For better and for worse, this clip which emerged on and around 4chan’s /b/ board in the early-mid 2000s. There’s Oprah, queen of daytime talk shows, being mercilessly trolled—which meant, in the parlance of the time, responding to something a troll had done with a strong negative emotion like anger, frustration, or shock. There’s Oprah, reciting part of the Anonymous credo (“We are legion, we do not forgive, we do not forget…”). There’s Oprah, quoting Dragon Ball Z’s “Over 9000” meme (power levels!). There’s Oprah, totally unaware that the self-proclaimed pedophile posting to her message boards was actually a troll looking to, as participants then would call it, milk a lulzcow. She took the bait, because of course she took the bait; how could she or her producers say no to such an outrageous threat? These shows don’t finance themselves, you know. Advertising dollars come at a high price, and that price is sensationalism.
And so—whether the initial poster or any of the subsequent carriers of the “over 9000 penises” meme could have explained it—this case, like so many trolling cases at the time, forwarded an implicit media critique. News and entertainment organizations may have bellowed their disdain for trolls. But they also benefited from and incentivized trolls.
Up to Oprah’s declaration that “they have over 9000 penises,” this media critique could be the full story. Immediately following that statement, however, things take a darker turn. “And they’re all raping children,” Oprah continues, clarifying just what all those thousands of penises are doing. She pauses, horrified. Throughout the week, Oprah had been talking about pedophiles on her show, a decision prompted by several high-profile cases of pedophilia. But that didn’t matter to the anonymous trolls. They were just trolling, went their logic, it was fine; they didn’t have to think about those children, or their parents. All they focused on, all they needed to focus on, was their own amusement.
This clip shows that not all early trolling campaigns involved coordinated, sustained, identity-based harassment. It also shows what trolling obscures—a point particularly salient for anyone who giggled when Oprah said “over 9000” penises, and in the process, didn’t hear her say who they were raping. This is the danger baked into trolling rhetoric, and is what makes that rhetoric so easily harnessed towards violence and extremism: that when sequestered behind the mask of trolling, what you see is lulz, not people.