Don’t feed the trolls

That’s all right, Doctor. When you’re 1,200 years old, it’s easy to get confused. Image found on K&J Dreamatorium.

It’s hard sometimes not to be baffled by some reactions to one’s own writing.

Honest criticism is welcomed, gladly. Glowing reviews are accepted, usually sheepishly. But when certain people consistently attack you for something they think you said (but didn’t), well …

I just don’t understand trolls, sometimes quite literally. I thought it was just me on one comment last week, but other people piped up and said they didn’t understand it either. Word salad had nothing on this one. I wish I could say it was a one-time thing for this commenter, but just Tuesday I happened to be checking out comments on a recent guest column, and this “person” is in severe need of someone to make him/her make sense.

When you’re a public figure like Greta, loathsome attacks are unfortunately part of the package. She’s very good at trolling, without stooping to their level, those other public figures who criticize her. Image found on The Poke.

Trolling can be entertaining, such as when Greta Thunberg trolls her well-known critics, using their own words against them, essentially trolling the trolls. In more than one instance, she changed her Twitter bio to the description a certain president tweeted of her, showing that she wasn’t bothered. A dry sense of humor and a thick skin have served her well (everyone in the public eye should have a thick skin, but so many of them are big whiners who apparently think everyone should love them unconditionally).

But what so many of us see on comment boards are the non-entertaining variety of trolls. BBC Bitesize wrote of these: “In children’s stories a troll is an angry, anti-social monster hiding under bridges ready to snatch up goats called Billy. Instead of under bridges, Internet trolls hide behind their computers or phones, and go out of their way to cause misery online.”

Troll!!!! Illustration by John Deering.

From my own experience and the findings of researchers and sociologists, I can assure that this type of troll likes to be the center of attention, and will post inflammatory, often off-topic remarks just to get a reaction. They’ll take something said in jest and swear it was serious. They’ll take things out of context. They’ll claim that if you wrote something, that’s what you believe, even if you simply reported what someone else said. Sometimes they’ll dox you; Oxford says that to dox means to “search for and publish private or identifying information about (a particular individual) on the Internet, typically with malicious intent.”

All that is why I no longer respond to trolls. That and they’re jerks who probably have cooties. I’m out of date on my cootie shots, ya know.

Very brave when you’re anonymous and hiding behind a keyboard, aren’t ya, trolls? Illustration by John Deering.

Trolls are often insecure and lash out at others because it makes them feel less so. While someone may unintentionally troll someone else, or “troll” the trolls as Thunberg does, I would argue they’re not a true troll unless it’s a pattern of behavior. Constantly hanging out on message boards waiting to pounce with a quiver full of insults and incendiary comments, as well as a computer clipboard full of cut-and-paste material … yeah, that makes you a troll.

This type of behavior is unfortunately one more symptom of a society that needs serious help. As Glen Hooks so ably noted in his guest column on Monday’s Voices page in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, we’ve developed a distrust for expertise, which is causing us real harm (the fact that 99 percent of the covid-19 deaths since late January have been among the unvaccinated is one example).

“We have to do better,” Hooks wrote. “We can start by admitting to ourselves two real truths. The first of these truths is that we, individually, do not and cannot know everything. The second of these truths is that ‘not knowing’ is nothing for which we should be ashamed. ‘Not knowing’ is not a weakness. The real weakness is in not knowing, pretending that you do know, and then refusing to change your position when presented with actual facts and evidence.

“May I make an uncontroversial proposal? Let’s give ourselves permission to learn. Permission to ask questions. Permission to change our position on an issue when we learn something we didn’t know without being accused of being a weak-kneed flip-flopper. Denying ourselves and our neighbors the right to become further educated on an issue is counter-productive to progress, not to mention just plain silly. … It starts with us. You and me. How about we decide to not let our political preferences dictate our quest for knowledge or encourage us to disdain science for disbelief? I think we have it in us.”

I have a feeling many of the trolls subscribe to one or more of these beliefs in John’s Wednesday cartoon. Editorial cartoon by John Deering, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Of course, the resident trolls commented on Glen’s piece by claiming, among other things, that Dr. Anthony Fauci lied. The idea of following the science, which changes as new information is uncovered, is apparently anathema, but believing the word of a documented liar who tried to deflect blame for his mishandling of the pandemic to others including Fauci, oh, that’s fine.

Sigh.

Many lately have pointed to what they see as a prescient bit of writing in late astrophysicist Carl Sagan’s 1995 book “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” that seems to point to the situation in which we now find ourselves:

Carl Sagan helped popularize science, which is no small thing. Too bad too many nowadays think the scientific process means scientists are lying. Image found on Skeptic Magazine.

“I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time—when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.”

“The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark,” by Carl Sagan, 1995.

We have people who can’t tell the difference between news and opinion, or opinion and fact. We’ve always had them, but they seem more prevalent at the moment, I think, because they’re louder and feel more empowered than before to flaunt their ignorance and disrespect for facts. I have to believe that those of us who care about facts and reality vastly outnumber them, though; we just have to stop letting them speak for us, lest we lose that right.

Reality and truth are much abused … Editorial cartoon by Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times-Free Press.

History’s teachings are there for us to heed, as Sagan noted:

“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”

“The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark,” by Carl Sagan, 1995.

Cognitive dissonance is a hard mistress. Those who support the actions of Jan. 6 may soon find that out. Let them try to reconcile reality then.

This should not have been necessary, but because of The Big Lie encouraging a bunch of idiots to try to overthrow the government, it was. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.