There have been a couple of major blowups surrounding egregiously bad online behavior of a very small number of individuals who cause widespread pain, conflict, and chaos. One involves online harassment of women in the gaming community. Another is the outing and documentation of a single troll in the science fiction writing community who has done incredible damage over many years and left a number of victims literally with PTSD.
Having been online since the early 90′s, I’m no stranger to trolling, and the conventional wisdom “don’t feed the trolls” that we all repeat to each other. It’s important to recognize that we know a lot more about what motivates trolls in 2014 than we did in 1994, but the core advice is not much different. Still don’t feed them. Really.
Science has taken a look at trolling and confirmed what we knew all along. These people are unredeemable assholes.
More specifically, internet trolling is so highly correlated with the mental disorders of psychopathy and narcissism, as well as the traits of machiavellianism and sadism that it might even constitute a diagnostic shortcut. It’s also clear that people who don’t have those illnesses/traits are not attracted to trolling, online harassment, griefing, and similar behaviors.
So the first thing you can do is thoroughly release any and all belief that the troll is a person who can be reasoned with. Forget it. They want to hurt you. Accept it. Believe it. Because wanting to reason with them and get them to see your point of view, or at least agree to disagree is the hook they use to keep you on the line when you should be sleeping, spending time with your family, or living your life.
Whenever you identify a psychopath or a narcissist in your life, the best and only thing you can do is get away and not engage. That’s true online as well. Online discussions, however, are very addictive, and it’s really hard to walk away when you feel like you’re losing, or just about to “win.”
There is no winning with a psychopathic narcissistic machiavellian sadist. Ever.
In the SF community, the “tone argument” has been exploited by one particular troll as an excuse to fire cruel and damaging invective at writers. The tone argument is any criticism that focuses on the tone of a complaint rather than the content. The reasoning goes that making the “tone argument” is a deflection, and it’s valid. If you are going to engage in a debate, it is a pointless deflection to criticize the tone. Knowing this, the troll has fired off horrific personal attacks and even threats against authors and was not properly shut down because he/she could then say that the person attempting to stop her behavior was using the tone argument on her. Don’t use the tone argument.
If you don’t like the tone, don’t engage. If you automatically disengage when someone’s tone or behavior violates your personal boundaries, you never have to make the flawed “tone argument” to begin with, because you’re not criticizing or trying to control another person. You’re merely excusing yourself from a situation where you’re not comfortable. It’s a healthy choice. Will you get the last word that way? No. Will you win the argument? No. (But you never will anyway.) Will things get said about you after you’ve left? Probably. So what?
How you disengage is your choice, but it should be brief and noninflammatory. “I’m not comfortable with this conversation, so I’m going to bow out,” is an awesome way to leave things. If there’s a fact about yourself that you feel you need to correct for the benefit of others, do so briefly. “You are mistaken. I was not in San Francisco that weekend.” Do not argue with opinion. Do not answer unfounded accusations or attacks on your character. Just get out.
My therapist gave me these words when I was struggling with a situation like this, and they are very good: “I am not having this conversation with you.” Do not give the troll any material. Just leave. If it is a moderated or supervised community, put in a private word with management about how you feel about the harassment, but don’t argue with them, either.
A few years ago, I was abused, stalked, and harassed online by a troll who at the time was described as “a nice guy in person.” He targeted me for a time, and I fed the abuse by attempting to reason with him. He followed me from one LJ comment section to another posting information he hoped would embarrass or discredit me. When I finally stopped responding, after expending way too much energy, he gave up and found other targets. I did complain to hosts of some of the forums where he was harassing me, but got no satisfaction. Such is life. When there’s only one victim who complains, they tend not to be believed or taken seriously. It sucks hard. Something should be done about that. There should be moderation and oversight. Everyone knows what trolling looks like. We all know it when we see it. It’s not that hard to for the site owner or moderator ban, freeze, and delete posts. There’s no need to be fair or justify it. All you need is to not like someone’s attitude. But site owners and moderators get stuck in their own fairness trap and often don’t really comprehend how damaging those particular words directed at that particular person can be.
But for your own self-care, please focus on getting the harasser off your radar and out of your world, not on justice. Some day, maybe you, too, will have the satisfaction of seeing your abuser publicly outed and excoriated. That has happened for me a couple of times. It just takes patience as other people have negative experiences with the same person and start to compare notes. Paaaatience.
A bonus of disengagement is that you don’t have to judge or prove the person’s character. If you’re in a racism conversation, and your opponent gets overheated and starts badgering you, calling you names, or personally attacking you, you don’t have to whip out a DSM and prove he’s a sociopath and call him out on his behavior. All you have to do is say, “I’m not having this conversation with you.” Magic. You’re done. And as a bonus, if the person you’re engaged with is actually a person of good faith who got a little over-angry and temporarily lost sight of their reason and empathy, you’ve done them a favor by ending the argument and treated that person with respect without invalidating the feelings and experiences they are trying to share. Your disengagement may even give you time to consider the other point of view. Once things cool off, you might decide your opponent had a point!
Disengagement with internet trolls and other psychopaths is win-win. Except for the psychopath, who is temporarily inconvenienced to find another target.
None of this is to say that abuse is ok or that a victim is at fault in any way if they are targeted and do end up being bullied, harassed, or abused. For one thing, not engaging isn’t a total solution. A determined harasser can find ways to get around any blocks you put in place. For another, everyone has defenses and vulnerabilities that an abuser can hook into, and it’s very human to find yourself getting caught up in trying to argue with, control, understand, or do damage control of the situation. These people practice and are very good at what they do and have no conscience about lying. Lastly, you would have to have a heart of stone not to be hurt by some of the horrible attacks, even if you are working very hard to ignore it.
A last word on PTSD, which has been reported by a number of victims of the current science fiction community scandal. PTSD is a real fallout of being victimized by a personality disordered individual. I’ve experienced it. I think it’s because of the cognitive dissonance they create with their dishonesty and the multiple faces. The mere fact that this person who has shown you absolute cruelty is the same person who has “friends” who back him up, defend him, and even call him “a nice guy” is enough to break your mind into a million pieces. PTSD happens when a traumatic event is “too disturbing” for the brain to process normally, so it gets stuck in fight or flight mode. It’s a miserable experience and my heart goes out in complete sympathy with writers who are going through this due to “reviews” of their work. That’s just not right. It’s not ok. And when you minimize trauma to a PTSD victim, you invalidate them, and that in itself is retraumatizing. So while we’re focusing on the bullies and trolls, let’s spare some compassion for the victims and give them the support they need to heal. It wasn’t “just a review.” Not to that person, in that time. Have compassion.