‘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.
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?