Smooth functioning of social life has always depended on the recognition of certain basic limits to behavior. We cannot simply say or do anything we wish, or offend people, without paying consequences — isolation, ostracism, etc. We learn to develop a sense of shame for violating social codes and being too overtly selfish. Furthermore, we naturally tend to feel empathy towards our fellow humans in their presence — behind their backs, we can be quite vicious, but facing them in the flesh it is hard to feel aversion; we also fear stirring up conflict. And so because of limits and codes, our sense of shame, and natural empathy, social life tends to regulate itself and we humans more or less get along.
What would happen, however, if we no longer had to recognize limits, or adhere to codes, or face consequences for antisocial behavior? What if we no longer had to feel a sense of shame for being abrasive or abusive? And what if we eliminated the element of people’s’ physical presence that often dissuades us from rude behavior? Those among us who found it hard to regulate themselves and control their toxic tendencies would suddenly have a free hand to indulge in their boundless egotism and social life could turn ugly.
In many ways this is the scenario we face on social media, where there are no real codes or limits to adhere to, little need for self-regulation and no physical presence to contend with. Not only do people not pay any price for rude, toxic behavior, they can find like minded people who also felt pinched and restricted by polite strictures of social life. They can form a kind of self-validating toxic tribe. Allowed to run free on social media, these types can often ruin the experience for the rest of us.
In dealing with these types we are left with a dilemma — do we push back and defend ourselves against their abuse, risking an ugly fight, or do we walk away allowing them to take shots at us with impunity? The answer to this dilemma often depends on the exact nature of the toxic person we are dealing with. The following are the seven most common toxic types we encounter on social media and the strategies most appropriate for countering or managing them.
1. The Secret Envier
Perhaps we have some success in a particular field or project, and it becomes public. At some point, out of the blue, we then find ourselves under a pointed attack from a friend or follower of ours on social media. This individual may be simply a virtual friend but they are often in the same field as we are. Perhaps they try to point out inconsistencies in our work or flaws in our character or holes in our reputation. Because they tend to belong to our circle or milieu, this wounds us all the more. We are left wondering where does this attack come from? We may feel a tinge of self-doubt, but then the desire to stand up for ourselves kicks in and we defend our position in a heated manner, and a back-and-forth battle ensues. In the end, however, we can’t help feeling a bit ugly and regret getting so involved. We may even feel like we have taken their bait, stirring up a fight that they had wanted all along.
The problem here is our actual confusion as to the source and reason for this attack. What we must realize is that this is not about truth or real debate, but actually stems from pure unadulterated envy, under the disguise of righteous criticism. Often people become our friend or follower with an undercurrent of resentment in our having more success than they have. They secretly desire the opportunity to take us down a notch; they have a nose for any misstep on our part they can exploit.
As I describe in my book The Laws of Human Nature, we humans are naturally prone to feel envy; it comes from our perpetual need to compare our status to others. And among those who are particularly insecure, envy can motivate a great deal of their behavior. But in the real world, enviers have to be careful — in attacking powerful people in their field they can pay a price, and if the discrepancy between attacker and target is too obvious, envy as the root of the attack can be too easily discerned and prove embarrassing — it is an ugly emotion to display. But on social media the game is different. It is often hard to gauge the relative status of the person attacking us, and so it is harder to see envy as the source. Not only are there no consequences to pay for attacking peers or the successful, secret enviers can gain all kinds of attention in doing so, even making a name for themselves. And often they will find their attacks seconded by a mob of fellow enviers who relish the chance to take down someone powerful.
Understanding that envy is at the root of the attack, we can find it easier to control our emotions and quell any sense of self-doubt or guilt we might have. We understand enviers are dangerous and usually not worth wrestling with — they have less to lose than we do from a public spat. We can stop ourselves from taking the bait once we are aware of the nature of the attack. If they are causing actual damage to our name, we can choose to defend ourselves in a polite, and cold manner — pointing out the irrationality of their reasoning, and leaving this as our last word on the matter. If necessary, we can always appear contrite, agree nominally with them, and display some self-deprecating humor, calming and neutralizing their envy. In any event, awareness of what is actually going on is the key to having such options.
2. The Passive Aggressor
We are participating in some online discussion when inevitably there pops up a voice that interjects a comment that gets under our skin. They are countering our argument, a totally legitimate action, but the manner in which they do so somehow makes a mockery of us and our ideas without really understanding what we’re trying to say. For instance, they use all kinds of loaded words in describing our position — cynical, amoral, anti-progressive, Machiavellian — all the while pretending to argue with us in an objective manner. Their criticisms if looked at closely are vague and insinuating, full of slippery generalizations, which are hard to defend ourselves against. What are they really saying? Or they extend our argument out to some absurd degree — if we argue that global warming is the greatest menace we face and we must take action against it, they will respond, “I suppose you’ve decided to live in a cave or go back to riding a horse and buggy.” Or they may praise us in a way that insinuates a dig — such as complimenting us for how much money our book is making, implying that is what motivated us in writing it in the first place.
Or, assuming a pose of supreme moral superiority, they use the old guilt by association tactic. For instance, we bring up a historical figure — let’s say the fashion designer Coco Chanel — to illustrate how someone brilliantly crafted a brand. They will intervene to make everyone aware that Chanel had been a Nazi sympathizer during World War II — implying that we’re turning a blind eye to flaws in her character and tacitly approving them. If we try to defend ourselves by explaining we were merely focusing on her success as a businesswoman and the lessons to learn from that, and that often we do this with other historical figures who have some dubious deeds in their past — Napoleon Bonaparte, Pablo Picasso, John F. Kennedy for instance — they’ll accuse us of changing the subject, and evading the moral question. In the end we know we’re dealing with passive aggressive types by how infuriating they make us feel and how slippery they are in their tactics. As a cover, they use snark and humor to play to the larger social media audience as if that made their argument better. No matter how hard we try to counter them they get the last word on us, with the equivalent of a passive-aggressive “whatever”. Arguing with them is like trying to wrap our arms around the wind.
The passive aggressor is quite similar to the first type in that envy is often what motivates them. But unlike the envier who can be quite vicious this type likes to keep up the facade of their being fair and civilized — just engaged in argument. They make their attack indirect, and insinuating, always playing to the crowd, seeking to bait us into a back and forth in which we lose our cool. In real life, people who talk and argue in this manner are quickly shunned — they are too obviously annoying and rude. They alienate people over time. But on social media, no one has to deal with them on a daily basis. They can seem refreshing in their snark and find an audience.
Knowing this type and their indirectness, we must not fall into the trap of taking them on directly. Fight fire with fire. Without being aggressive or angry, calmly expose the nature of the attack, by discussing the tactic they are using. Mirror back to them their guilt by association or straw man argument in a way that exposes the nature of their slipperiness and turns the tables on them, making a mockery of their ideas.
3. The Intellectual Brawler
We find ourselves in discussion or debate with someone who radiates supreme confidence. Their style of writing is so preemptory. Perhaps they make references to notable intellectual heavyweights — Noam Chomsky for instance — as if that sanctified their ideas. Or they back up their authoritative statements with a lot of statistics, studies, famous quotes, in rapid-fire succession — too quick for us to challenge or verify. They use a lot of generalities and jargon — academic, scientific — -that seem to contradict our position. They argue with such conviction and authority that many others are impressed or intimidated, believing they are dealing with a weighty thinker.
We must never allow ourselves to feel intimidated by such types — they are paper tigers. On social media they can give the impression of intellectual heft, but if we could look behind the curtain we would see someone riddled with insecurities. They have not achieved anything substantial in the realm of ideas — as a writer, academic, or scientist. Those who are genuinely successful are often more circumspect with their arguments and weary of absolute statements. These brawlers seethe with the awareness the world is yet to recognize their genius. In real life, imposing their views with such authority and vehemence would seem ridiculous — since it is clear they do not occupy any position in life that would warrant such intellectual grandiosity. The discrepancy between their tone and their actual status would be too jarring and laughable. But on social media they can disguise this. If we looked closely at their actual ideas, behind all the bluster, we would see their shoddiness. They bank on intimidating people from doing so with their tone and air of authority.
In dealing with this type we must see through the pose. They are generally humorless, particularly in reference to their ideas, so a bit of mockery on our part will infuriate them and push them to foolish statements. Engage in the kind of debate with them that they fear, challenging their generalities, questioning their sources, forcing them to back up their statements with something understandable behind all the jargon. Get them to reveal what they are really saying to expose to everyone the thinness of their ideas.
4. The Social Justice Warrior
It can start innocently enough. We enter into a discussion on any topic — political or not political — and make what we consider to be a rather innocuous or self-evident statement. Then, out of the blue, we come under withering attack from someone who accuses us of brute insensitivity, of standing against progress. Perhaps our comment is not designed as the definitive statement but a passing thought; or had a degree of irony; or it had some context, connected to a chain of arguments we can’t elaborate on in such a medium. But the person accusing us of some egregious moral sin has assumed we are making a definitive assertion of our ideas, minus irony or context. They have given it an interpretation that seems to fit their righteous indignation.
Now suddenly we find ourselves under attack from a whole slew of warriors who pile on us, making our virtual life miserable. If we try to defend ourselves with anything less than a full-throated apology we only intensify their outrage at our insensitivity. In fact even an apology will not quell their reaction. These types are particularly slippery and infuriating to deal with because they cloak everything in black and white terms — they are on the side of good and we are on the side of evil. They may be sincere with their beliefs, but they have so over identified with their cause, that they feel entitled to be even more violent, insulting and insensitive than anything we might have expressed. This bit of hypocrisy is lost on them. (Similar to this, we find those who like to call other people who seem too sensitive to criticism “snowflakes,” but at the slightest argument against their ideas they erupt with righteous indignation, unaware of the irony involved). The truth is that they are so hypersensitive to offense that they can discern an insult in almost anything people might say that varies ever so slightly with their rigid dogma. In fact, feeling outraged and offended gives them a kind of secret thrill, a way to vent all their personal resentment and frustration. It can become a kind of outrage addiction.
In the real world these types would offend and alienate almost everyone with their righteousness, scolding tone, and moral superiority. But online, backed by a mob of fellow warriors, they can act with relative impunity. Choosing to defend ourselves is often not the wisest action. Once they have labeled us with some negative term, they will find ways to twist whatever we write to fit their interpretation. One possible response is with humor; since they are generally humorless they will overreact and perhaps look ridiculous but even this can be too dangerous a tactic once the mob is unleashed on you. The best is to quietly withdraw early on, perhaps with a mild apology, and wait for them to forget about you and pounce on their next victim.
5. The Contrarian
At first, this type seems relative amusing. In any discussion they are always the one debunking peoples’ ideas, expressing the opposite of conventional beliefs. Even their sarcasm can seem a bit refreshing. But after a while it becomes apparent that this is all that they have. They simply like to be against everything, and stir up antagonism. They have a nose for smelling any inconsistencies in our argument and inflating them out of proportion. They have no real values or ideas of their own. And they mistake this spirit of snark and contradiction for intelligence.
You will notice with this type that although they can be very sharp with their jokes, they don’t take too kindly to any joke at their expense. That is because deep down they sense they lack substance and they must overcompensate for this with an angry defensive pose.
It is very difficult to argue with such types. They can turn nasty in defense. To diffuse their annoying contrarian nature make a point of actually agreeing with them, while slightly altering their argument, and if they contradict us they are now contradicting their previous opinion. They are trapped in their own net.
6. The Attention Whore
With their posts, it seems we are interacting with a truly remarkable person. In their photos, they are always smiling and apparently having a fantastic time. They take vacations to the most exciting exotic locales. They make a point of always supporting the best and latest causes. They are working on their fourth novel while raising children, and while also starting some hot new business venture. They are always putting up quotes that promote a positive attitude and spiritual values, and doling out advice. They may also post provocative videos and images that make them seem so original and bold.
After the third or fourth round of seeing these posts, images, and reading their stories, it starts to get a bit annoying. On some level they cannot help but stir up our own insecurities — “am I having as good a time? I’ve not written one novel, let alone started a business.” And their “advice” starts to get under our skin — their ideas seem a bit hollow and forced. If this keeps up, our irritation turns to envy and hostility.
The reality is that we are dealing with a deep narcissist (see chapter 2 in The Laws of Human Nature for more on this). They have an inner emptiness and constant need for validation and recognition that must be continually filled by drawing attention from a mass of followers (even if they have to buy some friends and followers to pad their numbers). In real life, we quickly see through such types as frauds — they have not accomplished what they boast about; they merely dabble in ventures; they are just as banal and unhappy as everyone else, hardly spiritual. Their attempts at getting attention are quite desperate but in the virtual world, it is hard to discern this reality. They know how to manufacture the illusion of excitement, achievement and moral purity.
This type is not as destructive or malicious as the others; in fact, we should feel bad for their inner emptiness that spurs them on. The only dangers are the insecurities and envy they can stir up in us. Once annoyance sets in, It is best to unfriend them, cut them from our news feed, without their knowing, and not subject ourselves to their irritating notions.
7. The Nihilistic Troll
We could be engaged in an online discussion about politics or some sensitive cultural issue, or sharing within our own circle some personal news. Suddenly a voice intervenes with a comment or a photo-shopped image that seems specifically designed to shock and offend us. Feeling disturbed by this intrusion and quite angry, our natural impulse is to respond in kind — scolding, shaming, hurling our own insults.
Who we are facing here is not the garden-variety troll, but perhaps the most pernicious type in the troll family. The Nihilistic Troll resembles the spirit we find in certain adolescent males –feeling deep down quite small and insecure, they compensate for this by seeking to hurt people and destroy everything of value. This is their way to get attention and feel larger. It is the only form of power they can have, and it provides them a perverse thrill to rile people up and even trigger their hatred, which they become good at.
In real life, adults who inflict such emotional damage with comments or actions generally pay a real and painful price. So it takes a fair amount of daring and insolence to act in this way, while knowing the risks this incurs. But to play this game online requires no such nerve. Safely anonymous, even the most timid soul with such adolescent desires can get a thrill out of acting out their bottled-up desires to rebel and tear down. And so for this reason, the online world attracts these resentful and repressed spirits like a magnet.
The Nihilistic Troll might pretend to be acting in the service of some cause or leader, but don’t be fooled. The cause and their supposedly strong convictions are simply a way to justify and provide cover for their abusive behavior. They like to home in on people who might take themselves a bit too seriously or display sensitivity about certain issues — ripe targets for their mayhem. They steel themselves against any pangs of empathy or guilt by feeling vastly superior to their targets. They may claim they are doing this for the “lulz”, and those who are offended are simply humorless and obsessed with correctness. This is quite ironic — behind the virtual mask of any such trolls are layers of deep insecurities, and they would fly into a rage if anyone turned the tables by exposing their wounds. Remember that behind the macho front is a quivering and cowardly spirit that can only thrive in anonymity.
We all know the phrase “Don’t feed the trolls.” But even knowing this, we generally cannot resist scolding them, lecturing, complaining to others, or returning their insults. What we must do instead is to be as radical as they are — to meet their insults with absolute silence, ignoring their very existence. Do not show them the slightest sign of pique or hurt. (Try to message others to do the same.) This might embolden the trolls to go further with more comments and images. Return their fire with more silence. Soon, they will slink away, muttering to themselves. They thrive on getting a rise and having power over your emotions — that makes them feel significant. Instead, you have shown they are too small to bother with, hitting at their deepest insecurities.
This piece was inspired by my latest book The Laws of Human Nature, now available everywhere books are sold. The Laws of Human Nature was six years in the making and is the culmination of my life’s study of power, psychology, and history.