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The Care and (non)Feeding of Trolls

Please stop feeding the troll!

                        often heard (but usually ignored) chat room admonishment

Never argue with an idiot… he’ll only drag you down to his level and beat you with experience

                        unknown                  

In our last article, Bad Press to Better Policing, we looked at the apparent proliferation of negative stories about police and policing, how we perceive, think about and react to them, and the possibility that even bad press can have positive outcomes for the profession.  In some of the events making news, the bad press we’re talking about is coverage of actual criminal conduct or ethical breaches committed by law enforcers; in other words, gross abuses of the public trust.  Like it or not, on the rare occasion these things happen, they are probably going public. 

In others, the actions under scrutiny are legitimate and lawful but ugly.  It’s sometimes been said that effective law enforcement is a lot like making sausage… most people desire and enjoy the end result, but looking too closely at how it is done leaves them feeling queasy.  Usually speaking softly (and politely and professionally) works fine making an arrest or getting people moving in the lawful direction they need to go.  But sometimes we have to reach for the big stick and, when we do, more sensitive or naïve members of society might not understand.

I was recently looking at a video of an arrest that took place in an IHOP that has hit the airwaves.  In it, an officer is attempting to arrest a resisting young woman, sitting backed into a booth, while surrounded by a number of other agitated young adults (apparently she had been involved in some sort of disturbance in the restaurant).  Just as other officers are arriving to back him, a different young woman leans into view and begins punching the arresting officer several times in the face.  She is quickly grabbed, taken to the floor, and placed in handcuffs.  The officers’ actions were appropriate and necessary and, in my view, not the least bit controversial.  But some of the others in the restaurant, based on their audible, real-time comments about the officers’ actions, and the news outlet that aired the footage must have a different point-of-view than me.  The suddenness of how the assaultive young woman was subdued and restrained – and to an untrained eye it would probably shock despite being tactically effective and relatively safe for her and the officers - will almost certainly become the story, rather than her illegal and violent interference in a lawful arrest.  

The speed and expanse of news dissemination, and the increased democratization of the voices of its consumers, has become both boon and bane of this information age.  Just a few years ago, most media reports, as well as editorials and Op/Ed pieces, were one-way conduits of information or opinion.  Most newspapers have long offered a “Letters to the Editor” section for readers to sound off or add their two cents, but space constraints necessarily limited the number that could be published so most readers’ letters never saw the light of day.  Not so in the internet age!  In this day when every newspaper and TV newscast is available online at any time, reader/viewer comment sections are not just common, they are expected.  Hot stories can generate dozens or hundreds of mostly anonymous comments, and anyone can (and will) throw in their two cents without hesitation… and a command of spelling, grammar, or even the slightest understanding of the facts be damned!

And out of this new information democracy was born the internet troll!

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. 

4.      Engage the troll in a direct dialogue - all the while remaining respectful – and become an example of a “Good Cop” to them.  Disarming and it makes you – and us – look good to others following the discussion.  It also tends to soften the troll’s attitude overall, since humanizing the profession naturally makes it harder to maintain feelings of contempt.  

5.      In the above vein, whenever possible use your real name.  Again, it’s humanizing to readers following along and to your adversary.  It also adds accountability, since anonymity tempts us to lower standards of behavior.  If you absolutely have to be anonymous for some reason, vow to conduct your online self with only the highest honor.

6.      See yourself as an educator, dispelling misconceptions and acting as an ambassador of the LE profession, of both the troll and other readers following.

7.      Know your facts!  Speaking with verifiable authority gives you the clear upper hand and garners support. 

For better or worse, the age of participatory media is upon us.  As members of a profession under constant media scrutiny, a lot of those “participants” are going to be against you.  Becoming effective participants – and understanding the police role as public educators as well as law enforcers – yourselves will be important for the future of law enforcement.

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About The Authors:

Althea Olson, LCSW has been in private practice in the Chicago suburbs since 1996. She has a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University providing individual, couple, & group therapy to adolescents, adults, and geriatrics. Althea is also trained in Critical Incident Stress Management & is a certified divorce mediator.

Mike Wasilewski, MSW has been with a large suburban Chicago department since 1996. He holds a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University and has served on his department’s Crisis Intervention & Domestic Violence teams. Mike is an adjunct instructor at Northwestern College.

Mike & Althea have been married since 1994 and have been featured columnists for Officer.Com since 2007. Their articles are extremely popular and they now provide the same training and information in person throughout the United States. This dynamic team was recently featured at the at the 2010 & 2011 ILEETA Conference & Exposition.

Out of their success has come the formation of More Than A Cop where the focus is providing consultation and trainings on Survival Skills Beyond The Street.


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