Once confined to the bleak, wooded hills of Scandinavian folklore, now they live among us; lurking in the paradoxical kingdom of virtual reality; loitering in fake Facebook profiles and forums of all sorts. They are the trolls.
Nevertheless, their behaviour can be equally menacing and it is important that we wisen ourselves to their ways.
The modern troll is a deceitful creature and thus very difficult to identify but here’s one definition from Wikipedia:
[those who undertake] posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion, often for their own amusement.
Now it’s important to remember that the villagers like to incite fear and sometimes “troll sightings” are erroneous. Conflict and challenge can be beneficial to a community (please see my last blog post). With conflict however, there is inevitable emotional baggage, as the saying goes; you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs . I’m sure Nigel Farage doesn’t enjoy being called a twat but if we didn’t call him a twat then where would society be?
Thus, there are two main items to consider when identifying trolls:
There’s disruption with purpose (to achieve a particular end) and there’s disruption for disruption’s sake; for pure “amusement” or the satisfaction of ego, one-upmanship etc. It’s not always easy to distinguish between the two but some key ways of recognizing this kind of behaviour include:
-A tendency to choose language that is deliberately evocative when it is not necessary. One key marker is passive aggression as this very rarely leads to fruitful discussion and it’s a bit of a strange oxymoron in that it “explicitly deceives” the listener so that a direct response to this sort of communication would be seen as irrational or overly-emotive and it’s really difficult to engage with authentically without appearing passive aggressive yourself.
-Bringing to the table matters that are not relevant in a debate in order to fulfil their ambition as “agents of chaos”
Achieving social change is a delicate balance between challenging the status quo and actually just getting stuff done. I have been part of so many community and activist groups who spend their time scrutinizing every area of action, ratifying motions like there’s no tomorrow (a certain Monty Python scene springs to mind) so that nothing actually gets done (apart from mass consumption of tea and biscuits). Too much kafuffle can actually be counter-productive and it’s often the trolls who focus on the kafuffle. In the words of Saul Alinsky:
These Do-Nothings profess a commitment to social change for ideals of justice, equality, and opportunity, and abstain from and discourage all effective action for change. They are known by their brand “I agree with your ends but not your means”
What to do when you come face to face with a troll:
- Let them beat their club around first. It’s very important to be sure that you have caught a real troll, as silencing an important debate is a very grave thing to do indeed. Without those on the margins of society, we would not truly understand our own ethos and those of our communities. It is often in times of hardship that people band together and having a troll in a community can lead to deeper understanding and connection. Without debate, we cannot be truly secure in our convictions.
- Do not feed the troll. You must not let trolls run havoc on communities for extended periods of time, creating negativity, destruction and psychological warfare. If you feed them (by answering to them or playing their game) you only ignite their ferocity. With time, their energy will fade, but you may need to take action and this might require solidarity.
In conclusion, trolls, though difficult to really spot, may have an important role to play for a short period of time, if the community can be spared any lasting damage and we must tread very carefully when it comes to silencing valuable and authentic debate but debate must be constrained by the boundaries of the ‘real’ world which is home to people with psychological wellbeing to maintain and perhaps more bluntly, mouths to feed.