“Don’t feed the trolls,” is an Internet author’s mantra. The best thing to do when confronted with some racist, sexist, homophobic, or just hate-filled nonsense gushed out of some attention-seeking jerk is to ignore it. Or do you? Even some YouTube commentators are unsure about what to do with them.
But if trolls are going to pop up in our online lives (and if you express an opinion, they will), is there a way we can get some value from the experience? Can we turn crap into fertilizer?
There are ways, but we need to get some perspective and objectivity. That’s not easy, especially when their words upset us. Here are some things you can do.
First off, if you are being threatened with physical harm, contact the police and the administrator of the website. That’s not trolling; that’s criminal behavior. True threats are not considered protected free speech, and people shouldn’t have to risk physical harm by expressing themselves online.
What do you do with garden-variety nastiness? Consider how much of it is valid. Even the nastiest of statements may have a kernel of truth. Did you develop your argument well enough? Did you get your ideas across? Or are you off-base in your position? Use all of the feedback you get, good or bad, to strengthen your position and communicate more effectively.
Trolls can also indicate when you’re successful in getting your point across. When opponents can’t refute your arguments, or you delivered them so effectively that they’re threatened by them, their only recourse is to get personal and hostile. Consider their insults as compliments.
Also realize that their attacks say more about them than you. What type of person would lower themselves to name-calling? Are they that threatened about anyone who is different from them? Or so insecure that they can’t handle anyone who has a different opinion than theirs? Trolls can drive you towards pity instead of anger. In no case should they drive you to fear and self-doubt.
Should you engage trolls? No. Anyone who resorts to nastiness is so entrenched in their position that they will not change their minds. Your efforts to defend yourself to them may fulfill their need for attention. Don’t waste your time arguing with them. They won’t listen.
But don’t ignore them either. You certainly shouldn’t ignore any physical threats. But simple insults may have value if you look at them objectively and see how you can use that information to strengthen your arguments — or get validation that you’re on the right path. Whatever you do, don’t feed the trolls.