Troll Wars: Battling fundamentalist kooks on Facebook

Sat, 08/09/2014 - 09:36
originally published in Asian Dragon July-August 2013
Did you know Facebook is a terrific patform for rational, balanced discussions of public and national issues?
And, if you believe that, then I have a house atop Mayon volcano I'd like to sell you?
Come to think about it, being in a Facebook discussion is almost like living next to a fiery crater: plenty of flames, bitter acrid fumes, eruptions, lava all around.
Almost like, that is, except for one thing: volcanoes don't have trolls. Facebook does. I've met quite a few of them. In fact, I had a running "discussion" with them that stretched out to at least two years. It was a very educational experience.
For instance, I never knew I was a baby-killing, spellcasting gay warlock mermaid until trolls informed me about it.
And little did I suspect I was actually a gangster and bully with reading comprehension problems, a liar whose soul was already burning in hell.
All these things, I learned from helpful FB trolls and their sockpuppets.
But I'm getting ahead of my story. To those who don't frequent FB much (more than 30 million Filipinos do), a troll is a user who is active in online discussions. Except that a troll is not interested in civilized discourse.
"Civilized discourse -- yaahh!", you can almost hear a troll scream. "How you spell dat?"
No, what a troll wants is chaos. A troll butts into forums to start quarrels -- a flame war -- as well as to provoke, upset, bully, harass and humiliate people. Using a real or fake FB profile (some have multiple fake accounts, called sockpuppets), the troll posts insulting messages and pictures, spewing language that would make a porn star blush. A troll is the equivalent of the vandal who throws bricks through glass windows.
My own Troll Story came about because I happen to support reproductive health (RH) rights, and the government's effort to pass a public health law to give Filipinos the information and medical services to let them plan families the way they want to. RH has always been opposed by the Catholic church hierarchy, and legions of the bishops' Katoliko sarado followers turned up on FB to attack the government's plan.
The main arena we met in, the "I Support the RH Bill" (ISTRHB) page, was unique in several ways. First, with 27,000 followers -- which eventually grew to 33,000 -- it was and is easily the largest RH page, whether pro or anti. Second, it was a free-fire zone. Usually, pro-RH activists stayed in their FB pages and anti-RH in theirs, banning or blocking opponents from joining. But the ISTRHB page's creator/administrator was either AWOL or believed in sadistic theater, because he or she allowed absolutely anything to be posted. There was no moderation, no deletion of offensive material or banning of undesirable members.
It took a while for this fact to sink in but when it did, around late 2011, the page was deluged by demented anti-RH trolls who flooded the site with inane posts, garish religious images, prayers, graphic pictures (often of dead babies, cut up fetuses and corpses). They mocked, insulted, screamed at (IN ALL CAPS) and taunted RH activists, sneering that the moderator had actually deserted to the anti-RH camp. One troll, using the fake name "Ary Torres" spent at least two days non-stop posting crude explicit descriptions of sex acts in broken Taglish. Not all RH opponents are loonytunes, but the ones who showed up at ISTRHB could have benefited from a Mental Health (MH) bill.
ISTRHB quickly became an arena for virtual bloodsport as, logging in when we could, we RH supporters tried to prevent the infestation from burying the actual RH information -- studies, statistics, news clips, updates -- the site provided. We did this by posting updated facts and news, and replying to what I termed the Katolitrolls. In the course of those acrimonious exchanges I dealt with liars, chauvinists, religious fanatics, bigots, sexually repressed maniacs and female impersonators. My picture was posted together with sneering remarks, someone created a fake FB account using the same photo, and and there was even an attempt to get FB to close my account (this is a virtual lynching, Katolitroll style; a group of them file complaints simultaneously to get FB to listen).
I learned the power of free, unfettered speech and the liberating feeling given to cowards by a fake FB account. I learned a troll will always tell you, "research ka pa" and Sleazebag Katolitroll"better not embarrass yourself", the presumption being that the troll is your intellectual superior, even when it's clear from its grammar and logic that it probably had a hard time passing Grade 5 on the third attempt. It will inevitably proclaim victory in any debate and when you understandably disagree (nobody ever wins an argument on the Internet) it will often make nasty references to your genealogy. And oh yes, some trolls will tell you piously they're praying you won't go to hell but the way they say it will make you doubt their sincerity.
Of course, the Katolitrolls would probably say I was the one trolling them, except for the fact that they were the intruders in our page. And anyway conclusive proof of their nastiness came late last year when a group of them tried to bring their circus act to a dignified forum -- the Ateneo FB page -- to convince the students there of the error of their pro-RH ways. Within an hour all the trolls had been kicked out by the exasperated admin.
All of this sounds toxic, and in fact many RH activists detested interacting with trolls. But as a humor columnist I have always found trolls to be a rich source of comedy
The battle lasted until December 2012 and suddenly the trolls vanished. Why? Apparently their malicious spirits were broken when Congress finally passed the RH bill and President Aquino signed it into law. It's not out of the woods yet -- the Supreme Court suddenly stopped the law from implementation pending hearings. I expect the ISTRHB page to come alive when those hearings start middle of this year. In the meantime, I think I'll be visiting the anti-Marcos FB pages.
I understand the number of loyalist trolls attacking the pages is growing.


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