Before the spiky neon-haired dolls made a major North American resurgence in the late 1980s and early ‘90s (they’d first been produced in Denmark in 1959), the only troll I knew lived under a bridge in the story of the “Three Billy Goats Gruff.” A Golden Books edition of the Norwegian fairy tale was one of my most prized possessions as a kid. I asked my mom to read it to me at every opportunity. I even memorized the text she was speaking and used it to decode the words on the page and teach myself how to read.
In hindsight, the story is not at all exciting or eventful. Three goats of different sizes—brothers—have been munching on grass in a meadow on one side of a stream, but the grass is nearly gone. However, there’s a lot of lush green grass on the other side of the stream. A mean, hideous troll lives under the bridge separating the goats from their future food. Aware of the danger, the goats concoct a plan and cross the bridge one by one.
The smallest goat goes first. As he nears the end of the bridge, the troll springs forth and threatens to eat the lone goat. Well, the first goat launches into a diatribe meant to convince the troll that since this first goat is so small, it wouldn’t even be an adequate meal. But…two of his much bigger brothers are following behind. And it works. The troll hesitantly lets him pass so that he can save his appetite for what is sure to be a bigger, better meal coming very soon.
The middle goat tells the troll the same story. “Yeah, I’m pretty decent, but don’t you want to eat the biggest and best meal?” Again, the troll hems and haws but ultimately lets the middle brother cross in anticipation of the even better meal to come.
Things are going according to plan. Now, the third much bigger goat makes his way across the bridge. When confronted, he rushes the troll and uses his horns to butt that ugly little motherfucker clear off the bridge and into the stream. The troll drowns and they never have to worry about him again. The biggest goat then joins his brothers and they are free to graze on one side while grass grows back on the other, on and on and into the future.
The troll was too stupid to see beyond his own nose and hunger to recognize a bigger plan at work. Though each goat was in fact terrorized by the troll, they eventually worked together to get him flung into the river and never heard from again. Some accounts of the story end with the troll washing downstream and eventually living under a rock far away, but I prefer, and distinctly remember, the more macabre ending. Either way, the troll never bothered the goats again.
Today, trolls hide all over the internet. Trolling has become a common practice—where unidentified and sometimes unidentifiable accounts on social media band together to terrorize those with whom they disagree. Trolls in astronomical numbers still lurk under the proverbial bridge, hiding behind blank egg avis on Twitter or usernames not traceable back to any real identity. They hide behind anonymity. The phenomenon isn’t necessarily new, but it took a particularly dangerous turn post-Trump’s election in the United States.
Trolls after Trump have become emboldened, both in person and online. Certain trolls have built huge platforms and no longer feel the need to hide their identities—they’ve come out of the shadows and proudly encourage other still anonymous trolls to terrorize in their name. The entire Fox New Network functions through trolling, as but one example. Some trolls are so emboldened they are taking their threats and violence into the real world in “alt-right” rallies like that just seen in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The fairy tale lesson has somehow been turned on its head. In 2017, it’s not many goats against one troll; it’s many (many many many) trolls against one goat. The trolls’ arsenal consists not of threats of eating, but the creation of chaos, spread of misinformation or decontextualized comments, incendiary rhetoric to rile up others, and sometimes doxxing—another online practice that includes publishing personal information (phone numbers, addresses, etc.) that encourages some of the boldest trolls to take their harassment offline.
No one is immune to trolls but they certainly target already marginalized or vulnerable groups first and foremost with racist and sexist taunts, threats, and actual violence. Women of color are trolled in hugely disproportionate numbers and women generally bear the brunt of trolling.
In 2017, trolls are shamelessly caping for now president Donald J. Trump. Sure, trolls exist on both sides of the aisle, but a right-wing, white supremacist, misogynist politics has long been a common troll denominator. Especially now that the election has granted them carte blanche validation. Trolls today are legion.
As someone who has been the target of right-wing trolls on multiple occasions, I can speak to the fact that a troll attack is terrifying, humiliating, and alienating. While being attacked, you feel alone and the larger societal narrative often gaslights whomever is being trolled—it’s somehow our fault because we publicly said something that created the backlash, that summoned the trolls. And though technically we know we’re not the only ones, the trolls are scary enough to silence us, metaphorically eat us. We often retreat back to the side of the bridge we started on because the risks are too great.
But some of us with more privilege can and should withstand more from modern-day trolls. Some of us are able to sacrifice a bit more in this fight. And yes, I’m talking about white men most of all, white people generally, those that have resources and large support systems. When trolls attack, some of us are ultimately less vulnerable than others though our confrontation with trolls may pain us similarly. Sometimes the pain of the privileged is necessary to remedy the enormous amounts of suffering already undergone and survived by those already marginalized in a myriad of other ways.
I think we need to re-read and study the “Three Billy Goats Gruff” in these fraught times, because the trolls heeded the story’s lesson, banded together, and now seemingly can’t be stopped. They stopped seeing the goats as a group and re-focused on silencing individuals, one by one, damn the satisfying meal that might lie at the end of the line. Given the ubiquity and decentralized nature of the internet too, the abilities of trolls have become amplified.
Those of us with high reserves of privilege in the U.S. are the goats (not the GOATS which has become an acronym for Greatest of All Time—certainly not that) and we need to remember what those billy goats gruff taught us in a larger context. We need to link up, join together with a coordinated plan. Those that can afford to leverage their own privilege most (white people) need to get in formation. We have to launch a strategic attack.
The first to cross the bridge might be the smallest: those of us with smaller platforms but with the ability to reach out and be heard. Still protected with many other privileges though. We might have to give ourselves up, make statements that summon the trolls, occupy them, distract them while phase two begins. Today’s trolls are not well-versed in multitasking and a bit of diversion can go a long way. The middle goat—the ones with even more power and prestige—can begin to expose as many trolls as possible, exert influence and work hard to unmask trolls both online and offline. While the smallest goats draw the trolls out, the second brother (and excuse the masculinist nature of the terminology but I’m just following the story), exerts more pressure. Essentially, trolling the trolls is an extremely effective measure but it takes a bit of coordinated effort. Some of this has happened in the wake of the tragedy in Charlottesville, exposing the attendees of the rallies and forcing them into consequences.
Now, while all this is happening, the third goat—the one with a huge profile, celebrity, reach and influence, has to swoop in and butt the ugly motherfuckers off the bridge altogether. That means exposing larger systems and connections and institutions that are complicit, leading all the way back to the White House door. That means shedding light on the history that the trolls want to keep hidden. Each of the goats in this scenario is many people obviously. Just as the trolls have broken into legion numbers, so too must each of the three goats. Only by coordinating efforts will we ever reach that other side of the bridge. Only by taking some major risks as privileged people will we ever be able to drown every one of those trolls in the same water they call home.