I can’t believe I have to say this to people making, in some cases, millions of dollars, but…
don’t feed the trolls.
For those of you who may not have existed in the awkward developmental stage of the internet, “don’t feed the trolls” was a phrase that was born from messageboard culture. If you have to ask what a messageboard is, congratulations! This article is for you.
You see, before people risked destroying their lives by bragging about their racism publicly on Facebook, they did it privately and anonymously on messageboards or forums. Before internet connections were strong enough to handle all the graphical bells and whistles, notifications, and insidious ads custom made by psychocapitalism to chew into your privacy like the Ceti Eels from Wrath of Khan, there were simple, text based services where you wrote a post, clicked “post” and then hit refresh to see if anyone responded.
Oh, and there were still ads, but they were big an obnoxious and easy to avoid… and sometimes hilarious.
Anyway, messageboards is where online troll culture started. Now, the word has gotten stretched and appropriated far beyond its intended meaning, as words often do, but to boil it down to the nasty, fetid bone broth yields a simple definition.
A troll, and by its extension troll culture, is someone who takes pride and pleasure in upsetting people.
Maybe it’s posting gory pictures. Maybe it’s taking a contrary stance to the conversation even if they don’t actually hold that stance. Maybe it’s repeatedly refusing to understand the clear message of the conversation. Maybe it’s purposefully misunderstanding the conversation. Maybe it’s just making an account, screaming racial epithets, getting banned, and coming back and doing it again.
All that matters is that you made someone upset.
And when people get upset, they pay attention to you.
And when you get attention, you matter.
The direct result of this, once other forum users got wise to these shenanigans, was to adopt a policy: don’t feed the trolls. Don’t respond to them, don’t pay attention to them, don’t make them feel like they matter. Whatever you do, do not prolong the show. Don’t indulge them. Ignore them. Don’t let them know they matter, because they do not exist in good faith. They exist only to make things worse.
I listen to NPR when I drive. Now, for folks on the left like me, NPR is like being invited to a party from someone who works in the same massive office building as you, and then when you show up the hosts does nothing but trash talk you, your supervisors, your department, etc… but it’s Friday night and you can either stay home, go to this party, or attend the Klan rally next door… and sometimes you want a human connection. So… NPR it is.
They had a press conference on. And the President was talking. Now, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m trying very hard not to feed the trolls, so I try to avoid listening to this maniac talk for any long periods of time. But again, I was trapped in my car and didn’t want music, so… I listened to him talk.
I lasted about five minutes.
My main takeaway was “thank goodness he’s an idiot.” Under any other circumstances, this man could have already put us under full blown fascist rule, but he’s too busy preening in front of a mirror to actually make anything happen. And so, instead of coming to America draped in a flag and carrying a cross, America was very lucky that fascism came knocking wearing a dunce cap and violently filling its pants, all the time swearing that you’re smelling daisies.
So, analysis? Thing Bad. That much is obvious. But what to do now? Well, I’ll tell you the number one thing NOT to do: pay attention. DO. NOT. FEED. THE. TROLL. Don’t wring your hands and bemoan the fall of bipartisanship, civility, or whatever fetish MSNBC is going on about this week. Don’t cluck your tongues and wag your finger at the vulgarity, in fact, don’t say anything. Don’t do anything. Ignore the President. Whatever you do, do not prolong the show. Don’t indulge him. Ignore him. Don’t let him know he matters, because he does not exist in good faith. He exists only to make things worse.
Do you know what happens to online trolls when you don’t feed them? They crave attention, they are desperate for that next hit of validation. So what do they do? They get bigger, louder, nastier. And, eventually, they become so crazed in their pursuit of their fucked-up concept of glory that they do something very, very dangerous… and they get nailed for it. There’s no more perfect example of this than what befell the “YouTube Shouty Man” community, who started off getting attention by telling flat-earthers they were stupid, but then had to get bigger and angrier to keep an audience desensitized to the old format… and before you know it you’re discussing whether the Jewish Question was necessarily a bad idea and you’ve lost half your subscribers, and with it half your income.
Trolls always take it too far if you ignore them, because they want your attention and will do anything to get it. Now obviously this is a little different when you’re dealing with a man who literally has his finger on the button, but the same core idea works: do not feed the trolls. When he says something stupid because he wants a headline, ignore him. When he does something that is clearly illegal, laugh at him and call him an idiot… and then let it go. When he becomes overtly fascist, mock him. When he starts waving a gun around, then you step in to stop it. As we saw by the famous anonymous letter, there’s enough people in there to keep him from annihilating humanity.
Imagine what would happen if this clown had a press conference and the media went on strike. If they turned off the cameras and walked out when he said something stupid, and went back to the studio to talk about, I don’t know, poverty or our horribly broken healthcare system. Imagine if it reduced the President to a tiny echo chamber of yes-men, robbed of the attention he so desperately craves and draws his power from, until he finally does something so bananas that it’s all over.
Part of the problem is our current system of mindless, inhuman psychocapitalism where profits matter overall. Trolls do what they do because they see a “profit” in attention. News media is constantly desperate to find the latest, most sensational, sexiest story because then they can profit from the attention and profit monetarily. There’s no thought into any possible implications, effects, or danger that comes with these decisions, only that something was got that benefits the person. The Ayn Rand-inspired “greed-is-good” ethos of Reaganism, where the only thing that matters is that you “got yours” is now starting to pay horrible, horrible dividends where the supposed news channel is more concerned with wardrobe malfunctions that people dying in the streets. As MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes, covering climate change is a “ratings killer.” And no ratings means no profits, therefore under psychocapitalism it is not important, even if it might mean the end of the world.
So it’s up to the 90s kids to fight back with the most 90s of emotions: weaponized snark and apathy. Mock the fascists. Laugh at the fascists. But most importantly, don’t take them seriously. Especially this early on in their renaissance when they’re more like LARPers or boys trying on Daddy’s fatigues. Much like vampires, these ghouls can’t influence our country, our politics, and our lives if we don’t invite them in. Keep these freaks marginalized on the fringes of society, and they can Sieg Heil all they want into the void. When they try to make themselves heard, show up by the thousands to tell them how stupid they are. Don’t tell them you find them scary, or powerful, because that’s what they want. Don’t feed the trolls. Laugh at them. And most importantly, move on.
Eventually, the troll will trip over their own stupidity, blame someone else (possibly one of their troll buddies) and the whole thing comes crashing down. This is why fascism is self-defeating: it requires a singular mind to obey without question, but we’re all humans and we all make mistakes and we all do stupid things sometimes. If you instead fall into lock-step with a movement that needs shock and attention to survive, a movement that, as Umberto Eco wrote, has to be forever fighting “enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak,” then it is sad, hilarious, and pathetic on its face. Don’t let them ever convince you that they have ever been, or will ever be, anything but.