The internet troll is a vicious little monster. It will lurk on social media networks, online forums, and blogs hunting for prey. They will stalk a herd of sheep, looking for the weak. When one of these vicious critters pounce, they attack with far worse than sharp teeth and slashing claws. It will use words to cut its victim to the bone. Moreover, a successful internet troll will leave you with your confidence broken and beliefs shattered. How can anyone, in their right mind, say that internet trolling has positive benefits?
Before we get started, let us clearly identify who we are talking about. An internet troll is a person who injects themselves into an online discussion or will post comments with the specific intent of causing a disruption or getting a person or people upset. Their only purpose is to get everyone unsettled, shocked, and frazzled. However, they do not threaten physical injury or cause real harm. Their focus is chaos only. Regardless, how can any good come of them?
The Mind of the Internet Troll
Psychology Today reports that those people who said “trolling was their favorite Internet activity,” also scored high for narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism. They found an internet troll will lie, exaggerate, and offend just to get the desired response. Essentially, they are bullies who make themselves feel good by making others feel bad. An internet troll is likely someone who feels less-than in their own life, and will use trolling to feel powerful and exert control over others.
However, on the dark web, there are trolling groups organized with the mission of “purposeful anarchy”. They will start poking at a target, escalating over time, with more hateful and belittling comments. Nothing is off-limits: race, religion, sex, disability, gender, and so on. Take for example, Lena Dunham, who quit Twitter back in 2015 because of “verbal abuse.” Dunham had posted a photo of herself in a sports bra and men’s boxers. The response was wave after wave of “the most rabid, disgusting debate about women’s bodies” and “body-shaming.” The occurrence was so upsetting to Dunham, she had to leave Twitter, at least until her publicist told her to go back.
Lena Dunham, by any measure, is a very successful person. She is an actress, writer, producer, and director. Moreover, she is the creator, writer, and star of the successful HBO series Girls. Nonetheless, she is also a bit of a paper tiger. Dunham is very vocal on social and political issues. It would not surprise anyone if she posted her photo online hoping to make a statement that all women are beautiful, no matter their size or shape. Regardless, when the response was not praise, she fell apart and did not have the strength of her convictions. Ultimately, the internet trolls exposed her as weak and pathetic.
Benefits of Internet Trolling
While we may see their behavior as overly harsh and cruel, the role of the internet troll is vital to the health of the internet ecosystem. I will not argue that they are not predators. However, while many will cringe watching a lion take down a zebra, they do have a place in this world. And, of course, no one wants the lion turning on them. Nonetheless, the internet troll will mostly target the self-righteous and self-important, who are usually weak and thin skinned. It is not so much an attack on the target’s actual point of view, but the person or group itself.
The good accomplished by internet trolls is separating the wheat from the chaff, high quality from those that are not. There are many people on the internet spouting their political, religious, and social opinions. While everyone is entitled to their personal beliefs, it is typically not good form to publicly promote your ideas as the only true or correct positions. Therefore, whether you are pro-life or pro-choice, if you want to stand on a soapbox, you should be able to intelligently argue your position using facts, without demeaning those who disagree, and without losing your mind if you are challenged, even if it is aggressive.
Kinds of Internet Trolls
1. Grammar Nazi – One of the more pathetic incarnations of internet trolling, the grammar nazi just cannot help pointing out a grammatical error. Moreover, it is a tactic to prove you are too stupid to have the correct position.
2. Frenzied Flamer – This troll loves to target group-think and will ignite otherwise peaceful forums and conversations on fire. They will take an extreme, often controversial position to get things going.
3. The Griefer – Inflicting pain is the only point of this troll. They will work to shame and embarrass you. The goal is to expose your more personal insecurities and exploit them.
4. The Rager – They are angry about absolutely everything and the more they rant about what makes them angry, the angrier they get. There is no reasoning with this guy. You’ll only make him angrier.
5. The Victim – Your opinion victimizes this internet troll, and diminishes them as a person. She will publicly demand moderators ban you and force others to take sides. Then they will sit back with some popcorn.
6. Saboteur – Most likely for professional reasons or a personal grudge, the role of the Saboteur is to destroy an internet community from the inside. They will make friends and network, all the while sowing the seeds of discontent.
7. The Hater – There is no other motivation other than this troll woke up one day and decided they hate you. They will just pick, pick, pick until you lose your mind. Once victorious, they will find someone new to hate.
8. The Spartan – The motto of the Spartan is “return with your shield or on it.” They will win their argument at all cost, taking no prisoners, and using a scorched earth strategy, if necessary. You will not win.
9. The Crazies – Obsessed stalkers and harassers can make your internet life hell. They will create elaborate narratives in their heads about you, your goals, and what you are really doing.
10. The Contortionist – These trolls are the equivalent of political pundits, taking a single line out of context to prove you are a horrible person. They don’t care that their own position is weak and baseless.
11. The Saviour – If the Saviour perceives that a person or group has been unfairly targeted or criticized, this troll will jump into action. They will not rest until your bigotry or racism is exposed.
12. Holy Warrior – The Holy Warrior has drunk the Kool-Aid. They can be a religious nut, conspiracy theorist, extreme leftist, right wing lunatic, or subscriber of any number of ideologies. They will shock and shame you into thinking correctly.
13. Ted Cruz – A champion debater, the Ted Cruz troll knows all the rhetorical tricks and how to exploit logical fallacies. Moreover, there are very well versed in the art of persuasion, but are arrogant and extremely annoying.
How to Handle an Internet Troll
Most of the advice online is to block or report internet trolls. You are not going to find that here. The best way to deal with an internet troll is not to make yourself a target. This may come across as a bit of victim shaming, but many targets themselves are aggressive and demeaning to others, even if it is unintentional. An internet troll is often fire fighting with fire. Moreover. if you need a “safe space” to express your beliefs, the internet is probably not the place for you.
Step #1: Make Sure You Are Dealing With an Actual Troll – The label “internet troll” is tossed around too freely. An angry comment, or an aggressive challenge to your idea, does not automatically equate to a person being an internet troll. The person may have simply had an emotional response to your statement or position. Don’t start assuming the worst.
Step #2: Don’t Engage Genuinely Controversial or Abusive Language – Every social site and online forum has either a block or ignore feature. I suggest initially ignoring angry or foul language. People are entitled to a bad day. However, you don’t have to tolerate someone who is unwilling to have a reasoned conversation. Use the tools that websites give you.
Step #3: Before Engaging, Make Sure You Are Secure in Your Beliefs – This is a big one. One of the best ways to defuse an internet troll is clearly expressing not only that your statement is just your opinion, but that their point of view is equally valid. Keep in mind, this does not work if your opinion starts with something like “all intelligent people agree”.
Step #4: Employ a Strategy of Self-Deprecating Humor – Don’t take yourself so seriously. Internet trolls just love to devour those people who have a high opinion of themselves. Lena Dunham lost the battle with internet trolls because she takes herself way too seriously but is also not comfortable in her own skin. She knows her body is not the cultural standard for beauty. Why was she shocked?
Step #5: Aggressively Defend Your Position with Real Facts – Use easily verifiable facts and statistics to support your argument, and cite reputable resources and websites to bolster your position. It is an unfortunate reality that many people hold opinions based solely on other opinions, and then want to preach to the world. If you are one of those individuals, you may deserve to be troll food.
Step #6: Ask Your Troll to Defend Their Position – Once you cite the facts that support and form the basis of your opinions, your internet troll may still continue to pick you apart. At this point, it is time to flip things back on them. You have already defended your position. Demand they support their opinion with verifiable facts and figures.
Step #7: Maybe it Is Time to Agree to Disagree – This is not walking away with you still believing people who disagree with you don’t have a valid opinion. Agreeing to disagree means that each side has equally valid points of view. This is often difficult if both sides can’t agree on the facts. However, the whole goal of an internet troll is often to take you down a notch. Suck it up and admit you may not be right.
Fundamentally, an internet troll is like any other bully. As a method of propping up their own self-esteem, they pick on those they perceive as weaker than themselves. In most cases, simply standing up for yourself, being secure in your own beliefs, and keeping your cool will have the troll moving on to find an easier target. Regardless, some are relentless. When all else fails, contact moderators, support, or the webmaster for help.
Why Internet Trolls Are Effective
More and more, we live in an echo-chamber, where our own beliefs are amplified and reinforced while competing ideas are filtered out. Conservatives watch Fox News, whereas Liberals will consume MSNBC. Facebook has created algorithms so that our news feeds are filled with only those posts we are most likely to “like”, share, and reply. Twitter is following with their own timeline and notification changes. Therefore, we no longer live in a world of competing ideas.
As a result, the internet is fertile ground for trolling. The information echo-chamber both empowers the internet troll and creates targets. Nonetheless, don’t confuse an online tantrum or threats for internet trolling. Trolls are not in the business of creating terror or causing violence. Their ultimate goal is chaos and creating discord. However, they are extremely mean-spirited and cruel. Moreover, internet trolls crave attention and a feeling of self-importance.
Consider the dynamics of Batman and the Joker as an analogy. Comic book fans know the Joker doesn’t really want to kill Batman. Where is the fun in that? He wants to expose the truth about Batman to the world. In the mind of the Joker, Batman is just as twisted and demented as he, and they are two sides of the same coin. The Joker receives joy by pushing Batman to his limits, hoping he will eventually crack. The internet troll has the same goal, to push you to your breaking point, exposing you to be as small and insignificant as they feel about themselves.
Ultimately, internet trolls tend to be self-righteous and closed-minded. Yet, they see their targets the same way. An atheist troll may comment on the memorial page of a small child because it talks about heaven and angels. A pro-life troll may post graphic images of fetus body parts on a liberal forum. The more anger, sadness, discord and confusion they create, the more joy they will receive. Therefore, an internet troll’s effectiveness is completely based on our reactions.