Like most things in life, the Internet is a mixed bag. Sometimes, online discussion is very, very good. And sometimes, online argument can go very badly, and there is a name for those who embrace a deleterious argumentative practice that is made possible by the Internet. We are speaking of the trolls.
Thinking one’s way into Internet trolling isn’t very difficult. There are news stories, blog postings, and opinion pages. With these, there are comment threads for critical discussion. Sometimes on these threads, there are hundreds or even thousands of comments. Now, when there are many people talking in a room, sometimes the best way to be heard is to raise one’s voice. But, alas, there’s no volume on the internet. To be sure, there is the practice of writing in ALLCAPS, which is the written equivalent of shouting. But anyone can do that, and on the Internet, all such shouting is rendered equally “loud.” So the only way to be heard on the Internet is to have content that captures the eye of readers, and in a comment thread, few things attract attention better than comments which are rude and abusive. Thus a troll is born.
We should note that Internet trolls come in many shapes and forms. There are some who post unflattering pictures of their exes online, there are others who bully classmates on Facebook, and there are those who intentionally post false information in the midst of natural disasters. We are not talking about these trolls here, but much of what we say will likely be relevant to them. The trolls we are concerned with are those that dominate discussions with overblown objections and personal attacks, who seem immune to criticism, and who thereby derail Internet argument. A further feature of trolls of this kind is that they seem to thrive on the negative reactions they elicit. Responding to them and defending your view causes them to become even more unhinged. It seems that the best thing you can do is simply ignore them.
But here’s the trouble. It seems clear that engaging with critics is a good thing. In fact, it is not merely a good thing; it is what one ought to do. This is an old thought, and one exceedingly well-articulated by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, with the observation that “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” The thought is that even if you’re right and have excellent reasons to believe so, if you have no reasons that address the other side of an issue, you have no ground to make the comparative judgment that your side is better. The consequence is that those who have critical things to say should be of great interest to us, and we should feel deeply obligated to take up with them. That’s a really important reason for why argument matters – even if you’re right in a disagreement, you need the grounds for preferring your own side, which requires knowing the other.
So what about the trolls? In a sense, they take advantage of this obligation we have to clarify and defend our views. They present their challenges, often in insulting form, and then expect a properly-tempered reply. And when they aren’t given the kind of reply they demand, they claim victory and announce that their opponents are weak-minded cowards.
That is to say that trolls are free-riders on proper argument. They flout the norms of argument when presenting their objections while holding everyone else to the highest standards of dialectical conduct. That’s unfair. In fact, we might say that trolls represent the incarnation of what’s fallacious about dialectical fallacies. The troll’s game is to mimic argument; he claims to uphold the standards of proper discussion, but in fact exempts his own contributions from those standards. So trolls are merely playing at argument. That’s why we have the internet expression, “Don’t feed the trolls”.
The most obvious reason why it’s best to let the trolls go has to do with personal sanity. The world is full of people with keyboards and chips on their shoulders. Taking all of them on is a Herculean task, and it is personally fatiguing. Engaging with the trolls isn’t bad only for argument, it’s bad for us as arguers. And we think it’s even bad for the trolls. It’s bad for the argument, because when we engage with trolls, we get bogged down with nasty invectives that incline us less to rational deliberation and more to personal hatred. And engaging with trolls is bad for the trolls, too. In replying, we acknowledge and perhaps even validate their behavior. We hence encourage their trolling.
A further consequence of trolling has recently come to light. Trolling not only ruins the prospects for argument following a post, but it actually skews readers’ perceptions of the content of the original posting. Recent research suggests that personal attacks and rude remarks in the comments section following a post on the Internet affects readers’ understanding of its content. The phenomenon is called “the nasty effect.” [Article HERE, reported in NYT HERE] So trolls not only tend to mess up argument, they also tend to mess up comprehension.
One should not engage with trolls. Trouble is, this advice is nearly vacuous. That one shouldn’t engage with trolls seems obvious. The issue really is how do we sort the trolls from everyone else with an objection. Trolls almost always deny that they are trolls, and it’s not easy to tell the difference between a troll and someone who has legitimate concerns but inadequate social skills. Those who fall into the latter category deserve our dialectical attention; those in the former deserve to be ignored. How can one tell them apart?
Often it takes a few rounds of sincere engagement in order to determine whether an interlocutor is a troll. And, yes, this means that in cases where an interlocutor is revealed as a troll, one will have wasted one’s time in reaching that determination. But trolls have a way of unintentionally revealing themselves. As they are not sincerely interested in argument, but instead are merely posing as arguers, there are a few tell-tale signs that one’s interlocutor is a troll. The most obvious sign, of course, is the abusive tone; or, more specifically, the increasing intensity of the abuse. A troll continually intensifies the offensiveness of his or her contributions to the discussion. A second, and related, sign is repetition. A troll isn’t really concerned with the argument, and so typically is not particularly adept at recognizing when his or her critical points have been responded to. So trolls frequently simply repeat the content of their initial contribution in increasingly abusive language. Third, since trolls are interested in maintaining attention, they will in the course of an exchange attempt to change the topic of the debate. Typically, this is attempted by suggesting that one’s view on the topic of the original discussion commits one to a particular view on some other topic. Finally, when called out on their abusive tone or non-responsiveness, trolls are quick to cry “who me?” or charge the critic with being over-sensitive. They may apologize, but they’ll say they are sorry that you can’t take a joke.
Still, it’s hard to tell if someone’s trolling, and engaging with trolls is bad for everyone. So when you’re confronted with comments on a thread that look like trolling, you should ask yourself whether this person might have a point, and whether this is the best format for a full discussion about the objection on the table. If the answer to both is No, then you should just ignore the comments. If the answer to both is Yes, then you should take up the conversation. The hard cases emerge when the answers are mixed.
One consequence of our discussion here is that argument is easy, perhaps all too easy, to mess up. We argue over issues that matter, and so we are deeply invested in the outcome of argument. But we’re also often in a hurry to get things out and decided. This means that argument is frequently messy, heated, rushed, and often incomplete. That’s why there is a real temptation to replace good argument with personal attack. Unlike sincere attempts to reason with one’s opponents, personal attacks are highly efficient and often effective. You call someone a name; it hurts their feelings; they blink; and you win. All done. It’s easy, even, to imagine getting some measure of satisfaction from this technique. But civility and rationality require that we resist this temptation. Well-run argument is devoted to the objective of figuring things out, getting the right answers. And so making it harder for someone to present her case by producing distracting noise that creates attrition for those in the argument undermines those ends.
Aikin and Talisse are authors of Why We Argue (And How We Should), from Routledge this Fall.