Trolling, as everybody knows, is the act of making obnoxious and transparently provocative comments on the internet for the express purpose of inciting conflict. There’s no shortage of authentically deranged people sitting behind keyboards with genuinely anti-social points of view. But the hallmark of trolls is that they often don’t even necessarily subscribe to the repellent opinions they vent online. They may be otherwise perfectly ordinary human beings who choose to use their chutzpa, combined with their anonymity, to pick fights for the thrill of it.
The offline variant of trolling has a long and dismal history in subversive political movements, Juan Cole observes. The atrocity we beheld in Paris may be just the latest example:
The problem for a terrorist group like al-Qaeda is that its recruitment pool is Muslims, but most Muslims are not interested in terrorism. Most Muslims are not even interested in politics, much less political Islam … French Muslims may be the most secular Muslim-heritage population in the world … Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.
The gambit here, if Cole’s instincts are right, is that French society will take the bait, just as those who earnestly and indignantly go to battle with trolls online do every single day — and just as the U.S did by launching an interminable Global War on Terror instead of an international police action following the attacks of 9/11. The whole purpose of the attack is to provoke the most obvious response — unrestrained belligerence against an entire ethnic community — which will then dramatically facilitate Al Qaeda (or ISIS; we’re not sure yet) recruitment. This isn’t a sophisticated tactic, but it’s practically irresistible to certain personality types:
I am shaking with rage at the attack on Charlie Hebdo. It’s an attack on the free world. The entire free world should respond, ruthlessly.
— Roger Cohen (@NYTimesCohen) January 7, 2015
The emotion is understandable. I sympathize with it, even from someone who supported the invasion of Iraq. But it’s shortsighted and willfully stupid. It’s the political equivalent of knocking your opponent to the ground on the basketball court when he’s clearly trying to draw a foul. It might feel justified, but it plays directly into the other side’s hands.
Al Qaeda and ISIS are monsters, to state the obvious. But they’re monsters who are playing a long game. They’re counting on a reaction of blind violence from Paris and Washington, DC — the kind of reaction that can turn secular Muslims into radical jihadists.
We would be better off taking strategic advice from Cole:
The only effective response to this manipulative strategy … is to resist the impulse to blame an entire group for the actions of a few and to refuse to carry out identity-politics reprisals. … Extremism thrives on other people’s extremism, and is inexorably defeated by tolerance.