Continuing in a series of posts about the importance of language in the work of media literacy, it is clear that the proper use of words will continue to be a topic of utmost importance to educators today. In the previous post, the use — and more importantly, egregious misuse — of the term “fake news” was discussed. Today, we investigate those greedy, fearsome creatures hiding under bridges in wait for all of the Internet’s unsuspecting billy goats, threatening to “gobble them up!” — the hideous Troll!
Regularly, many websites and public posts use terms to describe behaviors that evolved out of the use of digital social media: in this case, the verb “to troll” and the related personal description of “the troll.” According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a troll is “a person who intentionally antagonizes others online by posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content” and to troll is “to antagonize (others) online by deliberately posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content.” And, regularly, this behavior is done anonymously. For teachers, these definitions are also important because these terms and the behavior they describe work with strong parallels to bullying, which is a topic of significant implications of professional and legal responsibility to educators.
However, as with a wide range of terms to describe behaviors that reflect the aggressive, damaging, and purposefully hurtful exchanges commonly viewed in web-based communicative platforms, the use of vocabulary can become twisted to minimize or distort the original meaning so that it becomes a hollow, warped, or virtually meaningless version of its original sense. In practice, a word can just turn into a big joke.
On numerous recent occasions, I have witnessed the word “troll” used in this way. Just this past weekend, President Donald Trump erroneously referred to “what’s happening last night in Sweden,” as if there had been a terrorist attack in this Scandinavian country. Elected officials and media outlets in Europe — and in America — reacted with a mixture of bafflement, corrections, and derision. Nonetheless, here is a follow-up headline from Yahoo News, echoed by many Internet sources: “Trump Trolled Over Remark About Sweden.” In the articles that appeared with this description, the evidence given was typically that various public figures around the world made posts that corrected, questioned, or made light of the statement. And that, somehow, the President of the United States was now “a victim.”
When any attempt at correction of a falsehood, personal or cultural attack, or distortion of factual evidence — or even any satiric message that is in response to falsehoods communicated to the general public — is described as “trolling,” this is quite problematic. Particularly when the figure or group or entity responsible for the original false statement, message, or attack is in a place of power. Yet again, it is clear that media literacy requires knowing our vocabulary and using it correctly. And, moreover, being able to communicate effectively and understand clearly are at the heart of schools and communities and governments that are based on ideals of freedom, equality, and justice.
And remember, if students are as wise as our friends the Three Billy Goats Gruff, they can get away to enjoy the beautiful, bountiful fields on the other side of the bridge.