Getting Down with Internet Trolls
I talk to "Pepe the Frog" creator Matt Furie about troll culture: "The shit kind of rises to the top. Because people like to play in the shit!"
I wanted to talk about trolls in today’s newsletter.
This idea arose from two things: me currently dealing with my own internet troll and stalker, and a conversation I had with Matt Furie, creator of “Pepe the Frog”.
Matt is the subject of my favourite documentary this year, Feels Good Man — which is how I came to be Zooming him this week.
The documentary follows Matt as his cartoon creation Pepe is hijacked by alt-right trolls who turn his frog into a hate symbol.
As in an actual hate symbol listed on the Anti-Defamation League’s website:
In recent years, with the growth of the “alt right” segment of the white supremacist movement, a segment that draws some of its support from some of the above-mentioned Internet sites, the number of “alt right” Pepe memes has grown, a tendency exacerbated by the controversial and contentious 2016 presidential election.
I’ve already shared a really long interview I did with the filmmakers — but I really wanted to talk to Matt, to find out how he remained so calm when an internet vortex opened up and swallowed him (and Pepe) whole.
Basically, I think Matt has a really healthy outlook on life.
While I tend to throw myself head-first into rabbit holes and stress the shit out myself, Matt takes a more balanced approach.
I’ve edited our conversation down to an easy 20 minutes — and written down some of my favourite moments.
We end by talking about internet trolls, so after our interview, I’ve got a little update on my own internet troll — who’s taken to stalking me recently.
It’s not an entirely positive part of my life, but in sharing it with you — I like to think we can accomplish the following things:
I can feel a bit less alone in the weirdness
You get an insight into how certain members of society function
I can demonstrate how easy it is to manipulate the news and how newsrooms need to be very, very careful
We can all, perhaps, have a bit of a gasp/laugh at a weird story?
As always — thanks for being here, and your support.
Webworm presents: A chat with Matt Furie
I hope you enjoy Matt as much as I did.
If you haven’t got time to watch it now, I hope you do later on. Bookmark it maybe. Chuck it on a tab to come back to later.
In the meantime, here are some of Matt’s words that I really enjoyed:
On being happy:
I try and be an active participant in my own happiness.
On life during a pandemic:
Everyone is kinda isolated right now so. It’s kinda cool. I picture it like Star Trek: we are all in our own spaceships and we can communicate with people through these screens! They always put the guy on the screen! You’re flying through space and all of a sudden this guy is like “you need to back off, this is uncharted territory!” That is like day-to-day life now. I am kind of enjoying it.
On his deposition hearing alongside political extremist and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones:
I didn’t know what was going to happen with the Alex Jones thing. It’s kind of the same thing with you too, where you like people to leave you alone… but you also like the attention! It’s the duality of life!
On being alive:
The thing about life and life’s journey is you just have to take the good with the bad. Every experience that everybody goes through can just inform your life. You don’t have a choice. You gotta just keep going.
I feel there is a power to intention and how you can live your life in a controlled way. Like for example if I wanted to save the planet because I am worried all the kiwis are dying, I will do a drawing about a multitude of kiwis, and I will be thinking about the success of kiwis! And then in my little way, it is a way to control something you feel so sad about, and so out-of-control with. Through doing art and creativity, it has the potential to be really therapeutic for other people. It definitely is for me, and I feel like compulsively drawing every day is how I cope with things. Whatever is going on in the world, you have to find what you really love and just really pour your heart into it.
The film does empathise with troll-type people, people that live their life very much online. It’s really beyond me. There is just a lot about life where if you are just nice to one another — even the biggest arsehole slime-ball in the world — you can be nice to each other and offer each other something. I don’t think it is so black and white.
On being anonymous:
The internet and the way we communicate these days with social media and all that, it does compound the situation because there isn’t that face-to-face interaction that people need to empathise with each other. You can just write comments and be nasty and be anonymous, and the shit kind of rises to the top. Because people like to play in the shit!
On jousting kiwis:
(this is the illustration from his new book)
I try and be careful about what I say. The way that people communicate online, it does create a ripple effect, a butterfly effect: you can say one nasty thing and it turns into white supremacy 101 or something!
On the future:
Planet earth is a weird place to be. I feel bad for kids just inheriting the disaster that we are heading towards right now. I feel a twinge of guilt for reproducing, but ultimately if you just stay in the moment and don’t trip too much about the future, you can tap into love and happiness. Everything is here, right now.
And this is his masterpiece Boy’s Club. I adore it so much, and always have a copy nearby. It’s just so funny, and so full of heart.
In New Zealand and Australia it’s on DocPlay.
The tale of my own troll:
This is sort of personal, but then I also think we can learn from it, so here we go.
Last month I wrote about James Bryant — a man in his 30s who’s behind a number of dropshipping websites, including Masks.co.nz.
Bryant was misleading people by including government branding in their advertisements, and many masks weren’t making it to customers.
Bryant appeared unhappy about my piece, sending me a variety of homophobic emails, followed by more annoying emails from various pseudonyms.
As I briefly mentioned in a newsletter last week, things got a little more stalker-y when James turned up at my old office, wanting to see me. I wasn’t there, so he scrawled down this note. His general M.O is pure internet troll — a clear threat couched in a jovial tone.
Remember this is a fully grown man, not an 11-year-old.
Anyway, James’ obsessive behaviour took a new turn this week, when I started getting emails on Monday asking why I was featured on a website selling racist golliwog dolls:
I had a look at the site, and sure enough — there I was, front and centre, promoting golliwogs:
Due to the ongoing harassment from James, I assumed it was him up to this old tricks.
But I was curious why so many people seemed to know about the site, given that it had only recently gone up.
Well — people knew about it because a major New Zealand news site had done a story about it.
This was pretty obviously James Bryant — because this is exactly how he got publicity for his Covid masks: by stirring up outrage.
Oh, and he used the same alias in both stories, too: “James Harrington”.
The creator of a company selling Golliwog dolls says they are “in no way” racist and anyone who thinks they are needs to “top being a snowflake and grow up” - a claim the Human Rights Commission disagrees with.
James Harrington, one of the creators of the website which lists the handmade dolls for sale, says he doesn't believe the dolls are racist “and nor do my buyers”.
However the Human Rights Commission says the dolls “have no place in the community.”
My next question was “why did this news story even exist?”
Well, I did some digging and it turns out James Bryant simply did what James Bryant always does in his wonderfully happy life: James created an alias.
Lots of them.
He then used them to email the major New Zealand newsrooms, each fake alias writing a message of fake outrage about the golliwog site.
Here’s one of them, from an “Ursula Thompson”:
And then voila — news coverage on a major New Zealand news website, publicising a website absolutely no-one would have known about otherwise.
A website created purely so that when people landed there, they would see my silly face and think I had something to do with it.
I think this is something newsrooms need to be aware of when covering “outrage” stories — as even when the outrage isn’t fake, it can still ultimately play into the hands of bad actors. All publicity is good publicity, as they say.
As of today, the article and tweets are still up.
If you want to support the work I do here at Webworm, and my work in journalism in general — you can become a paying member below. No pressure — as always it’s just nice to have you reading along. If you’ve already done this: eternal gratitude.
It’s strange how humans choose to spend their time.
Another email has arrived — another of James Bryant’s fake accounts, informing me he’s registered davidfarrier.co.nz:
I’m reminded of David D’Amato, the sweaty millionaire tickle fetishist from Tickled, who spent a great deal of his life setting up domains to harass students.
I feel a certain amount of pity for James. I can’t really put myself in his shoes, but like D’Amato, I can’t imagine he’s living a particularly happy existence — turning up at people’s offices and leaving threatening notes; creating websites; all those email accounts and names.
I’m reminded of Matt Furie’s words, again: People like to play in the shit.
What a place to exist — in the shit.
I hope it gets better for James, and that he gets the help he needs.