Posted on May 7, 2024 in Technology

When Did we Forget About Trolling?

Yanking your chain. Fooling with you. Messing around. It goes by many names, but online, it’s known as trolling.

The way forums dealt with trolls was a set of rules that users were commanded to follow, first and foremost being “don’t feed the trolls”. The goal of trolling is to get the other side keyboard-smashing upset with the troll, so by denying them a reaction, you’re starving them of the attention or the control they desire. If a forum is overrun by people intentionally acting in bad faith, it dies, and all the legitimate members leave, creating a ghost town. As such, anti-trolling measures were not just a comfort, but a necessity. Cries of “Don’t Feed the Troll!” under bad-faith questions choked out arguments before they started, and kept conversations more or less civil.

Where did all of this knowledge and wisdom go? Because now it’s gone, and trolls are trolling like never before.

Negative Comments

There is a certain thrill to saying something mean to someone online – what could the other side do about it? If the troll says someone’s art sucks, for example, the worst the artist can do is block them, or try to take the high road by saying they hope the troll finds peace. If the artist gets upset, then the troll wins. This desire for control and the attention of another person is largely why trolls do what they do. If someone is deeply isolated, and they can’t get people to stick around and talk about the weather, sometimes all they can do instead is start an argument about it. Humans need social contact, and they’ll get it one way or another. A combination of factors steer all sorts of people into social isolation, and the internet can act as a release valve where they can pick fights with strangers who can’t enact consequences.

However, if the old forum rules about trolls were still being followed, these people would eventually have to move on. The rules still work; nobody has gotten more determined or better at trolling, the average person posting to social media has just gotten worse about responding. You can watch examples of this in real time. For example, a soapmaker I follow was getting nasty comments, so instead of responding, she blocked the commentor. The commentor came back with a different account, and they were blocked again. The process repeated seven times in total before the troll gave up. The effort of circumventing a block is ten times the effort it takes to block! By not responding until the person had left, by blocking and not engaging, she exhausted the troll before they could get the payoff of a reaction from her or her audience. Obviously, this wouldn’t work if it were a ton of people all commenting together (which happens), but then she still wouldn’t be an entertaining target, she’d just turn off the comment section. This is how you deal with trolls. She has a nice, happy, peaceful comment section because she doesn’t respond, she just blocks. 

Content Mills – And Algorithms

Responding is the worst thing you can do. If the commentor is a normal person who was just having a bad day, then responding might get them to apologize, but it also might just make them delete the comment and move on. If they aren’t, they usually get even meaner, and the response shows other trolls that this person will read their comment and possibly reply to them, too.

The opposite of the soapmaker is another content creator who attempted to reply to a troll patiently and rationally. Why? Why even bother? There is a line of thought in debate that you should hear everyone out. This works in business and politics, but does not work at all on public social media! This guy went from dealing with one troll in his comment sections to dozens, picking on everything from his beliefs to his social life to his looks. He lost. He replied, and he lost. Trying to tell a troll that looks are not correlated with morality is like trying to explain physics to a flat-Earther. Of course they already know the physicist’s arguments, and they disregarded them all, which is why they’re still saying the Earth is flat. No amount of describing orbits and gravity could possibly sway them – they are not arguing from a position of logic, they are arguing from a position of imagined superiority. There is no value in responding. Blocking and moving on when someone called him ugly the first time was the only way to move forward. But he didn’t, and the next twenty videos were dealing with the fallout of that one video.

But that’s kind of convenient, isn’t it? Doesn’t it actually work out in your favor if you can make twenty videos out of basically nothing? The way TikTok works, if you stop posting for a bit, you stop popping up so high in the algorithmic “For You” page’s feed.

The problem with today’s social media is that influencers and creators who want to make money need to always be making content, and negative comments are a boundless source of argument seeds. On TikTok, you can rant and rave for three minutes about someone leaving “U Stink LOL” in the comments, replying directly to the commentor with a whole video. This is the most infuriating arrangement because both sides get what they want via conflict: the troll gets the attention they want, and the creator gets a “free” video. It’s a very ugly win-win.

In this way, the people populating the comment sections have become used to arguing. They assume bad faith, because they have been trained to respond to trolling, and anything even slightly ambiguous as though it were also trolling. This keeps content flowing, this simulates social connection, and thus the cycle is self-perpetuating. To put the brakes on like the soapmaker did and actively resist the siren’s song of feeding the trolls, you have to opt out of the easy way.