The collision: Trolling, Corporate Media and Detournement

Trolling can be considered a prevailing “privilege” of the virtual world. The anonymity of user identities, the vastness of the platform, the increased exposure for collective action make Internet forums an ideal destination for trolls. They are often associated with online harassment, generating transgressive and highly offensive content, engaging collectively in destructive actions.

4chan’s /b/ threat is regarded as the epicenter of this phenomenon. The site was founded in 2003 by a fifteen-year-old Christopher “moot” Poole. Modelled as an imageboard, the site functions on anonymously generated content from users, with most recent and popular posts being pushed up above the rest. In her paper “The House that Fox Built: Anonymous, Spectacle and Cycles of Amplification”, Whitney Phillips studies in great details the origin and conducts of the /b/ threat on 4chan. Her argument augments further as Phillips offers an insightful take on trolling; that is the comparison between trolling and cable television, asserting that

trolling behaviors are homologous to mainstream media output, not diametrically opposed to; the motivations of each group might diverge, but their respective rhetorical strategies are often indistinguishable

This argument opposes preceding perception on the relationship between trolling and cable television. I personally have never established a connection between trolling and cable television, let alone the interconnectedness and resemblance of the two. This is perhaps due to the fact that they dominate two different medium, targeting different audience groups. The trolls are simply regarded as collective action of anonymous Internet users, pursuing mostly destructive aims (including harassing TV personalities like Bill O’Reilly or Oprah); and cable television simply do their job of covering news. However, Phillips indicates a very important point, which is that the media “vacillated between feeding and decrying” the “hideous progeny” of Anonymous (502). By covering actions done by 4chan’s trolls, cable television in fact offer them a framework to build their public identity.

Phillips thus argues that the trolls and corporate media are not opposing factors – they are in fact parallel. Their similarity lies in their “push for success” (505). Both trolls and corporate media revel in sensationalism and hyberbole (505), employing what could generate a public buzz to exploit the audience. Both trolls and these media outlets seek the latest news and approach them in two different paths. However, the end goal is similar – exploitation of audience responses. Only audience targets are different.

The concept of détournement that occurs “when cultural objects are recontextualized, thus imbuing a given artifact with newfound subversive meaning” is also critical to this argument. Trolling with user-generated content takes place on the Internet, which is a new media outlet; whereas cable television channels like Fox or CBS, generating content traditionally and distribute them on TV represent a old media. Each news story is a cultural artifact. Trolls and media outlets employ this artifact differently and recontextualizing them to serve their own purposes. Thus, this interconnectedness of new and old media further manifests McLuhan’s theory of “the medium is the message”. Each medium provides a distinct set of expectations: identity, information gathering, collective goals, etc. This determines how information is then approached, contextualized, conveyed and distributed, augmenting the phenomenon of détournement for cultural artifacts.


Phillips, Whitney. “The House That Fox Built: Anonymous, Spectacle, and Cycles of Amplification.” Television & New Media14.6 (2013): 494-509. Print.


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