Performative trolling: Szubanski, Gillard, Dawson and the nature of the utterance

Belinda Caroline Morrissey, Susan Yell


In 2012 the Australian public witnessed three important examples of trolling play out in the public sphere that are the focus of this paper: the trolling of Julia Gillard’s Facebook page when she attempted to discuss education policy, the anonymous trolling of Charlotte Dawson’s Twitter page, and the trolling of Magda Szubanski on YouTube after she came out on The Project. These attacks may seem similar in that a public persona has been ridiculed and denigrated in flamboyant onslaughts. However, we will argue that there are important differences in the effects of these attacks, and that underpinning these are differences relating to the individual persona, the social medium and the nature of the utterance. The attacks on Gillard and Szubanski are primarily descriptive attacks on a deliberate and somewhat stage-managed public performance of identity, not a call to action. On the other hand, the anonymous trolling of Charlotte Dawson, which led directly to her attempted suicide, is clearly a performative utterance from the start, meant to have consequences on the object of attack. In Dawson’s case, the separation between her public persona and her private self is far less distinct than in the case of Gillard or Szubanski. These instances demonstrate that trolling exists on a performative continuum, engaging in constant disruption, but also lending itself to the production of social action. The kind of impact trolling will have depends, thus, on the affordances of social media, the persona under attack, and on the very nature of the utterance itself.


Troll; Public Debate; Celebrities

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