Daily Maverick Free Speech Morality

More on dealing with trolls

As submitted to Daily Maverick

(Note to pedants: I realise that the previous post – and this one – uses the word “troll” atypically. This is both because I think the definition could usefully be broadened, and because it’s a useful, evocative word).

If you don’t believe that hostility (or sometimes, something more accurately describable as abuse) on Internet comment threads is a problem, then this post will be of no or little interest to you. I say this to let you know that you should cease reading, rather than skipping to the end to leave a hostile comment. You always have that option, even though people seem more and more reluctant to exercise it.

But if you do think this a topic worth discussing, you’d most likely recall that last week I discussed what appears to be a marked decrease in civility on the Internet. What used to be localised has arguably been generalised, and we’ve now got a significant chance of encountering a troll in the comments thread of Daily Maverick, never mind their ancestral homes of News24 and PoliticsWeb.

One thing that we can all do about this is to temper how we respond to provocation, whether perceived or otherwise. This is part of the remedy for situations in which we might be perceived to ourselves be the troll, or perhaps where we provide one of them with a useful provocation. The advice to not feed trolls remains sound, but it perhaps doesn’t go far enough.

This is because what I’ve always understood as not feeding a troll is simply not responding to their provocations. While mocking someone who seems deserving can provide pleasure – both to other commentators and to spectators – it’s mostly just a way of feeling superior. It usually won’t change anyone’s mind, and serves simply to affirm a group identity as one of the smart, sophisticated set (or so you might think of yourself), rather than the sort of person represented by the ingrate you’re now making fun of.

In other words, directing your scathing wit at a troll might be encouraging another sort of negative aspect of character, while doing nothing to modify the target’s behaviour – except for encouraging him (sadly, it usually is a him) to try harder. It’s perhaps these sorts of considerations, among others, that led Jean Kazez, a philosopher at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, to offer what I thought to be three quite useful prescriptions.

The first prescription she offers has already been addressed, above and last week, and calls for some reflection on appropriate uses of our time and energy – particularly for those of us who do act like trolls online. The second and third, however, call for a complete disassociation from those who do, rather than the more typical exhortation to not encourage them.

Kazez suggests that we should cease any participation in fora where significant bullying takes place, and also cease from interacting with people who do participate in those fora. In summary, both those who bully and those who enable the bullies need to discover that they will lose their “seat at the table” of adult debate.

In a local context, perhaps this could mean never even attempting to engage in a comment thread on certain sites, or promptly removing oneself once certain commentators arrive to hijack the discussion. If the chances are high enough (and sometimes they seem certain) that the usual race-baiting will ensue, what’s the point of yet another attempt to call for a nuanced consideration of how (for example) neo-liberalism is being used as a catch-all term meaning “an economic stance that I don’t agree with”, and is therefore not a useful contribution?

My primary concerns around the advice to disengage involve the potentially instructive role that more sober comments can play. Even if it’s true that engagement typically encourages, because trolls love being given attention, there are nevertheless some fence-sitters lurking who are potentially receptive to productive disagreement.

Withdrawing entirely from debate costs us those opportunities. Limiting or ceasing interaction with those who do participate is even more radical, and involves forsaking the opportunity to set an example, persuade or encourage others to be more reasonable. But perhaps this is the point – we are still too optimistic about how often such opportunities arise, and about how often there’s any reward from taking them.

As someone who has by now spent more than two decades at a university, it’s perhaps easy to accuse me of naiveté here – maybe this is just how people talk in the “real” world, and it’s the Socratic dialogue that was always the fantasy. If it is civilised conversation you want, in other words, have it with carefully selected friends or in a filter bubble you’ve created for that purpose.

Outside of those environments – which bring with them a limitation on our own capacity to learn from difference, and from debate – it sadly seems true that most of the time, our engagements with abusive elements of the Internet are doing nothing to stem the tide of anger and misunderstanding. In the meanwhile, though, they do give the trolls something else to scream about.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

5 replies on “More on dealing with trolls”

What about instances of defamation or smear campaigns? That’s a very common tactic among trolls. What good is gained from ceding “ground” (for the lack of a better word) to people who will use to spread lies or misinformation about someone?

It seems like your disengagement advice really wouldn’t work for instances of trolling that aren’t the generic taunts and insults. You mention abuse but I really do think disengagement and disassociation are the best ways to discourage it.

Anyway, thanks for the read.

Actual defamation or libel that has a chance of being successfully tackled in a court should go to a court, I’d say. But you’re right that vicious things can be said underground, as it were, and if we’re not there to see it the lies could spread widely. On the other hand, they’d hopefully only be spreading amongst people whose opinions we don’t care about. A tricky topic, with many complexities…

A suggestion to remedy this problem, Jacques:

Perhaps one can leverage those “fence-sitters lurking who are potentially receptive to productive disagreement.” There is a value here that must not be overlooked.

One can develop relationships with those who fuel open-minded discussion and encourage them to jump in when a comment has been made that has ceased all opportunity for debate. Thus, steering the conversation back to open-minded discussion.

The greater the reader-base of those who seek truth, the greater the possibility for debate.

I really like the way the OP starts out and concludes.

Though the meat in this sandwich seems pretty suss to me. The bullying paradigm very quickly breaksdown because in the blogosphere the scrawny kid fights back. Comment trolling seems to me much more like a bad-behavior arms-race. If we refrained from text-based reactions that are public, then yes the phenomenon disappears. But so too our blogs. And we’re left sitting in meatspace with our private emotions and bedside journals. The meek feeling uncomfortably needled by divisive loudmouths. And probably inheriting naught but the dimly lit corners of public (cyber)space.

As for those 3 proscriptions, there’s every reason to doubt that generic guidelines have really worked, were they enforced. Let alone across the entire diversity of the blogosphere. Those experiments of “blog commenting rules” have been run millions of times with millions of variants. Bloggers see quite clearly which adopted approach to blog commenting “debates” isn’t working (pharyngula, FTB, etc). But I think bloggers forget to look beyond their beloved blogosphere to where today’s most successful debating websites and purpose-build technologies and communities are quietly thriving.

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