The Real Problem with Trolls

In a response to a prior post–made in the middle of a somewhat heated discussion generated by that post–a commenter complained that his contributions to the debate had simply been ignored by others, even though they’d been accompanied by links to what he described as “liberal” references.

As regular readers of this blog know, I rarely participate in the conversations triggered by my daily posts/rants. (I do read most of the comments.) There are two reasons for that, one practical and one more-or-less philosophical: the practical reason is that I have a day job, and I can’t afford the additional time thoughtful engagement would take; the “philosophical” reason is that the blog is intended to generate responses and in a very real sense, to allow readers to educate me–which many of you, especially my “regulars” regularly do.

But the complaint was that no one was responding to points made by this particular individual, and that such non-responsiveness–at least in the eye of the commenter–was characteristics of the disinclination of “liberals” to engage with those who disagreed.

To the extent that complaint is justified, I don’t think it’s a consequence of political orientation, conservative or liberal. I think the problem is trolls.

I firmly believe that trolls–and this blog has a couple of persistent ones–want nothing more than to stir the pot. They present themselves as angry and troubled individuals whose goals are limited to insulting and “bomb throwing.”  For whatever reason (I’m no psychiatrist) they are uninterested in genuine dialogue, so responding to them is a waste of time.

Given the amount of time they spend spewing, it’s a good guess that they don’t have what the rest of us call “lives.”

I firmly believe that responding to such people is counterproductive; it simply draws otherwise reasonable people into whatever game they are playing.

The problem occurs when people who aren’t trolls, but who may have made their points in fairly antagonistic ways, enter the conversation. Readers lump those folks in with the trolls, assume that they are uninterested in real conversation, and thus don’t take what they perceive to be the bait.

This is precisely why civility is so important in this context. When dissenting opinions are offered in a civil fashion, it invites dialogue and engagement. Civility is especially important online, because online discussion doesn’t allow us to see body language or hear tone of voice–the cues that we get in other contexts that flesh out the sender’s intended message and help to prevent miscommunication. It’s really easy to be misunderstood on line (especially for people like me, who tend to be rather snarky), which is why it’s so important to frame our online communications with care, and to avoid sharing our passions in a manner that comes across as offensive or insulting.

If the perfectly appropriate response to trolls–ignoring them–puts a damper on the exchange of ideas between people genuinely interested in engaging in conversation, it may be understandable, but it’s a shame.


  1. Pete! What impact can the elimination of fossil fuel use entirely in this country have when the rest of the world continues to move in the wrong direction? I saw Ed Begley, Jr on a news magazine a while back. He has a generator hooked up to a bicycle in his kitchen so he can peddle to brew his coffee in the morning. No car, no central heat; he has absolutely minimized his carbon footprint. His efforts make him feel better, but they are symbolic. So many liberals are adamant that we should emulate Europe, but no nuclear in what, 40 years? If the government is interested in something more than symbolism, the attention should be focused on updating the grid. Without a better capacity to store electricity, all of the expenditures and grants and tax subsidies for solar, wind, and biofuel have been the misappropriation of limited resources. Mayor Ballard fell in the trap buying electric cars for the city. It turns out that unless electricity is produced by something other than coal, the carbon footprint for electric cars is higher than a Ford Focus…symbolic. Related to this topic, is there no issue in your mind by the divergence between the climate model projections and reality? In the last article I read on the subject, the environmental experts are talking about changes in hundredths of a degree of all of their desired changes are engaged. I am not prepared to turn our world upside down to slow the rate of climate change by hundredths of a degree!

  2. Ken, the most professional estimate that I’ve seen of the net cost to us in the future of your “solution” is $45,000,000,000,000. But of course the upside is that we don’t have to do anything and the cost will be borne mostly by our grandchildren.

    Like someone said – liberals and conservatives want the same things but liberals for everyone.

    OK, next problem. 100 people a day dying in the US from guns. What would you not do about that?

  3. Pete! Not done with the first inspire of your dismissal. You throw out a number with lots of zeros and commas with no foundation. When the technology to bring the grid into the 21st century is not even available, you find someone who knows how much it will cost. Crystal ball? So to sum up, you reject my suggestion that we find solutions to our energy problems (including environmental issues) in favor of a symbolic gesture that does nothing except further impoverish the middle class in middle America with increased costs.

  4. You’re way behind the times Ken. The combination of government and business is solving the problem using available technology while developing the next generation. Coal has become a nearly worthless commodity. The Koch Bros tar sands empire aimed at making them the richest in the world is going out of business. The new wealthy are the Elon Musk’s of the world firmly gripping the future. There’s serious movement afoot to prosecute Exxonmobil under RICO for deliberately leading people like you astray just like we did with big tobacco.

    So nobody takes your non solution now for anything more than it is. Grasping at the last straws of a dying era.

    All of your efforts have only delayed the inevitable and made the consequences greater and more expensive.

    While your working on a non solution to our gun issues here’s another. Health care.

    Private health care combined with business leaders so incompetent that they can’t pay the creators of wealth a living wage have produced a system that only serves the wealthy. The others are assumed to be disposable either for the length of an illness or forever. All those disposable people live in our democracy and no real American can even imagine a country where wealth determines your ability to be healthy and live a long life. You’ll get to know the disposable in Nov of next year when they evaluate your non solutions for what they are and hire people for government with solutions instead of excuses.

    What would you tell those people about their disposable status?

  5. Ken, the trajectory of human progress has historically varied from era to era but has always trended up over the long term. Longer healthier lives with more discretionary time and more connection. Our generation has certainly benefited greatly from all of that progress by others.

    The new millennium ushered in a drop in the progress of America and getting the country back on track has been challenging.

    While technology development was some of the problem, our private investments in it were significantly reduced, I think that the greater cause was political.

    We went from a country of hard working optimistic dreamers to bean counters focused only on saving costs as the strategy for redistributing wealth. From the creators of wealth, workers, to the owners of the means, investors and their minions, executives.

    It just didn’t, and we’ve now concluded doesn’t, work.

    The country has moved on from that infatuation. We’re migrating back to what has always worked.

    That truth will undoubtedly rub some the wrong way. Truth almost always does but it doesn’t care. Neither should we.

    History, IMO, will record climate change as the proximate cause of our enlightenment. People like Rush and the Kochs had doubled down on the absence of science and got caught before they could cash in their bet.

    So, while discussion as we’ve been having is entertaining I doubt that it will change the trajectory of our culture.

    What’s happening is going to continue and progress will result and our society will soon forget the experiment in conservative politics.

  6. Pete! Thanks for the edict from Mount Olympus. So much for discussion and debate and search for middle ground. The world will indeed go on with or without further discussions between you and me. I had hoped to gain some insight about why you believe what you believe, but you evidently have no interest in enlightening me which is not you responsibility. I had hoped to understand why you trust government to solve the ills of society when it appears that most can be bought off on either side of the aisle. You see conservatives doing the bidding of big business and ignore the reality that the total spent buying Congress is fairly equally distributed. Your guys passed a bill dramatically changing 1/6 of the economy without even reading it. I think it sucks, you love it, but I felt sure we could agree that “passing it so we could find out what’s in it” is scary. Was I wrong? Is there nothing you think the government could have and should have done better in the last 15 years (other than going to war)? Were you in on the big lies that we could keep our plan, keep our doctor, save $2400 per family, a chicken in every pot…no that last one was earlier, right? The government must lie to us because we are too stupid to know what is good for us, right? The villains of it all are those pesky 1% folks who you don’t trust. No doubt there are some real scumbags among those 3,000,000 people, but I trust that competition above the competition among 535 in office for life need to please no one and another couple hundred God-complex egos in an executive administration. One clarification of a misstatement from you earlier, the 0.8 trillion for TARP was foisted on us by Bush43, but the pitiful 1 trillion stimulus was all on the current resident. You are smart enough to see the screw-ups from republicans so I know you can see same from democrats and still you want to go full speed ahead toward single-payer, living wage, free education through grade 16 (and beyond?), end the income gap, save us from guns, just to name a few. The Pilgrims tried it, and new harmony Indiana, and throughout Europe, the government is taking care of everything. As you said conservatives and liberals want the same things. You think conservatives just want it for themselves, but I think the government isn’t going to get it for us.

  7. Every person on earth operates within a government. The people who work in government come from exactly the same stock as those who work for corporations. The only difference is who owns the pencils, desks and office, some of us or all of us.

    Business operate under make more money for share holders regardless of the cost to others. Government under please the people, stay employed. Both solve problems. Different problems.

    What Fox tells you everyday is just not the whole story. For good reason. That’s what they get paid for doing.

    Humanity progresses by solving problems.

Comments are closed.