When Trolling is Necessary

According to Wikipedia –

In Internet slang, a troll is someone who posts inflammatory,[3]extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response[4] or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.[5] The noun troll may refer to the provocative message itself, as in: “That was an excellent troll you posted.”

Trolling is an inevitable consequence of blogging and commenting on blogs, YouTube videos, and so forth, on the internet. Let’s face it, there are morons out there whose sole purpose in life is to piss people off on the internet. It’s pathetic and a waste of everyone’s time. But there are times when trolling, in my opinion, is necessary. I would like to outline a typical blog and series of comments. This is based upon my experiences at Freethoughtblogs, and sites/pages dedicated to Atheism Plus, including those on Reddit. Good examples would be blogs written by the like of PZ Myers, Great Christina, Ophelia Benson, and Zinnia Jones. This also happens most frequently on blogs about Atheism Plus, feminist issues, or blogs detracting those who oppose or question the aforementioned.

Blogger writes blog supporting feminist issue X.


  • Person A: You are awesome. I totally agree. I worship the ground you walk on. (or something similar, likely implied, but not clearly stated)
  • Person B: Me too. Misogyny. Schrodinger’s Rapist. Sexism. MRA. Male privilege. Oppression. Buzzwords…
  • Person C: Me too. All men are worthless shitbags.
  • Person D: I disagree with point X, for the following reasons (provides reasons in a humble, cogent manner).
  • Person A (to person D): Fuck you. You are a worthless piece of shit and a misogynist pig. I bet you’re an MRA.
  • Person D: Why do you treat me like that? I’m simply making a point. You don’t need to attack me.
  • Person A: You’re one of those fucking tone trolls. Are you afraid of my words? You’re a fucking pussy.
  • Person D: Fine, I’m not going to stoop to your level. If you don’t want to have a civil discussion, I’m outta here.
  • Person A: Stick the flounce, mother fucker.
  • Persons B and C: Yeah, that fucker had it coming. Who does he/she think he/she is?

(OK, the “worship the ground you walk on” was a bit exaggerated.)
Having read a handful of blogs at Freethought, Atheism Plus, and Reddit, this is pretty much how it goes.  I’ve seen it, and I’ve been a direct party to it.
Person D was accused of being a tone troll, which, according to the Pharyngula wiki, is –

A tone troll is a serious-minded person who wants only to raise the level of discussion in the dire cesspits of the New Atheist web. Or, possibly, they’re a pompous blowhard who, lacking such frivolous accoutrements as an actual argument, attempts to distract attention from said deficit by complaining that their opposition uses dirty words and ought, really, to have some strict nanny figure—possibly Mary Poppins—to wash out their mouths with soap.

Of course this definition is, itself, pompous and dismissive of a serious inquiry. But the point is that a tone troll is commenting on the tone of the others, in addition to or rather than addressing the blog or comment he/she is responding to. Tone trolling is rarely done, in my opinion, without additional commentary on the actual post. You could make the argument that the commenter’s sole purpose for commenting is to put others in check for their choice of words or behavior; however, the more likely scenario is that the tone trolling is secondary to an actual argument, which is the case in the example above. Personally, I think trolling of this kind is just fine.

Notice the pattern, which repeats on many blogs. Person D makes a comment in disagreement with the OP. The argument is articulate, and well thought out. Other commenters then personally attack Person D, often without making counter-arguments, and accuse Person D of tone trolling, and likely derailing the comments.

The reality is that the offenders here are the attackers, not the tone troll. Specifically, by personally attacking the Person D (especially without a counter-argument), the attackers have derailed the comments themselves. Person D’s comments were on-topic, but in disagreement. Respectful disagreement is nothing to get pissed off about. There’s a reason that the hashtag #ftbullies is used so often. This epidemic brings a number of questions to my mind –

First, why do people like Person A act like this? I theorize that it may be one or more of the following:

  • General lack of maturity. This one speaks for itself. You act like a child.
  • You feel empowered by the ability to say shit you wouldn’t otherwise say to a real person in the real world. Hiding behind a computer is your alcohol. In reality, it’s weak. Think about this: If you honestly wanted to have a debate with someone over a controversial topic in the real world (i.e., face-to-face, perhaps in front of an audience), would you act like this? The moment your debate opponent disagreed with you, would you just tell them to fuck off, and declare victory? No one would take you or your opinions seriously, and you would be laughed off stage. Think about what you’re doing and saying, and why you are saying it. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen a professional speaker or debater speak like you write. There’s a reason for that. Take some notes. I’ve been speaking professionally in various capacities for the past 12 years, and I’m pretty sure I’d be fired if I acted like you.
  • You have an inability to control your emotions.
  • You don’t have a good retort, so you resort to insults to hide your incompetence or ignorance.
  • You’re just a bully. (similar to first bullet)

Second, how do you engage people like this? Do you try to reason with them? Do you ignore them? Do you “stick the flounce?” Sometimes, when I am confronted with this, I am compelled to continue arguing my case, but in a respectful way. Fail. Other times, I just walk away. But isn’t that letting them win? Their boorish behavior is essentially silencing you.  You’ve got an equal right to say what you want to say, and they are taking that away from you. It’s frustrating.

Third, can it be fixed? I’m all for loose moderation, in that I’m not inclined to decline comments unless it’s totally egregious, which I have not encountered yet. The few disagreeing commenters on my page have been respectful in doing so.  On the other hand, I’m not a big fan of swinging the ban hammer. Atheism Plus is legendary for doing this – but it goes beyond trolling or abusive language, but to general disagreement. A lot of people take offense to questions and disagreement too personally, especially when the disagreement is respectful.  Also, is there a way to simply change the culture, so that these kind of attitudes go away. But I know that’s a pipe dream.

So am I crazy or what? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts. As I’ve stated, I’m somewhat new to the atheism “community” (I know some of you don’t like that word), but I’m very discouraged by what I’ve seen. In my opinion, there’s no place for these kinds of attitudes. Nothing positive gets accomplished by harassing. And that goes for people who harass women or Atheism Plus supporters, too – everybody. So if you’re sending hate mail, just stop. Don’t be a moron. I’ll never send an email to PZ Myers, no matter how much I disagree with his opinions. It’s a waste of my time and his, too. I have better things to do.

It’s funny how so many atheists are quick to point out the logical fallacies of their theist opponents, but fail to identify their own.



Filed under Atheism

6 responses to “When Trolling is Necessary

  1. M. Rodriguez

    In all honesty I really did not understand what a troll was before this. I feel like a blogging loser

  2. Drew Hardies

    I think you’re really on the right track when you say, “the attackers have derailed the comments themselves.” The derailing might be the point.

    Advanced discussion on social issues is really hard. Doing it well involves reading and discussing a bunch of research papers and the conclusion is almost always going to be, “I think X is more likely than Y, but we really need more studies”.

    Arguing at the intro-level is way more satisfying. One side might be unambiguously better than the other. Facts can be shown or refuted with easy references.

    Attacks like ‘tone troll’ seem like a way or re-setting the argument. As soon as someone uses jargon, the conversation almost always becomes some version of “privilege: real or overstated?” debate. That debate is more fun and more familiar for certain bloggers

    The Atheism Plus forums seem like a great example of this. Supposedly, they were created as a space where people could talk about things too advanced for normal blogs.

    But in every thread I’ve seen where there’s disagreement about underlying facts, someone throws out jargon. The person critiqued gets offended. And the debate turns into a debate about the validity of the jargon, with a layer of, “If only you weren’t so ‘tone-trolling’/’privileged’/’mansplaining’, we could get back to the super-advanced discussion.”

  3. “But in every thread I’ve seen where there’s disagreement about underlying facts, someone throws out jargon.”

    I’ve observed this as well. Newcomers that disagree are treated to jargon, inevitably of the ad hom variety, and are told that they need to go do more research before either replying or asking a question. People with questions are apparently treated as supplicants that the acolytes may or may not deign to answer. I looked around there a bit as the idea of actually calling myself an Atheist rather than an atheist seemed appealing. Adding that to the ideal of social justice sounded even better. I thought I would find serious discussions and logical debates, a “safe space” where ad homs were forbidden and reason would reign.

    I was naive. What I didn’t know and that I do know now is that there’s this subculture of social justice “internetivism” out there and some of the lengths they appear to go to in order to self-identify as victims (of speciesism where they self-identify as “otherkin” or the oppression they feel when someone doesn’t respect their one or more “headmates”) are, in my opinion, pretty extreme and reflective of completely unreasonable “accommodation” expectations.

    What they appear to have had made clear is that they’re not a movement, they are a support group. I just wish they hadn’t claimed it was a movement. I understand the heavy moderation, “trigger warnings” and shunning/exclusion behavior in the context of a support group. If labeled as such I would have had never participated. I mean I would never go to an AA meeting to ask questions about homebrewing.

  4. I think #SecretShopperGate has probably proved your point for you.

  5. Seymour

    The biggest issue I see is their self-righteousness.
    They can offend and insult others, but heaven forfend that you “offend” them by pointing out you don’t agree with their pre-suppositions and/or goals. Not all atheists are left wing and not all are into the maitriarchy.

    You should also consider that they aren’t as bright as they pretend they are, delusions of adequacy, and U suspect the biggest bullies may realise this. Weak minded ineffectual people following their guru.

    Why do the bloggers such as PZ, Watson, Benson etc do it? Money and celebrity I suspect. Why do people like Lousy Canuck do it, they want to appear cool and get to sit at what they perceive as the smart kids table, plus they get to feel big and important.

    My answer is simply to watch and laugh. Though, as they aren’t in either of the continents I live in and I don’t go to atheist nor septic conventions, it has little impact on me.

    What I really love is how their Old/New world problems are amped up and 3rd world problems ignored. You did realise that the new iPhone doesn’t fit in hipster jean pockets, atrocious and must be rectified.

  6. chaosprime

    You know how if it’s unfalsifiable, it’s not science? I’m thinking that if it’s undisagreeable, it’s not a dialogue.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s