Ignoring trolls may discourage some of these provocateurs from flapping their gums. But others are too determined to disseminate their hateful messages to be dissuaded.
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Generally, I don’t fall for link bait. Every once in a while, however, a headline will catch my eye and I’ll stumble blindly into its maddening clutches. A couple of weeks ago, I clicked on the caption, “Is Ann Coulter Right about Soccer?” And I was done for.
As her gleeful appearance on Sean Hannity’s eponymous Fox show made clear, Coulter was in it for the clicks, as she always is—for the attention, uproar, and the “hissy fits” of her critics, as she said on Hannity, which sustain the bizarre incarnation of her career.
So the wisdom goes, “Don’t feed the trolls.” When you start to get angry thinking about all the lies Coulter writes in her syndicated column (“I promise you: No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer”), tell yourself to ignore her. Write op-eds about how we should ignore her. She loses if we just ignore her, so just ignore her.
It’s a good plan, but our execution is shaky. On an individual basis, we can disregard Coulter and other “trolls,” like Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh, just as we ignore the rude and angry comment threads that follow an article. But media outlets are hungry and reactive. So far, they seem incapable of withholding a response to these figures, even as they profess withholding to be the best course of action. And so long as it keeps coming, readers will keep clicking.
Deprived of attention, Coulter might fade into oblivion. But collectively we seem incapable of affording ourselves the opportunity to find out. Meanwhile, Trump has enough money to secure his own megaphone, at least for a while, and Limbaugh appears to carry an authority in the Republican Party, which would sustain him far past the media’s decision to ignore him.
All of which leaves us with the harmful results of this trolling and our own insufficient response: telling ourselves to ignore it and not being able to follow our advice.
The plan fails for our failure to execute it, but its underlying theory fails, too. Ask those who’ve been trolled, targeted, bullied, or stalked on the Internet, and they will tell you that ignoring the abuse doesn’t always work. As Lindy West pointed out last year on Jezebel, “Many people who are drawn to trolling are used to being ignored. Ignoring them is playing to one of their strengths. So instead of fading away, they’re intensifying.”
In the context of the Internet, the word “troll” seems defined by motivation: to incense, to sow discord, to disrupt. This results-oriented connotation implies that the sincerity of the troll isn’t the point. So much of the time, it would appear they don’t believe their own commentary. Which partly guides the wisdom of deprivation as response: Why respond to someone who doesn’t even mean what she says?
But not all trolling is hollow and not all trolls are actors. A study released in February found a strong connection between people who engage in trolling and the “Dark Tetrad” of personality traits, which includes Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy, and sadism. The gap between online and offline personalities can be smaller than we acknowledge.
When Cliven Bundy found himself the subject of America’s shock and horror, Ta-Nehisi Coates explained in The Atlantic that the problem with Bundy isn’t that he’s a racist, but that he is “an oafish racist … who invokes the crudest stereotypes, like cotton picking. This makes white people feel bad. The elegant racist knows how to injure non-white people while never summoning the specter of white guilt. Elegant racism requires plausible deniability, as when Reagan just happened to stumble into the Neshoba County fair and mention state’s rights.”
Trolls may be inelegant, but their inelegance shouldn’t always signal harmlessness. “Internet trolling is not random,” argues West. “It is a sentient, directed, strong-armed goon of the status quo.” Though Rush Limbaugh chooses his words for their ability to incense, he also believes women are inferior to men and that black people are inferior to white people. His contributions and widespread support reflect a cultural ethos that permits and enjoys hateful speech towards unambiguous populations—populations who have, at one time or another, enjoyed second-class citizenry. My personal decision to discount him because he employs the tactics of a troll who wants attention doesn’t change this bigger truth. It’s a truth worth seeing clearly, and it doesn’t go away when we profess to ignore it. Ann Coulter may be “trolling” in her criticisms of soccer, but behind the sensationalist click-bait, these criticisms provide a vehicle for her larger perpetual project, pursued with sincerity: bigotry. Behind every instance of inelegant racism we choose to dismiss as absurd, there exist supporting systems and instances of the utmost elegance.
The advice to starve trolls can work well on an individual level. Were we able to pull it off collectively, it would eventually deny a forum to the likes of Coulter and Trump. But the legitimacy of this advice seems undermined by two factors: one, our continual inability to execute it, and two, the case of the troll who means it.
And if the advice to ignore them doesn’t work, maybe we should stop calling Coulter, Trump, and Limbaugh “trolls.” Despite their resemblances to the ugly cartoon, riddled with warts and crooked spines, their impact on America isn’t always cartoonish. The spikes they sling cause harm. By continually dismissing Coulter as ridiculous, we lose the chance to address this harm and the real cultural currency of her comments: the racism, sexism, and homophobia dressed up in red, white, and blue. This perversion isn’t new and it’s not unique to Coulter. But her continual expression of it, aided by widespread media coverage, drives the spike in deeper. It’s only when we address the perversion that we get a chance to correct it; to imagine a patriotism that rings true and that doesn’t trade in the language of bigotry. This exercise in imagination is a conversation worth having repeatedly, and Coulter gives us reason to have it.
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