On Feeding Trolls

For roughly a year, I've noticed a troubling tendency amongst some political and social commentators I follow: a trend towards zookeeper-like troll-feeding.

I'm not talking about ongoing commentary on an active evildoer — like, say, Craig Brittain, con-man and involuntary-porn sociopath. I'm not talking about toying with the occasional troll who traipses into the comments section.

Rather, I'm talking about people turning an unacceptable percentage of their attention not to the issues that concern them — issues like criminal justice, or war, or budgets, or whatever — but to fights with people who attack them because of their positions on their topics. Fights with trolls, in other words. Soon they have much less time to talk about substance, because they're spending so much time on process — the process of fighting critics. This often devolves into fighting not about disagreements over substance, but fighting about fighting — endless tit-for-tat over who said what about whom and who did what horrible thing to whom, and whether that horrible thing was fair response to what the other guy did, and so forth.

Now, some trolls are simply awful people. Some trolls do truly despicable things. It's entirely reasonable to be repulsed and offended and outraged by some troll behavior.

But nobody ever killed a troll by overfeeding it.

That's why some folks need new strategies. I like a recent one author and blogger John Scalzi has adopted, because it reminds me of my favorite method of dealing with real-world trolls like Westboro Baptist Church. Scalzi, dealing with a trolling critic, has announced that he'll donate to favored charities every time the troll mentions him in 2013. The charities are for causes that Scalzi likes and the troll doesn't. This has led to matching pledges currently totaling $50,000, and to widespread publicity that might lead to more pledges.

I probably agree with Scalzi on political and social issues less than 50% of the time. I agree with the troll's politics considerably less. (The troll is one of those types interested in dividing men into "Alpha" and "Beta" males. My views on that are paradoxical and recursive; I think that being concerned with dividing people into Alpha and Beta males, and certainly being concerned with whether one is viewed as an Alpha or Beta male, sounds like a very Beta way to think.) But whatever my disagreements with Scalzi, the solution is an elegant one.

Some of my friends and acquaintances out there — and you know who you are, I think — have you ever considered not being the zookeeper any more? It's not easy, I know.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. Kat says

    I have actually (in the past, on this blog) told someone that I was not interested in discussing the subject s/he was trying to open and said that I would be leaving the discussion at that. (To be clear, I don't think that person was trolling; I've just been drawn into the subject a million times before.) I didn't come back to check and see what the reaction was to me decamping, but I would guess not good.

    It's surprisingly hard to do.

    It helps to know that other people have shared similar reactions and have also set similar boundaries. I see this kind of conversation happening more and more, and it's heartening. Thought it may be too much to hope for a completely civilized internet. :)

  2. says

    Over at the blog community I'm lucky enough to be part of, it's a source of perverse pride that my own wee little blog gets the nuttiest and most vehement trolls. (My favorite will always be the guy who compared me to Josef Mengele because he disagreed with my stance on a controversial diagnosis.)

    I try to be as unfailingly polite as possible, offer substantive responses when I can, and then call it quits when it's obvious that a real conversation is impossible.

  3. David says

    You're a fool and your mother dresses you funny. Completely unrelated, I despise the villains doing research in the Breast Cancer and Multiple Sclerosis Research Foundations. Oh, and the EFF, those twerps.

  4. says

    You're a fool and your mother dresses you funny.


    Well. Now it's all awkward. I hope you're happy.

  5. Josh C says

    There's a specific trollish behavior which is especially irritating: picking fights, then walking away from the conclusion. I think that some folks are unwilling to engage halfway for fear of doing the same.

  6. says

    Josh C: Perhaps. But on the other hand, what's the "conclusion" of an internet fight? I'm not sure I've ever seen one. It's not like you end up with a final score.

    I find that I'm generally happier when I don't engage trolls (as opposed to evildoers), and generally less happy when I engage them.

  7. says

    I devised a solution for a particular troll whose modus operandi was to jump into any conversation on my blog and make ad hominem attacks on my son and me. I embedded a script that forced anyone coming from his internet provider to be redirected to my RSS feed so he could still read what I said but could never leave a comment. My blood pressure went down after that.

  8. Burk says

    I feel like I'm tone-trolling, but the phrase "an unacceptable percentage of their attention" bugs me enough to de-lurk. Perhaps because much of the trolling I see seems to boil down to "you shouldn't be talking about this," the word "unacceptable" seems charged in a way I don't think you intend.

  9. says

    @Burk: the unstated premise is "unacceptable to my selfish and irrelevant desires about what you should be writing about," certainly.

    But my point is that people who used to blog a whole lot of substance have started blogging a lot more about their fights with people who criticized them for that substance. Yes, I'm making a value judgment.

    I share your general distaste for "why aren't you blogging about starving children in Giveashitistan."

  10. urbantravels says

    There is *no* conclusion to an Internet fight. It's a race to the bottom, only there's no bottom.

    I think the best course of action is to talk right past the troll as if they're not even there. Just as if they were ghostbanned. Of course, this is so contrary to human nature that most people will never do it. But it's worth asking whether trolls are owed any kind of response at all. If they are promulgating some misinformation that you feel needs to be corrected, you can provide the information within the discussion without doing it in the form of a response.

    There are some Internet disputes that actually serve to sharpen one's arguments and wits – conference [maketh] a ready man and all that. But it seems that the format and culture of most discussion venues militates against that type of reasoned disagreement.

  11. Jabari says

    Possible "conclusions" of an internet fight:
    – Submission (admitting the other person may actually have a point)

    – Forfeiture: (suddenly disappearing into the sunset, the topic never to be heard of again. Note that continuously Mallet-ing comments that simply disagree without being profane/rude/trollish counts as forfeiting…)

    – Formal Debate: A shame this doesn't happen more. This particular … disagreement already has one proposed, which has been accepted by one side.

  12. naught_for_naught says

    (The troll is one of those types interested in dividing men into "Alpha" and "Beta" males. My views on that are paradoxical and recursive;

    Similar to the whole self-actualization craze of the 80's & 90's: if you spend time trying to "be self-actualized" you never will be because you are trying to fit into another's framework for Being, rather than figuring it out for yourself.

    Understanding the exquisitely attractive nature of this type of mental trap is the basis for more than one fortune.

  13. princessartemis says

    @Kat, I was watching that discussion; would it be of any value to you to know that the person you were discussing it with wished you well, expressed a wish that you would feel better, and the discussion ended there?

  14. says

    I only have one persistent troll, and I suspect he ain't all there. Among other charming characteristics, he has a fondness for the n-word (man, I had saying "n-word" but I hate saying the n-word even more). I wipe his messages when he does that, but I usually let the other nuttiness stand.

    The banning controls at the disposal of a blogger are trivially easy to get around. The last thing I want is to irritate him into getting around them.

  15. Dan Irving says

    I'm totally stealing that Gamma Rabbit pic. The black/white one – the purple/pink one is too alpha for me.

  16. says

    Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they're so frightfully clever. I'm awfully glad I'm a Beta, because I don't work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don't want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They're too stupid to be able to read or write. Besides they wear black, which is such a beastly color. I'm so glad I'm a Beta.

  17. Invid says

    "But whatever my disagreements with Scalzi, the solution is an elegant one."

    Except for the part where the "troll" or his ilk don't really care how much money gets sent to those organizations.

    Scalzi has basically said "You're trolling doesn't bother me at all so now I'm going to send a whole bunch of my money to groups that you don't care about but might disagree with their politics."

    Big win there.

  18. says

    Invid: worst case scenario, charities Scalzi likes get a nice chunk of money.

    Perhaps the troll actually doesn't care. It's best not to dwell to long on what trolls really think or believe or care about. They're trolls.

  19. Rich Rostrom says

    Scalzi's method is open to an obvious exploit: the troll can escalate until Scalzi goes broke. This means the charity the troll dislikes gets a lot of Scalzi's money – but the troll is probably more gratified by the bankruptcy of its target than it is annoyed by $100,000 added to the funds of, say, the ACLU. Or the NRA.

    For the troll to be truly deterred, the donations would have to be a substantial increase in the charity's income. A charity small enough for a non-billionaire to do that is not going to be prominent that its enrichment would seriously annoy a troll.

    Unless the charity operates in some small geographic or cultural space that the troll is personally concerned about. But then one would have to know who the troll is.

  20. James Pollock says

    Rich, you've missed an obvious flaw in your own argument. Saying you plan to donate to a charity and actually donating to a charity are not the same thing.

  21. TC says

    I think that being concerned with dividing people into Alpha and Beta males, and certainly being concerned with whether one is viewed as an Alpha or Beta male, sounds like a very Beta way to think.

    I'm someone who keeps up with the online "manosphere" to some extent, although I should note I'm a 52-year-old married guy who doesn't have much of a dog in this fight.

    I accept what you're saying here, and actually I think many of these manosphere writers would as well. But then, that's their very point: In a feminist age, when the romantic rules of the road have been turned upside down, the average man needs a deeper understanding of socio-sexual dynamics, to help carve out his own path to success in that realm.

    It's not so much that these guys are self-deluding "betas." I think they know and even acknowledge that they're betas, but are simply seeking a kind of self-knowledge — and knowledge about women — in order to effectively play the game as it must now be played.

    The "alpha"/"beta" stuff is ultimately just a framework for strategizing to get girls, in an era when feminism has turned the whole "getting girls" thing upside down.

  22. princessartemis says

    @Rich, Scalzi already considered that. He has limited his pledge so that it isn't possible to beggar him via trolling.

  23. flip says

    It took me a long time to learn not to get drawn in. These days I take a "just playing" sort of attitude, where I may respond to some of the comments either for fun or educating lurkers (you mustn't forget that the troll isn't the only one in the conversation, even if they don't comment – some people read, come back, discuss reasonably, or even change their minds). If it gets too ridiculous, well I have better things to do and the troll hasn't bothered me because of my "just playing" barrier. And actually my responses may depend on the person. Some people are reasonable but never change their minds; some people are just incomprehensible; some people are offensive. My strategy changes depending on them.

    Though I do love these charity things popping up – it certainly does more to change things than simply arguing with someone who argues for kicks.

  24. Arkady says

    Wherever I've been a community moderator I've always found the approach of deleting troll material (including responses to the troll) works well. No new people get drawn in to the argument (because there's no record of it) so the trolls go troll elsewhere.

    It can feel a little like an exercise in futility but your readers who respond to trolls quickly work out not to respond, because their response will only be deleted.

  25. says

    The "manosphere" is not for the faint of heart. With a few exceptions, it is a crucible of sexual paranoia, resentment and spite, in which a handful of alpha cult leaders manipulate a huge following of desperate and gullible beta/omega spectrum followers. It's basically a virtual version of pathological social dynamics in high school, a bunch of asshole jocks picking on nerdy pushovers in a power vacuum that exists because their mature peers and the adults in the room rarely have the gumption to intervene and compel them to behave decently.

    The things posted on these blogs are often vile and unhinged. I often come away feeling that I need a mental cleanse, but I get the feeling that I am much more socially engaged and moored in the real world than much of the manosphere audience. It's scary to think of how men react to the stuff when they're truly socially isolated and disengaged from saner, more decent reading material. Judging from the proliferation of comments on these blogs (on some, routinely hundreds within 24 hours of publication) and the uncanny uniformity of their jargon ("spinning plates," "riding the cock carousel," etc.), it seems that they've trapped quite a few shut-in losers in a social and intellectual cul-de-sac that they will have a very hard time escaping.

    Mass shootings, I would argue, are a predictable endgame for the hardest cases in that sort of subculture. There are common threads of alienation and social atomization uniting the manosphere follower blocs with Lanza, Holmes, Sodini, Klebold and Harris. The only plausible way to defuse angry men who are steeped in such a milieu is to get them the hell out of it and into something healthier. That won't always work, but I don't see what good can be expected of leaving resentful dweebs to marinate in such a toxic ideology.

    It's probably no coincidence that the manosphere opposes recourse to prostitutes. The usual claim is that sex with prostitutes is inauthentic, as opposed to the authentic, profound, edifying sexuality that one would cultivate with a thoroughly sauced stranger whose acquaintance one just made at a meatmarket nightclub. This opposition to whores is a private-sector version of Orwell's Junior Anti-Sex League. One wouldn't want these impressionable men being socialized in private by well-adjusted women whose influence might subvert the cult.

    Likewise, it's probably no coincidence that sex workers seem so disinclined to be trolls online. Prostitution is a customer service business, and trolling is bad customer service. The usual business model of the manosphere, by contrast, is apparently to serve man.

  26. Josh C says

    Perhaps "conclusion" was the wrong word. It's like go: it's fine to not play. It's also fine to just play joseki (equivalent to chess grotesques). Once you're into a game though, it's unkind to walk away while it's still interesting.
    Internet arguments are similar: fine to avoid, fine to only clarify briefly (like you did above with "unacceptable" posts), but once you engage in a substantial way, I do see argumentus interruptus as a faux pas.
    Regardless of whether you agree with me, I suspect that other folks have (suffer from?) the same impulse. That suggests a reason for your peers' entanglements.

  27. says

    Problem here is I wouldn't have even known who this guy was if it hadn't been for Scalzi. Also, John's not reading the site but sending in volunteers to look at the content and inform him of violations. Man, I wish a famous author would get a hate-on like that for my site. I could use the traffic!

    I went to this troll's site and found it to be poorly written and way too reactive to be taken seriously. I would have ignored the guy entirely, not taken out an internet ad and shined a big fucking spotlight on the guy. Sure, I come away informed that there's another asshole in the world, but did John do him self a service by pointing this out?

    My opinion is no.

  28. says

    I went to this troll's site and found it to be poorly written and way too reactive to be taken seriously.

    The guy is basically a defectively-nerve-stapled Ignatius Reilly.

  29. Frob says

    The alpha/beta thing is just arbitrarily terminology for behavior stuff. A lot of guys I know, mostly software developers, have got the idea that they've got to let their wife or girlfriend run their lives if she chooses to. They think they're morally required to be logical and fair when she isn't, and they think she's being reasonable when she isn't. They think when she's clearly losing interest in them sexually, the solution is to be more caring and comforting, which women don't find sexy at all, in large and constant doses.

    This may not be common among lawyers in LA; among a lot of guys I know on the east coast, there's a lot of despair and divorces.

    Well, it turns out women are attracted to men with a core of self-respect. Not abusive men or swine (except in a few pathological cases), just men who don't choose to let themselves be blown this way and that by a woman's emotions. You set boundaries and they're not negotiable. If a woman suspects you can be manipulated, she'll try it. If she succeeds, she'll resent your weakness. "Alpha" is an arguably goofily misappropriated term some folks apply to a man who maintains his own frame of reference in a relationship. It's a trait women find attractive. In fact, in every case where I've been around for the beginning of the bad relationships my friends have, the man started out projecting just that attitude. When he stopped maintaining it, trouble started.

    This alpha/beta crap is a model of male/female relationships which has predictive value. Like Ptolemy's model of the solar system, it may be wrong, but it does generate answers that are correct to the limits of what we can measure.

    You, Ken, are probably not the kind of guy who gives out those "manipulate me" signals, so this may sound like gibberish to you.

    But lots of men are, and if they learn to cut that nonsense out, they're a lot happier and so are the women in their lives. Not everybody does everything in life right by instinct. Is it worse to admit you have a problem and try to fix it, or to ignore the issue so Ken won't call you a paradoxical beta?

    Also by the way, I agree with the guy above who observes that D– simply couldn't care less who Scalzi donates to. Furthermore, the organizations Scalzi is donating to are chosen to convey a deeply, deeply dishonest impression of D–'s actual views. The man is not in favor of rape and incest. Honestly, now. I certainly believe that Scalzi is confused and emotional enough to have convinced himself that people who disagree with his views are pro-rape and pro-incest, but I hope the rest of us are a bit brighter than that.

  30. says

    Frob, I will refrain from a full discussion of Alpha/Beta theory, or Game theory, and the related ideas one can find at this particular troll's blog. In evaluating the significance of the particular troll's fondness for Alpha/Beta and Game Theory, though, it's worth pointing out that the troll enjoys proclaiming that women should not be able to vote.

    Like I said — Ignatius Reilly.

  31. tz says

    The solution might be elegant, but would it be effective? And what effect is desired? To simply get a group of your sycophants to be more petty and troll like than the opposing troll? To stop the trolling? To make yourself feel good (not dissimilar to masturbating to your favorite fetish)? A pittance will be contributed to a series of charities, but not sufficient to actually make a difference anywhere.

    As an example, and to go to one of the root controversial posts, will Scalzi pay for the abortion of a woman? Will his minions join in? When it isn't deductible, and you might actually have to talk to your beneficiary? Much like those who would like to help the homeless, but wouldn't ever want to even dispense soup with a very long spoon when they come for supper, but will feel good writing a check.

    Note the charities are not the goal. Not the desired effect. They are merely pawns, the choice designed to irritate the opponent, not to actually do good or benefit anyone. That is a mere side-effect and entirely incidental.

    It is the pride, as in the cardinal sin, the self-esteem which has been attacked. Instead of any kind of introspection, or perhaps a Franciscian or Ghandian response (an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind), instead of seeking the moral high ground, it is an exercise in – I'm not sure what. Doing something for the sake of doing something even when tacit inaction would be better?

    In a very real sense (I should note I do not consider Vox a Troll), he is feeding the troll, perhaps even sending him a full three course meal featuring Filet Mignon. I cannot get a RC truck to fly, but I can control it's speed and direction on the ground. Does not everyone yet realize that the entire point of "the troll" is to push the right buttons to cause a series of predictable reactions? And that, to his grave error, the gamma robbot is executing the program and commands with great precision? As if Vox has a game controller and is pushing buttons even at this moment and Scalzi is obeying first physics and then the remote commands?

    If I can control your emotions I have nearly complete power over you. Even if I can incite you to do something (you think is) right.

    Since before recorded history, self-control – the virtues – fortitude, temperance, justice, and prudence have been a differentiator between men and animals.

    For whatever vices you might assign to Vox, Scalzi has not shown fortitude, prudence, nor temperance. So whatever else he has shown, however else he has reacted, matters little. The problem is not what he DOES but what he IS.

  32. princessartemis says

    @tz, I can't speak for Scalzi, and know not a whit about the person he's talking about, but…what if his goal is nothing more than to feel better? I am fairly sure he is a human being. If donating money to charities on behalf of someone that pushes his buttons makes him feel better, that's a far more constructive way to let off steam than some other ways he could go about it.

  33. Vega says

    I would have ignored the guy entirely, not taken out an internet ad and shined a big fucking spotlight on the guy. Sure, I come away informed that there's another asshole in the world, but did John do him self a service by pointing this out?

    The situation, as I understand it (as a regular reader of Scalzi's blog), was that a certain known troll-leader had been making less than flattering posts about Scalzi, which caused the troll-leader's readers to go troll Scalzi's blog. It wasn't one individual, it was a series of them. Standard mallettings of trollish posts didn't seem to decrease the frequency of trollish postings.

    Scalzi did not reference the troll-leader by name or link to his blog, he did not encourage his own readers to visit said troll-leader's blog (until the charity post), he did not encourage counter-trolling.

    Apparently the troll-leader has a habit of attempting to start internet fights with well-known authors because he considers this to be a valid and useful manner of increasing his web traffic, thus driving sales of his books or whatever. Unfortunately, most of the authors he targets know better than to engage him. Instead, they remove the trollish posts from their comment threads until his minions get bored and go find something else to puke all over.

  34. htom says

    I disagree with many of Scalzi's political positions, say so on his blog, and I don't think he's ever malloted me for doing so. (I do agree with some of his positions.) We have had words at each other over the years, and straightened out our misunderstandings and gone on. It's not hard if you pay attention to the rules for commenting he put up long ago.

    Some of his writing is at a much more complex level than his usual lightness. The Letter from a Rapist is one of those pieces. I thought it was an absolutely brilliant satire. There were people who didn't get it, at least at first. Troll-leader appeared to be one of those, and appeared to double down (and then redouble) on that position, and is now milking it for hits.

    As I understand it, there's going to be something set up to scan Troll-leader's blog for content that "counts"; a very small number of people and engines will be looking and reporting. How frequently I don't know, I'm not going to be involved.

    Doubtless Troll-leader will complain that the counting is incorrect and that people haven't donated as they said they would. At that point … I'll laugh out loud.

    Where is the ROFL-Copter when you need it?