‘Don’t feed the trolls’ can sound a lot like wisdom, and sometimes it’s the best choice. However, it can also be an excuse for not challenging problems or speaking out against prejudice.
It’s a good idea not to enter into a debate with a troll – the act of debating can feel validating to them and can seem to legitimise their stance. It’s also a good idea not to feel any obligation to defend yourself, or justify yourself to them – don’t treat a troll like their opinion matters to you.
However, don’t ignore bigotry and hate. If you see it, report it, call it out, challenge it – a few words can make a lot of odds. It’s not the troll you’ll make much odds to, it’s the person they were attacking. It’s important to step up and defend and support people who are being trolled, be that online or in a physical context. If you don’t feel able to challenge outright – you may not feel safe or be well enough resourced for that – put in a quiet complaint to someone who could do something about it. There are many ways to speak out.
Recently I saw online a situation where white people were telling a person of colour not to feed the troll by drawing attention to it. Now, there certainly are issues around not re-tweeting and otherwise giving a platform to trolls. Some of them just feed on attention and clearly don’t care what kind of attention it is. A screen shot is better because it doesn’t give them so much oxygen. However, there are times and places to talk about this. That time is not when a black person is calling out a white person for racism. If you think it’s more useful to tell someone not to feed the troll in a situation like that, you’re part of the problem. Sometimes, the ‘don’t feed the trolls’ line is simply a way to try and shut people down.
If the bigots go unchallenged, that leads to all kinds of problems. The victims of the trolls are left more hurt and more exposed if no one supports them or speaks up for them. The bully who goes unchallenged will have no qualms about doing it again. They may feel they speak for the silent many, that their stance is valid and validated and welcome. They may feel brave and heroic in their trolling
I’ve been on the receiving end of well meaning people explaining to me why it is best to ignore trolls and bullies. I disagree. I think we need to draw clear lines. A simple ’this is not acceptable and I will have nothing more to do with you’ statement at least conveys to the troll that they do not speak for you. They are not your hero. It can be really important to convey that.
It also really matters to the victims. If you stand by and do nothing, what you say clearly to the victim is that you don’t give a shit about them. Maybe you still think fence sitting is the moral high ground. It isn’t. Doing nothing always supports and enables abuse and bullying. Doing nothing means you don’t attract the ire of the troll, so maybe what you’ve done is put your comfort ahead of someone else’s wellbeing. As far as the victim knows, you may well agree with the troll. You may support them. You may be happy to look the other way and enable their bigotry. You can make a bad situation worse in this way.
Don’t feed the trolls if you can help it. But also don’t stand by and let the trolls destroy someone.