Tag Archives: trolls

The feeding of trolls

‘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.

Tips for angry arguments

Politics doesn’t bring out the best in people, and angry political exchanges can put strains on otherwise viable friendships. What to do if someone you thought was ok starts spewing hate, insults and what looks to you like madness?

  • Don’t respond in kind. You’ll just cause them to dig in and may confirm their prejudices.
  • If they respond to facts and evidence with insults and unfounded belief, you won’t shift them by hitting them with facts. Instead, ask for their facts and evidence. Ask for the underlying philosophy of their stance. The odds are they are regurgitating unconsidered propaganda. By asking them politely to explain it, you force them to look at it, and this can be rather effective.
  • People project. If greed and self interest are their major motivators, they may be unable to imagine that anyone else has other motivations. Thus it is normal for anyone defending the welfare state to be told that they, personally want a handout and that’s their only motivation. It is worth saying if you are secure and altruistic, but don’t expect them to believe you! Try asking how they picture their old age, how they feel about their own health care prospects, how confident they are that their families can pay the bills for them in an emergency. Keep it focused on them if that seems to be all they can think about.
  • Don’t rise to the insults, and don’t reply in kind. Insults can be undermined as conversation weapons by agreeing with them – I’ve told many an antifeminist that yes, he’s right, I am fat and ugly and that doesn’t bother me at all. When recently told I lived in a swamp I enthused at length about how fantastic swamps are for water management and wildlife. You get the idea. Laugh at the insult and say you’ve heard it before and they need to try for something more original if they want to cause offence. Give them points out of ten for creativity. Treat it like a joke. If they cross the line into hate speech, report them, but otherwise laugh until they lose the will to abuse you. This includes being called stupid, naive, gullible etc – don’t defend your politics to them, it doesn’t work. ‘I’m sure it comforts you to believe that’ is more effective.
  • Sometimes on social media you’ll meet someone who is working from a script. They may be a hired troll. They may be part of a group with unpleasant intentions. Their main aim may be to suck up your time, energy and hope. Unless you know them personally, I advise stepping away because they’re a waste of your time. Here’s some signs to take into account – no discussion, only insults. Incoherence – dropping things like ‘ah, the sweet taste of liberal tears’ in where it makes no sense, referencing irrelevant things (still banging on about Hillary Clinton for example) responding to all questions by calling you butt hurt…. if there’s no real exchange, there’s not much point and they may not be a real person anyway.

It is always ok to walk away from people. Even people you know in real life if they become unbearable to deal with. We are not obliged to try and save other people from themselves. There are some big, social conversations that need to be won, but we don’t win those by echoing the behaviour of angry trolls, or by getting lured under their bridges to play their games.

News, trolls, tolerance and headspace

This is not a climate in which you can afford to spend too much time imagining things. It is harder than it has ever been to image anything good, and if you accidentally start imagining how any of the not-good stuff is going to play out, you’ll hurt.

If we are to be responsible citizens, we have to know what’s going on. Given that neither our politicians nor our media seem wholly trustworthy right now, getting real insight that can lead to a truly informed opinion is hard work, and there are so many issues, and all of them have so many implications. Overload beckons. The more sensitive, empathic and caring you are, the more scope there is to tear yourself to shreds over the world’s many problems.

Shutting down and shutting it out can feel like not caring. It can feel like a cold, hard choice, a betrayal of causes that needed our help. We don’t want to join the apathetic many, or the uninformed many, but knowing comes at too high a price.

There’s no tidy answer here, not least because we’re all different. As creatives many of us need to feel in touch – but we have some scope for deciding what we’re in touch with. We are not all obliged to know everything.

Picking things to be informed about and letting go of other issues is a reasonable choice. Cutting down on exposure to media to avoid being overwhelmed is also an option. Taking holidays from the woes of the world in order to clear the mind and claim back some space for creative thinking. Focusing on news outlets that offer good news stories, solutions and so forth can also be a great help. One of the reasons I like being involved with campaigning groups is that they all, reliably, feed good news stories back to participants, when there are any.

My creativity depends on the interactions between my imagination and the world as I encounter it. I can’t run far on pure imagination, that’s a dragon eating its own tale/tail. I want my work to be grounded and informed, not pure escapism. I cannot insulate myself too much. But, if I don’t insulate myself to some degree, all I think about is what’s going on out there and the implications of it, or I end up having to not think, to avoid spiralling into anxiety and dysfunction. I think part of the point of what we’re being exposed to is to shut us down, shut us up, overwhelm us into doing nothing. I want to resist that. There are groups and individuals out there whose intention it is to trash anyone who wants to do anything good.

There are stories about troll factories and people paid to get on social media and spread lies. Groups driven by the desire to tear down. They aren’t a majority, they are people who for various reasons have the time to be online a lot, making noise. They give the impression of being a huge and popular movement, but I think there are more of us who want to improve things than there are people who just want to destroy. There’s a case for the balance between digging around and staying away right there… Because however you go about it, not hearing those voices will help you stay sane, and maybe we don’t need to know what the trolls amongst us think, feel and want. Maybe we aren’t responsible for them – although they will tell us we are, and that we aren’t really tolerant if we can’t tolerate their hate… Maybe the answer is to selectively close our ears and not have compassion stretched to breaking point by people who set out to break us.


Please Don’t Feed the Trolls

My good friend Professor Elemental is crowdfunding to produce a music video with an anti-bullying making the world a better place sort of message. Truth be told ‘crowdfunded’ is more accurate – the money needed is raised, but there’s some days to go, and all the extra cash that the project delivers is going to three awesome charities helping young people. If you want to be part of the splendidness, hop over to https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/don-t-feed-the-trolls-the-music-video

The startling chap on the left (for those of you who can see him) was created by my other half, Tom Brown, and is a poster exclusively available via Don’t Feed the Trolls. He may remind you of someone. Of course all resemblance to any Prime Minister, living or dead is wholly coincidental, but there’s a political point to make here. This is how we see internet bullying – it’s poor, overweight, ugly and probably still living with its mum. We’re used to looking for bullying when it shows up like this, and we find it harder to spot when it’s got a suit and a PR department. Put this troll in a suit and you’d be more likely to accept what he says as reasonable. Even as he eats you.

Take the troll out of the suit, and he looks like something else entirely. We’re surprisingly susceptible to the messages encoded in costumes. Power and money do not equate to the right to bully others. However, when bullying tactics are an integral part of the political scene, and are offered on TV under the guise of ‘entertainment’ it’s little wonder so many people get online and do all the same things, and feel entitled to name call, abuse, denigrate and threaten.

Not feeding the trolls is not just about avoiding the sad souls online who spit poison. It’s about taking a long, hard look at the culture we’re helping co-create, and the far nastier and more subtle trolls we’ve allowed to grab positions of power.

Trolls, and psychological violence

Apparently the government are going to fight trolls, by making it a requirement for sites to hand over details of abusive users. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-18404621 It could work. It means articles need not be taken down for one spurious allegation, and it means real bullies and liars might have a tougher time of it. On the whole, that would be a good thing. There are balances to strike here around freedom of speech and the protection of whistleblowers. I want the freedom to complain about my politicians, say if I think organisations are acting shamefully and whatnot. But, I’m not hiding behind an unrecognisable name, and I’ve got no desire to unfairly bash anyone. That of course doesn’t mean that someone else couldn’t take umbrage at what I write though.

I’m not sure how much odds laws will make, in the scheme of things. People have to act on them, crown prosecution has to be willing to take cases forwards, and judges need to take the offences seriously. At the moment, crimes against the body are taken very seriously, where crimes against the mind are not. It does not help that psychological violence leaves much less clear-cut evidence. Bullying is often subtle, and if it’s not written on a web page or spoken in front of witnesses, what you get is a one person’s word against another’s scenario, and they are pretty much impossible to take to court.

In terms of damage done, if someone attacks me and breaks a bone, I’m going to experience pain, fear, and a long period of bodily healing. If it seems like a one off thing and I have good support, odds are I will get over it. The fear, the psychological part of the attack will give me more of a harmful legacy than the wounding. If someone torments me psychologically, over a period of time, I might never have so much as a bruise on my skin, but my mind might be damaged for the rest of my life. To destroy a person’s confidence or self esteem, is to destroy them. To make a person afraid to leave the house, is to imprison them, but you don’t even need to lock the door.

Culturally though, we don’t take this kind of attack seriously enough. Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me, and all that rubbish. Words push teenagers to suicide. Words need taking seriously. But while psychological assaults are taken as less serious, we collectively tend to look the other way. If you saw someone being beaten up in the street, you might do something, might call the police. But if a friend is crying, again, because she’s been shouted at, again, you might feel tempted to suggest she pulls herself together. We don’t, as someone pointed out to me on facebook, bother the police just because we’re being shouted at. Even though being shouted at can demoralise, humiliate, take away our confidence and autonomy, make us do something we didn’t want to for fear of worse to come if we do not behave as required. The threat of violence, or the implication of it can be frightening, but is much harder to prove, or explain. A person who fears what will be done if they don’t comply can end up doing hideous things under duress, with little scope for legal protection.

We say ‘it’s just’ ‘it was only’ and we minimise the effects of psychological abuse. We say it’s better to be thicker skinned. You’re too sensitive. You’re over reacting. You’re making a fuss about nothing, because you are weak, silly, attention seeking, and so the victim is knocked down again, and becomes unable to even mention how shitty they feel.

This is not the world I want to live in.

Bullying is not ok. Verbal cruelty is not ok. Shouting at people and intimidating them is not ok. Using websites and hiding behind fake names to harass people, is not ok. My main hope is that this change in the law might mark a sea change, in which we all start expecting better of each other, and not turning away from the issues of non-physical violence.

The feeding of trolls

They live in the quiet places of the internet, lurking under conceptual bridges, and in shadowy corners. If you look at them, they will appear to have a human face, and a name, but this may have been taken from someone they ate. They are not easily distinguished from the other sprites, goblins and harmless creatures of mayhem who haunt the imaginary realms. What gives a troll away, is that they eat people. Unfortunately, by the time this is evident, it can be hard to escape.

Some communities will simply leave the slowest members to be eaten by trolls. A kind of natural selection blended with sacrifice that keeps the majority safe. Other tribes have specialist troll hunters, who spend their spare time sharpening weapons and baiting traps. The trouble with troll hunters is that they frequently catch an overconfident goblin by mistake. The internet realms are full of small, irritating but not very effective entities who will never actually eat anyone, they just like to flaunt their teeth. Some of them make roaring noises. This should be a giveaway, because the most dangerous trolls move quietly, they do not announce their presence with bombast and trumpet. They are just ‘little old me’ as they speak from the shadows and lure their victims under the bridges.

Of course the easy answer to trolls is not to go under bridges with them in the first place. There are philosophers who believe that trolls have a certain kind of magic, and once they cast their spells, the careless are drawn in. Seeing the face of the last person the troll ate, they believe there is a person to talk to, or maybe a boggart to tame, or a pixie to reason with. Somehow, they do not notice the very big teeth, at least, not until the chewing commences.

The creatures who suffer least from troll predation are the ones with wings, who float dreamily at too great a height for shadowy places, and who therefore seldom find themselves on the underside of bridges. They do not speak with trolls, but only with those who float about in the same airy realms. However, they are the trolls’ delicacy of preference, and when one is caught, special attention is paid to the tearing off of wings, and the slow, painful act of mutilation.

At many a camp fire, the question is asked, where do the trolls come from? There are tales of youths who set out to become kings or heroes, and, failing utterly, fell into anger and took to lurking about under bridges. It is sometimes said that the trolls do not kill, only maul their victims into hideousness so that they too must become trolls and hide from sight. Some say that it is the troll hunters themselves who ultimately become that which they have sought. One must not only guard against the hunger of trolls, one must guard against the danger of becoming a troll.

In the fabulous land of internet, we choose which face we wear, borrowing a visage from the gods and heroes, if we do not like our own. We are makers of masks, keepers of many identities, inventing names to go with the forms we have imagined for ourselves. Here, we can all be warrior princes, faerie queens, sorcerers and unicorns. The more masks we put on, the greater the risk that they will change when we are not watching, and one day a careless hand reaches for something that turns out not to be a cheerful hobgoblin hat at all. We accidentally pull on a skin one morning, through which we can feel nothing. We wake up thinking that those pretty, winged delicate things have no grasp on reality and we should chew some sense into them. We suspect they would be tasty, and we know it would be fun to make them squeal. We become the trolls.