Feeding the Trolls

A major rule on the Internet is "don't feed the trolls". It's good advice and a rule I generally follow. But sometimes you wind up talking to a troll unknowingly!

This post is about my latest experience with an Internet troll, and a space for me to decompress and learn from the experience.

The Troll

Recently I went back and forth with someone on the Internet debating some details about the funding of a public agency here in the Seattle area. The general vibe of that online space was that this new agency was wasting money, that all the employees were sitting around doing nothing all day, and that we're giving them way too much money with their newly proposed budget.

So, not a friendly place for me given my worldview of how public agencies are generally a force for good in this world and that they're often underfunded.

I won't go into a ton of detail, but I decided to engage with this community in the hopes that I could clear up some misconceptions they seemed to have. I posted some links showing how that public agency was transparent about how the money was being used and some news articles going through the good work that the agency has done since it was formed.

This is when I accidentally found myself engaging with a troll.

Initially, they started with some decent counterpoints, which I responded to, pointing to an hours-old article with new information about that agency that disproved their claim. But as the back-and-forth progressed, their responses became more curt and focused on minor details of my overall argument. I kept going, trying to clear up what I viewed as confusion on their end.

I should've known better. They were being obtuse.

The "conversation" devolved into them setting me up for a perfect dick joke and (finally realizing they weren't arguing in good faith) I had to take the opportunity. In the same comment where I dropped the dick joke, I also tried to make peace by saying that I wished them the best and that we both just have different ideas on how to make the world better.

That's when they started calling me a shill, a keyboard warrior, someone who wanted to see the world get worse, and a liar who pretends to care about people online because I craved attention.

I shouldn't have let that get to me, but I couldn't let those lies stand. So I defended myself by tossing out some facts about my life and they dug in deeper, saying I was lying and simply desperate for attention.

And that's when I quit responding. They took anything I said, twisted it through their cynical lense, and threw it back on me. At that point there was no use continuing to engage. They were too far gone in their anonymous Internet game of trying to make my afternoon worse. There was no winning that fight, regardless of how many facts I had lined up in rebuttal.

Why Did I Feed It?

I could've stopped far earlier than I did. I saw the signs, and I ignored them. But if you know me at all, I love to argue. I'll take any position in a debate and defend it to the very end. I really should've been in debate club in high school, thinking about it now! And because I truly believed in the position I was defending, I continued to engage long after the point where I should have let it rest.

So for me, it was fun! Mostly. I feel like I'm a pretty elegant writer so I'm always down for typing out some arguments on the Internet, and I was having fun researching the topic and learning more so I kept on diving deeper with the troll.

But in addition to being fun, the true reason I engaged in the comment thread was in the hope that someone (who was not the troll) might see that discussion and learn something new. In my experience, the only way folks will change their mind is being exposed to new information and evaluating it for themselves, so by representing the minority opinion in that space I felt like I might change a mind or two after they saw what I had to say.

At least, that's how I tend to learn and grow. I'm a very different person than I was fifteen, ten, or even five years ago, and it's because I'm always on the hunt for new information to integrate into my worldview.

What Did I Learn?

While this isn't a new realization, I was reminded just how much of the Internet consists of echo chambers. People lash out when confronted with information that conflicts with their worldview. We all do it. That's just how human brains work!

So by being an honestly desenting opinion in an online space, I was a prime target for trolls, which is why I got baited into engaging.

In addition, I sometimes forget how educated I am compared to the average Internet denizen. I have a Master's degree in business, almost a decade of software engineering under my belt, and a regular reading/podcast habit that exposes me to a plethora of different ideas on a daily basis. This has given me a broad worldview and an empathetic eye. Not to toot my own horn too much, but I have approximate knowledge of many things!

Because of that, I'm able to quickly do research and put together a coherent argument, which can possibly overwhelm the person on the other side of the screen. When folks get overwhelmed or feel defeated, that can bring out troll-like behavior. Especially when I'm terse in my responses. In the future I need to make sure to be more empathetic in my writing while engaging in debate with other people so I don't rile them up into troll-like behavior.

What I really should do in the future is seek out communities that welcome honest, civil debate, and stick to that when I'm looking to scratch that debate itch. There are plenty of places specifically meant to host those conversations, and I just need to do better at seeking them out.

If I find the folks who actually want an honest debate, the trolling will decrease dramatically.

Finally, I re-learned that major rule of the Internet: Don't feed the trolls.

You'll only receive email when they publish something new.

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