Culture Jamming and the “Lulz”: From Subcultural Trolls to Propaganda Machines

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On the 27th of February, Boris Nemtsov was assassinated by unknown assailants just after his speech on the protest against Russia’s war in Ukraine. Being the leader of the opposition party in Russia, the assassination carried its own mystery and conspiracies with it. No matter what the actual case really was, the death itself entailed triggered political debates naturally. The various conspiracy theories claimed that could have been the Rogue elements, Foreign Intelligence services, Ultra-nationalists or Islamic extremists or jealous lovers or crooks that are behind the murder case (Jackson, 2015). Zhanna Nemtsova (the daughter of Boris Nemtsov) claimed that Putin was to ‘politically’ to blame for his father’s death. Her accusation followed her statement that stressed the weakening of the opposition party after her father’s death. However, on the internet there were numerous other rumors that were claiming that the truth laid beyond Putin. Andrei Soshnikov, a reporter from Moi Rayon stated that “Putin’s trolls” were spreading disinformation on Nemtsov’s death over the internet (MR7, Soshnikov, 2015). Tom Parfitt from The Telegraphy reports: “On the day Mr. Nemtsov was killed, the trolls received at least five assignments linked to his death. Their main task was to write that opposition leader’s friends or Ukrainian oligarchs had arranged his murder and then pin the blame on the Kremlin” (Parfitt, 2015). Apparently, the “traits of trolls” were being weaponized for propagandist use. Just a week ago from this post, a former “troll” Lyudmila Savchuk who was working for the company Internet Research spoke to the press, and revealed that the company she was working for was actually a hive for the propagandist trolls. They were being paid the company to spread misinformation, ruin fame, mythologize Putin and support the government on the global web (fuel online lingual fights on the websites) (Koreneva, 2015). Paul Roderick Gregory from Forbes share his story with the Russian trolls:

“Trolls never concede even when their back is to the wall… Trolls do not hesitate to deny the obvious. My reports that Russian weapons are crossing freely into east Ukraine drew the response (unedited): “wow is this guy full of it, everything he says at the beginning is nothing BUT LIES! Russia did not give the east ANYTHING”. My trolls also lie about verifiable facts. One “Stanley Ford, “identifying himself as a graduate student in economics at Stanford, expressed his dismay about my ‘shallow’ Stanford seminar. I checked. There is such graduate student…” (Gregory, 2014)

Misinformation, constantly nagging, hiding behind proxies are nothing new in the trolling scene. However the difference between the propagandist trolls and subcultural trolls would be the priorities. On the propagandist side of the river we have the political objective of the practices foregrounded but on the other side we could see an entertainment based objective that would be “the lulz” (A distorted abbreviation of the ‘laughing out loud’ statement). However in this post I will be arguing that “lulz” became an instrument in the new online political culture. No matter it is foregrounded or totally forgotten, “lulz” point out to a certain spot; culture jamming. As we have seen in the previous post on how countercultural practices may be rerouted as marketing practices, culture jamming carries an intrinsic instrumental quality for the market or politics. Firstly, we have to look at what is this thing called “lulz”?

“Lulz represent an ethos as much as an objective” (Coleman, Weirdness, 84) states Coleman after describing the quality of lulz-oriented actions, “…sometimes coy and playful, sometimes macabre and sinister” (Coleman, 110). Phillips add that “Lulz is similar to Schadenfreude – loosely translated from German as reveling in the misfortune of someone you dislike – but has much sharper teeth” (Phillips, 24). The trolling actions are based on achieving lulz which are the currency of the subculture. A perfect example for the lulz would be the Oprah Winfrey show incident in the 2008. An anonymous troll sends a mail to the show’s message boards which ultimately gets the attraction of the editor team. Oprah reads: “He does not forgive. He does not forget…and he has over 9000 penises and they are all raping children” (Anonymous, 2008). The show is hijacked, Oprah Winfrey does not know that she has been tricked and in the end of the day, millions of people must have believed what she read live on TV. Lulz are achieved. Of course, trolls would not just hijack live TV shows but frames from news, films, images and many other mediums are rerouted for “lulzy” purposes. Famous hacker group’s iconic mask has been counter commoditized from the film and comic V for Vendetta. First it has been used as a meme “epic fail guy” who represented a figure that was doomed to fail at everything he touches upon. Later on, the mask has been re-appropriated and rewired as the face of the online dissent by Anonymous. In 2012 Poland, while the Polish government was voting whether to sign ACTA or not, a group of politicians wore the Guy Fawkes mask in the parliament. Ironic to the ACTA voting and parallel to the Anonymous’ political spirit, the masks they wore were counterfeits (Techdirt, 2012). What has been created as a rerouting of a comic book character into mainstream Hollywood cinema was rewired into a symbol of grassroots political dissent and counterculture. The convergent quality of the new media goes parallel with the new political culture. Anything can be re-read and repurposed as an instrument of political as well as commercial spectacle. Henry Jenkins states:

“The new political culture – just like the new popular culture – reflects the pull and tug of these two media systems: one broadcast and commercial, the other narrowcast and grassroots. New ideas and alternative perspectives are more likely to emerge in the digital environment, but the mainstream media will be monitoring those channels, looking for content to co-opt and circulate. Grassroots media channels depend on the shared frame of reference created by the traditional intermediaries; much of the most successful “viral” content of the Web critiques or spoofs mainstream media. Broadcasting provides the common culture, and the Web offers more localized channels for responding to that culture” (Jenkins, 222)

From this perspective, lulz are both activism and market friendly. Jenkins gives the example of the famous “The Apprentice” meme viral in which we see G.W. Bush being fired by Donald Trump. By editing several videos and bringing them back in one tape the content creator not only triggers the political flame but also the media spectacle with it. When we look at how many times it was watched, the viral video certainly has a journalistic value. Both purposes feed each other respectively. Whitney Phillips stresses the three qualities of the lulz: They are fetishistic, generative and magnetic (Phillips, 28-32). “Lulz fetishism” that is similar to Marxist object fetishism, mystifies the relationship with the remediated content and the original cause of the text. As we hear the sound bit “9000” we may not know how the meme came about however we ‘consume’ the meme in that context as it is. The magical attraction of the meme is almost stripped of its original context. Lulz are also generative because every meme or viral practice begets a certain community with it. As the trolls gain attraction with their memes, they also build a community around their cultural production. “Within the community play frame, all reading is writing, and all reception is creation…to participate in community formation is to ensure community growth” (Phillips, 31). Finally, lulz are magnetic. As they gather attraction with the results, the lulz replicate themselves. The joke (which has been remediated countless times) finds itself being rewired for many purposes and contexts. This process of remediation and community growth is parallel to ‘brand communities’. Lulz may pave way for these communities as it strengthens the market. Vince Carducci says:

Culture industry bricoleurs, post-postmodern consumers use commodity-signs as forms of individual expression, striving for authenticity through organic unity at every level of process. By exposing the inconsistencies on the producer side of the ledger, culture jammers may in fact be the avant-garde of the evolution of consumer society, encouraging producers to conform to new consumer expectations in order to garner sales, and thereby continuing the development of socially conscious production in Western capitalism, which has included the abolition of slavery beginning in the early 19th century in the British Empire and the introduction of the high wage/high output model of Fordism in America at the dawn of the 20th Century. In this environment, commodity-signs attract consumers into forms of community not bounded by geography but by social relationship ‘brand community’. (Carducci, 123)

When we go back to the propagandist trolls, we find the links between the subcultural practices of trolling and the state driven online bullying. Even though, troll culture has a subcultural start, it has definitely instrumentalized by institutions. “Lulz” as an ethos, entails culture jamming which naturally gives way to commercialized purposes. Without repeating myself I would like to conclude by giving the example of “Viral Peace” program that was funded by the U.S. Government in the 2012. It is not funded anymore but it is certainly active. The project aims to fight online extremism by damaging the reputations of extremist groups and helping other people who are somehow attracted to potential threats online. In other words, the project includes a “troll group” that discourages the extremist accounts as well as it the potential youth from becoming serious threats to the society. The founder of the project, Shahed Amanullah states that they aim to use “logic, humor, satire, [and] religious arguments, not just to confront [extremists], but to undermine and demoralize them” (Ackerman, 2012). From this perspective, the “lulz” ethos not only has become an instrument of commoditization but also a linguistic weapon of technocratic solutions for the vague term “online extremism”. What has begun as a subcultural practice have found its way in the PowerPoint slides. In one of their case study reports; they clearly classified the effects of the lulz in the end of the article

Key Points/Lessons Learned:

  • Capacity building program empowering the silent majority to counter extremist messengers to diminish the attractiveness of their message through the Internet and the social media.
  • Provides a series of on and offline toolkits through its 1 to 2-day workshops, including advice on crafting narratives, staying safe online and maintaining motivation.

Capacity building, crafting narratives, staying safe online, and maintaining motivation are not such terms that can be aligned with countercultural practices. Though, online trolling has a subversion effect embed into it. Culture jamming practices, no matter how clever, dark or unchangeable they may seem are rewired into different purposes sooner or later. Even though I personally do not like it, complex entities, norms and notions can be subverted for the market from a neoliberal technocratic perspective. Amanullah, as a professional, sees “crafting narratives” and “capacity building” as fixing a broken tire. This is how, culture jamming ends up being an instrument of the commercialized cultures:

“I come from Silicon Valley, from the start-up environment. I want to prove you can do small, inexpensive, high-impact projects that don’t just talk about the problem but solve the problem…And solve it the right way: not with the government’s heavy hand but by empowering local people to do what they already know to do but don’t know how.” (Ackerman, 2012).

WORKS CITED

Coleman, Gabriella. “Our Weirdness is Free”. May. Issue.9. June 2012. Print.

Jackson, Patrick. “Who killed Russia opposition politician Boris Nemtsov?” BBC. 7.3.2015. URL: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-31693234. Accessed on: 7.6.2015.

Parfitt, Tom. “My life as a pro-Putting propagandist in Russia’s secret ‘troll factory’”. The Telegraph. 6.6.2015. URL: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/11656043/My-life-as-a-pro-Putin-propagandist-in-Russias-secret-troll-factory.html. Accessed on: 7.6.2015.

Gregory, Paul Roderick. “Putin’s New Weapon In the Ukraine Propaganda War: Internet Trolls”. Forbes. 9.11.2014. URL: http://www.forbes.com/sites/paulroderickgregory/2014/12/09/putins-new-weapon-in-the-ukraine-propaganda-war-internet-trolls/4/. Accessed on: 7.6.2015.

Koreneva, Marina. “Trolling for Putting: Russia’s information war explained”. Yahoo News. 5.4.2015. URL: http://news.yahoo.com/trolling-putin-russias-information-war-explained-063716887.html. Accessed on: 7.6.2015.

Ackermann, Spencer. “Newest U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy: Trolling” Wired. 18.7.2012. URL: http://news.yahoo.com/trolling-putin-russias-information-war-explained-063716887.html. Accessed on: 7.6.2015.

CounterExtermism.org, “Case Study Report”. 2013. URL: https://www.counterextremism.org/resources/details/id/411/viral-peace. Accessed on: 7.6.2013.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. 2006. NYU Press. Print.

Phillips, Whitney. This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture. MIT Press. 2015.

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One thought on “Culture Jamming and the “Lulz”: From Subcultural Trolls to Propaganda Machines”

  1. Thank you for this interesting article. It shows you must have extensive knowledge of the “lulz”. I´m especially interested in the relation between original content and intentional falsification during trolling. Since my parter suffers from severe polydactyly, I find it increasingly hard to distinguish between obviously biased and obviously manipulated information on the topic. But your article has shed some light on why that is and in who`s interest falsification might be. So thank you very much

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