The question on everyone’s minds recently is, “Why won’t George Zimmerman go away?”
You’d think of all the people who’d want to keep their heads down and avoid the spotlight, people who’ve been acquitted for murder after a media circus where much of the country decided they were guilty would be at the top of the list.
Certainly O.J. Simpson, who had a much higher media profile than Zimmerman at the time of his acquittal for murder, did a comparatively much better job of keeping his nose clean. It was over 10 years before Simpson tried to capitalize on his infamy with the book If I Did It.
But, for George Zimmerman, persistently reminding the public that he shot and killed an unarmed black boy has so far been good for business.
It took only a few months for Zimmerman to start selling paintings (really crude copies of existing stock photos) for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Similarly, Simpson, who’s had his share of legal troubles, still didn’t get in the news again for brandishing firearms at people until 2007; Zimmerman’s incident involving threatening his girlfriend with a shotgun happened four months after the trial.
To some degree making a direct comparison between any two people is problematic, especially since Zimmerman had a great deal less personal wealth to start with than Simpson.
But it’s nonetheless telling that Zimmerman has been so apparently reckless in attracting hate from the American public. He directly teamed up with an anti-Muslim storeowner a couple months after the Charleston shooting made the Confederate flag radioactive. He mocked President Obama’s expression of sympathy for Trayvon Martin by saying his hypothetical son would look like Vester Flanagan. He publicly posted someone’s phone number in an apparent attempt to shame them for having an abortion.
And, of course, on Monday, he retweeted photos of Trayvon Martin’s corpse while bragging he was a “one-man army.” (Even If I Did It didn’t include photos of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman’s corpses with captions bragging how badass their killer must’ve been.)
It’s hard to deny that there’s an element of pure psychological reward to trolling, that there’s circumstances in which some people deal with being disliked by gleefully playing the role of the villain and reinterpreting the hate they generate as “winning.”
But the more pressing issue is there are immediate practical benefits to trolling. The way we’ve designed the Internet has made the old cliché “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” actually come true. It’s now possible to monetize any kind of attention, good or bad—and if your gift happens to be generating the bad kind of attention, then it’s well within reach to make trolling into a full-time career.
We’ve watched this happen, over and over again. Memories Pizza raised $800,000 by being “lucky” enough to be the first Indiana business to openly state they were taking advantage of their newly enacted right to discriminate against gay customers. Darren Wilson got almost $500,000 for shooting Mike Brown. Growing wary of their reputation as a fundraising site for bigots, GoFundMe pulled the plug on the homophobic Sweet Cakes bakers’ campaign to pay off their fine, only for them to immediately hop onto another knockoff crowdfunding site. GoFundMe’s new policy has prevented Kim Davis from starting a campaign there, but right-wing political action site ActRight has taken up the slack by allowing people to donate directly to her.
Some of this is simply the result of polarization thanks to political discourse bypassing centrist gatekeepers, the same “netroots” that made such a big difference in the 2008 Obama campaign.
But it goes deeper than that. The whole nature of social media “virality” is that it unpredictably dumps a ton of attention and scrutiny on people who did comparatively little to earn it or prepare for it. The sexier story from the 2008 presidential election is how Obama’s team pulled an unlikely victory by using social media to mobilize large numbers of volunteers and small donors; the more telling story is how the backlash against Obama coalesced around a totally random dude who happened to be on his front lawn when Obama was walking through Toledo, repeated some conservative talking points at him, and went viral.
The 2008 election cycle was right on the cusp of social media becoming the force it is today. Kickstarter, GoFundMe, and Patreon had yet to be founded. It was Joe the Plumber’s misfortune that he didn’t have an easy way to monetize his celebrity during his peak exposure. He nonetheless got a book deal, a trip to Israel and a career running an ad-laden conservative blog out of it, stirring the pot a little with angry tweets at parents whose kids were killed at Sandy Hook along the way.
And while I despise the man’s politics I can’t blame him, exactly. I know how it feels to suddenly go viral. I know what he means when he says that John McCain turning him into a folk hero “really screwed [his] life up.” After becoming a folk hero, it gets hard to go back to work at a regular 9-to-5 job, especially one at an auto plant where you’re surrounded by blue-collar union Democrats who all know who you are.
The price of going viral is making it harder and harder to live a normal life. The reward, if you’re savvy enough, is no longer having to live a normal life. Going viral is a problem that contains its own solution—every mob of haters generates a backlash of fans. Every instance of business-damaging PR will generate a backlash of people who, because they see the people who disapprove of you as on the opposite “side” from them, will pay you more than enough to compensate for your loss.
We see this operating even at the higher levels. It’s impossible to imagine nominating Sarah Palin as a vice-presidential candidate would’ve failed to generate controversy at any other time in history, but—since her nod came in 2008—she went viral in a way she simply couldn’t have in 2000, or even in 2004. The “mainstream” jokes about her were bolstered by a flood of YouTube videos, blog posts, and tweets (from people savvy enough to have a Twitter account back then) blasting her with so much outrage, vitriol, and mockery that she was, overnight, a household name.
Thanks to her notoriety, Palin was unwittingly made the subject of a porn film, stalked by a journalist who moved into the house next door to write about her and threatened with rape by a standup comic. There were endless thinkpieces about just how much everyone hated her guts—hated the fact that she was famous and hated that they, themselves, were at that moment thinking about her—all of which seemed ironically over-the-top in 2008.
Is it particularly surprising that Palin and her family would decide that the reality-show circuit and a career in online punditry were more appealing than actually continuing to be governor of Alaska? If you’re going to amass that much of a reaction from people, why not benefit from it directly rather than indirectly? Accepting all the negativity from your haters while refusing to correspondingly profit from the same fans who are waving money directly in your face seems like sheer masochism.
I’m not saying I like these people riding viral fame to fortune—although haters would probably allege, with some justification, that my own writing career is essentially the same thing. In Zimmerman’s case, particularly, I think he belongs in prison—and the monstrous injustice of his acquittal makes it impossible for me to feel pity for anything that happened to him afterward.
But even so, you can’t exactly judge him for doing what he’s doing in the circumstances he finds himself in. Upon his acquittal, he was after all, unhirable at any normal job due to his notoriety, as people almost immediately observed. The explosive anger against him, although I completely agree with the sentiment behind it and at the time even participated in it, did get out of hand. This is most notably evidenced by the time Spike Lee accidentally doxxed the wrong George Zimmerman.
If the thought of trying to build bridges, reform his reputation and be a better person ever crossed his mind, that thought surely died under the weight of knowing just how herculean a task that would be. And he likely deemed it a worthy death when he observed that doubling down on being hated was an easy means of making unlimited money off of the reactionary minority who feel similarly outcast and view him as an icon.
Anyone in his situation who isn’t a saint would find the pressure to take that path irresistible.
The worst thing is how aware of it people are now. I know I was personally thinking about how to leverage my options within a week of going viral. George Zimmerman knew O.J. Simpson had tried for a decade to put the events of his trial behind him only to eventually run out of money and turn to writing a faux-confession to get back in the headlines.
It took less than 100 days of being the unemployable Most Hated Man on the Internet before Zimmerman realized he could make six figures selling paintings on eBay that were notable only because they were made by the Most Hated Man on the Internet. And it seems he figured out very quickly that the best way to keep the gravy train rolling is not just to continue being hated—but to steadily escalate how hateful he is, lest he be forgotten.
When people say history happens “for the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce” the reason is often that the first time is a genuine bizarre coincidence, while the second time is a cynically manufactured operation. Sarah Palin’s virality was analyzed largely as a mistake, the result of McCain’s team’s poor vetting combined with her ill-preparedness.
But Donald Trump’s campaign, in contrast to Palin’s campaign, has gone viral with calculated precision. Everything he says is obvious trolling, intended to piss off his haters as much as he can, and it’s working. Even his most committed opponents lament that by talking about him they only feed his notoriety, and yet can’t stop doing it.
The George Zimmerman you see on his Twitter account may or may not be the “real” George Zimmerman. The unfortunate fact is that his livelihood now depends on presenting himself as an asshole, and he basically has no choice but to do so. The trolls are no longer in it purely for the “lulz.” Trolling has become a self-sustaining phenomenon, where the troll escalates his trolling to the point where he can make it into a business and is thus ruined for any business but trolling.
Angry anti-feminist video game nerds crowdfunded a documentary attacking Anita Sarkeesian to the tune of an $8,000/month paycheck. The film had a grand total of nine viewers at its opening screening, but the two creators were nonetheless able to make an above-average living for a year for doing it.
The Men’s Rights Activists of the modern Internet, unlike their counterparts from more innocent times, don’t need to sell any products like books or videos or deliver services like speaking engagements to make a living. They can charge their fans directly for the purpose of running websites to troll women online. The more rabidly zealous they get and the more they alienate the mainstream, the more devoted their hardcore fans become.
It’s gotten so bad that everyone assumes a troll motive as soon as a story breaks. Professional trolls like Sarah Palin, Bill Maher, and Richard Dawkins—who all spend a lot of time on social media stirring the pot to get mentions and clicks—pounced on 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed as someone whom they think antagonized authority figures for nothing but attention. In other words, they claimed him as one of their own.
Of course, the idea that any 14-year-old black Muslim kid intentionally got himself in huge trouble on the off chance the story might go viral is Alex Jones-level delusional. But it’s entirely fair to say that Ahmed has intentionally milked his story once he went viral, and that this doesn’t reflect badly on him at all. It was, in fact, the only option left for him to make lemonade out of the lemon that is being marched out of a classroom in handcuffs.
It’s an option, too, that comes with considerable sacrifice—of privacy, of anonymity, of safety, for which money provides only imperfect compensation.
I wish it weren’t so. But the trolls are running the show now, and they’re going to sling mud at you and try to tear you down no matter what you do. So if you find yourself coming down with a viral infection, you have little choice but to play the game.
I’d rather that everyone, on both sides of the spectrum, could just stay obscure. I wish George Zimmerman had gone to jail. But if he had to be acquitted, I wish he could’ve been swiftly forgotten afterward—and that the other George Zimmerman never had to be dragged into the spotlight based on a misunderstanding. I wish Sarah Palin, Kim Davis, Darren Wilson, and the whole merry band of suddenly wealthy bigots had simply been forgotten—that there was no surge of support that provoked the haters and no surge of hate that provoked the supporters.
I wish we lived in a world where there was even a slim chance of the oft-repeated mantra “Stop giving these terrible people attention” actually worked.
But we don’t seem to have any way to do that. The momentum of viral fame is inexorable, and anyone who tries to say they won’t participate in it—be it a scrupulous journalist or the subject of the fame themselves—is only forgoing their share of the profits.
This is the world we’ve made—every single one of us who works in tech, in media, and in the New Economy. I hope you’re happy with it, because it’s not going away anytime soon.