2014 has been an especially bad year to exist as a human on the internet. It’s felt as though a fog of animosity rolled in and engulfed all our interactions; almost no one was left completely untouched from some sort of awful interaction with a stranger online. As someone who has spent too much of her own time eating bugs from the rank waters of the internet swamp, I hope to share some advice on how to navigate through the fog.
First of all, real trolls aren’t like you and me.
They’re not just someone with a different opinion. Real trolls come from deep down in the swamps of the internet, where their bad attitudes have been preserved in the peat bogs for years. They come from places such as Reddit and late ’90s-looking message boards and multiplayer online video games, where their most treasured pastime is hurling insults at one another for hours on end. Imagine the Ivan Drago training montage in Rocky IV, but instead of doing pull-ups in a lab, it’s sitting on Reddit for, like, four years straight. They’re Teflon.
[I should clarify the definition of troll as it applies to this post. From here out, we are talking about real honest-to-god trolls, not just “someone who disagrees with me.”]
To be dreadfully honest, it doesn’t look great for you: They are masters. They have been training all of their lives for this moment, and you’re just some schmuck who decided to sign up for Twitter a few years ago to shoot some ideas off the dome. It is arrogant to think that you can win against them. It’d be like if you showed up to a law firm and asked to try a few cases because you watch The Good Wife.
It gets worse. These lunkheaded goons from the primordial internet ooze aren’t just haphazardly hurling random insults at each other (or you, if you’re an unlucky target). True trolls of the internet take their craft seriously, and spend hours analyzing how to argue. Think of the fedora atheists who love “debating” so much they have several subreddits devoted to it (r/DebateAnAntheist, r/DebateAChristian) and proudly post all the sick owns they deliver to their high school friends on Facebook. They obsess over terms like “logical fallacy” and “strawman argument” as if they believe they could be transported through time into the Scopes trial. They love discussing the art and science of internet arguing just as much as they love actually delivering sick owns on the ‘net. They have been training for this moment their whole teen lives and, like Ivan Drago, they will break you.
This is where I have to tell you the bad news: You will never win against them.
I’m sorry. This sucks. I wish I had something more hopefully to impart to you. The truth is, if you are reading this article on BuzzFeed dot com right now, you are probably already too well-adjusted to win an argument against a true internet troll. However, you are likely enough of an internet native that you have some experience with trolls or arguing on the internet. A recent Pew surveyfound that 40% of online adults have experienced some sort of harassment or name-calling, and 8% have been physically threatened. A YouGov survey found that 30% of adult men and 18% of adult women have “argued with someone about an opinion” on the internet.
However, of these descriptions of online harassment, only 38% said their harrasser was a stranger — a true internet troll. Friends, exes, co-workers, and even family were frequently the ones responsible for internet unkindness. Here’s an example from Pew’s survey: “my own brother calling me racist for not supporting Obama and for disagreeing with his policies.”
This is clearly not a good situation, but there’s an important distinction, here: Your brother is not an internet troll; he’s just a guy who disagrees with you. You can disarm your libtard brother by reminding him of the time he crapped his pants at Disneyland. You cannot win against a real internet troll. You have zero hand.
So that’s where I come in. I am here to help you get over your ego that keeps telling you have a chance to “win.” There is no “win” here on the ‘net.
The sooner you accept this, the happier you will be.
Consider this Wondermark comic about an annoying sea lion:
The idea of “sea-lioning” is to be a sort of overly polite yet insistent pest, to be so passively annoying that you goad your target into exploding in anger at you, thereby making you the victim. GamerGate has found this tactic so useful that its main subreddit, r/KotakuInAciton uses a photo of a sea lion as the page header, and the movement named its campaign of emailing advertisers for websites its followers don’t like as “Operation Sea Lion.” The idea is to be so polite in your emails that no one will think you’re an internet troll.
Do you realize how devious that is? That is is so much smarter than you’ll ever be. You would’ve never thought of that!
And that’s why you will not win. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, here since you seem like an excellent human. But that’s the problem. You’ve got no chance.
But it’s not all bad news!
Although you will never WIN an argument online, you do have one huge tool in your arsenal, which you can use over and over again. Allow me introduce you to the art of Not Responding.
Not Responding is both underrated and completely powerful. It lacks the showiness of Responding because you don’t get the glory of a Perfect Own, but don’t sweat it. You’d never really get that Perfect Own anyway. The Perfect Own is like the Fountain of Youth; it’s a desert mirage, a fever dream, and searching for it will leave you broken, weak, and perhaps dead from a poison-tipped arrow (just ask Ponce de León…or should I say, Ponce de Leown…nailed it).
Don’t think of Not Responding as forfeiting your turn at bat, but rather as a bunt. A sacrifice for the team. Not Responding has its own power too: There’s a layer of mystery (“did they not SEE my insult?”) and elitism (the implied “not worth my time to even reply”).
It’s common for a troll to say they’re in it “for the lulz.” When dealing with tried and true trolls please do not underestimate the power of “for the lulz.” That’s the same modus operandi teenagers cite — “boredom” — for why they carved something in the study hall desks or got a tattoo. And think about how many teens get tattoos! Literally, like SO MANY. Tattoos are totally normal now!
One of the key elements of true trolling that we often forget is that trolls don’t actually mean it; they’re just trying to stir shit. When a troll hops in and says, “Actually, Hitler was cool,” they don’t believe Hitler was cool — they’re just trying to get you mad. Because, as you very well know, Hitler is not actually cool.
But the moment you fall for it and scream back, “Actually, Hitler is WAY not cool!” you have already lost. Please look into Not Responding as a lifestyle.
But! And let me be very, very, very clear, here: This isn’t to say that people experiencing harassment online should just keep a stiff upper lip and take it. This is to say that if you are experiencing harassment online, your best strategy may be to resist the temptation to argue back and stoop to the same level as your harasser.
What’s happened in the last few years is a new mingling of two groups of people: old-school message board trolls and normal humans. It used to be easy to avoid the troll lairs, since they were obscure sites and the teen monsters lurking were siloed off to call each other “fags” back and forth. Now, the two groups are mixing together on places like Twitter and Tumblr. This has resulted in a very serious imbalance of trolling powers. One group has been training for years how to be an asshole online, and the other is a complete novice. It’s like if the New York Yankees showed up for a Little League game.
You (the normal people) are gentrifying the trolls’ neighborhood. The internet is where they live, and chances are they have been here for much longer than you. You tore down their homes and built a Starbucks. If this were a movie, 4chan’s venomous /pol/ board would be the rec center run by a kindly old priest that they are trying to save from the Acme Corp developers. This is the mind-set the troll will have as he puts you in his sights — it’s a flaccid attempt at taking back the moral high ground.
Before you despair, though, I would be remiss if I did not address one key element of the troll that should give you some solace: your hellish troll isprobably a teen boy. Places like 4chan or Reddit, even Twitter and Tumblr, act as a sort of locker room where young men tease one another to jockey for some sort of alpha status, and try to impress each other with transgressive behavior. Doxxing and harassing strangers is equivalent to smoking cigarettes under the bleachers to seem cool to your peers.
Remember this when your instinct is to say something really nasty in response. This is probably literally a child talking to you. If it wasn’t for teen boys saying “stfu bitch” on Twitter to me every now and then, I’d have zero contact with teenage boys at all. Do not be mean to children. Remember the “don’t punch down” rule. And for women receiving harassment on Twitter, congrats! That means you have something to say that is powerful enough that someone is threatened. You have the upper hand, and responding will be punching down.
I wish I had a better answer here. I wish that I had any idea how to actually stop online harassment at a root level, but I just don’t. The truth is it sucks and it hurts and it goes against ever fiber of your humanity to sit there when someone is saying awful things to you. Your blood should boil, your pulse should race. I’ve literally been kept awake at night being angry that a stranger said something nasty to me on the internet (please forget I ever admitted that). You shouldwonder how seriously to take a threat or real violence. If you don’t, you’re not human.
We should not have to take it or tolerate it. It’s not an issue of being “butthurt”; it’s the issue of misogyny and racism and how these teen boys are being taught to normalize those behaviors. The sad truth is that I just don’t have any solutions to offer for how to actually stop it. All I can offer is my advice on how to minimize the mental energy it saps out of you.
Godspeed and stay safe out there on the ‘net, my friends.
Katie Notopoulos is a senior editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Notopoulos writes about the intersection of tech and web culture.
Contact Katie Notopoulos at firstname.lastname@example.org