The Real Problem with Trolls

In a response to a prior post–made in the middle of a somewhat heated discussion generated by that post–a commenter complained that his contributions to the debate had simply been ignored by others, even though they’d been accompanied by links to what he described as “liberal” references.

As regular readers of this blog know, I rarely participate in the conversations triggered by my daily posts/rants. (I do read most of the comments.) There are two reasons for that, one practical and one more-or-less philosophical: the practical reason is that I have a day job, and I can’t afford the additional time thoughtful engagement would take; the “philosophical” reason is that the blog is intended to generate responses and in a very real sense, to allow readers to educate me–which many of you, especially my “regulars” regularly do.

But the complaint was that no one was responding to points made by this particular individual, and that such non-responsiveness–at least in the eye of the commenter–was characteristics of the disinclination of “liberals” to engage with those who disagreed.

To the extent that complaint is justified, I don’t think it’s a consequence of political orientation, conservative or liberal. I think the problem is trolls.

I firmly believe that trolls–and this blog has a couple of persistent ones–want nothing more than to stir the pot. They present themselves as angry and troubled individuals whose goals are limited to insulting and “bomb throwing.”  For whatever reason (I’m no psychiatrist) they are uninterested in genuine dialogue, so responding to them is a waste of time.

Given the amount of time they spend spewing, it’s a good guess that they don’t have what the rest of us call “lives.”

I firmly believe that responding to such people is counterproductive; it simply draws otherwise reasonable people into whatever game they are playing.

The problem occurs when people who aren’t trolls, but who may have made their points in fairly antagonistic ways, enter the conversation. Readers lump those folks in with the trolls, assume that they are uninterested in real conversation, and thus don’t take what they perceive to be the bait.

This is precisely why civility is so important in this context. When dissenting opinions are offered in a civil fashion, it invites dialogue and engagement. Civility is especially important online, because online discussion doesn’t allow us to see body language or hear tone of voice–the cues that we get in other contexts that flesh out the sender’s intended message and help to prevent miscommunication. It’s really easy to be misunderstood on line (especially for people like me, who tend to be rather snarky), which is why it’s so important to frame our online communications with care, and to avoid sharing our passions in a manner that comes across as offensive or insulting.

If the perfectly appropriate response to trolls–ignoring them–puts a damper on the exchange of ideas between people genuinely interested in engaging in conversation, it may be understandable, but it’s a shame.


60 thoughts on “The Real Problem with Trolls

  1. Trolls don’t want a conversation or exchange of ideas. They only want to piss on me and tell me it’s raining.

  2. Watch Parliament on c – span. America’s Senate – and Americans in general should take a lesson , and be more like THEM. And , a little bit of The O.K. coral thrown in is even better.

  3. I suspect that the trolls we endure on this blog were once that terrible little kid on the school playground who tripped his classmates and then laughingly accused them of being clumsy. Immature and annoying. Now as adults they still have nothing to offer but nastiness as they try to trip up their blog mates. What a waste.

  4. I think that the majority of us who come here are mostly aligned with Sheila’s views on what politically ails our country and are sincerely interested in finding our way back to problem solving politics. We certainly don’t always agree, that would be unamerican, but we generally come from perspectives similar to her’s and each other’s.

    She does a great and necessary job of researching and posting provocative topics and clearly expressing a launch point for us to agree, disagree, amplify, cry in our beer, whatever our experience suggests relative to her words.

    I personally try not to consider any responder as a troll for the practical reason that any response can act as a springboard to further discussion and understanding. Often the days of many responses come from one response that describes what the majority of us feel is the wrong path for the country.

    If we are to contribute to the necessary repairs on the ship of state we must do it democratically. We must engage those of all view points and effectively counter the reasons that they give that lead to what they believe.

    I love this forum and am really motivated to contribute to it warts and all. I welcome and respect all participants even though I passionately disagree with some. That’s part of the usefulness to me.

  5. I thoroughly enjoy this blog and forum as well. Although a time or two wondered whether a blogger might insert a “troll” in order to stir things up and create more interest among people who agree too often. Probably not.

  6. Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!

    We are all seeing every day just how damaging the removal of civility from our daily discourse, political or otherwise, is. One of the main reasons that I subscribed to this blog in the first place was that it seemed at the time that it and its subscribers were just that – civil. It was refreshing. One can have strenuous arguments over policy and a myriad of other things and still be civil and constructive, not rude, confrontational, or engage in personal attacks to push a particular viewpoint.

    Curiously, an old professor of mine in political science always used the expression “stir the pot” in talking about the debates over policy we’d have in his classes. I have always taken his comment as being a good one and have always tried to follow his advise as a result. What he meant is that we needed a free for all, albeit a civil one, in order to fully discuss a particular issue so that it could be fully vetted. To do otherwise bogs the whole process down and deflects it from the underlying reasons that are the basis for why a discussion regarding a given topic is occurring in the first place. In essence, we are hijacked as accomplish nothing as a result. I don’t know about all of you but personally I find it to be extremely boring.

  7. My apologies for my typo. My last sentence above should read like this – In essence, we are hijacked and accomplish nothing as a result. I don’t know about all of you but personally I find it to be extremely boring.

  8. I often can’t listen to Diane Rehm because she will have someone who is so outside the pale they just don’t lend anything to the conversation. One of the discussions had someone representing the Republican Freedom caucus in Congress. It was right after the PP debacle where they were set up by a very questionable videographer. The woman from the ‘freedom’ caucus kept asking anyone who offered the least defense of PP whether they had seen the movie. I was still fuming when my husband came home, and as usual, his quip was absolutely spot on and deadly. He said, did anyone tell her they handn’t seen Triumph of the Will but felt completely competent to comment on Hitler’s Jewish policy. Snap. So that it my attitude about the two daily trolls–‘responding’ to their comments isn’t going to further any understanding I have of issues because they don’t bring anything of substance. And the people who are considered ‘far left’ are just people who we used to call FDR Democrats. You want far left, it left the building decades ago. There is no equivalent of Ted Cruz on the left.

  9. I hate to be a contrarian on this point. But, I don’t see Gopper as stupid. He knows what he is doing.

    He does a great job for the most part in sapping much of the intellectual and emotional energy within the blog.

    It’s a shame. But as Sheila has said before, there isn’t much she can do about it. Unfortunately, in this case integrity hurts.

  10. Thank you, Sheila, for this. I hope the troll sees himself and realizes how foolish he appears. While I do like respectful, intelligent discussion between people with different points of view, I have always ignored this troll and others, because I don’t consider them to be worth my time.

  11. “The Real Problem with Trolls” was overdue. The amount of restraint that Sheila has shown is truly remarkable! Vicious insults and personal attacks show a real lack of judgment; yet, Sheila did not come out swinging. Best of all, she did it without mentioning even one name. She didn’t have to.

  12. When I started down the Facebook ‘political path’ a few years ago, I soon became aware of the difference between people who are shouting about people they don’t like, and those who have a position, can defend it, and will listen to other views.
    After re-connecting with a few of my former students who had given their hearts and souls to Fox and the Tea Party, I learned most of them weren’t any better students of adult politics than they had been as students in history class, and that some pretty good students had taken the easy path down to that level of intellectual effort.
    I soon cancelled our ‘friendship’ because I simply could not learn anything from what they were saying because it wasn’t true, didn’t make sense, or was of the coarse, racist type of stuff.
    I realized letting them onto my timeline and articles was a waste of time, and unfriended them. I can’t say I’m sorry I did that.
    What I AM sorry about is that I found out they were really intolerant and hateful. I hadn’t known that, and do wish I hadn’t found out.

  13. Life is individually and collectively hard. Humanity insists on a rate of progress that keeps it that way. At least liberal humanity, the most prevalent kind. We don’t settle for standing still. We keep pressing for better and accept the challenges associated with never settling for less.

    Of course the challenge leaves some behind wanting stasis and predictability and shunning challenge.

    That’s ok. Leaders must be in front, not in back.

    Keep dreaming. We’ve made much progress but there will always be better to strive for.

  14. A very wise friend once told me when I questioned continuing an uncomfortable “friendship”; “If they can’t bring anything positive into your life, you don’t need them in your life.” I have made that my watchword for decades. It has been put to use more often than I like during recent political years; but it has been necessary and I find I don’t miss them at all.

    Those of us who read Sheila’s daily blog and post comments at times must struggle not to become one of the “trolls” when responding to bigoted, insulting, totally useless responses. I have stood with my toes over the line on a few occasions but, for the most part I learn from the comments and always learn from Sheila’s blog – even on the rare occasions I disagree.

  15. Allow me to state that I walk softly when chatting with sets of folks with various and sundry political beliefs, much like I walk during conversations with those of strongly held personal religious beliefs; hence, my only contribution to this bright group of contributors is my long-held title among close friends, Ms Venn Diagram.

    As Ms Venn Diagram, I’m always looking for that sweet spot of common ground where the sets intersect/overlap. I’m convinced it’s there, and I’m longing for that common ground where we as a nation can meet without vitriol, without hateful comments from Online trolls, and without malice and then move forward in some semblance of unity for a common purpose.

    Many people who came of political age during the brief era of Camelot understand, were inspired, and were formed by this common wish as so eloquently expressed by JFK on his inauguration day.

  16. After sending my previous comments I thought about the trolls from a different point of view. They do give us insights into their thought process and keeps us informed of the direction they are going…or if they are standing still. That old adage holds true, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

    Sadly; today’s opposing political points of view show they are the enemy of Americanism as it used to be, no longer differences of opinion but opposing life views and who should be allowed to maintain their civil and human rights and who should have them taken away. We are much too close to the antagonistic, totally opposed life views that led this nation into the Civil War. A sad state of mind and I find it too often frightening. Let the trolls continue to keep us informed.

  17. We have given Trolls a bad image. The ones I grew up with were:

    Up in the airie mountains,
    Down the forest glenns,
    We dare not go a-hunting,
    For fear of little men.
    Good folk, wee folk,
    Trooping all together,
    Red jacket, green cap,
    And a white owl feather.

  18. As someone who often disagrees with conventional wisdom but always tries to do so respectfully, I find that I am often called a troll by people who view themselves as superior to me. In fact, I think it’s sort of funny and hypocritical to talk about civility while calling others names, sort of like you all are doing here. After all, using a descriptor like “troll” is really just a schoolyard taunt.

    There’s not a single comment on this thread that disagrees with the author. I wonder why that is. Is it because she censors comments that don’t support her worldview? If not, it appears that trolling isn’t much of a problem here. You all march in lockstep. I feel sorry for you. Being held hostage by dogma and worldview may be common in Hoosieria, but that doesn’t make it any less sad.

  19. I suppose that having acquired “trolls”(something that in my long-ago childhood lived under bridges but now seem to have deserted even the ill-fated one on I-65 near Lafayette) is the mark of having arrived fully in the “best blog” category. So in that sense, Shiela, congratulations. And by the way, Happy Birthday!

  20. And the latest trend in trolling is accusing the left of that which the right is guilty.

    I am all for rational discourse, but both sides need to be working with facts, not lies and propaganda. When one side insists on their points of view being giving equal consideration but has no factual foundation for their argument, it reminds me of the journalists who try to present both sides equally but only succeed in perpetuating misinformation at the expense of truth.

    As I told a troll recently, I am not going to waste my time trying to move someone whose feet are encased in concrete.

  21. @Vernon Lindsay, it’s a big world in which there’s a large discussion table with ample seats for those who choose to be seated and join the table’s ongoing discussion. Like any good dinner party, you’ll be seated aside those whose ideas challenge your personal ideas, force you to think, to develop a cogent thought or two, and to respond in a civil manner, force you back to the days where someone in your life mentioned the importance of table etiquette. Beyond putting your napkin in your lap and keeping your elbows off the table, you’ll do fine.

    Ms Venn Diagram

  22. Vernon. I agree with your notion that disagreement is the fuel for discussion and discussion for learning. However there is learned discussion and worldview philosophizing which is not that useful to solving problems. Worldviews are sort of intellectually lazy. One size fits all. Unlike problems which are diverse and individual.

    We have great informative discussions here. Sheila does a great job keeping the topics diverse and problem oriented with solutions to discuss when appropriate.

    I hope that you can add to the discussions. The more perspectives represented the greater the odds of finding the middle of the road where solutions normally lie.

  23. @ Pete, as you wrote and in which I’m totally in agreement, “The more perspectives represented the greater the odds of finding the middle of the road where solutions normally lie.”

    Somewhere out there or in here or among the various people who vote, there lies a common ground, a middle of the road meeting place where solutions lie or at least solutions originate.

    Some would say I’m tilting windmills ala Don Quixote, but I’m convinced there’s a middle ground, a common ground where all can converge with at least one common point of agreement. United we stand; divided we fall.

  24. I have noticed some people love to play the devil’s advocate and that actually makes others respond and come up with their often opposing thoughts. It is often a change of ideas and sometimes that works well and sometimes not. I do think each person has a right to his/her opinion but I think it is wrong when somebody criticizes another for agreeing with someone whose opinion you don’t like. That is their right and we all have different thoughts. I watch Fox News off and on to see the different thoughts and they are that! I like Sheila’s Blog and I don’t think she should be insulted if someone doesn’t like what they read.

  25. I know I have made somewhat incendiary posts before but I do that for my own reasons and not to drown out others. I generally try to make a point but am kind of indifferent to whether or not people respond. I like the discussions in the comments but usually am lacking in time to participate. I hope someone would call me out if I am being too much of a nuisance.

  26. All: We’ve fallen into the trap! We’re (some of us, anyway) stirring the pot about a couple of pot stirrers. Think about that! Sheila’s chuckling away right now! One commenter (or maybe two) suggested that I should scroll. It works! I scroll past the trolls! I’m a troll scroller!

  27. Reading Jo Ann Green’s comment made me see parallels to a book I’m reading, Sharyn McCrumb’s “Ghost Riders.” What we’re seeing now is somewhat like what happened in the mountain counties of Western North Carolina during the Civil War. It wasn’t simply North vs. South there; it was neighbors, friends, even family who took opposing sides. Proponents of the vastly different philosophies regarding facets of American life – immigration and citizenship, gun control (or, at least, some kind of regulation), abortion, education, minimum wage, taxation, government responsibilities (especially related to public health and welfare) and so on – have become deaf to hearing any value in the philosophies of anyone who disagrees with them. I despair of us finding a way out of this morass that will allow us to come together as a unified – or at least civil – nation.

  28. With the possible exception of offending Nancy with my “fingerprinting” misuse of exclamation points (for which she insulted my mother), I think I have been civil in my comments. I disagree with much of what I read, but most has some thought behind it. I believe, as many have stated in this post, that well-reasoned discussion is crucial to survival of this grand experiment in self-government. Pete and I have been going on for quite a while recently. I don’t think there has been much movement on either side, but he is still responding. I must have demonstrated some intellectual potential (although he has made a few references to brainwashing). Feel free to scroll past my posts, but please don’t denigrate my posts by suggesting I am trolling

  29. I don’t understand why you don’t block trolls. If the discourse is valuable, it’s worth putting in a troll filter.

    I got trolled here once (under a different moniker), and haven’t posted since.

  30. Another interesting facet of our discussion just came up. A few days ago I said pick a topic, and I’m in. You indicated that you were more interested in a philosophical discussion rather than address specific issues, so I obliged. Now, you seek specifics so you pick the problem.

  31. What can government do to save civilization’s infrastructure from the need to adapt to a different climate crated by fossil fuel products of combustion we dump into our atmosphere?

  32. BSH – Ms. Venn Diagram ain’t bad – kind of neat, really!

    As I have been progressing through the later part of my life, I have come to believe that quite a long while ago we began to conflate being heard with getting our own way. Perhaps a result of the long disturbing slide down the narcissim slope. It seems to me that everyone of us in either country (any country) would benefit from examining how this phenomenon plays out in our own lives and actions. Trolls are surely extreme examples of this characteristic. Yet, i guess it is somehow hopeful, in the context of this blog, that they bother to post. We can and should ignore their nastiness but continue to press for serious participation, to give evidence that they are being heard. Some will begin to change, or at least that is my more than a bit naive hope…a nickname for me might be Pollyanna…or Pangloss…I do try to find thr bright side, always.

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