Internets are Serious Business!

Sun 22 Nov 2009 04:08:56 PM CST | Comments: 5 | Categories:

I've learned some simple but important rules about dealing with trolls and other types of disruptive/hateful people in online forums. I feel the need to preserve these for my own reference, but welcome any feedback. The first rule here is all you really need:

1) You cannot win a fight with a troll so don't try. If you have the choice, don't ever engage. Just ignore them completely or when possible, hit them with the banstick. The troll's usual purpose is to cause disruption. If you participate in a flamewar, you've aided and abetted them. The best you can do if you engage is to come out with a few tatters of your dignity intact. Whatever you do, don't define your response as a battle or war (not even mentally to yourself), because those are the terms the troll wants to fight on. Instead, consider the whole of your response as a kind of psychoanalysis and way of frustrating the troll's needs for attention. If you can do that, you've got a shot at not losing the battle in the troll's mind (which may be all that really counts if your ultimate goal is to get him to go away). I recommend not playing with trolls for fun either, but there may be some places where it isn't too harmful because the signal-to-noise ratio is already in the pit and really can't get worse.

2) You can still lose a fight with a troll even after you think you won. These people have some deep seated needs for attention and drama that usually derive from their own personal insecurities and needs for affirmation. If you should happen to get the best of a troll in a flamewar, all you've really done is reinforce those insecurities. That ensures they will be back to troll another day, and be even more bitter and unruly as a result. Apparent defeat of the troll just throws more gasoline on the fire. The troll never loses, and you never win. See #1.

3) Pick and choose which blows to counter while watching your back. Just because your troll is wailing away at you with everything they've got doesn't mean you need to swing at every pitch that is served. Look for the points you can really dig into that reinforce notions that the troll is just a drama queen seeking validation. A subtle implication is much better than direct accusation to open with. The best response to a long screed against you will always be: tl;dr. Nothing is going to burn a troll more than having his hard work ignored completely. If you didn't read his attacks, they didn't work and he wasted time. However, if others on the forum respond to his burns, that may give him a sense of having the upper hand. Sometimes you cannot ignore it. By this point, you ignored rules #1 and #2. Trolls frequently come in groups and once you face one, you've turned your back to two others. There are simply too many traps you cannot avoid. An emotionally suicidal person has nothing to lose when they confront you, but you have much to lose if you take their bait.

4) Avoid any obvious vulnerabilities. If it seems like that big chink in their armor is too good to be true (dorky profile pic), it probably is. Striking at it will reflect the blow back to you in some way more often than not. You should always pay attention to the rules of logic and avoid any common fallacies such as straw man or ad hominem attacks. Your troll likely knows of them, and will not hesitate to call you out and claim victory. Besides, you don't want to be striking directly at the troll, you want to only subtly imply things that will cause him discomfort.

5) The troll cannot hurt you without your consent. Unless he or she has your address and is in proximity, there's little to nothing they can do to cause you real harm. However, do take care that your tracks are covered enough to hide your public identity if you feel the troll is the vengeful type. This is the most important rule to believe in if you choose engagement. Don't give him any power over you - that is precisely what he is after. Most people just can't remain emotionally uninvolved to keep parrying the attacks until the troll gets frustrated. If you go into it with a willingness to self-deprecate (at critical moments) you can parry indefinitely. If you engage the troll make sure after a while that he knows you not only enjoy it and but also believe that you have the upper hand. Act as if you've already won and have nothing else to lose by continuing. He will be baiting you constantly. You need to throw the stinking bait right back at him a few times to shift the tactics.

The troll's object will be to cause you emotional anguish. It is the one and only real weapon in his arsenal. He'll call you names, insult your mother and father and dog, and otherwise throw every last bit of bile he can at you to make some of it stick. So this goes back to picking and choosing which blows to counter. Sometimes you have a back and forth series of one-liners, and this rule doesn't apply in such cases. I recommend avoiding those shorter back-and-forths if possible. If necessary, you can start posting more verbosely in an attempt to slow the troll down and engage him (but don't open yourself up to the tl;dr counter-attack either). Imagine you control the entire terms of engagement and you will. He is fighting on your home turf (and if he isn't, maybe you're the troll?)

Nothing will burn a troll more than having you agree with him. Often, if he can't have the desired effect on your emotions and you seem to be enjoying the banter, he'll quit because his needs for creating disruption aren't being met. Instead, his own psyche is threatened because his troll skills are failing and that is the ONLY defense mechanism he really has. You don't want to crush him, you only want him to slink away and look for lower-hanging fruit on someone else's forum.

What I've described here is a variant of "fighting fire with fire" (even as we aren't using war/battle metaphors any more than necessary right?). Conventional wisdom is that you don't feed a troll. My corollary rule is: if you are going to feed a troll, it is better to keep serving his own bile right back until he gets sick and leaves. The only way to really counter a troll is to think like him, and you risk becoming the thing you hate if you spend long in the business of baiting trolls.

Most trolls are pathetic shells of human beings who have nothing good to offer the world. They can only destroy and negate. Engaging a near-suicidal opponent is itself suicidal. That is why you don't do battle with a troll. If you do, you need to use the concept in Judo of turning your opponent's strengths into weaknesses. If his strength lies in insulting you to rile you up, then you can never display distress. Once you find yourself becoming emotionally involved, it is time to declare victory and go home. You still control the terms of engagement and can denounce his trolling for what it is, and then killfile the individual. If you've done it right, by this point everyone else is doing the same.

There's one other thing I can share as far as strategies go, if you ignored rule #1 and engaged the troll, sooner or later he will find a way to twist your words back at you. Possibly he will look for contradictions in things you've written. Really skilled trolls will find a way to trick you into such a predicament. There are two quotes that I may turn to in response should this happen, depending on the particular circumstances:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

This quote by Emerson is nice for the really little details you might be caught on and isn't applicable in all situations. Often, you have made a real mistake and it is better to just admit it and move on. Does that provide him some gratification? Possibly, but it was a risk you took when you ignored the first rule. Often the quote by Emerson is fitting and can be applied directly to the "little philosopher" your troll imagines himself to be.

This is the other quote I have used:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)


Walt Whitman

Most trolls probably don't understand poetry and won't be able to compose a coherent response. I expect to be called a fag if I post something like that on certain forums. It is important to note that I never use these quotes in an intellectually dishonest way. The reality is that I do often see and argue conflicting viewpoints within my own mind as I try to come to my own understanding of truth. There is always the possibility the troll might even teach me something of value by pointing that out. If nothing else, I can view the whole exercise as a lesson in what not to do next time, and swear to do better at following rule #1 myself.

Serious Business

Mike Lewinski

Denver, CO

November 22, 2009

 



5 Comments

<Anonymous>: on Sun 22 Nov 2009 08:17:21 PM CST

i really enjoyed watching that play out. :)

Any Mouse: on Mon 23 Nov 2009 04:54:23 AM CST

While you enjoyed watching it play out; I enjoyed orchestrating the piece de resistance which helped to mold and reshape this article.

Mike Lewinski: on Mon 23 Nov 2009 09:11:21 AM CST

Two notes for a follow-up piece some day:

1) If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit. There's an art to insulting someone in a way that leaves them sure they've been insulted but unable to identify how. In order to figure it out, they've got to stop and really examine their own behavior. You can lead the troll into an intellectual trap and confound them.

2) How to use humor to disarm conflict: once your opponent is laughing with you, it is much harder for them to laugh at you (even if you are both paradoxically laughing at your own self-deprecating humor). Laughter can be the beginning of empathy in this case. Sometimes the only viable option if the troll won't go away (and the forum lacks filtering capabilities) is to domesticate it.

<Anonymous>: on Mon 23 Nov 2009 09:45:46 AM CST

obviously that applies in real life too. it is the reason every class has a clown, my dear wordy.

Mike Lewinski: on Mon 23 Nov 2009 09:59:08 AM CST

True enough, gnome. And isn't it funny that clown is almost always male? I was quite conscious of my pronoun use in this article and briefly considered switching it up.

But as I see it, class clowning and trolling are both forms of competition for Alpha Male position. Often the best way to handle it is to trick that person into thinking they've attained the spot and don't have to compete for it anymore because you've ceded it to them.

It's kind of like how I let the cat get on high places where she thinks she's higher than me in the pecking order. I still have the opposable thumbs that open the cat food, but if it makes her happy...

Also for the followup paper: how to play multiple trolls off of each other for effect. They may have chosen to gang up on you, but a real judo master will have them throwing punches at each other in short order. Is it still disruptive? Yes, but if you can break their fraternity you can begin to isolate them and deal with them one-on-one (so often dealing with a group of trolls works best if it is a group effort).
Only registered users may post comments.