It’s Troll Week on Mashable. Join us as we explore the good, the bad, and the ugly of internet trolling.
The conventional wisdom is that you shouldn’t respond to people who send you hate mail online. Don’t feed the trolls, the adage goes. They’re doing this to get attention, so don’t give them what they want.
But is this advice truly sound, or is it just something people keep saying because they’ve been hearing it forever?
According to Lauren Hoffman, a clinical psychologist and instructor at Columbia University, the advice is solid from a psychological standpoint. But that’s only part of the story.
“Research shows that the typical internet troll posts nasty comments in order to provoke others, trigger conflict, and receive attention,” Hoffman says. “When trolling efforts are successful in achieving those outcomes, the nasty behavior is rewarded and therefore likely to continue.”
But what about the trolling that gets worse and worse, even if you ignore it? Hoffman chalks that up to something called an “extinction burst,” during which a troll might escalate their behavior in the hopes that something even more toxic will elicit a response. This could mean more vitriolic language, more targeted hate, or more frequent abusive messages — you know, all the stuff that shouldn’t be on the internet in the first place.
Hoffman explains that if the person on the receiving end of the abuse can “ride out” the extinction burst, the trolling behavior is likely to stop. That’s a relief. But what about the time in between? Why should that time have to exist at all?
Online creators, including journalists, have often spoken out against the “don’t feed the trolls” axiom, particularly people who have experienced trolling themselves. It’s easy to understand the frustration: Why should they have to consider their behavior so carefully when they’re the targets? Why should they have to tread lightly when all they wanted to do was be online?
Why should the target have to tread lightly when all they wanted to do was be online?
Ultimately, it’s a framing issue: we as a culture put the impetus to improve a toxic situation on the victim.
Writer Film Crit Hulk spoke to this burden in an essay for The Verge earlier this year. “The biggest mistake we ever made with trolls was making the question of abuse about how to placate and fix them,” they wrote, “instead of how to empower the people they hurt or manage your own well-being in the face of them.”
When you’re targeted by trolls, the mental and physical toll can be severe. I have lost whole days, felt foggy and anxious for entire weeks because of messages I’ve received. I’ve spent even more time agonizing over whether I should respond. (It’s worth noting that I am white and cisgender, and that other people on the internet experience much worse.) I also have friends and colleagues who have left social media entirely because of targeted, often violent harassment.
And according to Hoffman, the psychological effects of engaging with trolls can veer into the physiological, including “sweating, rapid heartbeat, muscle tension, or trouble breathing.” It’s a vast physical price for sticking up for yourself.
So do we stick up for ourselves? Can targets feasibly be the “bigger person” when the trolls make the rules? As troll culture becomes more pervasive online, it becomes harder to pick a blanket answer. In some instances, it’s beneficial to expose troll-y bots — especially if they’re spreading political lies. (You never know which impressionable people might be reading.) In other situations — including many instances of hate speech — it’s likely best for the target’s health to just block and move on.
Hoffman agrees. “Pick your battles and set limits for yourself,” she says. “Decide what you’re willing to ignore, what you might reply to, and what you will block or report.”
She also emphasizes the importance of leaning on your community. “It’s vital to seek social support, particularly from people who have also experienced online abuse, as well as professional support if distress is intense, frequent, or impairing,” she says.
But we also have to change the way we talk about trolling. There’s no clear way to deal with trolls because we can’t deal with them — not on a large scale, anyway. That’s a job for big tech companies, and it’s unclear if they’re up to the task.
What we can do is stop relying on adages like “don’t feed the trolls” without considering a person’s specific circumstances. Trolling sucks, after all. All we can do is operate with a bit more empathy.