But, It’s Just a Troll!

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.

a much more traditional troll

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.

Heina Dadabhoy

Heina Dadabhoy [hee-na dad-uh-boy] spent her childhood as a practicing Muslim who never in her right mind would have believed that she would grow up to be an atheist feminist secular humanist, or, in other words, a Skepchick. She has been an active participant in atheist organizations and events in and around Orange County, CA since 2007. She is currently writing A Skeptic's Guide to Islam. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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  1. One of the most common themes in comments among my Facebook friends following the Rush debacle was along the lines of "Rush Limbaugh is in show business – he does things like this to attract listeners." Now, that may well be true, but stating it like that makes it seem mutually exclusive with his actually the hateful shit he says, which he does, when in fact the two are not at all mutually exclusive.

  2. In the case of Limbaugh, his comments deserve a response because he was articulating (albeit crudely) what a lot of people actually think. Male religious leaders testified in front of Congress and were a little more polite, but lets face it, they were basically saying the same thing, except for the desire to watch perhaps. I have read that Stephen Colbert doesn't let his kids watch his show because he doesn't think they will understand that he is presenting a farcical view, thus making him somewhat dishonest.  I often can't tell his show apart from shows like Limbaugh or the old Glenn Beck show. Personal insults should be taken for what they are, petty. An ad hominem attack is different and that should be addressed and shown as the logical fallacy it is. Trolls can use either and it is useful to address trolls if they are bringing up points that can be argued, but I do tend to ignore them if it devolves into name calling.

  3. Great points here. The best handling of a troll I ever witnessed was on a site of a (gay, liberal, excruciatingly smart) blogger. Said troll went on for 5 long paragraphs about his right wing views with the most horrid spelling and capitalization mistakes. The blogger's reply? 3 words:    Get a spellchecker    :(   
    IMO the best way to handle small-scale internet trolls is to humiliate them by shooting down their ideas point-by-point. Believe it or not, that shuts most of them up quickly. If they deflect, keep asking them to address the points you made and they will disappear permanently.
    Someone like Limbaugh? The problem there is that he voices vile thoughts held by many higher ups who merely are too saavy to use vulgar words. The words used by Limbaugh are unacceptable but still fall under the protection of free speech. So it was the best-case scenario when he lost ratings and advertisers as a result. I agree: let the free market decide and keep on writing those petitions.

    1. If you can shut a troll with factual responses to their points, they aren't much of a troll. Trolls don't care about facts or good arguments, they just want to get a rise out of people by saying outrageous things.
      The point of responding to a troll is to make sure other people don't mistake anything the troll says for reality.

      1. Oh, I disagree. Trolls can't resist a challenge. Ask them to post evidence for what they're saying. They usually provide a link to some hysterical right-wing website. Shoot down the site with studies, then ask the troll to comment on the studies. You'll never see them again. A troll recently accused me of sayinig something mean in a comment. I simply replied, "post the link, please". He hasn't bothered me since.

  4. In his book "A Budget of Paradoxes", Augustus de Morgan addressed the issue; his own advice is mixed (sometimes saying one should an sometimes saying one shouldn't answer). His relevant quote (Though Limbaugh lacks the "self-evident honesty of conviction", he does have "untiring energy […] and a long purse"): "Why do you take so much trouble to expose such a reasoner as Mr. Smith? I answer as a deceased friend of mine used to answer on like occasions – A man's capacity is no measure of his power to do mischief. Mr. Smith has untiring energy, which does something; self-evident honesty of conviction, which does more; and a long purse, which does most of all. He has made at least ten publications, full of figures few readers can criticize. A great many people are staggered to this extent, that they imagine there must be the indefinite "something" in the mysterious "all this". They are brought to the point of suspicion that the mathematicians ought not to treat "all this" with such undisguised contempt, at least." (Vol. 2 p. 129)
    Then again, he later says:
    "When a paradoxer parades capital letters and diagrams which are as good as Newton's to all who know nothing about it, some persons wonder why science does not rise and triturate the whole thing. This is why: all who are fit to read the refutation are satisfied already, and can, if they please, detect the paradoxer for themselves. Those who are not fit to do this would not know the difference between the true answer and the new capitals and diagrams on which the delighted paradoxer would declare that he had crumbled the philosophers, and not they him…
    "They call mankind to witness that science WILL NOT defend itself, though publicly attacked in terms which might sting a pickpocket into standing up for his character. Science, in return, allows mankind to witness or not, at pleasure, that it DOES NOT defend itself, and yet receives no injury from centuries of assault."
    (vol. 2 p. 354)

  5. When a person takes on the airs of insanity, and holds it at all times, that person becomes indistinguishable from the insane.

    Limbaugh has held his insanity so long it is impossible to see where it ends and his true beliefs begin; if there even is a difference any more.

  6. I channel both D&D and Dr. Hibbert…what do I prescribe for trolls?  Fire…and lots of it!

  7. Sincerity is sort of a red troll herring. Since we can't read minds, it really comes down to whether or not someone is willing and able to have a constructive conversation. If not, it hardly matters if they really mean it or if they are just trying to get a rise out of people. 
    In the same vein, someone like Rush Limbaugh is not only avoiding constructive conversation. By spreading lies and half-truths, and using incendiary eliminationist rhetoric to reinforce the falsehoods, Rush Limbaugh is contributing to a social atmosphere where constructive conversation becomes increasingly impossible. 

  8. I don't think so. Rush presents a viewpoint and it has caused an enormous amount of conversation. Of course, conversing with him directley is pointless unless you agree with him. I think he hurts his own cause by being so blatantly hateful, but I am always shocked to see women back him up, so he does have a somewhat universal appeal. I am happy to see my own daughters ask me if he is serious, since they are huge fans of Stephen Colbert and assume he is being satirical. I tell them he is serious and terrifyingly electable, so  vote and change the world. He's not running for anything yet, but there are enough people just like him who are.

  9. My husband and I have this argument all the time.  "Just ignore them."  To which I frequently reply, "Sometimes I do, but sometimes they raise ideas and attitudes that are really pervasive that need to be answered."
    When that happens, what I'll do is delete them, paraphrase what they said as accurately as possible without giving them the satisfaction of seeing "their words," their beautifully crafted and masterfully chosen words (in their mind at least), and then deconstructing them.  Granted, this is partially because the sincere ones are often wordy as hell. 

    Or if I do allow them through, I'll preface my answer with a one line summation of what they said, THEN deconstruct it. 
    And if I'm feeling particularly malicious, I'll grade them.
    Honestly, though, since invoking my "draconian moderation policy," no hate speech, and please have an argument other than "Nuh uh," or you're not getting through.  My troll problem has largely abated.  I even managed to discuss sexism in comics the other day without it exploding into flame war of epic proportions last week.  Hell, I reviewed Arkham City and called out the misogyny toward Catwoman and the rape threats, and nary a peep. 
    I think the fact that I've flat out stated I'm tracking IPs and will report any and all threats to the police is also taking an effect.  Especially since I've spent a year and a half since the initial "Dickwolves" brouhaha getting death and rape threats. 

  10. I’ll admit that I respond to trolls if they get me irritated enough; and often it’s not about how rude or angry the troll appears. It’s often certain topics or how harmful the attitude could be.

  11. I find the word "troll" itself to be fascinating. While it comes from fishing ("trolling for fish"), the troll is typically represented by the mythological/game-type troll.

    1. Cuz Troll's are so much more fun, outragious, contemptable, irritating, bombastic, smelly, crude, mythic, and yucky than someone who fishes by means of having ones tackle being drug behind a moving boat. 

      1. I don't know, having your tackle dragged behind a moving boat sounds pretty fun, outrageous, contemptable, irritating, bombastic, smelly, crude, mythic, and yucky to me. :)
        I'm not trolling.

  12. Trolls are annoying. Some times I can't help responding; other times a simple "go away, troll" makes them go away. Also you can use that if someone says something difficult that you don't know the answer to as well!

  13. There is an obvious corollary – one which is on display here and referenced in sixto's comment – and that is branding someone a 'troll' simply because their politics don't match yours and/or they have a point that you cannot easily rebut. 
    People who simply say inflammatory things simply to get a rise out of people don't last long.  Limbaugh and Bill Maher (I loved Religulous) are two examples of talented, smart, insightful people from opposite sides of the political spectrum who have had long careers in media. 
    Heina – and most of the people who don't actually listen to Limbaugh – makes the mistake of missing the point he was trying to make (admittedly using imflammatory and vile language). She claims he doesn't understand the basic mechanism about which he rants – although the blog post she links to does deal with the substance of Limbaugh's criticism towards the end. 
    Was Limbaugh being inflammatory? Of course – but he used less inflammatory language than Bill Maher has on occasion when talking about women.  That Heina calls this the "Limbaugh debacle" belies her (and the rest of the media for that matter) bias. Maher is a liberal Democrat, holds all the correct views on women's issues, but when he calls a woman a 'dumb twat' it does not result in hand-wringing blog posts on Skepchick (I just searched and failed to find one).  Misogyny is horrible, but is as equally horrible when it comes from someone on your side of the political isle? Discuss…
    In the end, this whole kerfluffle boils down to politics – and in politics there is a staggering amount of intolerance for opposing views (which is evident on this site nearly every day). Deny the opposing side legitimacy, deny that they have a valid argument, and 'presto' they become trolls. 

    1. I listened to Limbaugh for years, actually — pre 9-11, back when I was a Muslim and his views matched mine. On occasion, I will tune in to listen to him and view transcripts of what he says. I don't appreciate your assumption that I am ignorant.

      She claims he doesn't understand the basic mechanism about which he rants.

      He doesn't. He thinks that the more sex you have, the more birth control you have to take — which is scientifically wrong.

      That Heina calls this the "Limbaugh debacle" belies her (and the rest of the media for that matter) bias. Maher is a liberal Democrat, holds all the correct views on women's issues, but when he calls a woman a 'dumb twat' it does not result in hand-wringing blog posts on Skepchick (I just searched and failed to find one).

      Your Bill Maher fixation is a red herring. I call it "the Limbaugh debacle" because it was a huge, recent big deal; everyone was talking about. I am not a fan of Bill Maher's by any means, but he hasn't caused a national stir on the level that Limbaugh did, and I haven't heard anyone saying "I think Maher just says things for the ratings." I actually hate Maher and am planning a post about misogyny from the liberal side.

      Misogyny is horrible, but is as equally horrible when it comes from someone on your side of the political isle? Discuss…

      Hilariously enough, we Skepchicks catch a lot of flack for criticizing misogyny and sexism within the atheist community, i.e. "our side." Apparently, we don't do so enough for your taste. How have you missed all of mine, and Rebecca's, and others' posts on it? Take a closer look.

      In the end, this whole kerfluffle boils down to politics – and in politics there is a staggering amount of intolerance for opposing views (which is evident on this site nearly every day). Deny the opposing side legitimacy, deny that they have a valid argument, and 'presto' they become trolls.

      I would hardly call this a hand-wringing blog post about Limbaugh. Instead, I used Limbaugh to discuss the issue of trolls. I never said he was a troll, either. This post was about trolls in general, with my thoughts generated from the current discussion about Limbaugh.
      I've noticed a pattern with your comments, incidentally: you disagree with me by focusing on a few minor points on my pieces, I address all of your points, and you never respond.

      1. I'd like to point out, as well, that it's irrelevant to the name of this debacle how inflamatory or misogynistic Bill Maher is. This is still the Limbaugh Debacle, it's still his remarks that started this. No one that I know if in the feminism blogosphere has made any apology, or had any interest in apologizing, for Maher. He's not exactly an ally, as it were, and is just as intractable to criticism as many right wing nutjobs.
        It's intellectually dishonest to try to push this onto Maher. He didn't make Limbaugh say the things he did.

    2. There is one key difference.
      Every fact Bill Maher mentioned in his sexist trolling was actually a fact. Sarah Palin earned a reputation for air-headedness by not being able to name a single magazine when asked "what do you read?" She earned a reputation as a partisan bomb-thrower with a uniquelyt folksy style by throwing red meat to the base throughout the campaign, and she earned a reputation as a non-team player by Going Rogue. I'm not defending Maher's sexism, but the simple fact is Sarah Palin has earned her status as one of the most mockable people in US politics today. Make that most mockable — Trump comes close, but he only dabbles in politics to get press for his non-political activiies.
      OTOH all we know about Fluke is she says she has a friend with Ovarian Cysts treatable with birth control pills, who cannot treat them because their school (Georgetown) is Catholic. Everything else is shit he made up on the basis that it would be a lot easier to criticize her if the friend is imaginary, and she's actually looking for Georgetown to pay for her daily 12-pack of condoms.

  14. I think people are angry with Limbaugh for the wrong reason. Him using the word 'slut' and asking for a video of Miss Fluke having sex are hateful, but they are within the purview of being an entertainer. What we should be mad about is the sentiment he was promoting (that women who believe that insurance companies should pay for oral contraceptives are basically asking to be paid for having sex), and the lie he was propagating (that ordering an insurance company to pay for Miss Fluke's medication was the same as the taxpayers footing the bill and that the amount of oral contraceptives a woman uses is proportional to how much sex she's having), which is bullshit. 
    My friend's a pharmacist in New York City, and he says that the oral contraceptives most purchased in his pharmacy have a monthly co-pay of $3.00 or thereabouts. So a lot of people who are on Miss Fluke's side may not realize that we have already achieved most of what we want. 
    To those people who say that oral contraception is not medical, please don't forget that a lot of women take them just to regulate their menstrual cycle, and not just because "they're having so much sex" as Limbaugh said. 
    I wonder though, that if the government should mandate the insurance companies to subsidize anything, it should be condoms. Condoms prevent STDs and pregnancy (and they protect men and women), instead of birth control pills, which prevent only pregnancy.

    1. the oral contraceptives most purchased in his pharmacy have a monthly co-pay of $3.00 or thereabouts. So a lot of people who are on Miss Fluke's side may not realize that we have already achieved most of what we want.

      What about the 45ish million Americans who don't have health insurance? The fight for access to contraception is by no means over for them, especially with the conservative war on Planned Parenthood. Even then, if you're lucky enough to have health insurance, that's no guarantee that your policy will actually COVER oral contraceptives. When I was still living in the States, I know mine didn't. I had to pay for my birth control out of pocket.
      Let's not minimize the fact that access is still a very huge and important part of this debate.

    2. I wonder what neighborhood that pharmacy is in, since contraceptives are only that cheap on rather nice health plans. The last time I had insurance was almost a decade ago but even then oral contraceptives for women were a $10 or $15 copay for each month's supply, while condoms were free and were shipped to me for free from the nearest medical supply warehouse. It was cheaper for me to see a psychiatrist than it was for a woman on my plan to get contraceptive care.

  15. But liberalcynic, as you point out in a previous para, birth control bills do NOT "prevent only pregnancy".  That regulating of the menstrual cycle is no inconsequential thing.  I was on the pill at a fairly young age because day one of my cycle left me in the fetal position at the base of the toilet, in agony.  I would miss a day of school every month.  If I had not been taking oral contraceptives, I would have missed a day of work every month and even assuming it has to start on a weekend sometime – does anyone really deserve to be crippled for a day when it's easily and inexpensively preventable?

  16. Kind of off topic, I worked  a few years for Merck Medco, and if you have health insurance, Medco probably handles the prescription health plan, if not,  then its Caremark which is very similiar. Sometimes Medco hides behind the insurance policy and you don't even know they are handling the plan, so ask. Limbaugh is completely  ignorant about how  insurance plans work. Look at his health issues. You could easily argue that any medication that is covered for Type II Diabetes is  like me paying for you to eat whatever you want. High blood pressure, cholesterol, sexual dysfunction medicine, drug rehab et al. can all be potentially cured if  life changes are made so why should I pay for your laziness, addictions, sex, fatty foods, etc etc. The Church has no problem with medicines that cover Sloth, Gluttony, Acedia, Wrath, and Pride, just Lust apparently. Back to Medco, there was always a huge outcry from women who took the time to look at their plan (they're all online) and noticed Viagra and Cialis are covered but birth control isn't (its not just religious orgs that don't cover it, and even if they do, you have to be over 18 to get it. We all waited till we were over 18 right?) You can directly complain to Medco or the business that approves the insurance policy and can pester them to change. Medco can make any medicine covered as long as the business buying the plan approves it.  Medco hates bad press and can be pressured. There are people that sit on boards deciding these things. Find out who they are and complain, complain, complain.  Make their lives miserable, unfortunately sometimes thats what works.

    1. "The Church has no problem with medicines that cover Sloth, Gluttony, Acedia, Wrath, and Pride, just Lust apparently."

      Great observation; however if we don’t want corporations being considered for personhood let’s not think churches should have similar standing. I would think that many (or even most) people who attend church support any and all insurance plans covering contraception. I've heard/read that a survey indicated 98 percent of US Catholics use contraception, and I'm sure most other denominations would have a similar percentage. What we often see in these situations is that the most outrageous opinions and those represented by the leaders of a particular church or denomination are the least tolerant; the most loudly proclaimed and often become policy or dogma. The real shame, in my opinion, is the apparent lack of willingness, or perhaps honesty, of millions of people who are part of organizations’ that support positions contradictory to their everyday lives and decisions.

  17. How do you tell that somebody is really a troll?
    The better you know a person, the less likely you are to mislabel them.
    To this end I have sometimes thought that it would be good if commenters could have a place to write a short profile of themselves, just so that eveybody knows where they are coming from.
    Many commenters indeed do take the time to introduce themselves, and that is a good thing. Many of the regulars, we know – but others, maybe shyer or for other good reasons, take more time to reveal parts of their experience.
    When they do "come out", I am often amazed at the quiet achievers that exist in this community.
    Nevertheless, it is all to easy to assume wrongly that others also know us quite well.
    A nuanced comment made too hastily or poorly worded can easily be misunderstood.

  18. There's also the problem that no matter how much you say to ignore trolls, some peple will engage. It's impossible to implement as a policy.

  19. I really don't care if a person is sincere in giving voice to hateful opinions. If it's hateful, it needs to be challenged. Certainly, the sincere bigots won't assume that a troll is insincere. They will take the troll's use of bigoted language as support for their bigotry. That's why I prefer to confront it whenever possible, and shut it down if necessary. If history has taught us anything, it's that ignoring hatred never makes it go away.

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