Although the definition of an internet troll is somewhat subjective, for our purposes let’s use one of the broadest and most commonly understood. In it, a troll is someone who posts intentionally provocative or derogatory comments in an online discussion board, chat room, or blog with the intention of provoking an emotional response from, or causing distress and upset to, the other users. Trolls are distinct from other posters who may be intentionally but respectfully provocative or contrary, and whose purpose is to challenge conventional thinking or add depth or layers to a discussion without hurting other participants.
Trolls have become ubiquitous in the open forums or comment sections of any online media, including Officer.com. If you are a regular consumer of news or articles on this site you may be familiar with the rants of such provocateurs as SJANC, copchaser, cop watcher, and G, among others. And almost every local newspaper, large or small, with an online version has a following of trolls happy to put their pathology on display. These include all the authority issues imaginable and from all manner of cop haters. The relative anonymity these forums allow emboldens recklessness with facts (or completely disavowing them!), feeble reasoning, and hateful words that only diminish intelligent debate.
If you let them, trolls will drive you to distraction and provoke backlash, eventually hijacking the conversation. That is exactly what they want! And as the backlash they cause is usually rooted in anger or frustration, often taking on a tone that is aggressive, sarcastic, or even profane from LEOs rushing to give counterpoint to the provocation, it only justifies – at least in the minds of the troll and troll sympathizers – all their criticisms of the police.
The problem with a troll is not so much the troll itself, or the nonsense it posts, or how it makes us feel. No, in my view, the problem is the compulsion that drives so many of us to publicly drop to the troll’s level of discourse. All it takes is one cop who cannot help but give it the very backlash it wants – a backlash dripping with scorn, driven by anger, and punctuated with insults or abuse – that not only confirms what the troll thinks of us but also shapes the opinion of other readers.
You see, feeding the trolls – giving them what they want in terms of response – only strengthens them. It gives them power and control. It allows them the chance to say, “See? See how a cop reacts to criticism? THIS is why you should never trust the police!” So please refrain from feeding the trolls!
Instead, follow one of two suggested troll management tactics. The first is highly successful when used correctly and by all anti-troll forces in the online community, but it can be hard to stick with. This tactic is to simply IGNORE the trolls. That’s right! Ignore them. Just never respond. If you starve them out – refuse to be baited into online fights - they will just go somewhere else and leave you alone. The difficulty with this tactic is you have no control over what anyone else on the site will say or do and, compulsive as humans can be, someone else is sure to toss the troll something to chew on.
I recommend this second tactic; if done right you can drive the discussion, take the high road, represent law enforcement at its best while exposing the troll for what it really is, and, even though you are directly responding to the bait you are doing it in a way that will still starve it out. Challenge the troll to come up to your level!
It’s not as hard as it sounds, just follow these simple rules:
1. Never respond in anger. Trolls specialize in provoking anger so if you refuse to respond when angry they are not being fed. Instead, walk away, get your composure, and come back with ice water in your veins!
2. Avoid responding with disrespect toward the troll. It looks bad. It puts LE in a bad light. And, despite any disrespect shown us, other citizens reading the exchange will be forming opinions about you – and us – based on how you react. And being respectful in the face of another’s contempt can be disarming.
3. Ask clarifying questions about why the troll feels the way it does about the subject or LE in particular. Ask for specific examples of police misdeeds that may shape their perception of us. Respond with empathy to the examples they give, even if you disagree with them or their interpretation of events (and you can tell them you disagree). Acknowledge that sometimes we make mistakes, or even do wrong, but that individual mistakes or misdeeds never represent the whole of a group.