Monday 14 May 2018

Exclusive Interview with George Russell - The Director of Troll Inc.

This May, you won’t find a more newsworthy, valid and significant film than Troll Inc., a powerful chronicle on the world’s most famous internet troll.

Director George Russell‘s spellbinding expose on Andrew ‘Weev’ Auernheimer will be available on VOD May 22.

From innocent meme culture to malicious propaganda, the avant-garde has moved online and they have an agenda. Emerging from deep within underground computer programming culture, internet trolls are disenfranchised and using the click-bait obsessed mass media to propel their performance art into the mainstream. Whether mischievously entertaining the masses, influencing presidential elections, or manipulating journalists and corporations, trolls are either saving us or driving our culture off of a cliff.

Prosecuted as a whistleblower by the Federal Government, Troll Inc. follows the world’s most famous Internet troll, Andrew Auernheimer, and his merry band of provocateurs as they take on corporate America, the media, and political-correctness.

Hung on a meticulously framed, no-holds-barred interview with Auernheimer that took three, six-hour days, and at which the only sustenance served was plenty of high-definition rope, the film features case studies of his most notorious, just-barely illegal actions, like that time he revealed a gaping security hole in the iPad’s partnership with AT&T and when he erased all books with homosexual content from Amazon dot anything-but-calm.

After viewing Troll. Inc., its hard not to wonder if the grand scale of these invasions into our privacy and passions, by virtue of their regularity and overwhelming scope, didn’t somehow numb us to the very notion of privacy and normalizing this new Internet “fake news” attack culture, paving the way for the Kremlin to master the art of the troll and undermining our democracy right under our noses and in our own virtual backyards.

We spoke to Mr. Russell ahead of the VOD release.

Where and when did the idea to make TROLL INC. come from? What was the motivation?

I was reviewing books for and was assigned Parmey Olson’s We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of Lulzsec, Anonymous and The Global Cyber Insurgency. Some guy named “weev” was mentioned in the book repeatedly and sounded intriguing. I was supposed to go to Afghanistan and shoot a documentary on an Army unit, but they were reassigned and the film fell apart so I’d been looking around for a topic for another film.

Is this a world you yourself were familiar with before the movie?

Prior to making the film I’d never heard of Internet trolling or knew anything about it. When this started it was back in 2012. At that time you had to be involved in Internet subculture to actually know anything about trolling. LulzSec was the beginning of that culture exploding into the mainstream as they combined trolling with hacking and used memetic imagery in their stunts, and they were regularly featured on television news. Even at that time 4chan still was relatively underground and most people would have no idea what you were talking about if you mentioned that site.

I imagine your knowledge of the world greatly increased as the film kicked in?

Yes, I became immersed in the culture and in all of its significance and absurdity. It may have been the last proper subculture in the US, as in a culture that is unknowable to an outsider. It had its own language, imagery, myths, beliefs and initiation rituals. It combined elements of art, music, computer know-how and an underlying sense of alienation from the mainstream. All components of a new birth of culture. Now, memetic imagery is mainstream and sold on t-shirts at the mall. The same thing happened to the punk movement. It’s hard to imagine but people once thought punk rockers foretold the end of civilization. Maybe they were right but were just wrong about the timeline.

What kind of research did you do into this world?

When I started on the film it was December 2012, moving into 2013. It was a lifetime ago in terms of how fast culture and world events are moving. There wasn’t much research to be done beyond jumping into the world and seeing what I could find out. I got on IRC, I hung out on 4chan, I read Gabriella Coleman’s work and an advanced copy of Wendy Phillip’s This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things. It took me back to my adolescence of dialing into BBS’s and hanging out with friends who would phone phreak (steal telephone service). It surprised me that trolling came out of computer programming culture. The first actual, verified, Internet troll was a woman computer programmer in the 1990s who operated on Usenet under the moniker Netochka Nezvanova (the name of Dostoevsky's first novel). She was part of what would have been called early Gen X, the whole cyberpunk thing. It was her and her boyfriend sharing an account, actually. But, the point is she would go into discussion forums on Usenet (the largest online discussion group at the time) and mess around with all these earnest academics and computer programmers. They weren’t used to someone arguing in bad faith and purposefully disrupting a discussion so they had no idea what to do with her. I actually tracked her down. She works as a software engineer and sales person at a music production software company. She wouldn’t agree to go on camera but if you look hard enough on the web there is an interview with her by some European documentary filmmaker from way back in the late 90s or thereabouts. It’s a trip.

And into Andrew, himself, did you research him before you tracked him down?

Beyond what was in Parmy Olson’s book and what was available on the web, no. There was a New York Times Magazine article by Mattathias Schwartz that many people referenced, and actually Schwartz made him famous with that article by portraying him as an absolute bad ass. That article turned up in the FBI information I got through a freedom of information act request. So, wherever Schwartz is nowadays, he is the one responsible for Andrew Auernheimer.

And how did you track him down?

Andrew is one of the few, possibly the only, Internet trolls who is open and public about it. Most people remain anonymous because they have normal jobs and families, stuff like that. At the time Andrew was on Twitter and you could just tweet at him and he’d usually respond. This was right before his federal court case. He said we should talk after the case was decided. Sometime in 2013 he was found guilty and at that point he agreed to be part of the film. We shot the interviews with him during the time he was still free but waiting around for sentencing.

Did he have any requirements when he agreed to do the movie?

No requirements. He’s a savvy guy when it comes to the media. He embodies the saying that no publicity is bad publicity. He truly doesn’t care what people say about him.

What is the motivation of the film for you?

The initial motivation was the need to make a film and having a subject present itself that other people were not trying to approach. You’d be surprised how much competition there is in the documentary world for good subjects. Then, the novelty of discovering this hidden culture that had arisen and flourished all of its own accord away from the prying eyes of commercialism became the draw for me. It was the creativity of the human spirit in all its modern beauty and trashiness, humor and depravity on full display. Then, to discover most of these troll practitioners were usually hyper-intelligent misfit computer programmers made it all the more interesting. The legal stuff was a necessary part of the story but not something that I found appealing. People are prosecuted all the time frivolously and Andrew found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, having pissed off the wrong people. What made this story different was that he was the embodiment of this troll culture that we’ll never see again in its original state, but that is now permanently part of our world.