This May, you won’t find a more newsworthy, valid and significant film than Troll Inc., a powerful chronicle on the world’s most famous internet troll.
Director George Russell talks us through, primarily, what’s essentially the story of Andrew ‘Weev’ Auernheimer.
George. Thanks for talking to us. Why Troll.Inc?
I needed a film to make and at the time this was the perfect subject. At this time Internet Trolling was still a proper subculture that was hidden away. It had its own rules, language, legends, humor and initiation rituals. No one else wanted to touch the subject because of its perceived toxicity and those who tried to only came it from the angle of “look at this horrible thing happening over here.” Even the academics who studied it in earnest had to continually fall all over themselves to apologize for the people they were studying and distance themselves from what the trolls did and said. And, this was in 2013, before things got serious.
Did you know Andrew before you did the film?
No, I had never heard of him before reading a book by Parmy Olson, a reporter for Forbes, that featured him extensively in connection with his hacking activities and his commentary on the Anonymous movement.
Was there anything he wasn’t willing to talk about in the movie?
There were some hacking activities that he wouldn’t discuss from his early days. He said the statute of limitations hadn’t run out on them and I tend to believe him. In his early days he was involved on IRC with guys that are spending many years in prison for hacking and related financial crimes. He never participated but he was in the same milieu as these guys on the days when IRC and computer security was like the wild west.
It took forever to verify all the information we discussed but he never lied to me during the interviews. That was interesting. I expected to be continually lied to and all he did was tell the truth. Some of it sounded too good to be true, but once I found everyone involved they would corroborate his story and the FBI documentation would as well. It wasn’t what I had expected.
What did you consider vital to discuss in the movie – the one topic that you could NOT leave out?
How he felt about his parents and how his parents felt about him. I spoke with them as well and it was ultimately a dead end in terms of explaining Andrew and what he does. There wasn’t the explanation there that I thought I might find. Andrew is an enigma.
Has the film changed the way you operate and get about online yourself?
It’s certainly toughened me up to criticism and argument. Internet trolls revel in getting a reaction out of you and so learning some stoicism is a good way to deal with them. We’re so used to the unspoken expectation of deference and politeness that exists in the real world that it can be surprising how venomous and rude the online world is. But, now that the two worlds are becoming one in some Marshall McLuhan fever dream we’re all going to be surprised to find ourselves acting like trolls in the real world.
I deleted all my social media accounts a few years ago. As it continues to be commercialized by massive billion dollar advertising companies like Facebook and Google I have come to despise the Internet and wish it had never been invented. My advice to everyone is stay off of social media entirely. It robs you of your humanity and turns you into the ultimate passive consumer. At least with TV we could turn it off. Now, with things like Alexa and smart phones, we are literally being turned into consumers every waking hour of the day. Soon that will be all we will know or live for. Trolling culture was the mirror image of the rise of consumerism as our main lifestyle, and now even trolling is being consumed by the leviathan. I’m concerned there is no escape from the onslaught of this monoculture that has been unleashed, especially now that progressive politics and corporate America have begun walking hand in hand.
Do you think the movie will make folks a little more wary about their online activities?
No. Most people live under the illusion they actually possess choice in their daily routines and activities. The social media companies and the other tech giants know what they provide is addicting. Tell the normal person to turn off their cell phone and not look at the Internet for even an hour. I guarantee they won’t be able to do it. This same conversation was had about television over the years and it ultimately consumed every free hour that people had. Now even our private time – places like going out for dinner, or going to a sports game – are consumed by the Internet. It takes legitimate effort and practice to be social and have a force of personality, and we are now able to outsource that expression of personality and community to these devices. McLuhan talked about how technologies are extensions of human senses and traits, and the Internet and smart phones are the extensions of our personalities.
Can you see yourself doing some sort of a sequel a few years down the track?
Not for this film. Trolling culture is no longer the underground, edgy, unknown subculture that it once was. The greater culture has now commercialized and subsumed it so in some ways it doesn’t even exist any more, it’s just an aspect of what we all do when we’re online. A good parallel is the punk culture of the 1970s. At one time punks were reviled and hated, now their clothing style is sold at malls and is on the fashion runways and people look towards the punk movement with nostalgia.
I may eventually release the raw interviews from the film though as the initial rough cut was over 6 hours long and it was envisioned as much more complex film. I wanted it to tell the story of the rise of computer culture via its engineering/computer programming originators, which is where internet trolling arose from. Then, it would also need to tell the story of the Internet and its rise, the story of hacking and hacking related laws, and then the cultural side of trolling and the general issues of free speech. This is why the film was originally 6 hours long. I eventually cut it down by cutting out most of those topics and just discussing trolling using Andrew as the avatar for the story, but it took a long time sitting in the edit suite wondering what I had gotten myself into. The final version of the film benefited greatly though, and I feel like the subject matter was distilled down into its essence. Films aren’t like writing books or essays and even documentaries need to be entertaining.
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