On Trolling

Note: Apologies for the lack of posts lately. I had three weeks at home and about six weeks worth of work to cram into that time. Back in the Philippines for now and hopefully back to a regular, fortnightly publishing schedule! Check out Instagram on Easter Sunday for a deluge of pictures as I finally unbox my grail pen.

By now, you’ve probably heard about the post by SBRE Brown where he discusses some of the abuse that he’s received on his videos. You’ve probably also seen some responses from across the community. I’ve recently had some abuse and trolling on this site and, for today’s post, I thought I would share another perspective.

If you haven’t already read Stephen’s post, it’s certainly worth a read. He talks about some of the vile feedback which he has received, the persistent, personal attacks, and he’s certainly not alone in having had that experience. Matt Armstrong has been very public about the abuse which he has received and Azizah raised the issue when she recently appeared on the Pen Addict podcast (one of the best episodes they’ve done). I’m not surprised that these reviewers feel frustrated about the abuse that they receive and, having experienced a little of it myself, I can understand why they have each spoken out. 

My own experience has been comparatively benign. There was some abuse on the blog last year, which led me to disable comments for around a month. Lately, it’s come up again in the wake of my FPN posts. Some of the responses to those posts disagreed with me but were respectful and considered, the kind of feedback which I welcome and encourage. But some of the critical feedback was abusive, in one case persistently abusive. (There have been some hateful comments on other platforms too, but I’d characterise those as an impulsive, passing hate: an immature response to being challenged in their beliefs or values. Certainly nothing desirable but not exactly the sort of thing we mean by trolling.) So my experience of abuse has not been the same as Stephen, Azizah, or Matt have endured but it was enough for me to spend time reflecting on the issue. 

That reflection led me to become uncomfortable with the use of ‘troll’ as a noun. It works well as a verb (to troll or be trolled) in describing a kind of behaviour which is unfortunately prevalent online but not so much as a noun (he is a troll). To describe or label someone as a troll is to some extent an effort to dehumanise them, to reduce their entire being to nothing more than a single unpleasant behaviour. I can understand why some people might wish to engage in that kind of reduction — it’s far easier to dismiss abuse when you define a person that way — but I think it’s a mistake. I’ll explain why but, in true Pen Economics fashion, I’m going to take the scenic route. 

To Troll

When you receive abuse like this, it certainly feels personal. It targets your characteristics or expressions of yourself and so in the heat of the moment, when you first see a comment from someone, it feels viscerally personal: a direct attack on you as a person. The attacks are obviously designed to be personal, the commenter identifies our vulnerabilities and exploits them to cause as much emotional pain as possible, and sometimes they manage to hit on characteristics or traits where our defences are weak. But I don’t think such attacks are actually personal. Something about me or my work may have triggered them to engage in the behaviour but the impulse to abuse exists independently of the recipient. If I had not been the target, someone else would have suffered it.

In other words, the ultimate cause of this abusive behaviour is external to those who experience the abuse and something internal to those who perpetuate it. It may be an actual mental health condition, like depression, or it might be an inappropriate expression of some feeling that we all experience from time to time: stress, frustration, loneliness, etc.

This realisation came about after I recently received a volley of abuse from one commenter. The comments came in over a half-hour, and the time zones were such that it was unlikely to have come from Europe. The commenter might have been in North America, where it was Friday evening, or around the South-East Asia region, where it was Saturday morning. While I enjoyed breakfast with friends and most people around the world were enjoying the happiest moments of their week, this person was sitting at their computer, probably alone, and trying to cause hurt to me and other commenters. And, somewhat strangely, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him (or her). What a truly sad way to spend your free time.  

These feelings of empathy were never going to stop the abuse — I very much doubt they cared how I felt about them — but the realisation helped me to see that their comments were not about me at all. It was just one lonely guy trying to work through his own feelings, his frustration or insecurity or loneliness, and doing something that served to make him feel better or distract from his own sense of pain. It certainly didn’t excuse his behaviour but at least it helped to frame it. 

After that, his comments lost their bite. My instincts still kick in and urge me to respond immediately, to stand up for myself, set the record straight, and try to reason with the claims. But now I know it’s not necessary: nothing he says is really about me and nothing I say will change his mind. The things he says aren’t things he actually believes, they are just ways to spark a reaction and manage his feelings.

Agency

This kind of abusive behaviour comes about when a commenter dehumanises someone like Stephen, Azizah, Matt, or myself, to the point we are no longer seen as living, breathing, feeling human beings. That dehumanisation enables the commenter to treat us as objects through which they can gain a sense of distraction, satisfaction, or whatever else they are seeking.

My problem with calling such people trolls is that it is equally dehumanising. It reduces the abusive commenter to a simple label, something which makes it easier to dismiss the hurtful things they say but also eliminates their moral agency: their responsibility to interact with us as sensible human beings. If we see them as nothing more than an object of abuse, then we also take away that sense of responsibility. 

In some ideal world, the response to this abuse would be for both sides to meet and recognise the humanity of the other. For the commenter to recognise that they are causing genuine pain and hurt to a real person, and for the receiver of commenters to recognise that it is not personal and that there there is someone else experiencing some pain of their own. 

Interestingly, there is a fascinating episode of This American Life which does exactly this. The background is that a blogger about women’s rights receives some intensely hateful messages, including some from a fake Twitter account purporting to be the woman’s recently-deceased father. You can imagine just how deeply hurtful this must have been to her. Some time later, they meet and discuss those events, in a recorded conversation. The commenter, to his credit, is honest and vulnerable in admitting that he intended to cause emotional distress and he did it during a time when he lacked self-worth and wanted to feel better about himself. The blogger is also vulnerable in discussing the pain which she experienced, as well as the anguish and confusion brought on by the abuse. It is a compelling, challenging conversation to hear, one which leaves you somewhat hopeful that more incidents could be resolved by people being honest and vulnerable with each other. 

Of course, real life isn’t like it is on the radio. Those who choose to anonymously abuse people like Stephen aren’t going to sit down for a conversation and reveal their insecurities and publicly apologise for causing him pain. And that leaves us, as bloggers or reviewers, in a position where we need to consider what is an appropriate response to abusive behaviour. 

Responding

Stephen said in his post that he responds by deleting comments and blocking users. In the past, Matt has disabled comments on Youtube and policed the comments which are published on his blog. I haven’t spoken to Azizah but I suspect she also polices comments and removes those which are abusive or demeaning. As I said above, I’ve also temporarily turned off the comments and it’s something which I consider again from time to time. But there are two issues with this approach: first, people who haven’t engaged with me in the past seem more comfortable leaving a comment (anonymous, pseudonymous, or otherwise) than emailing me. When the comments are turned off, I lose a lot of that contact — and honestly, meeting new people is one of the really rewarding parts of having a blog. The second problem is that a lot of the best conversations in this community are happening behind closed doors: in emails, in Skype chats, in Facebook messages, that sort of thing. That’s not a problem if you’ve got contacts and you’re something of an insider in the community but it sucks as an outsider. You’re not only missing out but you don’t even realise that all this great stuff is going on. In the years I participated as an outsider in the community, I had no idea what went on behind the scenes and how much I was missing. Closing off blog comments pushes more of those discussions and that content into spaces where it can’t be seen, and that’s really unfortunate. So, for those reasons, I’ve decided to keep the comments open.

I’ve also decided not to delete abusive comments. If someone wants to come and abuse me, that is their choice. I think anyone who reads the comments will quickly realise when a commenter is being abusive or unreasonable, so the abuse doesn’t really reflect anything on me or harm my reputation. But there’s a small chance the commenter will come back at some point, once they have worked through whatever issues are currently afflicting them, and see the things which they wrote and the way they behaved. The optimist in me hopes they’ll feel some remorse and possibly even explain their behaviour and offer an apology. (The realist in me knows this won’t ever happen.) 

Stephen has encouraged his audience to stand up against abuse wherever they see it online and I completely understand his motivation for saying this. When someone leaves a nasty comment on the blog (or in other places where my work is discussed), it is enormously gratifying to see someone else stand up and defend me. Particularly when the respondent isn’t someone known to me, just a reader who liked my work enough to call out comments they felt were unfair or abusive. It’s gratifying and it’s reassuring. But I’m not sure if it’s actually desirable. In the first place, respondents often end up abused in exactly the same way as I have been; rather than remedying the situation, it sparks more hate and more pain. Hardly an improvement. More importantly, it’s undesirable because it feeds the behaviour. A response provides confirmation that the abuse has been successful, particularly if it is an emotional response that comes from a place of hurt or shock. So while it might be gratifying to see someone defending you against abuse, I think it is far better to deny them the satisfaction of knowing they have succeeded.

Conclusion

That isn’t to say that my approach would suit everyone or that the others should consider adopting it for themselves. Abusive comments are designed to hurt and even someone with a thick skin will find themselves being worn down when such comments become regular. If I had experienced the same amount and kinds of abuse as they have, it would probably be a lot harder to take this path and I might find it easier just to delete the comments, block the users, and look for ways to build a walled garden in which I only have to interact with those who behave appropriately. If Matt chose to publish his reviews on a channel only accessible to a defined group, I would completely understand and support that decision. But I think leaving the abusive comments public and ignored is the best decision for me for now — though admittedly it’s still an evolving decision.