Navigating the online community

At this point, the Hot Troll Take is a rather tired media formula, if only because of their necessity. Years on, we’re still only descending deeper into an increasingly bizarre world of high-powered internet bait, and no matter what anyone says or does this isn’t going to change. However, trolls can be coped with and there are a few viable strategies for dealing with their unfortunate attentions.

First of all, things are being lumped into the “troll” category that probably don’t even deserve to be there. Everything from ordinary unpleasant commentators to people with bad opinions are being accused of being “trolls” as if it’s a blanket term. Distasteful comments and misguided opinions are part and parcel of trolling. Yet, there’s more to it than that. Insults and mockery are also part of it, but an off-handed questioning of someone’s IQ also isn’t inherently trolling. Someone who wakes up in the morning angry and eager to initiate a Facebook comment war isn’t necessarily a troll; that’s its own breed of Facebook-enabled disagreeableness. Trolling is not harassment – although it can cross the line, the average troll specified here is someone who never escalates beyond being deliberately irritating. It’s also not a phenomenon unique to any particular political stripe. Granted, the large majority of trolling is often carried out by far-right meme-lords who desperately want your attention, nonetheless trolling is equal-opportunity. The proper trolling is to deliberately make the target off-balance enough that it disrupts their ordinary life. One must be fishing for a response. There are bad trolls and good trolls, but the phenomenon of trolling is about trying to get people to get a reaction.

This goal is usually achieved by doing or saying something objectionable which the troll themselves consider pretty trivial but the target supposedly takes very seriously. Competent trolls are economical – they’ve figured out a cost/benefit analysis on their activities, with the cost being how much time they’re going to invest versus the benefit being how worked up the target is going to be. They’ll often lay out a bait, wait for a response and keep it going if somebody bites. Of course, part of the process of effective trolling is that not only the payoff but that the action itself becomes fun. Think of trolling as fishing – catching a fish is good, but having a story about how you caught it is better.

For an example, take the recent Shia LaBeouf drama. Everyone’s favourite slightly deranged movie star created an art-installation called “He Will Not Divide Us” (presumably referencing President Trump) which livestreamed a street corner. People could come, say anything and they would be broadcasted around the world. It was supposed to make people come together, but the sight of LaBeouf feverishly muttering “he will not divide us” into the camera in the early hours of the morning piqued the attention of trolls. LaBeouf is, by troll standards, a spectacularly good target because he’s not only a public figure, but likely to bite. People began using the stream for increasingly bizarre purposes, ranging from screaming and chugging milk to presenting Nazi pizza. LaBeouf became so enraged, he assaulted someone and was arrested. This campaign received international media coverage, precipitated a meltdown by Shia, and – most importantly – was probably a whole bunch of fun for the people involved.

Of course, the people involved were mostly far-right creepers, and the exercise was a massively pointless display. There was no particular reason any of that had to happen. It does goes to show, though, a lot of the mentality around trolling. Find an existing weakness – for example, LaBeouf’s known unhingedness – and exploit it. Try to get a reaction worth boasting about later. That’s the framework for proper trolling and this specific setup is what makes it both effective and damaging. It’s a predatory act. That’s not to say that it cannot be wielded for righteous causes – Twitter users recently caused a stir by photoshopping 2020 Presidential hopeful Sen. Kamala Harris onto a corncob to protest her doubtful record on the prison-industrial complex, the housing crisis and Trans rights, which provoked both a hysterical backlash and honest discourse about the need for further progress and justice. But as a whole, trolling is generally monopolized by spectacularly irksome people.

How to deal with trolling? The most trolling most of us will face will be bad-faith single-liners and bait from the aggrieved. Remember that no matter how awful the bait phrase is, it is bait. The purpose is to make you overreact and self-own. In the words of DJ Khaled, don’t play yourself.  Recognize that even if the troll is expressing incredulously heinous views, they’re doing it because they want you to react. They lose if the Golden Ratio doesn’t balance out in their favour. Most trolls either just lay out bait that anyone could pick up on and if left sans response will move on to a different target. An alternative is blocking them – that works pretty well.

There is, however, another alternative for the truly deft. When people are trolling, their premise is that they, unlike you, are “Not Mad.” Certain types of trolls, specifically those with a political bent, are quite invested in their actions. In fact, the more tempting the bait is, the more likely it is that they’re more mad than you. If one retains one’s cool, it’s possible to provoke the troll, turn the situation around, and come out of it feeling pretty good. Case in point: I know a guy who is a Trump fanatic and has filled his whole Facebook feed – and therefore mine – with bait. He posted some content about Brexit, I responded by alleging that current British left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn was paralleled in history only by Jesus, and my friend blew his cool and posted a huge rant about “Economics 101”, immigrants, and throwing people down elevator shafts. His posts have since drastically declined in volume. This is a somewhat toxic course to take and probably isn’t as ethically righteous as taking the high ground and blocking. However, turnabout is fair play and if you’re willing to spend some time and are able to keep your cool, it’s rewarding as heck.

Trolls are an annoying breed and hard to detect. They also aren’t going away, because the Internet is a machine that generates billions of potential targets. In some cases – see Senator Harris – it can even bring issues to light which otherwise might have gone unseen. Being trolled is unpleasant and emotionally draining, and in some cases actively harmful.  By recognizing it, staying savvy, and resisting the impulse to write large Facebook essays responding to grotty little one-liners, we can be more aware on how to deal with it. Don’t feed the trolls, after all, and they starve.