On Monday morning, Vice, a countercultural publication that does spon for Bank of America, continued its rebellious streak with a blog post headlined “I Was Banned From Twitter for Threatening to Kill Mr. Peanut.” In it, the writer Luke Taylor describes his months-long campaign of tweeting at Mr. Peanut, the upper-crust, monocled mascot of Planters nuts. The tweets and the blog post, from what I understand, are both intended to be funny.
Here are some of the allegedly funny lines that Taylor sent to the legume; what I presume are the cream of the crop plucked from the archives.
- “I want a bullet in your brain.”
- “You are not human and you will never be human remember that”
- “I will fly anywhere in the world to kill you. Just name the place”
- “Looks like shit moron” (regarding some art tweeted from the peanut account)
On some parts of Twitter, this ignited a debate. There was pushback from certain corners, arguing that tweeting these things at Brand Twitter is like going to a fast-food joint that one hates to yell at a cashier — right idea, wrong target. “[T]he real people behind brand accounts have to read death threats all day anyway and bragging about doing this is like bragging about calling up customer service 1-800 numbers just to scream at people,” tweeted Amy Brown, who used to manage the Wendy’s witter account.
On the flip side, brands are not people. They are managed and given voice by people, but they are marketing tools for companies. Compounding this, Brand Twitter has to adhere to some corollary of the First Law of Robotics, in which the brand is not allowed to harm a human being. In other words, you can abuse the brand all you want, but the brand cannot reciprocate. The resulting impulse to mess with the faceless corporations and ad agencies that choose to appropriate web slang, AAVE, trending topics, and the self-serving mopiness of Depression Twitter in order to sell you a burger, or peanuts, is irresistible and entirely valid.
I get where both sides are coming from. What has been left mostly unsaid in this debate is that this Mr. Peanut bit is simply not a good troll. In a Venn diagram where the two circles are labeled “is funny” and “makes someone’s day worse,” trolling falls at the intersection. It has to accomplish both of these things in order to be an effective troll. Taylor has only accomplished the latter. His threats, while clearly non-credible, are also unfunny and lazy! Unjustified and exaggerated animosity can be funny, but it is not automatically so. I get the joke; the joke is bad.
Taylor defends his poor form by claiming that he was tweeting at the character of Mr. Peanut, and not at the people running the account. Probably! Some directly address Mr. Peanut, others use “you” in a way that is vague. But as someone knowingly toeing the line on this stuff, he had to have expected that his vagueness would eventually do him in. As he says, it’s possible that his suspensions were the result of automated software doing simple keyword matches for threats. To put out “I want a bullet in your brain” and hide behind the expectation that everyone should know it’s a gag about the peanut and not the person is just … well, it just sucks. To him it’s a running gag, and to the moderators and automation that make moderation calls, it’s probably a little tougher to see the through line and understand it, let alone enjoy it.
I don’t mean to be a comedy pedant; I just want to see a little more effort when it comes to trolling. I believe that we, as a society, can do better. The examples are already out there. The Frosted Flakes account that had to sidestep furries angling to have sex with Tony the Tiger? That’s funny. Making your handle explicit, like when then–Newark mayor Cory Booker replied to an account called @BIG_BOOBS_CARLY? Again, funny. An automated Coke account tweeting the words of fascist dictators? That’s a solid prank. Even the expediency with which trolls were able to turn an autodidact Microsoft AI racist within hours of going live has a twisted sort of logic to it.
Here’s what’s not a good prank: straightforwardly tweeting that you’ll put a bullet in someone’s brain. That’s only funny if you think contextless threats of violence indistinguishable from real online harassment are funny. Some people do though, and if that’s the case for you, I would like to wish you the best of luck starting high school in the fall and urge you not to put off your summer reading assignment until the last minute.