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Long-time readers of this blog know that we have had a more or less steady procession of trolls who have inhabited these precincts. They lurk. They come and go. Some are grumpy. Some argue; some take a thread and take it off point. Some are annoying. I leave them alone so long as they live within the rules of the blog (no insulting your host because you are in my living room, no cursing, no conspiracy-mongering, a basic level of civility—and no monopolizing the comments section).
I have never asked others who blog what they do with their trolls. I just play it by ear. On severe; occasions, I have banned them when they broke the rules. Sometimes I put them in a queue to moderate their comments before they are posted to make sure they don’t continue their bad behavior. I give them a warning before there are consequences. But I am generally very tolerant.
It turns out that there are people who actually study troll behavior and offer advice about how to deal with them. The New York Times recently published an article on “the epidemic of facelessness.” This is a phenomenon new to our age, in which people communicate without having face-to-face contact. Much online interaction is between complete strangers. Online interactions can sometimes allow people–in their anonymity–to unleash a level of rage and hostility that they would never express in a face-to-face encounter. Some people have received death threats or rape threats online from total strangers, which happens to be criminal activity.
Stephen Marche writes:
What do we do with the trolls? It is one of the questions of the age. There are those who argue that we have a social responsibility to confront them. Mary Beard, the British historian, not only confronted a troll who sent her misogynistic messages, she befriended him and ended up writing him letters of reference. One young video game reviewer, Alanah Pearce, sent Facebook messages to the mothers of young boys who had sent her rape threats. These stories have the flavor of the heroic, a resistance to an assumed condition: giving face to the faceless.
The more established wisdom about trolls, at this point, is to disengage. Obviously, in many cases, actual crimes are being committed, crimes that demand confrontation, by victims and by law enforcement officials, but in everyday digital life engaging with the trolls “is like trying to drown a vampire with your own blood,” as the comedian Andy Richter put it. Ironically, the Anonymous collective, a pioneer of facelessness, has offered more or less the same advice.
Rule 14 of their “Rules of the Internet” is, “Do not argue with trolls — it means that they win.
Rule 19 is, “The more you hate it the stronger it gets.”
Ultimately, neither solution — confrontation or avoidance — satisfies. Even if confrontation were the correct strategy, those who are hounded by trolls do not have the time to confront them. To leave the faceless to their facelessness is also unacceptable — why should they own the digital space simply because of the anonymity of their cruelty?
There is a third way, distinct from confrontation or avoidance: compassion. The original trolls, Scandinavian monsters who haunted the Vikings, inhabited graveyards or mountains, which is why adventurers would always run into them on the road or at night. They were dull. They possessed monstrous force but only a dim sense of the reality of others. They were mystical nature-forces that lived in the distant, dark places between human habitations. The problem of contemporary trolls is a subset of a larger crisis, which is itself a consequence of the transformation of our modes of communication. Trolls breed under the shadows of the bridges we build.
In a world without faces, compassion is a practice that requires discipline, even imagination. Social media seems so easy; the whole point of its pleasure is its sense of casual familiarity. But we need a new art of conversation for the new conversations we are having — and the first rule of that art must be to remember that we are talking to human beings: “Never say anything online that you wouldn’t say to somebody’s face.” But also: “Don’t listen to what people wouldn’t say to your face.”
Given the national reach of the blog, I won’t be inviting any trolls for dinner. But there is an important point here: face-to-face contact tends to dissipate the rage that anonymity and facelessness promote. There is no way to make that happen, unfortunately. So we should just bear with one another, listen to those who join with us to argue every last point, be patient, be civil, and don’t jump to judgment.