The late Andrew Breitbart once said during a seminar I attended that we should engage with leftists who debate us on Twitter, even if it’s someone named @chardonnay567 who has 13 followers. It can take up a lot of time, and cause anxiety, but on the other hand, if they’re not very good debaters it can be satisfying to crush them if you’re an experienced debater. You usually know when they block you that you’ve won.
However, the vast majority of advice online says don’t feed the trolls. According to the Pew Research Center, 60% of people ignore trolls. Trolls have become such a problem that sites are disabling comments. Popular Science removed their comments section several years ago, finding that “a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story.”
One author on Mashable declared, “As effective as it is in sharing good things, Twitter is even more effective as a platform for shaming, ridicule and hate.” He said some people have created accounts solely to harass him, even though he merely writes about finances, not politics or something extremely controversial. Another author refers to Twitter as “an endless sink of emotional energy.” The problem of trolls is exacerbated on Twitter due to the 140 character limit. Artificially cutting off conversation makes smooth communication less likely.
So why else do we respond? Some of the trolls aren’t just anonymous people but are high-profile, respected pundits, so you feel a need to respond. A lawyer who got involved with a project involving asylum seekers in Australia said once he’d engage back with a troll, they were likely to switch their approach and become polite.
Studies reveal that the more something is repeated, the more people are likely to believe it’s true. This makes us feel a false urgency to respond to a troll who keeps harassing us with the same lines.
But a study in 2014 found that people who engage in trolling are characterized by personality traits that fall in the so-called Dark Tetrad: Machiavellianism (willingness to manipulate and deceive others), narcissism (egotism and self-obsession), psychopathy (the lack of remorse and empathy) and sadism (pleasure in the suffering of others). Sadists had the highest correlation. One author observed, “they feed on your impotent rage.” Fortunately, only 5.6% of those surveyed said they enjoy engaging in trolling.
The study author, Erin Buckels of the University of Manitoba, confirmed a version of a suspicion I’ve had for years, which is that people act out their mental problems and anger in the political arena instead of in other ways such as breaking things around the house or screaming at family members and acquaintances, because it’s considered more socially acceptable. That’s why we see so many people using profanity to discuss politics, attacking people personally over political issues, and blocking people for flimsy reasons. Buckels said, “Ultimately, the allure of trolling may be too strong for sadists, who presumably have limited opportunities to express their sadistic interests in a socially-desirable manner.”
According to the site Very Well Family, “Their goal is to attract attention and disrupt conversations. The more attention they get, the happier they are.” Instead of becoming upset, they find it funny when they are attacked back. “The more people say to them or engage with them, the more hate they will spew.”
Trolls are different than cyberbullies, Very Well Family points out, because cyberbullies want to direct all the negative attention at their victim, get others to join them and “cause as much pain and humiliation as they can for that person.” Trolls, in contrast, want attention for themselves and aim to “humiliate you online and damage your reputation.” They insult you, turn your words around on you, make you doubt yourself and feel bad about yourself.
When I do engage briefly with trolls, I usually point out right away that they’re engaging in a fourth grader insult, since they’re often saying something like “conservatives are [insert choice word like idiots].” It’s nothing more than character assassination.
Social media experts recommend using humor to deal with them — you could end up getting a lot of retweets. Some also recommend unmasking them, like pointing out they have a pathetic blog (although not going so far as the controversial practice of doxing them by outing their name and address).
Trolls often phrase the debate in their terms, so we end up arguing within an artificial framework making it easier for them to win. A classic example of this is how they call everything on the right racist, even though none of it’s true. Do you really want to waste your time arguing that things aren’t racist?
Debating people online rarely changes their minds. Confirmation bias is wired into our DNA, causing us to ignore facts that contradict our beliefs. Granted, you may increase your understanding of the world and improve your knowledge and arguing skills. And whether you have 100 followers or 100,000 followers does make a difference. You’re more likely to influence someone if you have 100,000 followers.
Whatever happened to plain old good manners? People today criticize the 1950s, but one problem that era did not suffer from was a lack of good manners. Political discussion on social media doesn’t have to be combat all the time. You don’t have to stoop to the trolls’ level.
When I started researching this article, I still leaned toward Breitbart’s advice. But he died in March of 2012. Social media experts say trolling didn’t even emerge until about 2011. After 11 years of this, we know too much about trolling now.
How much time is it taking out of your life that you could be doing more enjoyable things? Do you suffer from anxiety, so is it just worsening the problem? I’ve come to the conclusion the best approach is to set a daily time limit for debating trolls, maybe five or 10 minutes, and don’t go over it.