of wrongs, whether that wrong is political and social, like the Home Office vans, or legislative and economical, like the banking crisis which triggered online hacktivist and trolling group Anonymous to support the Occupy movement. It’s easier to understand why individuals might choose this noisy, attention-grabbing route when we consider that letters to politicians, newspapers, and economists are all too easily ignored.
These are elements that I felt were of crucial importance to add depth and context to this increasingly widespread notion of trolling. In what little wordcount I had, I was trying to get at the fact that trolling is much more complex than simply “bad behaviour”. Rather, it could be thought of as a tool, and that tool can be used to do negative things, like threaten and bully, or to do positive things, like stand up against injustice and campaign for a better world. So again, you might wonder why this vanished from the final edit.
The fourth, and biggest lesson that I had to accept in the process was the bald fact that this is the Observer’s gig. Or the Telegraph’s. Or the Daily Mail’s. Or whoever you’re writing for. It’s their outlet, and they have a narrative that they want to promote, whether that’s a view that all immigrants are criminal, or that all owners of dangerous dog breeds are secretly lunatics, or that all trolling behaviour is utterly reprehensible. So alongside the cosmetic feedback about structure, style, and introduction, I was also given what might be called angle feedback, where I was asked to take out the bits about activism, Anonymous, and the righting of wrongs. Essentially, they wanted to present a clear, uncomplicated view of trolling that fitted their overall narrative.
Of course, the writer can always resist, but in response, the outlet can simply pull the article, so you’re left with deciding what the lesser of two evils is: should you insist on having it all your own way, refuse to remove the “controversial” elements, and not get anything out at all? Or should you compromise, crowbar in a small reference to some of the problems (as in the short paragraph about defining the word “trolling”) and get out something that might do a little bit of good? Unless you own your own media empire, or are so important that you can call the shots, the odds are unlikely to be ever in your favour.
It’s perhaps helpful to note that newspapers aren’t unique in this respect. By the end of this latest media storm, I’ve done any number of pre-recorded interviews for TV, where the piece is filmed in advance and then edited down to fit the story that it’s being packaged into, and I’ve replied to any number of emails from journalists wanting to write their own stories and quote me. In both cases, it’s not unusual to answer half a dozen questions over the space of five minutes (or five thousand words), and to find that only a twenty-second/twenty-word snippet is used in the broadcast afterwards. So for instance, cautious precursors like, “bearing in mind that these results come purely from my data, what I found is that…” get neatly snipped out, and what you hear is the rest of the sentence that comes afterwards, e.g. “…the various motives include…” In live radio and television interviews you have more chance of getting your point across, and I do this as often as I can, but you can’t control the questions put to you, nor how long you’re given to answer them, and if you start to go off in a direction they don’t like, it’s ultimately their power to wrap up the interview and shoo you off-air.
Overall, publishing and being published in the media is a two-sided game, and in some cases, better described as a double-edged sword. Most academics are delighted at the idea that their research might get put to good use in the real world (nb. you very rarely get paid for any media appearance, so anyone doing this purely for profit will be deeply disappointed!), and most media outlets are looking for news that grabs attention, gains watchers, and/or sells copy, so there is an element of symbiosis there. How equal that symbiosis ends up being can be an entirely different matter, and can be largely determined by the strength of the position that the academic occupies. In simple terms, it comes down to supply and demand. If demand is low, or supply of alternatives is high, an academic who starts being too troublesome can simply be dropped in favour of someone else who will say exactly what that outlet wants. But in the rare case where demand is high and supply is low, the academic can not only pick and choose who to talk to, but can even make stipulations about how his or her words are used. Inevitably, though, market conditions are pretty much a law unto themselves.
In short, I don’t mean to suggest that the media is somehow a giant, ugly machine over which we have absolutely no control. Rather, being asked to take part in a media exercise – whether that’s writing an article or being interviewed, and whether you’re there as the “expert” or the “man in the street” – is more like being invited to take a ride on a horse that has a fixed idea of where it’s going, but who may not always feel like sharing that information with you. You can try to alter the speed and even to steer, but, assuming you don’t make too much fuss and get unceremoniously bucked off, likely enough, even if you manage to go via a different route, you’ll still finish up pretty much wherever the horse decides. If you’re very lucky, that might even turn out to be somewhere in the same county as the destination you were hoping to reach.