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.