Hari's Corner

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Internet trolling - what makes it work

Filed under: Internet and Blogging by Hari
Posted on Thu, Jun 7, 2007 at 17:30 IST (last updated: Wed, Jul 16, 2008 @ 20:11 IST)

RT recently posted an article on his blog with a piece of advice which is fairly common on the internet: do not feed the trolls. But day after day, month after month, year after year, trolls continue to enjoy the same level of success that they have done since the beginning of human debate and discussion. Why? I think what is fundamentally missing from such advice (anywhere) is how trolls operate and why they succeed and how they hit you where it hurts the most (metaphorically).

So the next time you read something on the internet which makes your blood boil to such an extent that you are dying to respond with a stirring, stinging reply, stop just a moment and ask yourself the question: Am I a reasonable person?

If the answer is: yes, then ask again, Is the person who wrote this article a reasonable person?

The question should be asked not because you were at boiling point. In fact, chances are you are a very reasonable person and you are open-minded enough to participate in debates and discussions without losing your cool. You are wise enough to know where to draw the line and when to withdraw decently from an argument. At the same time, everybody in their senses gets upset at issues around them from time to time. No normal person can remain perfectly unaffected by everything written or said about certain issues. The key here is whether the piece of writing which affected you was deliberately written in a manner which would emotionally affect any reasonable person. Because, once emotion takes over, logic goes out of the window. It always happens.

Internet trolls operate on this principle - they don't care for factual accuracy of anything they write about so long as it sounds reasonally logical or intellectual and is superficially subtle. I say "superficially" because closer, dispassionate inspection would definitely reveal their true colours. But for that you need to remain unaffected by emotion while reading such provocative content.

Those of us who have been online for any length of period have experienced trolls in one form or the other, knowingly or unknowingly. We also know how immensely frustrating such trolls are because we are dying to prove that they are absolutely wrong and misguided in their writing. But at this precise moment, consider for a moment whether the person who wrote that article was honestly misguided and if so, whether your efforts at "correction" will actually be received in an open-minded manner. At some stage, I realized that it doesn't matter whether a person is deliberately intellectually dishonest or honestly misguided. It works to the same thing. Very few people will admit to making a mistake in real life and even fewer will do so online. The very open nature of the internet makes it nearly impossible to admit an error without losing face. And most people, right or wrong, don't want to lose face.

So rather than analyze why somebody would write such a provocative, misguided and factually incorrect article, you would be better off asking whether anything you add to the discussion (if it is a public forum) or communicate to the author (privately) would really be of any use. At best your response will either remain ignored or get buried under a huge pile of other responses. At worst, you would get rude replies which drag you further into personal conflict with the parties involved.

It's better to be cynical about such things rather than implicitly believe in the honesty of such people or try to beat our heads trying to expose their dishonesty. I think a problem is that too many people are tricked into thinking that it's their duty or obligation to respond to every argument with counter-points to show that they are not afraid of discussion or debate and so find it extremely hard to get out of a debate once they get in. Well, so what if you are afraid of debate? Does it matter when a nameless, faceless stranger thinks you are a sissy? So what if people think you're rude by not responding? Are they related to you in any manner that their opinion about you will affect you in any way? Is the stranger who wrote that crap really going to have the last word on the issue under discussion? Isn't it better to leave rather than make emotional outbursts and give them the pleasure of seeing you dance to their tunes? If you focus on the person rather than the debate, you would realize how stupid it is to even converse with a stranger on an issue that you feel so strongly about.

Getting drawn into argument with such people can get dangerously addictive and emotionally sapping. There's nothing constructive in debate, genuine or not, beyond a point. Really.

The best response is to clear out and never return to that website to read it again. It can be hard for a while, but it is the only thing that works effectively in the end. Everytime I stumble across something disgustingly objectionable online, I make it a point to completely forget the URL by wiping out the browser history.

12 comment(s)

  1. Good post. There's one part I don't agree with, tho: The best response is to clear out and never return to that website to read it again.If something that somebody says bothers you, avoiding thinking about it is a good "short term" response. But I find that the best thing to do is to deal with it, rather than ignore if.E.g. If a very crude troll says "Your really dumb!" and this makes you angry. If you just delete the comment or never go back to where it was posted, you haven't really "dealt" with the issue: You've just glossed over it.Distasteful tho it can be, forcing yourself to sit and think about the troll's comment is a better response. Eventually, you work through the anger that the troll has evoked, and the comment no longer bothers you. You might even become amused that somebody who can't spell "You're" has accused you of lacking intelligence, and there's nothing trolls hate more than knowing they've actually improved your day.I used to just distance myself from trolls when they popped up, but it meant I was running out of places on the web after a while. So I tried the above approach, and soon got into the habit of analysing what they say and resolving the issue. And they no longer bother me. Frequently, instead, they amuse me.Letting a troll drive you away from somewhere that you would otherwise enjoy being still means that they've won. Not by as much as feeding them would have done, but even so, they've provoked a response from you, and that's what they wanted to do.Smiling at their futile antics and otherwise ignoring them, on the other hand, is the nastiest thing you can ever do to a troll.

    Comment by Dominic (visitor) on Thu, Jun 7, 2007 @ 19:40 IST #
  2. Actually you're right about trolls. You get used to them and they even amuse you.But the way other people kept responding to trolls seriouslygot really boring after a while. And ultimately when you see the same kind of trolls keep posting the same kind of messages over and over again, even amusement gives way to sheer boredom. You see nothing new, you learn nothing new.Another thing is that there will always be issues which will annoy you... why waste unnecessary time and effort in debating such issues rather than going on with one's productive daily life?I didn't stop visiting forums just for one reason. It has happened gradually over a period of time due to the feeling that I wasn't really benefitting from active participation any more. I didn't let the trolls win. I just chose to go away. If it meant a victory for them, that's precisely the point: I don't mind.

    Comment by hari (blog owner) on Thu, Jun 7, 2007 @ 19:51 IST #
  3. But the way other people kept responding to trolls seriouslygot really boring after a while.Ah, good point. People replying to trolls can be more infuriating than the trolls themselves. Sad but true.

    Comment by Dominic (visitor) on Thu, Jun 7, 2007 @ 20:01 IST #
  4. Sometimes I almost congratulate the trolls in exposing the stupidity of people.But the good, skillful trolls are rare. Usually trolls are stupid. But people even get caught by stupid trolls these days :lol:

    Comment by hari (blog owner) on Thu, Jun 7, 2007 @ 20:02 IST #
  5. Also Dominic, a lot of what I said in this article relates to random postings found anywhere on the internet. Not just about forum communities.

    Comment by hari (blog owner) on Thu, Jun 7, 2007 @ 20:36 IST #
  6. Yeah... trolls need something to feed on so that they get all the attention they need. But completely ignoring them doesn't always work. How about exposing IP addresses and locations? That sure will scare the hell out of them!

    Comment by Sudipta Chatterjee (visitor) on Thu, Jun 7, 2007 @ 22:55 IST #
  7. I don't necessarily agree with exposing their IP Address or actual location. If something were to happen to that member, troll or person, they could hold the website that exposed such information reliable and as a website owner, you could find yourself in a mess that you don't necessarily want to be in.

    Comment by drew (visitor) on Thu, Jun 7, 2007 @ 23:16 IST #
  8. Well, that's a bit of a far-fetched scenario, but Drew is right. We have to remember that they are just people...And anyway, my point is, what business is it of ours to expose them and even so, how is it possible to get their IP addresses by anybody? Unless you're the owner/admin of a website and they post there, how can you get it?

    Comment by hari (blog owner) on Fri, Jun 8, 2007 @ 07:15 IST #
  9. Well, IP Addresses and locations can be found even if you're not hosting the website yourself. Take a look at my blog for details. But you raise an important privacy concern: it is not a cakewalk doing so.

    Comment by Sudipta Chatterjee (visitor) on Sat, Jun 9, 2007 @ 04:39 IST #
  10. Sudipta, it's not just privacy. It's also about whether we are morally justified in revealing the IP addresses of total strangers, no matter how much they have annoyed us. Sometimes we take the internet far too seriously. The best solution is to take it easy and laugh once in a while.

    Comment by hari (blog owner) on Sat, Jun 9, 2007 @ 07:36 IST #
  11. Sometimes we take the internet far too seriously. That is a great point. I dont even take life too seriously, if you do it can get you down. And trolls know there are way too many people taking everything they see and read to heart / seriously.Although many people go online not to be themselves, for me the internet is a reflection of real life in the way that there are mainly decent folks, but always the idiots, and the ignorant crop up. I was "called" the other day on a post I did about Powerset search engine - it turned out I had got the wrong end of the stick of a press release. I didnt think trwice about responding though, and putting the record straight. I guess I lost face in the eyes of some? Personally it was another opportunity to take the piss -out of myself, which is cool. But I dont think the serious as life and death tech heads were that impressed :)

    Comment by Ed (visitor) on Sat, Jun 23, 2007 @ 03:07 IST #
  12. Ed, thanks for the comment. You've made an important point about acknowledging one's own mistakes. Not many do this on the internet or in public, but if we all did, we would easily forestall our critics and in fact, gain credibility in the process.

    Comment by hari (blog owner) on Sat, Jun 23, 2007 @ 06:31 IST #

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