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We let the trolls out, and now they're running the show

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

We let the trolls out, and now they're running the show

Stephen H. Provost

“Don’t feed the trolls,” they say.

Good advice, but it’s not that easy these days.

Our lives have become a Facebook group, a Twitter feed, a Reddit thread. We haven’t just immersed ourselves in those things; it’s more pervasive than that: We’ve started to rebuild our society in their image. Welcome to the social media experiment of the 21st century.

It’s an experiment we started without any clear plan to prove our hypothesis. Hell, we don’t even have a hypothesis. We’re flying by the seat of our pants into a radioactive “social laboratory.” Whether we’ll make it out in one piece is anybody’s guess.

The new reality

Mass communication has always played a huge role in defining us as a society. We’ve read our daily newspaper, gathered around the radio for fireside chats, watched newsreels and fantasies at the local theater and vegged out in front of the TV. But this is different. Those media — with the exception of the occasional letter to the editor — were all passive, and that allowed us to keep the trolls safely tucked away under their bridge, where they belonged.

Social media have changed all that because they’re, well, social. Who let the trolls out? We did, and they’re not confined to chat rooms and message boards anymore. They’re running around loose in the real world, wreaking havoc and doing their best to tear our social fabric to shreds.

Take this Milo Whatshisname, for instance. This self-described “dangerous faggot” goes around the country on a speaking tour designed to piss people off. The more outrageous he is, the more outrage he provokes. People get angry and protest, which leads to media coverage and — voila! — the attention he’s been seeking. Game over. The protesters are playing right into his hands.

But in an era when trolls are running amok, having escaped the confines of the computer screen, do they really have much choice?

The troll’s game

Imagine you run a social media group. You set some ground rules, start sharing ideas … and inevitably, a troll finds his way in.

He hasn’t been there long before he starts causing trouble. He rails against you for refusing to delete something he finds offensive. Then he accuses you of censorship when you delete one of his posts – ignoring the fact that it violates your ground rules. That just means (according to him) those rules should be changed. In fact, he says, he could do a better job of running the group, and he lets everyone there know it.

Now imagine you can’t block the guy, and members of the group can’t leave. He’s got a captive audience, and even though a lot of members tune him out, a lot of others start listening because he’s so loud and insistent he’s hard to ignore. He finds out what they’re angry about, and he tells them he’s angry too; then he takes that shared anger and directs it at you.

It isn’t long before the guy dominates the group’s discussion. Ideas don’t matter anymore. All that matters a single question: Are you for the troll or against him? The question has to be resolved, so the group decides to vote on who should be in charge, you or him.

In fact, however, the vote doesn’t really resolve anything. Whoever wins, the other side feels alienated. But remember, no one can leave. The troll doesn’t really care who wins: All that matters to him is that he’s the center of attention, and he’ll still be the same attention-seeking drama king regardless of the outcome.

The group, meanwhile, has become dysfunctional and paralyzed. As long as it’s spending all its time talking about him, it can’t be bothered to discuss actual ideas. To look for innovation. To work toward solutions.

A world without rules

“Wait a minute,” you might object. “That stuff doesn’t really happen on social media. There are safeguards. You can block people. You can leave groups.”

And you’d be right.

But this isn’t about social media anymore. It’s about what happens when you take the culture of social media and apply it in the real world, where those safeguards don’t exist.

In the real world, trolls can get elected, and you can’t leave – unless you’re wealthy enough to emigrate, and assuming you want to abandon the place you’ve called home all your life.

It’s easy to avoid feeding the trolls when they don’t have power. When they do, it’s a different matter entirely. Do we ignore them, knowing they’re just in it for the attention? Will that rob them of their power? Or do we actively oppose them, fearful that this very thirst for attention will motivate them to keep pushing the envelope … until it falls off the table into the rubbish heap?

Social media aren’t to blame for this dilemma. The fault is ours for thinking we can apply the rules of social media to real life when we can’t.

Over the past decade or so, we’ve systematically imposed the social media template on the real world. We’ve created a culture in which break room conversations sound like rhetoric from Reddit; where science and pragmatism take a back seat to ideology; where politicians decide to campaign (and govern!) via Twitter.

And where the trolls are running the show.

They’ve escaped from under the bridge and want more than anything to put us there instead. It’s a bridge we built ourselves using social media, and if we’re not careful, it’s going to come crashing down on all of our heads.