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These days, I'm the director of the American Library Association' s Office for Intellectual Freedom. I'm also executive director and secretary of the Freedom to Read Foundation. See "About Me" for contact information.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Trolls

You've seen them. Indeed, you can't avoid them. You step into an online discussion that interests you, and ... there he is. (It might be a she, but not usually.)

I'm talking about trolls.

So what do I mean? A troll is not:

  • Someone who expresses a contrary view or argument. That's interesting and an occasion for learning.
  • Someone who is socially dim or clueless. Let's face it: at some point, that's all of us. We offend people. Usually, it's unintentional, and when it's pointed out, we realize we've overstepped. If we're mindful, then we try to mend bridges. Sometimes, our offensive comments are totally intended (we are snarky, sarcastic, and/or condemnatory), and we shouldn't be surprised by the response. But, call me old-fashioned, I think we should try to be polite.

A troll is:

  • Someone who obsesses about a viewpoint. And here I mean not just sounding a recurrent theme, but demonstrating an unwillingness to let go of a particular event. Trolls expand that circumstance to a general indictment, and ignore any contrary evidence or context.
  • Someone who demands that anyone holding a contrary view weigh in, every single time, to any statement the troll declares is important. And the failure to respond proves the conspiracy of suppression.
  • Someone who must be noticed, who calls persistently for acknowledgement even when such an acknowledgement would be decidedly odd and irrelevant.

Ultimately, trolling is a kind of mental illness, a desperate and narcissistic attempt to seize collective attention and refocus it on the troll.

The problem, of course, is that it isn't always clear or obvious when someone moves from being just irritating to mentally disturbed.

But I will say that trolls are corrosive to public debate. I once thought that the Internet and the ability of the public to respond instantly to the news could usher in a new round of civic engagement and enlightened discourse. Instead, the race to the bottom - turning every single posting into (pick one) an anti-Obama, anti-immigrant, anti-business, anti-whatever rant - makes people turn away from comments altogether. It's free speech, and that's swell. But all too often it's not free speech worth listening to. Instead, it's a loop of nasty self-references. In the end, it's boring.

As an inveterate letter-to-the-editor-writer, I used to chafe at the rejection of my missives. But, in retrospect, a system that moderates, edits, and confirms the identity of contributors seems smart. The sad truth is that even I need to be moderated sometimes.

Here's the core issue: what do you do about a troll, especially one that stalks you? On the one hand, you want to be polite. On the other, you don't want to grant this person the right to dictate how you spend your time. You have your own life. Yet trolls keep tossing their thoughts into the public forum, responding to your every action.

So sometimes, you just ... ignore them. It's not that you think they're subhuman. It's just that you've learned interacting with them winds up being a "striving after wind" (Ecclesiastes 1:14). You get what they mean, you don't agree, and continued engagement with them is just pointless.

So we wind up with the Internet meme: don't feed the trolls. Don't give them air, don't give them time, don't give them a blank check on the bank account of your attention.

Have you ever dealt with a troll? What worked for you?