Have you ever gotten into a debate on social media, researching a thoughtful post (with citations!) only to be told to do your own research, and most importantly, to “think!”
It’s frustrating, isn’t? Thirty minutes of reading research papers, or longer (admit it–you spent hours down that rabbit hole, didn’t you?), following by trawling countless links to dig up data the other party is clearly willfully ignorant of only to be told to “think!” Isn’t it amazing how disheartening a low brow, low-effort post can become after so much work? You’re not alone, but that doesn’t change the disappointment no matter how fleeting.
One of the most interesting things I’ve noticed whenever I’ve been subjected to this sort of response is that it’s almost always written alongside a logical fallacy (e.g. appeal to authority) that gives the author a faux sense of superiority. Rest assured, this isn’t to convince you: It’s to convince them.
As someone who’s participated in discussion on predominantly politically-right-of-center social media and message boards, I’ve encountered a wide array of strange conspiracy theories (like “Q”) and occasionally even more perplexing (but strangely popular!) ones like the “flat Earth” nonsense. But sometimes I’ll run into individuals who utilize this same retort in areas where I have more concrete familiarity that I know they’re not as well versed in.
A more recent example at the time of writing (this was published much later than the events described herein to protect the guilty) occurred in a Linux users’ group where the topic of malware cropped up based on a recent story of Linux machines being subjected to either state-sponsored malware exploits or long-running command-and-control malware directed by botnet operators. Inevitably, someone from a Windows background tossed around pejoratives, calling anyone who attempted to counter his low-effort arguments names and suggesting that no one could answer is indisputable points. What those points were is anyone’s guess, but that’s not the point of this essay.
The point is that people like this are never interested in the material essence of discussion–or debate–so much as they’re interested in the attention they can receive by antagonizing others. Through name-calling, and other insults, they can effectively raise the temperature of the thread sufficiently to provoke others’ frustrations until the inevitably boil over and return fire. Once this happens, they’ll usually proclaim the moral high ground, express concern that others are shamelessly slinging insults, and obviously no one can offer a retort to their arguments–arguments that are clearly bulletproof. At this point, anyone delving into the debate has probably forgotten the fact that these personalities have never offered a substantive argument. That was their plan all along!
It’s a distraction. It’s a distraction wherein they implore you to think!
This form of trolling thrives on negative attention and anger. Once, it was used by people who weren’t particularly interested in any given topic and simply wanted to irritate as many people as possible. Now, it’s often used by individuals who have an emotional investment in a topic but don’t know enough to support their argument through evidence. Their opinions are all that is needed (or so they think) to draw a line in the sand and stake a claim on facts and truth–oblivious to the reality that facts and truth operate independently from opinion. Of course, that won’t stop them from arguing the point ad nauseum because they know for certain that they’re right. It doesn’t matter if their viewpoint is demonstrably false. They think it’s true, therefore it is true.
Fortunately, as with trolls of yesteryear, one of the most effective techniques against these personalities is to simply ignore them. I know, it’s difficult to do, because the reward cycle in your head desperately wants to tell them they’re wrong. But remember: If they’re disputing or ignoring evidence, they’re not interested in the truth. They’re interested only in their own opinion. If you ignore them, they won’t have anything else to add to the conversation and will eventually leave. Untag them, talk passed them, do whatever you need to do–but ignore them first and foremost. That’s how you win.
There’s a reason the Internet of Old had signs posted with the advice “Don’t feed the trolls.”
I think it’s time we revisit this.
I may touch on the principle of argumentative mental reward cycles in a later post and how trolls exploit this.