Can any good come from engaging with internet trolls?

Can any good come from engaging with internet trolls?

Q: Should I ever engage with my trolls?

A: Firstly, let’s settle on a definition of “troll”. A troll is not someone who makes you feel bad. It’s not someone whose opinion you find offensive, or a “devil’s advocate” who assumes a position contrary to your own with the intention of stirring up trouble. That person, while annoying, is called an opinion writer and can still be usefully engaged with. A troll, on the other hand, is someone whose gratification is vested in an intent to cause harm. Why on earth would you engage with that?

Well, a few reasons. Several months ago, someone calling himself Asswipe posted a comment to my website. The message, which was filtered and referred to a TV review I’d written, was forwarded to me by my hosting service and read: “Perhaps you need to learn the difference between a TV series and REALITY, you DUMB FUCKING KNUCKLE-DRAGGING NAZI WITCH.” I read this several times. I was taken aback; the violence of the message felt like a physical push. I then felt, in quick succession, panicky, alarmed and vaguely threatened, followed by an overwhelming urge to reply. I really, really wanted to email him back (I’m assuming it was a him, although when trolls are unmasked they do occasionally turn out to be women) and, in the voice of a 1970s therapist, ask: “Why did you feel the need to do that?” I didn’t want to score points, or defend my position, or convert him to my way of thinking. I wanted to know what the brain movement is of someone who reads a TV review he doesn’t like and promptly goes off the deep end.

I also wanted to prove to myself that the world is fundamentally unchanged. A million years ago, when written communication between people was limited to emails, I had a policy of always engaging. It took effort to compose an email, and I found even the tetchy ones gratifying. As long as the sender wasn’t too obviously insane, I would reply – and the snippier the email, the jollier my tone, until I reached a kind of ringing, Julie Andrews high cheer. “Thank you so much for taking the time to write, I quite see what you mean, and my opinion may in fact be totally wrong!” Every single time, the person would write back and, if they’d been rude, rather shamefacedly apologize. A discussion would ensue, and even if we didn’t meet each other halfway, everyone came out of it feeling good. I felt good about not hating the sender. The sender felt good about having his opinion acknowledged. A gap, however trivial, had been narrowed.

There is no winning like this on the internet. We know this. The psychology of engagement changed when messages became public and intemperance was rewarded with eyeballs. To send someone an unhinged email only they will see is a private act of lunacy. To craft one for the public eye is something else entirely, and even when these messages are filtered, enough aren’t – on social media and in chatrooms – to ensure the entire window of discourse has shifted. It is much harder to have a genuine exchange when both parties have an eye on their audience, and while there has always been savage debate and arguing in bad faith, the idiom of the troll – displeasure phrased as death threat, elaborate rape fantasy, or mad sweary insult – has changed the whole landscape. We are, these days, simply less inclined to conciliate.

And yet, I still have it: the impulse to say but wait, surely behind your egg avatar you are a person with arms and legs and a head and feelings.

The model here is obviously Mary Beard, the historian who not only engaged with her troll but took him out to lunch and tried to find him a job. This may, as Beard said at the time, have been an entirely altruistic gesture; the 20-year-old in question turned out to be predictably pathetic and abject with apology. But of course, as Beard must also have known, her exercise in forgiveness was highly exposing: the pitiful troll, ripped from his shell, versus the noblesse oblige of the Cambridge academic. She won, in other words.

For the onlooker this was a gratifying spectacle, but in one’s own life it can be hard to summon the will. Life is short. Unwarranted aggression shouldn’t be dignified. I didn’t reply to my troll in the end because I was afraid, not just of the possibility that this guy, contrary to 99% of what we know about trolls, wasn’t an unhappy 20-year-old but Michael Myers from Halloween. I was also afraid of courting disappointment: what if he replied, succeeded in annoying me rather than merely alarming me, and at the end of a day-long discussion still wished me a horrible death?

So no. I don’t think we should engage with trolls. But I think we should preserve the instinct to want to.

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