Robert E. Lee statute in Charlottesville, Va. Photo by Bill McChesney.
The world is too complicated for most rules to come close to being foolproof, but here’s one I recommend for all occasions: Never feed the trolls.
You know who I mean. Trolls are the pseudonymous jerks who lob personal insults to start online flame wars. They are the posers who monopolize family gatherings because nobody else could possibly be as witty, insightful or interesting as themselves. They are stalkers who are certain that if they can get an audience with you, you will stop overlooking their many wonderful qualities.
And sometimes they parade around parks or plant themselves on highways or in other public spaces. They may call themselves Occupy or they may call themselves Nazis or Klansmen. Even if their professed goals vary in intrinsic offensiveness, they are all trolls.
What trolls want most of all, what they feed on, is attention. The more you give them, the bigger and more trollish they get. This is why trolls should never be fed.
It doesn’t matter to the troll whether the attention is positive or negative. As I once explained to a client who was being stalked, trolls reinterpret any attention as favorable. We say “Go away,” but the troll hears “I am aware of you and that’s the first step toward getting me to do what you want.”
I work with some entertainers. They love to interact with genuine fans, which is good, because doing so is an essential part of the job. Of course, this exposes them to the occasional troll. My clients know enough to disregard the trolls, and often genuine fans will handle the situation on the performer’s behalf. Sometimes the troll approaches us with a make-believe business opportunity. That’s where I come in. I make initial contact to see if the proposal is legitimate before bringing it to the artist. Trolls quickly get bored of dealing with a business manager who isn’t going to give them access to their target.
Although they often try to appear menacing, which helps them get the attention they crave, the vast majority of trolls pose no physical danger. This isn’t because they are nice people; it is because crossing the line from talk to action exposes them to consequences. Trolls hate consequences. That’s why they hide in large crowds or behind the internet’s anonymity. When they do act out, they usually do so in a mob for the safety of numbers, targeting mostly property because police and insurance companies don’t object as much when injuries can be healed with cash. Recall the mobs that try to run wild in cities where the International Monetary Fund or World Bank are meeting, and you get the idea.
Occasionally, an isolated troll goes beyond trolling and does something truly evil, like mowing down counterprotesters with a vehicle or shooting up a congressional baseball practice. It is a mistake to attribute such behavior to trolldom at large. Although many trolls would like us to think they might actually do something, for the most part, they have demonstrated that they won’t.
The people who call themselves Nazis and Klansmen today are mere trolls. They have no power and no prospect of gaining any. What little influence they have is the influence we hand them when we treat them as though they matter. If some troll paints a swastika on a synagogue, it doesn’t matter until the TV cameras show up. If a group of trolls grab a public space and turn it into a combination outhouse and frat house, it doesn’t matter apart from the inconvenience it causes the rest of us. We should charge them with being a public nuisance and make them square their debt to society through service, fines or incarceration.
Trolls have a constitutional right to express their views. That was established 40 years ago when Nazi-styled trolls won permission (which they did not ultimately exercise) to try to offend the Jewish community of Skokie, Illinois, by marching and rallying there. Some of their troll descendants convened in Charlottesville this month to protest the removal of a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee. The troll protest was a sign of impotence; they had already lost the fight over the statute. But when counterdemonstrators decided that a line needed to be drawn, the trolls achieved more than they could have dared to dream. For more than a week, what happened in Charlottesville dominated national news and engrossed the president of the United States.
No president should ever discuss trolls. Press secretaries were invented to handle things like that. Having a press secretary say the president abhors racist trolls and demand that they behave appropriately, but that they have a right to speak (while we ignore them) doesn’t give the racist trolls the satisfaction of hearing a sitting president talk about them. The only authority that should pay attention to trolls is law enforcement, to guard against a migration from talk to violent action. Violent trolls, however, don’t usually advertise themselves in advance, as we saw in Oklahoma City in 1995 and in Charlottesville last week.
Ignoring trolls does not mean we have to ignore the nonsense they spout, although that is one option. Another – the one I wish would have been pursued in Charlottesville – would be to hold a big community gathering, to provide a counterpoint to the trolls rather than to confront and publicize them. If 100 trolls gather on one side of town, assemble 10,000 people on the other side for a festival of inclusion. Bring out the bands, the ice cream and the barbecues. Maybe make the town’s foster children the special guests of honor. If counterdemonstration leaders had done that in Charlottesville, Heather Heyer most likely would be alive today. It is not her fault she became a victim of mindless violence, but Charlottesville did not need to offer the world a martyr.
Trolls are not worth it. Stop feeding their appetite for attention, and most of them will go away.