This book is amazing. Full stop. This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things by Whitney Phillips is a must read for anyone who wants to understand how the information environment can and is manipulated, in this instance symbiotically both by trolls and media.

Beyond the fact that Phillips is a talented and engaging writer, what I love most about this book is that it is systemic. Instead of simply looking at trolls in isolation, Phillips’ study is sweeping and puts trolling behaviour in the context of a wider information ecosystem. This sort of analytical approach is sorely needed, and anyone trying to make sense of propaganda and information warfare in a Digital Age should look to this as a good example of how to assess the landscape.

The examples Phillips draws on to demonstrate how trolls use news-worthy events, in particular elections, to provoke target audiences should be case studies for anyone on the front end of addressing information manipulation on internet platforms, as they clearly demonstrate how complex the information ecosystem is and how difficult it can be to differentiate actors such as trolls from political operators or foreign astroturfers.

While This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things was published in 2016, and as Phillips notes in it the situation is ever in flux, I couldn’t help but recall media coverage about Reddit and 4chan user “support” for Trump during the 2016 presidential election while reading this book. That coverage was like an echo of what Phillips describes in her book – some media seemed to take at face value that pro-Trump posts were obvious support for his candidacy, completely missing the deliberately provocative nature of trolling. In other words, as support for Trump seemed to upset so many people, it was low-hanging lulz – and likely still is.

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things is a great read – and a testament to the idea that PhD research need not be boring or written for an audience of one.

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things is available on Amazon.

Cover Image: An anti-harassment Soviet propaganda poster calling for discipline of lecherous wretches from the 1930s

About Author

La Generalista is the online identity of Alicia Wanless – a researcher and practitioner of strategic communications for social change in a Digital Age. Alicia is the director of the Partnership for Countering Influence Operations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. With a growing international multi-stakeholder community, the Partnership aims to foster evidence-based policymaking to counter threats within the information environment. Wanless is currently a PhD Researcher at King’s College London exploring how the information environment can be studied in similar ways to the physical environment. She is also a pre-doctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, and was a tech advisor to Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder. Her work has been featured in Lawfare, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, and CBC.


    • Alicia Wanless on

      Indeed. It would have helped more than a few commentators and journalists had it come out before then. More should be reading it now still.