Tuesday, October 26, 2021

What Is So Bad About Trolling (Other Than Everything)?

by Neil H. Buchanan

Here at Dorf on Law, we have witnessed a bit of an uptick in trolling of late, which happens every now and then.  Our comments board is never particularly active (between one and ten comments per post being the norm), and the quality of the comments is often excellent and thought-provoking.  Moreover, once a troll reveals himself (and I readily admit that I am assuming that the trolls are male, based on the overwhelming weight of the evidence in the world), it is easy enough simply to put an offender on one's mental do-not-bother-reading list.  In any event, they usually leave (most likely due to boredom, given the relative sedateness of our community) after a few days or weeks.

Of course, even the most annoying of those occasional incursions into our genteel little corner of the all-powerful series of tubes are nothing compared to the mosh pits of Twitter and everything else online.  Elsewhere, women  and other disfavored victims are doxxed, websites are overwhelmed, cyber-bullying causes people to shut down their own email accounts and websites, and in some cases people kill themselves in response to having their lives invaded by anonymous monsters.
I thus do not in any way mean to compare the mild annoyances here or elsewhere in my life with any of that insanity.  Even the most aggressive off-list hate emails that I have received provide little more than a moment for me to stop and say, "Wow, someone actually thought it was acceptable to send that to a stranger."

Still, there is something interesting about the concept of trolling, even when it is limited to nasty or annoying words that could not in any way be deemed to merit exceptions to free speech rights.  There are good reasons to allow most types of trolling to continue unabated, but that does not mean that we have to ignore the practice.  Yes, I almost always succeed in living by the adage, "Don't feed the trolls," but that is merely an admonition not to give any particular troll the attention and engagement that he seeks.  By contrast, pointing to the existence of trolling and its uniquely logic-free style of argumentation can be clarifying.

Back in 2014, I published a column under the title: "Ah, Trolls! What Would We Do Without Them?"  There, I described trolls as "the self-important internet types who want to start an argument, but who really do not want to listen or learn."  After noting that some trolls operate shamelessly and could never be mistaken for anything but trolls, I then said that one is sometimes tempted to respond to a subset of trolls "who make it sound like they might be open to discussion."
The problem there is that some trolls have adopted bad arguing tactics that fail even in high school debate tournaments, but there is just enough of an argument that one might think: "OK, this guy is confused, but there is something there, I think, that can be cleared up in a few seconds."  Assuming the person's good faith ends up being a mistake, and the troll then either merely repeats himself or says that, no, everyone completely misunderstood his original (brilliant and devastating) point -- or he changes the subject entirely.

Ted Cruz is a classic troll.  He knows how to frame things almost as if they are arguments with which one can engage, but he also knows how to deny that he has ever been caught in a lie or a logical error.  And when he is confronted for having said something truly awful, he recoils in self-righteous horror.  How dare anyone suggest that he is a racist?!  The more racist he has been, the more he insists that everyone is being mean to him.  It is all about performative outrage, where the slightly more clever trolls (like Cruz) always slip-slide away, accusing everyone else of being overly sensitive, stupid, biased, or whatever.

But beyond the bad faith, and the ultimate goal of simply annoying their opponents ("Own the libs!") while pretending to be making clever, unbeatable arguments, what else is going on with trolling?  What, in other words, is the difference between a troll and a person who is simply wrong or nasty?  I have argued many times over the years that right-wingers use terms like "political correctness" and (more recently) "cancel culture" as merely dressed up versions of calling liberals names.  "You're being politically correct" is indistinguishable from saying, "You're being liberal, which I disagree with, you moron."  So-called cancel culture is nothing more than complaining that people who disagree with conservatives have the audacity to act on that disagreement -- by, for example, saying what conservatives say all the time, i.e., that some people are not worth listening to and ought not to be given privileged platforms.

Given that I believe all of that, however, is it the same when I call someone a troll?  In other words, is accusing someone of trolling no better than calling them a big poopy head?  Is there content to the description, or merely anger? 

Garry Wills is a historian, perhaps best known for his 1970 book Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man.  Riffing on that book's title, Wills in 1990 wrote for The New York Times "Nixon Thersites," a review of one of Nixon's endless supply of self-justifying books   Wills's title refers to a character from The Iliad, whom he described as a person who "lacked respect for others' respect," that is, "the shameless person ... par excellence."
Although Thersites was no longer mentioned in The Iliad after his endless trolling caused Odysseus "to punch him into silence," Wills is certain that "Thersites, if we know our man, was back the next day to describe how Odysseus beat him up; to complain about the wristy follow-through; to argue that his bruises are not calibrated to his offenses; and to show the bruises, endlessly" (emphasis in original).  He concludes: "The mystery of unembarrassability is energizing. ...  [I]t's possessor ... becomes perversely irreproachable.  Reproach, which cannot reach the upright person, cannot matter to the impervious one."

Wills, then, describes a person who becomes even worse after having been publicly embarrassed, because the act of being embarrassed merely provides an opportunity to say, "Help!  Help!  I'm being repressed."  There is no self-reflection, no adjustment to having been exposed, no desire actually to advance the conversation by looking for common ground -- or engaging seriously with one's opponents and finding fault with their argument (rather than simply repeating one's original argument or opportunistically changing it).

Admittedly, there can be situations in which this is difficult to identify.  People who are winning arguments do not change their views, after all, so how can we tell the difference between the person who stands firm because his argument has not been defeated and the person who (like Thersites) is content to simply say how unfairly his original argument was treated?  A big part of the difference is that the non-troll takes the opponent's argument -- not a straw man -- and responds to it.  "You might be right that Hillary Clinton once lied about X, but that does not mean that she lied about Y."  "Even if it were true that some government spending is inevitably lost to waste, that does not mean that the net effect of government spending is not positive."

Another part of knowing when one is dealing with a troll, however, amounts to affect.  Being stuck at the developmental stage of mediocre high school debaters, they act throughout their lives like sneering teenage boys.  As words come out of their mouths (or even off their pens), the gleeful argument-for-the-sake-of-argument vibe is unmistakable.

As it happens, I had a particularly vivid moment of being trolled earlier this afternoon.  (That I am writing this column today, then, is hardly a coincidence.)  This was especially difficult to take, because it was in person, and it was in a situation in which protocol demanded that I neither walk away nor respond with the harshness that was otherwise merited.  The annoyance of the moment has already passed, but it did give me reason to think about the difference between someone who is merely disagreeing and someone who is being disagreeable for sport (and, as always, with an ideological agenda).

I hasten to emphasize that there was nothing over-the-top here, nothing egregious, nothing that would have called for an Odyssean pummeling.  It did, however, involve a classic pattern that one sees often with trolls.  In this case, the launching point was to engage in some matter-of-fact red-baiting.  In response to a student arguing that human rights law might be used to set minimum standards to which governments should hold themselves, this troll said that "socialist countries like Venezuela and Argentina" can promise all they want, but because socialism always fails, those countries cannot fulfill their promises.  "I always say that it's like a government promising better weather," he said smugly.

It did not matter that the student in question was not at all invoking anything like socialism, nor was she saying that governments can promise everything and must deliver it all.  All that mattered to the troll was that she said that there might be a reason for governments to try to do more for their people -- and that the reason could be based in international human rights law -- which was all that was needed to bring out the anti-commie tropes.

Shocked, but aware of the politesse of the moment, I responded on behalf of the now-confused student that although there surely are promises that cannot be kept, plenty of governments could do more than they currently do for their people.  The United States, I noted, is the richest economy in the world, yet we do not do what nearly every other not-as-rich country does and guarantee health care as a human right.

What would a non-troll say?  Possibly that even though a country can afford to provide something to its citizens, it would be a bad idea to do so for other reasons.  Reasonable people can then engage on those questions, and the conversation can advance.  This troll, however, decided to respond by saying that "Congress can do that even without the excuse of human rights, because it's all political, and besides, a future Congress might decide to undo the policy, so what's the point?"

In debate, this is called a "shift," where the original point -- in this case, whether or not human rights law can ground a government's commitment to provide (affordable) benefits to its citizens -- suddenly becomes the banal non-point that "tax decisions are all political."  The further claim that policies can be reversed is not even a shift.  It is just trivial and meaningless.  What does the troll imagine people should say in response?  "You mean policies can be changed later?  I guess we should never do anything, then.  We'll all be dead in a hundred years, anyway."
Trying to keep the discussion on track, I noted that the entire point of the inquiry was to understand what principles could or should guide government's political decisions, and the student wanted to explore whether human rights law should be one of those guides.  With a smirk that would make any fifteen-year-old proud, however, the troll merely responded: "See, you just admitted that it's all political!"  Or to put it differently: I'm going to declare victory when I get you to say something that is trite and obvious, claiming that that is what I meant all along.

In most cases, the appropriate response would be a roll of the eyes and a graceful exit, because staying engaged risks going further down that rabbit hole.  In front of a group of students and with other items on the agenda, however, we were all fortunate that there was a third non-student on the dais who jumped in to move things along.

The bottom line, then, is that there truly is a difference between disagreeing and trolling.  Even wrongheaded disagreement -- or worse yet, bad-faith disagreement -- can be categorically different from trolling.  The difference is that there is no shame, no sense of personal reproach, no possibility that the troll will do anything but flail around and jump to the next semi-related (at best) point that leaves everyone else asking, "Wait, why are we suddenly talking about that?"

If the goal is to score cheap points, to confuse the issue, and to imitate Ted Cruz-types in saying anything but "OK, maybe I was wrong," then trolling must surely be great fun.  For those who actually want to engage with ideas and to learn from others' point of view, however, trolling is worse than incompetent argumentation.  It is a deliberate degradation of the very notion of reasoned engagement.


Michael A Livingston said...

The problem is there is no real definition of a troll other than someone who posts a lot and whose comments I don’t like. Your inclusion of Sen. Cruz exemplifies this. So maybe the issue is the blogs not the trolls?

tenacitus said...

There really is a difference between trolls and other people. It's not just posting things people don't like. A good mainstream description of trolls was the 2008 NY Times article about Weev and other trolls. Apart from derails and insults trolls do other things

Unknown said...

“Everyone who disagrees with me is a troll!”

Lol classic Buchanan

former student said...

I read this post. I was curious whether it was referring to, or including within its definition of trolling, my comments on Prof. Dorf's recent political-psychology-of-debt-ceiling post. It still isn't clear to me.

I think most people use “troll” to mean, more or less, someone who states or posts his or her opinions in a forum where he or she knows those opinions are unlikely to be well-received, and usually states them in a snarky, dismissive, or otherwise intentionally provocative manner. One problem with problematizing "trolling" as such is that we have already problematized the "echo chambers" or "bubbles" into which political partisans tend to divide. By skirting a simple definition of “troll” with an overly long and meandering post, Prof. Buchanon skirts this dilemma. What is left to describe as healthy debate -- apart from debate around the margins of an argument by the members of a bubble, where everyone agrees with certain premises? Must debate about those premises be confined to a university-organized panel declared for the very purpose of debating the premises, or can it exist on the internet?

Another problem with problematizing trolling in forums like this is that, while it is clear to me that I am unlikely to persuade the authors of this blog's posts of my positions, it is not at all clear to me that the forum's readers are not more malleable or open-minded. This blog’s authors are professors, after all, and I assume that some of their (at least occasional) readers are students. How many open-minded readers must there actually be in order to justify the intrusion associated with questioning (or even pointing out) the fundamental premises of the authors' arguments, rather than simply probing around the margins where the authors want to contain the discussion?

I also think it is problematic that the author of this post uses a student (presumably an undergrad) as his example of a troll, rather than me, if he intended to include me. In my comments, I challenged the very premise underlying this post -- which describes "trolls" as regular people who have the audacity to want to persuade others (who want to "start an argument") rather than be persuaded (people who want to "listen and learn"), without any acknowledgment of the shocking irony of Prof. Buchanon making such a statement -- and in many of the posts on this blog, including the one by Prof. Dorf to which I responded recently: that economists and other experts always know better than the masses, and that “ignorance” (definitely not “stupid[ity],” my apologies for putting that word in Prof. Dorf's mouth) is generally the best explanation (certainly the most generous, as the blog authors can certainly imagine less generous explanations) for the masses' divergent view.

former student said...

In my prior comments I gave a very specific example of a case in which the masses were right and the experts were wrong: Paul Krugman's claim, based on Ricardo's thought experiment, that trade deficits are necessarily self-correcting over the medium and long-term, and therefore that free trade agreements with Mexico and China and other countries can only be good for the US. I offered this example in the context of claiming that neither Prof. Dorf nor Prof. Buchanon actually knows how bad the fallout from a self-imposed debt-ceiling crisis would be, and that neither of them actually knows what will happen if the US continues to run large fiscal deficits and print money. These are all just predictions, at best supported by models that themselves rely on untested assumptions, like Ricardo's thought experiment. I can give other examples. Opioids for one -- virtually the entire medical profession endorsed for many years (from roughly 1995 to 2010) the pharmaceutical industry-sponsored belief that opioids were not (very?) addictive and that pain was being systematically undertreated because of society's prejudice against opioids. The treatment of the covid lab leak theory throughout 2020 is another example. What about Harvard's looting of Russia -- the rapid, below-market sell-off or privatization of what were then the Russian people's assets, which turned a global power into a nuclear-armed failed state virtually overnight, but enriched Harvard's endowment -- viewed from the perspective of the Russian masses, who were skeptical of the sell-off?

I offered my first example to encourage a bit of humility in speaking about the blog authors’ own economic predictions – after all, a Nobel laureate confidently predicted the consequences of pursuing free trade agreements with Mexico, China, and others, and got things disastrously and demonstrably wrong – and generosity in understanding the actions and thoughts of the masses – perhaps many regular people simply do not agree with Profs. Dorf and Buchanon’s predictions, or even view those predictions cynically, in light of past experiences. Is this trolling? Does my style -- described by Prof. Dorf as "cowardly" because I post anonymously, and where I described his unflattering opinion of the masses using variations of the word "stupid" instead of his preferred words “uninformed” and "ignorant" -- make it trolling, or is it my questioning of the fundamental premise that economists and law professors always know better than regular people, and never have class or economic biases that influence their opinions? Or am I even a troll? I’ve no idea.

Tariq Mohideen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tariq Mohideen said...

The problem with trolling is that there are venues for expression which prioritize volume, vitriol, and pithy parlor tricks due to our soundbite laden world and the ability for any one person to express a public opinion for millions of others to view. Unfortunately, these trolls obtain a patina of legitimacy simply by virtue of getting themselves heard to a larger following. Buoyed by a ready sea of upvotes and retweets, the sense of accomplishment grows. What distinguishes a troll then - it's a combination of smug sophistry and a disregard for any incoming stimuli other than that which affirms the sense of accomplishment. And when your legitimacy comes from public numbers and support, you get the opportunity to limit the world of your argument to suit your needs and there aren't many consequences for any of this behavior. It's really hard to fight soundbites that oversimplify and inflame while remaining faithful to the tenets of honest debate. So, to add another defining characteristic - a troll is not interested in anything but winning or "owning" the other side (see 4chan/8chan...actually don't if you've never been there). And, often times to really defeat trolls, you're tempted to fight fire with fire (or with liberal originalism lol) but it feels so intellectually dishonest. Maybe we need to shed our niceties and just yell right back? But I can't help but feel unless it is done in a way that stresses we are doing this to undermine the fallacies used by trolls and for no other purpose, that we will create a worse monster in the process.

Michael A Livingston said...

I think the most honest approach is Ann Althouse who says “I delete trolls at my whim,” i.e., I determine who is a troll and there is no appeal, since it’s my blog. This is at least very candid.

Alexander Kurz said...

I noticed that it can sometimes be effective to define "political correctness" as "politeness in the public sphere". Few people who rage against political correctness want to admit that they are just impolite.

CEP said...

I disagree somewhat with Professor Buchanan's take, but because I think he was too generous to the trolls. They're not high-school debaters; they're more plastic than that. Specifically, they're Plastics (Mean Girls) interested not in self-justification to a wider audience, but self-aggrandizement (subtly different) to Those Who Matter… and Those Who Matter, in an infinitely-reflexive loop, are those who can grant acclaim to the troll or already agree with the troll, and preferably both. In short, this isn't high-school debate, which at least implies that there's an adult (or, in elimination rounds, three… which should rather give away that, some time during the early Cretacious age, I was a high-school debater) in the room evaluating the whole thing, with the power, duty, and inclination to approve one troll's complete performance over another; it's high-school, or more often middle-school, lunch-room cliques.

For the anti-commie in the room with Professor Buchanan: Perhaps you'd like to time-travel a few years and do some more rhetorical launches on warning. (I'd offer to stand up for Professor Buchanan more directly on that, but I know perfectly well how to give a Glomar response; I'd be obligated to give a Glomar response; and that's exactly what a TrueTroll hopes for — not defeating the less-prepared opponent, but defeating the opponent who is prohibited from, umm, nuclear retaliation.) Just remember that the three greatest crises of government during the Cold War — Little Rock, Watergate, and Iran-Contra — didn't have much to do with commies… unless you mean the fifty-seven card-carrying members of the Communist Party in the Department of Defense (and one should also recall where Mrs Iselin's loyalties were).

kotodama said...

Prof. L., nowadays we can even detect black holes from many light years away. And most people have a much easier time of things recognizing trolls back here on Earth.

In a way, black holes and trolls are similar. They both suck up everything in sight and produce nothing valuable in return. Maybe I'm being too hard on black holes though. At least studying them provides knowledge to further the progress of science.

I do appreciate the timely post on trolls so close to Halloween. It can't be a coincidence that LGM also just had one.

Jason S. Marks said...

Despite the risk I might be labeled an originalist, the origin of the word "troll" goes back to late medieval times, and refers to an ogre of some sort (like the fairy tales under a bridge) appearing suddenly not to act violently but simply dilatory, to cause some mischief and otherwise act annoyingly. Ever since, trolls have had a bad rap. So, when we get to defining a troll today on the Internet, I think the original definition applies -- ugly people with impure motives trying to stall or deflect attention from the merits of an argument. It is essentially an online revision of the classic ad hominem attack (a fallacy for those who follow logic).

I am fascinated and recoiled by the rise of trolling. Smart people who know better engage in it as much as people who may not know they just acted as a troll. The whole idea of the ease of blogging and tweeting and posting was the hope real conversation would occur, the universal public forum. Instead, we see mostly pablum and insults and attempts to be too cute. In the process, trolls accomplish their ultimate goal: they distract and dilute, so that people focus on the troll comment (and canceling someone) rather than on the value of the original argument. Sadly, it represents a further degradation in public discourse on important issues. When we see trolls jump on board, we can be sure an important issue is involved and it will not be addressed.

Trolling and cancel culture seem to come from the same energy pod -- the desire to have an outsized impact and response without actually solving a real problem or handling with nuance and integrity a real issue.

Overall, I feel I agree with Professor B about trolling, specifically his characterization of it as "performative outrage" and "bad faith."

The only way to stop trolls is not to embarrass them (they seem to have no shame), but to ignore them (for then they have no purpose).