TROLL INC. (2017)
Directed by George Russell
I remember first time I got trolled. I was visiting a Yahoo chatroom, back when people still did that, and saw a poster tell the room about the funniest site he’d ever seen: Goatse.cx. Now readers of my age group, early 30s, will know what comes next. For those that don’t, to save you going down an online rabbit-hole I’ll just say it involved a man stretching more than just the parameters of good taste. Welcome to trolling: the act of pissing off strangers online for shits and giggles.
While most trolls choose to lurk in the shadows, emboldened by their anonymity, Andrew Auernheimer has become something of a cyber-legend. Fronting a notorious group of hackers (aptly entitled Goatse Security), under the name of Weev, he’s taken on some of the biggest brands including Apple and Amazon with leaks and pranks. When he’s not doing that, he’s showing up news outlets, sharing falsities and generally being nuisance. Or he was, until a fateful run in with cellular giants AT&T following the launch of the iPad, when he got in hot water for sharing (publicly available) user details. One landmark case later, dragged out until almost three years after the initial arrest, he was behind bars for thirteen months before eventually having his conviction overturned. Between pontificating on the absurdity of exposing bad security being a crime, Troll Inc. sees Auernheimer, and other experts on the subject, discuss click-bait, pissing people off and electronic anarchy.
The extent to which audiences will enjoy this documentary depends on the extent to which they have any interest in its protagonist and his niche community. To director George Russell’s credit, he tells the story in plain English, without lapsing into computer jargon, and makes it relevant. In these days of Cambridge Analytica, and big data, he also gives a compelling sense of urgency to the issues of privacy and policing the internet. Here, the web is portrayed as Wild West in transition, with ad hoc laws decided upon if and when issues arrive. Yet despite these weighty themes the focus remains personal, with most of the screen-time being taken up by Auernheimer. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as for a guy who’s gone on record saying “I make people afraid for their lives” he’s quite charming. Serious issues of security and free speech are dealt with in good humour. And although we’re very much pushed towards taking his side in the ensuing trial, he’s not in the least self-pitying. There’s no melodramatic bits on him being beaten up in prison either, and what must have been a horrific time behind bars is largely skipped over.
It’s not the only thing that is though. Maybe the most frustrating aspect of this film is in its commitment to exploring the wider issues of cyber terrorism it ignores the smaller stuff. Its subject is treated not as a menace, but a martyr: a Joan of Arc for shit-posters the world over. Given the circumstances of his arrest, and the legal system that allowed him to be wrongly imprisoned, this is not a wholly unreasonable perspective to take. Yet it means the online culture he’s come to represent, with its currencies of misogyny, racism/ homophobia, transphobia, doxing and online-bullying, is not held to scrutiny.
The closest it comes is a one-sided look at Auernheimer’s allegedly ironic prejudice that white-washes it as ‘transgressive’. The narrative even stoops to the tired argument its subject can’t be racist because one of his friends is black. The thing is, even if it is true, and I’ll give Auernheimer the benefit of the doubt here, that doesn’t excuse the online culture he actively promotes that has real life consequences for people the world over. As a polemic, which I suspect the film was intended as, it mostly works. But as a substantial piece about the limits of free speech, and online culture, it falls short. Still, it’s good to see a serious approach to trolling.
Troll Inc., will be available on VOD May 22, 2018