Friday, July 19, 2013

Beware! Trolls Lurk Among Us!

Troll nicht fuettern pink
Troll nicht fuettern pink (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I thought I was a pretty up-to-date person, but I recently learned a new word – well, actually a new definition for an old word. The word is troll. For readers of fantasy, a troll is a dwarf or giant in Scandinavian folklore inhabiting caves or hills. In most fantasy, trolls are noxious, unlikable creatures with few redeeming social graces.

Well, the new definition of troll relates to the Internet, and it refers to the noisome creatures who seem to spring from some nether regions to post extraneous, insulting, off-topic comments with the intent it seems to cause maximum discord. Like the troll of folklore, these noxious little creatures seem to delight in starting arguments or upsetting people.

Here’s how the Urban Dictionary defines troll: “One who purposely and deliberately (that purpose usually being self-amusement) starts an argument in a manner which attacks others on a forum without in any way listening to the arguments proposed by his or her peers. He will spark of such an argument via the use of ad hominem attacks (i.e. 'you're nothing but a fanboy' is a popular phrase) with no substance or relevence to back them up as well as straw man arguments, which he uses to simply avoid addressing the essence of the issue.”

I haven’t before now paid much attention to the comments after articles, except to send thank you notes for particularly good comments at the end of my own. I hadn’t been subject to an attack of the trolls until I wrote a think piece on response to the not guilty verdict against George Zimmerman in Florida in the shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin. If one reads the introduction to the article, it clearly states this is a personal reaction, and in the article, I only lightly touch on the subject of race, which dominated most of the discussion of the case. My own position was that incidents like this also grow out of a sense of ‘being under siege’ that I’ve observed in many communities. The first comment got my attention. “News and opinion should not be on the same page” the commenter wrote. Huh? Then it just got worse. Comments were uglier and uglier. I was even accused by one troll of being racist for writing what I did.

This whole episode caught my attention. Where do these characters come from, and what motivates them? In a conversation with a colleague today, he told me of a similar situation with an automobile magazine, where response to an article on electric cars drew hundreds of condemnatory comments such as, “real men don’t drive electric cars,” and “this is part of Obama-care.” Hardly any of the troll comments really related to the article, which was a description of tests on the vehicle’s performance.

I have a theory. It’s just a theory which I have yet to prove, but it is intriguing. I think the trolls have been with us all along, but before the Internet, they were restricted in their ability to spew their noxious venom on large audiences. They strike me as a group of supremely angry and frightened people who live in the darkness of their fears, and when they come out, they strike out at the nearest target. Doesn’t matter the subject; they will spew about what angers them. It might be race, gender equality, immigration reform, government policy, whatever, they are pissed and want the world to know it. They want you to hurt, so they throw the most vicious slime they can right in your face. They dare you to take them on. Problem is, you can’t really take them on, because they are impervious to logic, ignorant of history (at least they seem to ignore it), and deficient in the empathy gene.

And, here I’d been thinking that trolls were creatures of fantasy, when they’ve been living among us all along.  

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