Why believing a troll doesn't always make you an idiot

Elan Gale, and his note addressed to the 'Lady in 7A'.

Elan Gale, and his note addressed to the 'Lady in 7A'.

Last week I was left a little red faced when, a matter of hours after penning an article about how Elan Gale was a jerk for starting and live-tweeting an in-flight war with “Diane in 7A”, Gale confessed on Twitter that his note-passing nemesis was a complete fabrication.

He punk'd us all, alright.

But like many of those who'd poured sincere thoughts and emotions into an incident we'd believed for days to be real, my feelings didn't go away with the puff of an illusionist's smoke. Like many who'd initially taken to Twitter to declare Gale was as jerky as Diane, I took to Twitter again to declare his hoax made him even more of a jerk than we'd all first thought. He'd not only been an ass to Diane, he'd created her. And all for the apparent purpose of winding up the internet, getting 15 minutes worth of high fives and – of course – hundreds of thousands of new followers.


Part of me initially wondered whether he had really made Diane up – or if the fiction claim was itself a fiction. It seemed mighty convenient that just as Gale was starting to cop heat for what many saw as bullying behaviour towards a distressed woman, he pulled the “it's cool guys I made it all up, ha ha ha!” card. But given no Diane ever came forward, despite a (fairly suspect) claim doing the rounds that she was somebody's aunty celebrating her last Thanksgiving due to terminal lung cancer, it seemed Diane was a figment of Gale's imagination brought to life by Twitter after all.


The whole charade left me wondering just what exactly motivates an internet bamboozler like him – and whether it's really worth it.

Professor Matthew Hornsey from the UQ School of Psychology spoke at a TED Talk earlier this year about the surprisingly common phenomenon of impostorism: the psychology, motivations and consequences of fabricating an identity – or making up, embellishing or concealing certain parts of one's identity.

For traditional impostors the motivations are varied: seeking fame and fortune, running away from the past, hiding a personal shame, trying to fit in with a community, avoiding persecution, or the simple joys of adventure and thrill-seeking. For “online personalities”, Hornsey says, the motivation is almost singular: to get a story to go viral.

“Obviously it's easier to manufacture an attention grabbing 'true' story than to wait for one to fall in your lap,” he says. “This has been a long acknowledged problem in autobiographical writing, and it's become almost standard for humorists and memoirists to torture facts in the name of an anecdote.”

An absence of accountability measures around the truth of stories means, on social media in particular, we often take people at their word, although as the Elan Gale example shows, photographic “evidence” can also be easy to manufacture.

“It all gets justified, I imagine, by foggy postmodernist mumblings about the nature of "truth" and how everything is a performance. But let's call it for what it is ... people bullshitting for personal gain,” Hornsey says.

Hornsey says IRL impostors often get away with their lie for a very long time despite “smoking gun evidence” – a fact he puts down to “a rather charming aspect of modern society, that despite our self image as cynical and skeptical, people are incredibly trusting that other people are who they say they are.”

But that aspect of modern society doesn't exist in the same way on the internet. Although individuals can be fairly easily tricked (initially, at least), experience also gives internet users a pretty strong sense for bullshit, and information than can debunk bogus claims is often easily accessible – particularly when there's a huge volume of eyes trained at once on a given story.

For this reason, the most successful trolling hoaxes are often deliberately short-lived; if anything, the lie of a troll lives to die. The real punch-line is in the revelation of the hoax: the bit where the author (and/or the cannier audience members) can point, laugh and inform the gullible masses they've been pwned, punk'd or bamboozled, and smugly congratulate themselves for being the smarter humans. Perhaps because the internet turns us all into skeptics, a successful troll can be a particularly rewarding challenge for the accomplished shit-stirrer – whether that reward comes by way of fans, followers, pageviews or simply the smug satisfaction that they've won the game.

But once that game is over, what next? Can a boy like Elan Gale cry wolf more than once? Just how long will his 15 minutes stretch before he feels the need to pull another stunt (or accept that his internet-fame might not last)? Winning the trolling title inevitably comes at a cost: you lose trust as a reliable source of information, you lose respect for playing a juvenile game, and you lose the element of surprise that enabled you to hoodwink people in the first place.

Perhaps the more interesting question is what kind of effect bamboozling people has on our online relationships and our ability to engage in Real Talk – to be ourselves and express earnest thoughts about things that we believe in, without the fear that someone will burst through the virtual door to reveal our (suddenly very long, very naked) thinkpiece, and ourselves as nothing but the gullible fish that swallowed some funny jerk's bait and tackle.

The irony is, in Elan Gale's case at least, without all the sincere reactions fuelling the growing backlash to his tale, he may never have felt the pressure to reveal the truth. Those of us who joined the conversation may have felt a bit silly when it turned out Diane wasn't real, but all the discussions about bullying, sexism, judgment, privacy and compassion, were real – and important.

Trolls can have their 15 minutes – we're playing the long game.