The Trouble with Trolls

Photo by Eirick Solheim via Flickr/Creative Commons

In Internet slang, a troll (/ˈtroʊl//ˈtrɒl/) is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory,[1] extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as anewsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response[2] or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion,[3] often for their own amusement.

Wikipedia, 2015

 For rescues like ours, social media offers endless opportunities to connect, share information, and network with others. But there’s a dark side. The anonymity of the internet allows users to act out in ways that would be embarrassing or grossly inappropriate in real life. Read the comment section of almost any newspaper article, and you’ll see discussion devolve into accusations, arguments, and  personal attacks. When the article concerns anything remotely controversial you can see this happen almost immediately.

It comes as no surprise to see this around discussion of certain dog breeds or breed specific legislation (BSL) . In the last few years we have also become aware of organized groups that purport to have community safety as their mandate – which sounds great. That is our goal as well! But when you start to explore these groups, it turns out that they have a clear agenda of restricting or euthanizing certain categories of dogs.

These groups use the internet to advance their message, and have generated their own “statistics” and “studies” to support statements like “75% of fatal dog attacks are by pit bulls” or “1 in 20 pit bulls sends someone to the hospital”. Although these statements, in their shocking and soundbite-y appeal, sometimes find their way into media reports or your friends’ mouths, it doesn’t make them true. These figures are quickly discredited by sourcing credible data (like animal control reports and published, peer-reviewed journals).

These groups have been around for a while and we respect their right to exist. We even respect their right to comment when an event like this affects them locally. But a couple of weeks ago they crossed a line.

HugABull was invited into a local pet store as part of a fundraiser and community awareness initiative, and this caught the attention of one of these groups. The individuals, some based in the US and/or using fake profiles, attempted to take over the event page with hateful messaging, graphic photos of bloody dog attack victims, and multiple posts of scare-mongering material. Some posts on the store’s event page swelled to 300+ comments, as people responded to these posts and added fuel to the fire.

There is a small but growing body of research around internet trolling and cyberbullying. It shows that the trolling phenomenon does not come from a place of concern or a desire to educate or connect with other people. Their goal is to attract attention and to inflame emotions. Engaging with them only contributes to a downward spiral.

As we watched this drama unfold on social media, we had a lot of discussion amongst ourselves and came to a few conclusions.

  1. Trolls won’t change. Anyone who feels strongly enough to haunt our site from their computer desk in California to post mean-spirited comments is not likely to be convinced by anything we have to say.
  2. No one else is reading. Some people tell us they engage in comment threads because they worry that someone reading them won’t have both sides of the issue. In our experience, no one reads 300 comment threads for fun or education.
  3. Trolls live for outrage. It’s really difficult not to get incensed when a stranger talks about killing your dog or accuses you of being a dog fighter. But your outrage is exactly what they want, and it’s what will keep driving the debate forward. What’s more, they will often take screenshots of angry/abusive responses and share them, claiming that the “pit bull advocates” are harassing them.
  4.  Positivity will always outweigh negativity. What makes this abuse so hard to read is that it is so patently untrue. In any given week we encounter hundreds of pit bull type dogs. We share our beds with them. We read the literature about actual dog bite risks. At the end of the day, it’s the work that is being done out of love and compassion that changes minds.

So next time you stumble on to a comment thread cesspool? Try a different approach.

  1. Don’t respond. Leaving an angry, toxic debate is not a defeat. It’s a better use of your time.
  2. If you feel the need to respond, calmly acknowledge that trolls have taken over and no constructive discussion is taking place. Point out that the level of discourse is low and you have other things to do. Post an article about trolling. Post a picture of a troll, if you want to be a bit cheeky. But then leave the thread, turn off notifications, and do not go back. If everyone did this, the trolls are only screaming into a void and will eventually burn out.
  3. Stay positive. If you STILL wish to engage, try a different approach altogether. Ask them questions and let them follow their own logic until they trip up on it. Stay calm and compassionate, and don’t say anything you wouldn’t want to see posted as a screenshot somewhere else.
  4. Report. Depending on the context, you may be able to appeal to the admins of the page. In most cases there should be some kind of policy against graphic imagery, personal attacks, or threats. Be very specific about what you are reporting and why – you can’t report someone for posting a poor information source or saying something that is patently untrue. But you can report harassment and bullying.

In our case, the online hub-bub died down and we went on to have a great event. The store handled the negativity with perspective and professionalism, and their faith in us was redeemed as they saw we were a positive, community-minded, nice group of people.

And that felt much better than getting the last word on the Internet.



Pirate, showing off the power of positivity.

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