Confessions of a troll: 'Trolling is an art'

Jaime Cochran is a 20-something professional living in Chicago. She works all day on a computer, but her real labour, the one she loves, is hated around the world.

Cochran is a self-identified troll. She trawls the internet day and night, looking for “victims” – emotional strangers Cochran deems ripe and right for a ripping.

When she's spied one – in a chat-room, forum or social media group, she casts out “lines with trivial bait” and reels them in, hurling insults, inciting their rage and taking great pleasure in their mounting fury.

It sounds cruel. Trolling in the eyes of many is a deeply disturbing and sinister occupation. But Cochran insists there's method to her meanness. She declares herself a performance artist, compares herself to Andy Kauffman, and describes her trolling as “more cerebral than abrasive”. According to this young troll, she's out for scalps, not souls.

“First and foremost, to me, trolling is an art,” Cochran begins to explain. “It's a way of evoking a reaction.”

Young, employed and articulate, in many ways Cochran debunks popular stereotypes about trolls. She is no teenage boy, fuelled by foul energy drinks and hormones pushing bile into the cyberspace from the darkness of his bedroom. But she is gleeful when her trolling incites rage. She feels good when being bad.

“[Trolling] might be something as banal as insisting men who drink their coffee black aren't real men, because they can't handle the cream and sugar,” she says.

“I waged a massive rhetorical campaign against Chicago's 'jamband' scene, lampooning its tepidity and lack of originality.

"The blow-back got around to my friends almost instantly, since they are Chicago musicians. I started getting text messages about how mad everyone was getting. I even had a guy who I went on one date with texting me saying he works with a member of one of the bands I was bashing and that he was pissed.

"I laugh just thinking about it now. Some people need to learn how to take criticism, especially on the internet.

“[It's] stupid, but hilarious.”

But who's laughing really? The many who believe trolling is a threat to civilisation are not. Those who trolls have chewed up and spat out aren't either.

Charlotte Dawson wasn't laughing when she landed in hospital. The father, grieving for his dead 15-year-old girl, was not laughing when he confronted Cochran and other trolls face-to-face last week with the story of how his daughter's online tribute page was defaced by an anonymous troll-gang.

Steven Deguara said there was nothing funny about trolling as he addressed Cochran during a live recording for an Insight trolls special, to air on SBS tonight.

Though not responsible for his child's posthumous humiliation, Cochran was one of three self-proclaimed trolls who watched Deguara fight back tears while sharing his story.

“It was heartbreaking, absolutely heart-breaking,” Deguara said afterwards.

“These people – trolls – need to know that this isn't funny. Something has to be done. It's not jokes, this is people's lives.”

Yet the Insight trolls were quick to disassociate themselves from the mourning father's experience. Such behaviour – vicious jokes about deceased teenagers, or targeted campaigns of hate against the weak – doesn't really count as 'trolling', they claimed.

Cochran says what the Deguaras and many others term trolling was little more as “vitriolic bullying” – a form of online abuse distinct and distracting from trolling's “good name”.

At the very least, Cochran concedes “evil trolling” exists, but that the label does not apply to her.

“I try my best to always be facetious, but not malicious,” Cochran says.

“Most of what I do, I do with great jest and playfulness. I'm not trying to hurt anyone's feelings, I just want to make people think and laugh along the way.

“I also look at [trolling] as a form of culture jamming, in the sense that it can disrupt the status quo to hopefully stop and make people think for a moment. I'm an activist as well and absolutely have no problem trolling people that are activists too, even if we're on the same side.

"I troll Anonymous, I troll Occupy, I troll Wikileaks. I do it because I'd like them to see the hypocrisies of their and our ways and as a reminder that the emperor wears no clothing.”

From this point of view, Cochran sees the idea trolls are undoing the world as laughable.

Thinking trolling damages society is “absolutely ridiculous” she says, rubbishing the so-called “war on trolling” and urging people to focus on other, greater issues. Issues like big banks, home foreclosures, and Justin Bieber, she says, only half-serious.

However, even Cochran admits to having concerns about what the world has come to understand as trolling. She believes media attention has seen the troll population swell over the past five years. Not all the new recruits share her “artistic” trolling philosophy. And trolling has made her “slightly more misanthropic”, she says.

Indeed, the young troll admits to being the victim of cyber-abuse herself. She's familiar with “downright mean and cruel” attacks. Through Cochran maintains such behaviour should be seen as bullying, not trolling. She says she can handle it because she's thick-skinned.

“[Trolling] has become more of a sport than an art and that bums me out,” she says.

“I enjoy it more when people get the humour, but it's pretty entertaining when people out themselves as crazed cretins online. I've actually trolled people so hard to where they brutally attack my character so viciously that I end up pointing out why they reacted as such, which is often followed by an apology from my target.

"Quite the epic troll victory when you can get your 'victim' to apologise to you, the troll.”

And it's that sense of winning – of triumphing over the bigots, misogynists or cretins – that Cochran says has kept her trolling long after her early, initial adolescent dabbling. Then, she says, she trolled as a pest. Now, Cochran regards herself as dark-prankster with a purpose.

“I relate a bit to some trolls, mostly the ones who, like myself, put some thought into what they're doing,” she says.

“I have a great distaste for tactless trolling and believe it cheapens it as an art form. I steer clear of bullying and malevolent trolling.

“If you're not from the internet, you probably won't get it or at least have a skewed perception when you hear the term 'troll', which is unfortunate. Although, that means you're probably great troll fodder for people like me.

“Hopefully I've just made people laugh and maybe think about things differently. If I've offended people, then they should take a long hard look at themselves, because what I do is harmless fun.

"If I've really offended people, it's probably because they deserved it and that's their own fault.”

Insight, hosted by Jenny Brockie, tonight at 8.30pm on SBS ONE.

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