Reflections on Internet Trolling


A conservative reader whose intellect and integrity I respect, even while I disagree with him on practically everything, took me to task recently in an e-mail interchange for my criticism of “the Intellectual Dark Web.”  A sympathetic conservative columnist for the New York Times describes IDW as follows:

First, they are willing to disagree ferociously, but talk civilly, about nearly every meaningful subject: religion, abortion, immigration, the nature of consciousness. Second, in an age in which popular feelings about the way things ought to be often override facts about the way things actually are, each is determined to resist parroting what’s politically convenient. And third, some have paid for this commitment by being purged from institutions that have become increasingly hostile to unorthodox thought — and have found receptive audiences elsewhere.

I observed that the egregious stances of some of these commentators—Kevin Williamson saying that women who have abortions should be lynched, for instance—sound more like attempts at trolling than legitimate engagement with ideas. In response, my conservative reader hinted that I too may be guilty of trolling when I, for instance, call Donald Trump “a wannabe Macbeth.” Since I need to subject myself to the same scrutiny that I devote to my political opponents, I wondered whether he was right.

As I see it, internet trolls are more interested in pissing off people they disagree with than with exploring ideas. Trolls are often fans of schadenfreude, taking delight in the distress of their enemies. If you have ever spiced up a victory by relishing the other candidate’s or the other team’s tears, then you have indulged in schadenfreude.  People of all political persuasions, I suspect, engage in this, and we should all resist it.

The greatest poetic illustration of schadenfreude that I know of is Thomas Love Peacock’s doggerel masterpiece “The War Song of Dinas Vawr.” Here’s the final stanza:

We brought away from battle,
And much their land bemoaned them,
Two thousand head of cattle,
And the head of him who owned them:
Ednyfed, king of Dyfed,
His head was borne before us;
His wine and beasts supplied our feasts,
And his overthrow, our chorus.

Principled neo-con David Frum (another conservative I respect) talked about the dangers of trolling in a recent Atlantic article. It may start off as a kind of performance art, he writes, but it can come to control the artist:

[T]he journey from winking provocateur to racist ideologue might be shorter than many imagine. You start out with the goal of provoking the left—and, well, what’s more provocative than posting a racist meme on the internet? But with each new like and upvote, an incentive structure forms, a community coalesces, an identity hardens. Before long, the line between performance and principle is blurred beyond recognition, your “true” beliefs buried under so many layers of irony that they’ve been rendered irrelevant.

So are there great works of literature that troll their opponents? Jonathan Swift comes to mind with satiric masterpieces like his “Isaac Bickerstaff” attacks on the horoscope writer John Partridge and his “Argument against Abolishing Christianity,” which targeted enlightenment types attempting to devise a rational defense of religion. “Modest Proposal,” meanwhile, attacks (amongst others) social engineers.

In my eyes, however, Swift is not a troll because he is more interested in exploring his issues than in riling up the enemy. He genuinely thought that horoscope writers were defrauding the public, that rational Christians were draining the mystery from religion, and that social engineers were dehumanizing the people they were supposed to be helping. He wrote about these subjects in dramatic ways that attracted wide readership, but he never got lost in his irony or his audience’s responses. To use today’s language, he never focused primarily on more clicks.

My responsibility as a blogger, therefore, is to make sure that I worry less about irritating (or for that matter, massaging) my readers and more about exploring my subject matter with honesty and integrity. Respect for others should be my bottom line.

As it so happens, I describe Trump as a wannabe Macbeth, not because I want to irritate Trump supporters, but because I genuinely fear what I regard as his authoritarian tendencies. If certain readers worthy of respect experience my essays as pokes in the eye, however, I need to reflect upon that. In the end I want to help foster a greater unity, not contribute to more polarization.

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