This September, MTV will air a new spin-off of Catfish that focuses on online trolls, appropriately titled Catfish: Trolls. While the original series focused on people who pursued online relationships using fake identities, the new series will “[unmask] the internet’s most vocal trolls to drag them out of hiding and into the light.” Charlamagne Tha God and Raymond Braun will host.
Back in April, MTV posted its first casting calls for the series. In Catfish style, they seem pretty focused on the drama. “Are you a highly opinionated, polarizing character?” asks one of the calls. “Have you been drawn into online debates over topics like Veganism, Feminism, LGBTQ Rights, Body Shaming, Politics, Race, Religion and other hot button social issues? Do you have a long time running feud with someone you want to finally meet in person?”
The second call asks “Do you have an online rival? Do you find yourself arguing with them all the time? Does this person drive you up the wall? Do you comment on almost all of each other’s posts? Think it’s time to finally meet in person?”
Based on the above casting calls, it looks like this series won’t focus on exposing members of various internet mobs, who anonymously attack and spam content creators they disagree with. Instead, it seems like it will focus more on trolls with established “personalities” and longstanding feuds or followings.
On the one hand, I think it’s important for us to try and understand what sort of people troll, and why they’re motivated to do so. I also don’t really believe you have some sort of inalienable right to spew garbage on the internet without consequences, so I’m not necessarily against unearthing the identities of trolls – but under the right circumstances.
And that’s where this new series gets a little murky for me. MTV has a long track record of hyping the drama and sensationalism of its reality-show topics, from True Life to the original Catfish to Teen Mom. The idea of naming a troll just because it will generate ratings for a massive corporation, or because it would be the most dramatic outcome, is troubling. I’m not sure that’s a power I’m comfortable assigning to MTV.
The idea of portraying trolling as some sort of two-way rivalry is also concerning. Trolls already have a sense that women and minorities who speak out about bigotry on the internet are “asking for it” by voicing their opinion. Trolls argue that they deserve to be “engaged with,” even when their engagement is abusive. These Catfish casting calls seem to suggest a similar idea about how trolling works: that these are battles between two parties who’ve both decided to engage with one another, who both “comment on almost all of each other’s posts.” In reality, most trolling is one-sided. The troll keeps attacking and commenting on the content of someone who has no interest in engaging with them.
For that reason, I’m glad that the hosts include a YouTube personality like Braun, who has had personal experience with trolls. I’m a little less excited about Charlamagne Tha God, who has a tendency toward problematic confrontations, but I can also appreciate that he’ll be able to speak to the internet’s racism. I do wish they’d hired a woman host, though. Gendered harassment is such a massive issue, and it’s something that a show about trolling will need to address. A woman who’d experienced such harassment – particularly a woman of color – would have been the best choice to speak to this.
Overall, my suspicion is that Catfish: Trolls will end up like most MTV reality shows: airing a few great episodes, spotlighting a few important issues, providing some solid educational resources – and pumping out a whole lotta problematic drama. But how’s this show looking to you?
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