Don’t Feed the Trolls

Social media is such an incredible development in human history. It has brought people together from all corners of the world and allowed them to connect in a way that science fiction certainly never saw coming. You can become lifelong friends with people that, just a few years ago, you almost certainly would not have met at any time in your life. Even if you live alone in the middle of nowhere, if you can connect to the internet you can connect to other human beings anywhere on the planet. What a beautiful thing!

But… oh come on, you knew there was a but coming didn’t you? The fact that social media is there for everyone is a double-edged sword. Whilst (hopefully) the majority of people want to use it to spread love and friendship with others there are always some that see it as a golden opportunity to spread hate and malice, with hurtful comments and harmful pictures. Yes, trolls. These disturbed, poisonous creatures hide away in their dark holes spewing out venom wherever and whenever they can. They cause untold pain and distress to innocent, normal people that are just living their lives and trying to connect with like-minded souls. Trolls will target anyone, not just people they know. As long as they can get their fix of upsetting someone that is all they care about; they have zero regard for the consequences of their vitriol.

The problem is how to deal with trolls. Social media is gradually getting better at finding ways of providing some protection, but it is often too little too late. Tools like blocking and reporting provide self-help but they are like sticking plasters on cuts when you’d rather avoid being cut in the first place. Yes, you can report and block an offensive message and have it removed but it can’t be removed from your mind so easily. Sadly, there is no obvious solution to preventing the messages in the first place. Shutting down a troll account is merely mole-whacking; they’ll simply set up a new one and go again. And do we really want to go down the road of having out messages vetted and policed by some nefarious all-seeing A.I. that can play God with what we can and can’t show or say? We value our freedom of speech highly so how could we possibly tolerate having it restricted by a machine? How can a computer ever distinguish between a genuinely hurtful comment and a bit of cheeky banter between two old friends?

As with many problems in society, the solution may not lie in technology but rather in education. Why do trolls behave the way they do? How can we raise our children in a way that prevents this kind of behaviour? If we understand what is making people spread hate we can begin to take measures to ensure that need simply never develops in them. A societal change of course, is no trivial matter and even if we identified solutions today they could take a whole generation to become engrained. Which is isn’t much comfort to you here and now if someone is being horrible to you online.

Let’s look at some practical advice on dealing with trolls then. The most important rule, the Golden Rule, is * Do Not Respond *. There is nothing you can say that is going to hurt them back. The nastier you get the more they’ll laugh. You’ll be playing into their hands. The one thing they crave more than anything is the attention. They are desperate to elicit a response from their victim. They don’t care what it is—if you reply, they have won. And once they know they can get at you they’ll keep doing it. Your words are fuel to their fire. Starve them. Do not feed the trolls. They loathe being ignored and if they can’t get a response from you they’ll soon turn their attention to another target. However, having resisted the urge to fight back, it does not necessarily mean you should do nothing at all. Don’t make any knee-jerk reactions. Take a moment, calm yourself, and then think rationally about what you feel. Is it really a vile, abusive or malicious comment or is it just ill-informed or ill-judged? If you are clear that there is deliberate malice intended then you should have no hesitation in blocking the sender and reporting the message as offensive. Most social media platforms have ways in place for you to do these things. This will usually result in the offending message being taken down. Sometimes, that may not be enough for you. For example, if you have been threatened harm then you should take a screenshot of the message and you may consider informing the police. It is horrible that an article like this even needs to be written but that is how the world is today. One last piece of advice I would give you is this: try to be thick-skinned. Don’t allow words to hurt you. It is your choice whether or not you are upset by them. You have the power to say to yourself “these words mean nothing to me, they cannot hurt me”. And it is true. You can decide to be upset or you can decide you are not going to be upset. Always take the positive action. Don’t allow anyone to upset you. You are in control of how you feel. So feel good. And get back to interacting with the good people out there.