The most recent Rush Limbaugh debacle has brought to the forefront an argument that those of us who engage in activism both online and off often face from those who style themselves as our allies: that we should ignore those who make arguments against us that seem ridiculous, because the person obviously doesn't mean it, and we validate him or her with our attention. Ignore it, these people declare, and, like a zit, it will go away.
Can we truly discern what the motives of such "trolls" are, and should we simply ignore them lest we do the unthinkable and *gasp* "feed" them?!?
It is a comforting idea that no one who states wildly untrue and/or unnecessarily inflammatory remarks is sincere in what he or she is saying, that all of them are doing it to get a rise out of us and will stop talking if never paid any attention. However, it can be more than a little difficult to tell who is being sincere and who is simply trying to get a rise out of people.
Poe's Law is the best way to articulate what is at the heart of the issue. People who do not have ridiculous views can easily mimic the speech of those who do, since it is so over-the-top, and those with extremely ridiculous views can come off as, well, completely ridiculous. It can be impossible to tell who is speaking sincerely and who is not. The issue is exacerbated online, where most relevant contextual clues are stripped away and anyone can pretty much say anything.
In the case of many Internet trolls, not only can it be impossible to tell whether or not they are sincere, but also, whether the troll intends to or not, he or she could easily be reflecting actual views with his or her comments and gaining sympathetic nods from whomever is reading them. In meatspace, the same is true: even if Rush Limbaugh is saying inflammatory and utterly appalling things "just for the ratings," he obviously resonates enough to gain listeners and national fame despite being unable to understand the basic mechanisms behind about which he rants.
In the case of this site, our blogging backchannel contains not infrequent posts musing as to whether or not a certain commenter is a troll. Personally, I once received a comment on a post on sexism that, while it did not adhere to the comment policy and had to be removed, was such a Poe that the few wise and trusted folk to whom I showed it were evenly split over its true nature.
Given that it can be impossible to tell who is sincere and who is not, then, how should we respond to them?
For the record, I personally email the authors of any comments on my posts that are not within policy and respond to their criticisms line by line as if they were serious, while preceding the text with something along the lines of "Didn't want to assume that you were a troll." I have yet to receive a single response, which tells me, if nothing else, that many of the people who make blatantly hostile comments on this site aren't looking to truly discuss anything.
The ignore-it method is one that is not only advocated by those who are annoyed by the attention that others pay to trolls, but also by those who are simply sick of dealing with them. Indeed, it is why we have a comments policy on this site in the first place. We simply don't have the time, energy, sanity, or other resources to waste on people who don't actually have much to say in the way of productive discourse. Battling it out in the comments with someone who keeps repeating the same tired, disproven arguments has a charm that only goes so far, and it's important that we not give trolls, sincere or not, what they want most: a voice that others listen to.
While we ignore trolls' individual comments, we should not ignore their presence and the fact that they exist. After all, in the case of any trollish comment, someone felt the need to take the time to write down certain views and words and to submit them online. That definitely reflects something, even if the comment were insincere.
Awesome troll art via.