Eating Cake with Grendel

‘Don’t feed the trolls’ is a phrase most people with more than a passing experience of internet discussion have encountered; and there is much to recommend it as a default position. However, not everyone has cause to be scared of trolls. Or agrees on what a troll is. So are there situations where it is reasonable or even beneficial to sit down with trolls? I believe so.

After decades of arguing cases in court, I have had my statements sieged by people of immense intellectual power more often than I can count; people who can find the slightest chink in an argument and use it to tear down the entire edifice; people of both higher authority and social standing than myself. And after the case, many of them chatted about other things or complimented me on the power of my arguments while we had a cup of tea, shared a train carriage, or one of us gave the other a lift. This has led to me not associating a powerful challenge to opinions I express with a challenge to my worth as a person.

Therefore, having someone respond on social media attacking my comments doesn’t cause me any issue at all. In fact I see benefits in engaging trolls:

  • The opportunity to debate and analyse the points raised. If a theory is solid, answering an attack will show the theory holds; if it is flawed, having it proved so will weaken incorrect beliefs or highlight areas for further study.

  • The possibility they are not trolling. Not everyone has extensive training and practice in logic, rhetoric, and self-expression, so an apparently rude or crude assault might be the product of the poster’s writing skills rather than their intent to insult; on the internet, the poster might not even be writing in their first language.

  • The small chance it will make a difference. If someone has set out to troll because they feel ignored or slighted, treating them as worthy of your notice might both help them cope and show them a better model of interaction. If someone is trolling because of a deep-seated belief, engaging them in debate might show them the belief (or the consequences they think come from it) are flawed.

So, if engaging trolls is to be avoided because of the harm it causes to the engager’s mental state, there is something to be said for people who have the confidence to not be troubled erring on the side of response rather than silence.

Troll using a computer
Finally! An answer to my question.
Spidergeck PicturesCC BY SA 2.0)

However, there are arguments to the contrary:

  • Acknowledgement validates their approach. If a troll gains responses using rudeness, they are not under social pressure to use more acceptable methods.

  • Comments are visible to many. While some people will not be unsettled by a troll’s responses, those are not the only people who will see the comments, so debating with trolls can increase the stress on others.

  • Debate can be obscured. Whether due to the freedom to post without considering the post or a greater amount of free time they are willing to devote, many trolls are prolific both in length and frequency of response; therefore, responding to them can fill a thread with their comments to the detriment of those who post with more consideration.

So, engaging trolls can have a negative impact on others, making the balance of benefits to disadvantages less clear than when treated purely as an issue of personal happiness.

Is there then an answer to the question: should you feed the trolls?

For me the answer lies in what the post says. If someone posts a single line of abuse then there is both little chance they are open to debate and nothing to debate anyway, so there is little benefit in responding. If someone posts a brutal attack which seems filled with logical flaws then there is a chance that they are, as I have experienced in the past, open to debate but do not have the same approach to structuring an argument and there is something to debate, so there can be benefit in responding.

In cases where a post is borderline, I find a good guide to be where the post is. If a post is on my blog, it is my decision how robust debate can be, so I might respond. If a post is on someone else’s blog the benchmark of acceptability is theirs, so I am more likely to leave the decision to engage or ignore to them.

Do you think everyone is entitled to respond to anything they wish? Do you think anything that isn’t a polite comment should be ignored?


17 thoughts on “Eating Cake with Grendel

  1. I don’t have much personal experience with trolls, but I must say that discussions (on LinkedIn’s groups, for example) are much more interesting to read when there is a certain amount of disagreement and debate. Your argument that not all trolls are evil does have some merit. One of the disadvantages of dialogues carried out in typed text is that nuances don’t come through very well, so someone may be labelled a “troll” who is undiplomatic or crude, but whose opinions are sincere. I guess each of us as bloggers and writers must decide whether or how to engage with comments that are something other than “Great post!”


    1. Exactly. I know several people who complain that certain forums won’t allow anything other than wholehearted praise of everything posted, and other people who complain those first people are clearly trolling.

      Potentially is issue is in education: the internet has given so many people a voice, but many country’s curricula no longer include the basics of public speaking that would let them use it efficiently.


  2. For myself, I tend to duck “actual” trolls, but my definition doesn’t seem to quite match up with others; basically, I don’t call it a troll until I see repeated examples of deliberately inflammatory (and often contradictory) posts/comments, willful ignorance (or pretending at it) and repeatedly ignoring replies that would in any way “pop the balloon” so to speak. Otherwise, they’re just people who like to argue, which I’m sure everyone is aware are not in short supply on the Internet. Interesting post.


    1. Thank you.

      I tend to share your stance: if someone repeatedly posts without any attempt to do more than attack or derail then I might ignore them; but if they engage with responses (however apparently incoherently or illogically) I will at least try to address their points.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting – I’m an admin of a huge FB group devoted to setting and solving cryptic crossword clues. Several months ago I started getting complaints about one particular member who was constantly posting ridiculous questions on the threads. It was unclear (and still unclear to me) whether the poster was a troll (trying to disrupt the group) or someone who genuinely didn’t understand what was going on and wanted help. As you say sometimes those whose comments seem like trolls just have a bad grip on the language or in this case the rules of the group.


    1. Following the rules of the group is another good example of assumption clashing with varied experience. Often there are FAQ/Read This Firsts that explain posting etiquette for the group; consistently ignoring those can be an indication someone is trolling.

      However, some groups also have conventions and cultures that are not documented. For example, several forums I have used over the years had a rule about not pestering for responses to a thread, but did not always have the same criteria for how long a poster should leave a thread before they could post a reminder the question was outstanding and did not always state what that rule was; so people coming from forums that allowed chasing up almost immediately were sometimes suddenly attacked for inappropriate behaviour.


  4. For me, it depends on what sort of trolling it is. If the comment seems angry but legitimate, I might engage. If they’re just having fun throwing around curse words and being generally annoying, I ignore them — or, heck, if it’s a comment on my blog, straight up delete it. Basically I think to myself, “Does this comment sound like it comes from someone who actually wants to talk about the subject, or who just wants to vent?”, and if it’s the latter, I ignore.


  5. You are generous – because you are personally sturdy. A lifetime of debate and court (court!) has made you able to see theater and drama in an attack.

    Not everyone is. If you have a real problem with something I write, and can discuss the matter with civility, you might get a response from me. I have a comment policy that states my limits, and feel no compunction to stretch those limits for a public attack: my blog is MY space, and I will keep it safe for me.

    The thing is, the audience I seek for the books I am writing is an educated audience of grownups. Those are the people who might enjoy one of my posts – and legitimately disagree with me. I don’t blog to blog – I am a writer of complex contemporary commercial fiction, and I hope to connect with the readers of same.

    I don’t expect to attract trolls (crosses fingers) because I normally steer clear of religion and politics (I have my opinion on both, but I don’t like debate).

    I am NOT sturdy. Each word takes a huge effort. I am disabled, and the effects of that are that I have only a few hours each day in which I can write. So my comment policy must defend my working time and space, and not extend into my psyche in any way that would take up time: I have not the capacity to focus when upset from outside.

    I love to read of people like you who CAN afford to take the chance. In a former life – maybe I would to.

    Your reasons are good – maybe someone is NOT trolling, just not good with English, or has a misunderstanding, or is having a bad day. I’m glad you can afford it.


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