Should we reconsider how we deal with internet trolls?

How Jesus Might Deal with Trolls

My latest attempt at an argument-based discussion in an online comments section inevitably led to me being called something that I had to look up on Urban Dictionary — with, decidedly, less than pleasing results. As my brain strung the letters together, I could instantly feel my pulse shoot up. Worse still, I had to grudgingly admit that ‘JimBob555’ did not lack a certain finesse as far as very obscene insults go. I took a deep breath… and hesitated. Should I try to repay ol’ JimBob in kind? For a minute I tried to come up with a vicious put-down, in order to inflict maximum annoyance on my digital opponent.

Instead, I closed the browser window and slumped back into my chair. There was this feeling again, familiar from my childhood. This feeling I used to get after playing hours of video games and then suddenly surfacing and finding myself back in the real world. It is a strange, vaguely dissatisfying sensation because, despite the momentary intensity of the gaming experience and the legions of digital enemies you might have vanquished, all you get out of it is the equivalent of a very brief sugar high that ends the very moment you put down the controller.

Battling a troll or hurling insults at someone with differing political convictions online is not dissimilar from playing a game. It can be all-consuming, exhausting, and — yes — fun, but at the end of the day, it is mostly an empty exercise. Even if you ‘win’ an argument, chances are that all you have accomplished is provoke a complete stranger, whom you will never cross paths with again, not even digitally.

Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, had recently acknowledged as much when she asked a group of conservative high-school students not to engage in “own the libs”-style online behavior. She granted that “it’s fun and that it can feel good” but then declared that “that kind of speech” accomplishes nothing, persuades no one and “is the exact opposite of leadership.” Her stance was attacked immediately afterwards by people claiming that she was trying to stifle political debate, which after all is the very essence of democracy. That, of course, is naïve at best and disingenuous at worst, because anyone who has ever read over comments on social media knows that online interaction more often than not resembles a crude slugfest and rarely amounts to a proper debate. The phrase ‘owning the libs’ reveals just that (this is, by the way, not at all to imply that liberals are somehow less guilty of this conduct). Even if an exchange starts out as an actual discussion, it tends to quickly degenerate into a contest that is not at all about persuading anyone, not even a third party, but merely about beating the other guy, ideally in a humiliating fashion.

Decent humans can turn into quite something else when protected by online anonymity

If you are into that sort of thing, you may give yourself a pat on the back, but it is worth remembering that the opponent in this particular game is a fellow human and not an enormous pixel monster or dark wizard. Even ‘JimBob555’ is probably a decent father of two, maybe a history teacher or accountant, who might have a penchant for Miller Lite and hide the fact that he secretly binges Grace and Frankie. Most likely, he would be the first to help me out if I had some sort of an emergency.

And so, I got thinking. What if there was another way to play? One that was less destructive and perhaps even had the potential to yield genuine results? For some reason, I had to think of a sermon I had heard during my childhood about Jesus’ radicalism. Although I am not an exemplary Christian by any means (and this is certainly not an attempt to proselytize), that idea had impressed, and always stuck with me. I still remember sitting in our local church in Germany, a building at least a thousand years old, amidst the thick swaths of burning incense and listening to the balding priest talking about Jesus’ radical message. It seemed counter-intuitive to my 14-year-old self at the time, but, of course, the demand of turning the other cheek or loving thy enemy is just about as radical today as it was during the Roman Empire.

So, I dusted off my little green New Testament, which an emissary of the Gideons had at some point handed to me in front of my high school and looked up the passages on which, many years ago, the priest had based his sermon.

Matthew 5:44
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you,
do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully
use you, and persecute you;

Matthew 5:46 and 5:47
For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? Do not
even the publicans* the same?
And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others?
Do not even the publicans do so?

America has increasingly become a country where people salute their “brethren only”. This is true all the more so for online interactions. Comment sections of news outlets are reminiscent of the mountain battles during the First World War, where Austro-Hungarian and Italian troops would take up positions in neighboring valleys in the Alps and lob enormous shells at each other across the peaks. Once the dust settled and the many casualties were counted however, their positions would remain unchanged and there would still be a mountain between them. Online, Americans are stuck in their respective trench and from the safety of the digital dugout, they angrily throw invective in the direction of the other, incapable of moving beyond their poisonous stalemate.

And if this essay’s line of thought has so far been too sentimental for your taste, here is a more self-interested perspective: if you take a look at the bigger picture, fighting someone online invariably leads to a no-win situation. Even if you manage to shut them up, all you have done is score a Pyrrhic victory, because that brief sugar high comes at a considerable societal cost. A cost to your community, your country and, hence, yourself. By now, it is no secret that America is a divided nation and you have just helped deepen that rift. Bluntly put, a divided country is a weak country, vulnerable to attacks from its enemies and unable to deliver for its people. It’s not ‘divided we stand’ for a reason.

How, then, can we find a way out of the never-ending cycle of tit for tat behavior online? The inherent flaws of most online interaction, its anonymity, lack of accountability and fleeting, game-like nature could paradoxically represent an advantage. First of all, if our opponent online usually remains a mere cipher, an avatar instead of a real human being, the question must be asked: how hurt or insulted should we really be by comments directed at us by someone with whom we have nothing but the most transient, digital relationship? Should we really get riled up by someone’s utterances to whom we, ourselves, are mostly a username?

I might not be prepared to turn the other cheek in real life and loving thy enemy can be a tall order when it comes to dealing with, for instance, an abusive boss, but online it might be easier to do “more than others” and perhaps even “do good to them that hate you” for a specific reason. The underlying purpose of fighting back or taking revenge when one is being insulted is to deter such behavior — either on the part of the aggressor or possible onlookers — in the future. If I don’t hit back at ‘JimBob555’ the first time around, he and other users observing our exchange will probably conclude that I might not hit back the second time around either. In other words, they will think that I’m a sucker and might be tempted to exploit that knowledge. The thing about online communication is, however, that there usually is no second encounter. Our interactions in comments sections are usually one-off affairs. So, while the urge to take revenge will still be there, because it is deeply ingrained in our psyche (which is why we engage in road rage situations, even though we will likely never encounter that other driver again), it is really quite pointless to indulge it. And this decision does not even have to come from a place of moral conviction; as explained above, mere self-interest suffices.

Breaking through the vicious cycle of online hostility

Here are a few propositions for how we can act online in order to break the deadlock:

1. Try to stay friendly. It is hard to not react angrily when one is insulted or deals with someone who voices despicable opinions, but trolls, especially, feed off of our heated reactions. So, break the cycle, wish them a great day, and move on.

2. Ask your opponent’s opinion, instead of immediately hitting them with yours. Show some interest.

3. Walk a mile in their shoes, as the song goes. Make the effort and try to see it from their vantage point. Aim to get a glimpse of their thoughts, fears and hopes.

4. Don’t be too quick to pass judgment. Never speak with arrogance or moral superiority.

5. Insist on facts but do so in a respectful manner. And if you manage to prove someone wrong, don’t engage in “gotcha!” antics.

6. Always keep in mind, that you usually do not know a thing about the person on the other end. If they say hateful things, it might very well be because they are deeply unhappy with their lives. And while that is still no excuse, it is an explanation. We are all shaped by our specific, sometimes rather limited experiences, misfortunes included. There is no pure evil.

7. Post something positive. If you are inundated with negativity, change the tune.

Of course, these points are merely suggestions and probably no cure-alls, but if we accept the premise that, while our individual altercations online may seem trivial, their aggregated impact is harmful to the community and the country, it is imperative that we at least try. The issue at hand is a real one and so far, there are not many proven solutions in sight. Perhaps, it is therefore time to start with ourselves and our own behavior online. To change the dynamics of a crowd it sometimes only takes a few — a few, who resolve to “do more than others”. In this spirit, I don’t know if I can love you ‘JimBob555’, but I hereby salute you.

*Tax collectors — known as oppressive and dishonest. Clearly, they were a popular breed even two thousand years ago.