September 30, 2016

When You Are Trolled on Twitter

Jack Dorsey and Barack Obama at Twitt...
Jack Dorsey and Barack Obama at Twitter Town Hall in July 2011 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Here's an odd fact about me that you might not know unless you follow me on Twitter: I have little interest in arguing with Christians on Twitter. Among the atheists I follow on Twitter, this would seem to place me in a fairly small minority. I'm okay with that. I harbor no ill will toward atheists who do enjoy arguing with Christians on Twitter; I just don't happen to share their interest in doing so.

I have certainly argued with Christians on Twitter before. When it has happened, it has almost always been in the context of my mistaking trolling for sincere questions or comments. In the most common scenario, a Christian reaches out with what I assume is a legitimate question or comment. I respond, and then it quickly becomes clear that I have been trolled by a Christian who has zero interest in any sort of meaningful interaction. Instead, the Christian is interested in proselytizing, showing off for other Christians, or trying to elicit an angry reaction to support claims of atheist hostility. The moment this becomes clear, I stop responding. This isn't why I use Twitter.

There's a few very persistent Christians who have been tweeting at me for some time even though I never respond to them. Their tweets often seem to be desperate attempts to bait me into an argument. I should probably block them just to spare myself the mild annoyance, but I haven't gotten around to it yet. And in truth, it really isn't that much of an annoyance. They may be trolls, but they aren't particularly good trolls.

I don't understand all the complaining about "harassment" on social media or the suggestion that we need solutions other than the ones we already have. Take this recent article from Time in which Joel Stein suggests that trolls are "ruining the Internet." There is no doubt that Internet trolls can be annoying, and yes, there are some extreme behaviors that really can be dangerous (e.g., doxxing, trying to get someone fired, making false police reports). I agree that these extreme behaviors are a problem; however, they also seem to be quite rare. I suspect that they represent a tiny proportion of what people are complaining about. For the most part, what people are complaining about seems to be others hurting their feelings on the Internet. And for that, we already have an effective option in the form of blocking those with whom we do not wish to interact.

Trolling is effective only when it elicits the sort of response the troll is seeking. By not taking the bait, one deprives the troll of his or her desired reward. Without the reward, most trolls give up quickly and search for another mark. And if the troll becomes annoying or abusive, using the block function usually seems to resolve the problem.

Here's where Stein's article really falls apart for me:
Though everyone knows not to feed the trolls, that can be challenging to the type of people used to expressing their opinions.
Everyone does know not to feed the trolls. If they do so anyway, are we really supposed to feel sorry for them? Isn't that a little bit like saying everybody knows not to leave their keys in the ignition of their expensive car while parking in a bad neighborhood but some people just want to do so anyway? What would it say about someone who does something they shouldn't do while knowing they shouldn't do it? Would we feel sorry for such a person?

If you want to be trolled more often, interact with the troll, get angry at the troll, and make a big deal about your interactions with the troll in as public a manner as possible. In short, give the troll everything he or she desires. If you's like to be trolled less often, ignore the troll's attempts to bait you or block them. Some problems have fairly simple solutions.
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