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Is It Possible to Have Civil Discourse With Internet Trolls?

The Doe Team

by The Doe Team

| February 17, 2022

When you're facing an internet troll—or witnessing the behavior of one from afar—what should you do?

Internet trolls, the often far from harmless instigators of the internet, can ruin our ability to have civilized conversations online. So, what can you do to deal with internet trolls and still enjoy the social aspect of social media?

Trolls. No, not the warted figures under bridges or the adorable ’80s toys. Trolls and trolling have (unfortunately) become a part of our everyday internet world. Internet trolls are a relatively new phenomenon, yet chances are you've encountered one. The internet’s openness and freedom of expression are things we can all agree are positive; however, the lack of agreement on social grace, ethics and laws allow trolls to enter into the conversation.

At The Doe, we make it a point to open up a discussion surrounding issues that plague the human experience, which makes the conversation of social media internet trolls a hot one for us.

In this blog, we'll define what an internet troll is and discuss how and when to engage with them.


What Is Internet Trolling?

It’s important to make the distinction between a troll and trolling. A troll is someone who intentionally instigates conflict online, often by posting hostile and argumentative comments in an online community. This type of behavior can play out on social media channels, the comments section of a website—really, anywhere free and open discourse is offered.

The term “trolling” is originally from a fishing technique, where multiple lines of bait trail behind a ship as it cruises the water to catch fish. Internet trolling refers to the idea that a person can “bait” others in their discussions online. It’s different from a general disagreement—you wouldn’t call someone a troll for simply stating their opinion on an issue and addressing a subject offered by the content.

But trolling is a spectrum of negative behavior ranging from one-off hurtful remarks directed at an individual, all the way to a continuous attack on widely held beliefs and facts generated to elicit a response.

Notorious social media trolls include figures like Milo Yiannopoulos, who continuously mocks social justice, political correctness, feminism and gay culture with his speeches and writings (he was permanently banned from Twitter for his racist abuse of actress Leslie Jones).

Some may argue that troll-like comments are funny, harmless digs that support good-natured mischief and freedom of speech. However, it’s the cruelty and personalized aspect of the commentary that others would argue borders on abuse and hate speech.


Does Feeding the Trolls Offer Space for Civil Discourse?

It’s important to know how to deal with trolls because it can significantly affect the atmosphere surrounding engaged, civil discourse. If you feed the trolls, can you ever get to that space?

The answer may lie in the psychology behind trolls. Often, trolls see negative behavior as a social reward, so when one comes to your page or graces the comments section, it’s best not to react.

That’s because not feeding the trolls cuts them off, right?

Not always. In an effort to gain attention, they may become even more belligerent, and when that happens, see our next section.


How to Deal With a Troll

When you’re facing an internet troll—or witnessing the behavior of one from afar—what should you do? Ask yourself these questions in order to respond rather than react.

What kind of shade are they throwing?

Someone simply not agreeing with another commenter or offering their opinion in a measured, honest way is far from trolling. Trolling comes in when there’s an element of personal attack, malicious time-wasting and goading to try and play on someone’s emotions. If you suspect there may be a sense of harassment or abuse in the language, assess your power in the situation (more on this next). 

What’s your role in the scenario?

Are you a bystander? Or do you own the space where the trolling is happening? If you’re in a position of authority to respond, you may want to consider removing the person’s comments or blocking their profile from your site or content.

If not, muting a comment can be better than downright blocking the person, since it cuts off their want for a response. If you feel it’s best to leave a response that nullifies their comments, it’s best to only respond once and then leave it. Again, adding fuel to the fire often only makes things worse. 

Is it worth engaging at all?

More often than not, this answer is no. When comments, especially those charged with hateful language or harassment, come our way, it can trigger us emotionally. If we’re powerless to end the hate—beyond reporting a comment—it may be best to just keep scrolling. Just like in a face-to-face conversation, there are instances where it’s just best not to engage at all

Take the proactive approach

Many platforms, such as Instagram, now have features that disable commenting from the beginning. While it may seem like a loss to limit the amount of sharing and dialogue that happens with our content, use this as a preemptive measure if you anticipate vitriol or have come under attack recently, if only for the sake of your mental health. Plus, you can always elect to undo the action later and offer other means for those who want to engage in discussion.


Action Items for Removing Internet Trolls From Your Space

As mentioned before, your options for dealing with trolls include:

  • Blocking accounts
  • Reporting violations on social media profiles
  • Ignoring them

It’s up to you to respond in the best way you can given the unique situation, stance and space you’re in.

Have you dealt with trolls in the past? How did you handle them? 

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