If we were to update Dante’s Divine Comedy for the 21st century, we might revise it so that persons in the inner circle of hell would be forced to spend their days reading and interacting with the comment chains of national news outlets, popular websites, famous YouTube videos, and celebrity Twitter accounts. In other words, humanity would be punished by having to interact with internet Trolls.
What is an internet troll?
An internet troll is a person who aims to start arguments and upset or humiliate people by posting accusatory, inflammatory, or off-topic messages in online comment chains or chatrooms. Trolls who have mastered the dark art of trollery will exhibit a number of skills, including: selective outrage; obstinate quibbles over petty details; the refusal to listen to or sympathize with interlocutors, purportedly on principle but mainly to distort or hijack the conversation; and the seizing of any opening to practice these dark arts from the safety of his own basement.
Originally from Scandinavian folklore, “trolls” were supernatural creatures who dwelled in caves or under bridges to eat any unsuspecting passersby. By way of analogy, an internet troll lives under the “bridge” of other people’s electronic media so he can pester or attack the authors or audiences on various media.
What are the different types of trolls I might encounter?
A great variety of trolls meander under our digital “bridges.” Among the many subspecies of trolls one might expect to encounter on life’s (electronic) journey, the following six are among the most common.
This subspecies of troll is extraordinarily angry, yet the reasons for the anger may vary. Some Foghorns are angry only when they’re awake, but most Foghorns become inflamed about a single issue. They wander about the electronic forest shouting (figuratively speaking) anytime that one issue is unearthed. Usually, the Foghorn is obssessed more with his own voice than with the person toward which he is shouting.
How do you combat the Foghorn? Ignore him. (Or, it has been suggested, steal his “CAPS LOCK” and “!” keys.)
Escalators usually share a special trait—anger—with their near-cousin, the Foghorns. But unlike the foghorns, their anger escalates over the course of an electronic exchange, which culminates in a more calculated type of invective. If you respond to their first negative comment, they will ignore your good will by berating you and questioning your character. They are happy to escalate for as long as you will respond.
How to combat the Escalator? Once you have identified a commenter as an Escalator, pour an ice-cold Cheerwine© for yourself and ignore his comments. (Or, just for fun, find a way to get him in the crosshairs of a Foghorn.)
The Gasbag is a truly special type of troll, combining in one person two of the most odious skills of trollery. He combines a towering sense of intellectual self-approval with an almost-breathtaking ignorance of social perception. In other words, the Gasbag will spend an inordinate amount of time gracing you with his astute observations, even though his narcissistic logorrhea undermines his desire for the Internet community to respect him.
How to respond to the Gasbag? Upon spotting a Gasbag, end the conversation as politely as possible. (Or, if you are especially skillful, you might manage to put him at odds with other Gasbags in the electronic community; in such an instance Gasbags will stand tête–à–tête forever, mooing at one another, ankle-deep in their own effluvia.)
The Vituperator is also known in some regions as The Hater (Latin, Hayturs-Urgona-Hayt). This species sometimes fixates on one person or issue, but more often seems willing to express aversion toward all humanity or at least toward a large class of humanity. Migrating from savannah to savannah, attacking victim after victim, spraying them with invective, the Vituperator’s object is manipulative: to make the victim believe everything is his fault. This species of troll concentrates on scarring the victim—and not expressing any particular idea.
How to combat the Vituperator? Ignore him. (Also, it has been suggested, you may repeat to yourself regularly that perennial philosophical truth: “vituperators gonna vituperate.”)
With great force, this species of troll rips your words out of context, and then slaps you around with your own decontextualized words. The Rip-and-Twist-er grazes on a number of different delicacies, but is best known for devouring Politician Poppies and Theologian Thistles because of their visibility and availability. Park Rangers in the Kingdom Come say this species is characterized by the ability to live rent-free well into their mid-40s.
How to combat the Rip-and-Twist-er? Ignore. (Or, don’t write anything ever; let all of your thoughts for humanity be off-the-record.)
The Pundit is a once-exotic but now abundant species of wildlife that threatens to overrun highly populated regions of the internet. Politics is his favorite and, perhaps, only topic. Usually, the Pundit has not created anything of his own but likes to comment on what others create. He ransacks YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, national news outlets, and blogs, so that he can comment on the situation at hand. Often, he employs trademark tools such as Creative Use of Cuss Words®, Twisting All Comments Toward Pet Political Issue®, and Unhinged and Overheated Threats and Insults®.
How to combat the Pundit? Ignore. (Or, use your best contacts to arrange a guest spot for the Pundit to appear on The View.)
Regretfully, the word count limits of a blogpost keep us from studying a number of other fascinating species. In a more detailed study, we might take a gander at The Hair-Trigger, a special variety of troll who is personally committed to reading nothing more than the title of your article or the first 30 seconds of your audio/video clip before firing off a mephitic response based on a misinterpretation of your work. Or, we might take a few moments to gaze at The Airshaft, a troll who was born without the humor chromosome. The Airshaft fails not only to make jokes, but to understand when jokes are being made. Although from time to time this troll might recognize a pun if it hit him in the head, Harvard trollologist Douwe Egbert bin Egbert’s study concludes that there is no known instance of The Airshaft comprehending dry humor, satire, or parody. For their own protection, these trolls should refrain from online activity on April 1, and should never let themselves near The Onion or The Babylon Bee.
What challenges do trolls pose?
Trolls can pose some bona fide challenges. A lurking issue is that many trolls are anonymous or, at least, anonymous to us. Who are they? Are they real people who hide as strangers and comment only when they are criticizing? Or real persons operating under false identities? Or electronic robots? A second problem is that they are often uncivil, willing to escalate to comments that are mean-spirited, violent, racist, or pornographic. A third problem arise when trolls inflict psychological harm by targeting your readers and even hijacking a comment chain.
Why are there so many trolls?
Contrary to Scandinavian legends, trolls have an almost ubiquitous presence. Why are there so many? The first and most important answer is the increasingly toxic nature of our public discourse as a whole. Public debate—especially as it centers on politics and/or religion—is increasingly uncivil. It is a symptom revealing our society’s internal sickness. Second, troll-proliferation (or, as some experts prefer, troliferation”) is made easy by the anonymity afforded by the Internet. A troll who might otherwise refrain from socially irritating or repulsive behavior feels free to do so behind a digital curtain. Third, trolling has metastasized because of the accessibility afforded by the Internet. Whereas a troll of yesteryear would have had difficulty in finding an audience, today’s troll has no difficulty whatsoever.
How can we respond (or not respond!) to critical comments on social media?
When one encounters ugly or unfair comments on the internet, one might immediately be tempted to respond in kind. For example, one might want to say, “Thank you for your comment. And may I add that you are cruelly depriving a village somewhere of an idiot?” Or, “I would argue with you, but it seems unfair to enter a battle of wits with such a lightly-armed man.” But such responses exhibit a lack of grace and wisdom.
Rather than mutating into one of our six trolls, consider these options:
- Control the comment string. Use old fashioned editorial judgment. If a comment seems to have been written by a troll, don’t approve the comment.
- Ignore the comment. By ignoring it, you don’t give the troll what he wants, which is to put himself in the spotlight, to humiliate you or make you angry, etc. The big drawback with this option is that you may accidentally overlook a good-willed person with real frustrations, rather than a real troll who thrives on trollery.
- Respond to the comment. On occasion, you might respond to the troll, usually for the purpose of managing one’s own personal media. On Facebook or a personal blog, for example, there might be a need to correct the troll’s comment for the sake of other friends or readers.
- Make an end-run around the troll by speaking about him to your audience. “Welp. Looks like there’s a troll trying to attack people on this site and hijack the conversation. My best recommendation is for you to ignore him so that he will go back in his cave.”
- Use humor. The best use of humor will not be mean-spirited, but instead will be a sort of light-hearted satire on dark arts of trollery: “Thank you for your unique contribution, which refreshes and challenges us all.”
- Block/Report/Mute/Unfriend. For real trolls, this is the best solution.
A Concluding Thought
One final thought. With the exception of bots, we must remember that trolls are human beings. We should treat them civilly even if they themselves are uncivil; in so doing, we contribute to the common project of neutralizing the toxicity of American public discourse. And, for those of us who are Christians, grace-full discourse imitates the grace of Christ as we post, critique, and interact with others in the culture of social media.