Online trolls cannot be argued with rationally; don’t even try

Rule 14 of the Internet clearly states: “Do not argue with trolls — it means that they win.”

And yet, here I am, about to break the rule and devote an entire column to the beast that is the Internet troll.

For the newbs who don’t grok my lingo, a troll is anyone who deliberately posts provocative or extraneous messages to an online community to elicit a strong emotional response. They are the sadists who get their kicks from angering their fellow netizens.

But, more generally, trolls can refer to anyone with a disruptive presence on the Net, and that’s not just verbal laziness at work. Much like Poe’s law — that there’s no parody of extremism so ludicrous that it cannot be mistaken for actual extremist beliefs — there’s no form of disruption so sincere that it cannot be mistaken for actual malice.

And yes, disruption can be sincere. Visit any news article on the Net, and you’ll see people hijacking the discussion because they are absolutely convinced that everyone needs to believe as they do; they take something even tangentially related to their issue of devotion and fill up page after page with arguments, name-calling and conspiratorial rumor-mongering. Their presence ticks off anyone reading, and yet they appear to be sincere in expressing their own viewpoint — although it’s impossible to tell for sure.

These opinion trolls infest virtually every corner of the World Wide Web. Heck, we have several recurring trolls who hang out at

But it is not enough to remark on the existence of the opinion troll like a bored safari guide. We must know where they come from and what to do about them.

To the question of where, my guess (and a guess it must remain since a professional sociologist I am not) is “motivated reasoning”: The theory of motivated reasoning suggests that we sometimes decide the truth or falseness of an issue emotionally and then build up logical reasoning for it ex post facto.

Chris Mooney, a science journalist who runs the blog “The Intersection,” uses this to explain what he calls the “smart idiot effect”:–_and_reality/?page=entire — a name I myself have no taste for. He noted studies that show conservatives, who can have a strong emotional predisposition not to believe in global warming, tend to become even less trusting of the science as their education level increased. According to Mooney, the higher level of education allowed those who distrusted the science at an emotional level to have a vast reservoir of reasons why the science was wrong. If one argument failed, they always had another to rely on.

So maybe the reason why the actions of opinion trolls appear so odd to those who don’t adhere to the same fevered beliefs is because we are searching for a logical explanation for the actions, rather than an emotional explanation. When a troll jerks the line of discussion to his topic of interest, it appears as a total non sequitur to the observer, but to the troll himself the original topic and his topic are inextricably linked by the powerful feelings that both inspire within him.

As to what to do about trolls, Rule 14 sets out the guidelines quite clearly. If the troll is acting with malice, then by arguing you give them exactly what they want: If the troll is acting with sincerity, then arguing will only exasperate yourself. You can present all the data you wish, point to all the examples you want to, and it won’t convince them of anything. They’ll lawyer your words to say what they want them to say.

They already know they are right. It doesn’t matter how.

So when in doubt, remember this simple rule.

In the woods: Don’t feed the bears.

Online: Don’t feed the trolls.

_Joseph is a graduate student._