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Trolls; on choosing to not throw fuel on the fire

This post is about how I have chosen to deal with venues and outlets where my online activity had become a conduit of misinformation, criticism, and conspiracy by a collection of commenters who wanted nothing more than to hijack my audience negatively.

There is a dark side, for me, regarding the relative anonymity of the Internet. At best, it can be a place where people can explore in secrecy and safety, of not revealing one’s identity. At least not knowingly as we know that companies, especially search, media, and retail, are harvesting virtually every possible bit of metadata possible from us at all times, with increasing efficiency.

So what is an internet troll anyway? Wikipedia defines an internet troll as follows:

“In Internet slang, a troll is a person who starts quarrels or upsets people on the Internet to distract and sow discord by posting inflammatory and digressive, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the intent of provoking readers into displaying emotional responses and normalizing tangential discussion, whether for the troll’s amusement or a specific gain.”

Wikipedia

This definition reminds me of one of the first notable moments where, at work, a few years back, some of the guys were reading aloud from a neighborhood Reddit thread where I believe the topic was some discussion point about a local improvement initiative. Further down in the conversation, there was a response to another user which read, “You sound fat.” The room erupted in laughter; I was working with a bunch of guys who were developers. All of us white. All of them younger than myself. To this day, however, I remember that as a low point and an indicator of the state of online discourse in today’s world.

Other situations include one in which an old clubbing acquaintance of mine, from the 1990s, mind you, who had found, and “friended,” me on FaceBook. A while later, he accused me of being a fat shamer for having referred to a person’s hands as “chubby.” I tried to clarify what the intent of my post was but to no avail. This guy evidently wanted to voice his stance and ended his long series of responses with his desire to “make me a better person.” Now I assure the readers of this post, I am in no way a fat shamer. I encourage people to be who they are without judgment. In all ways.

There was yet another instance where I was accused of being anti-gay on still another one of my FaceBook threads extolling my fondness for Chick-Fil-A sandwiches. I lived in Texas for the better part of a decade and one of my colleagues and I, on rough days, would go there and treat ourselves to something we both enjoyed. I had recently relocated to Ohio at the time, however. I was feeling nostalgic. So another one of my “friends” decided to also school me on what a bad person I was for supporting a religious organization, in the form of a restaurant that donates to these groups that fight against my people. I think I said something like chicken sandwiches are chicken sandwiches, nothing more. But what unfortunately lit the fire was my stance that if you are only going to gay pride parade parties and boycotting Chick-Fil-A, then are you fighting for gay rights at all? That, of course, did not go over well at all.

Photo by Philipp Pilz on Unsplash

After a while, I decided to leave FaceBook, Instagram, and Twitter. Now I don’t mean the deactivate your account leave. I mean to delete your profile and all of your data leave. Exit stage left. It’s been nearly three years now since I have not had an opportunity to check my profile page, leave or check status messages, sign up for a FaceBook event, or post a picture to Instagram. The funny thing is that life became a whole lot better without all the static that is both self-generated and left behind by trolls. People like one of my best friends from High School, who turned conspiracy theorist, started to attack every single thing I would post that was remotely political or otherwise any form of current event-related observation. In his eyes, everything was a lie. You know, the “fake news” argument. Even when these factually backed statements came with hard evidence. Nope, the earth is flat. Or the racist posts, from one of my family members, who claim not to be racist, all while attacking her African American managers with the foulest of language and cruelest of intent that only white fragility, and outright hate, can produce.

Yeah, I don’t miss those social media venues whatsoever. Yet, if you choose to stay in those circles, there are articles like “10 tips to deal with trolls” on Forbes, among other places that you may find helpful. The funny thing is, I used most of those techniques to no avail. The attacks didn’t bother me. It’s just some lonely person ranting at people in a digital forum after all. What I found that I could not live with was that my ideas were being hijacked — restructured, laced with negativity and malice inside the scope of whoever was following me at the time. That’s where I drew the line and decided that I was not going to participate in a technology that promotes this kind of uncivil dialogue.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

What shocked me recently, however, was that, within the scope of an online support network for people with heart disease, which I have been a member of for about four years now, the same activity started to happen within the past six or so months. All of us tried to be supportive as it’s a place for healing. Yet, month after month, the trolling got worse. When the fellow lobbed yet another bomb my way, and others in one of my own conversations, he stated that I was there for my “fan club.” That’s the moment where I remembered why I left social media in the first place. The reason why I could no longer participate in this particular support platform any longer. I could not live with myself if my content were a conduit for attacks on other people, myself, spreading misinformation and anger.

Perhaps technology and our social behaviors will evolve. I hope they do. But until then, I believe that belonging to a platform and participating online is a balancing act. The challenge, unfortunately for some, is to treat people like you would want to be treated. Do unto others right? That usually means with respect and a small measure of empathy. Those are my hopes anyway.

To conclude with some personal observations, in an era of “influencers” and a near-constant state of seeking “likes” or “upvotes,” sometimes it is the simple paradigm of realizing that the only people we can impact are the ones within our own homes, our neighbors and connected community members after all. No one I know personally would ever speak to me the way that these folks did in all of the digital scenarios I have outlined. I also know in my heart that not one of those developers reading Reddit back on that day, years ago, would ever laugh at someone being called fat to their face. I would like to think that they would stand up and defend the person instead. There’s an argument for sexism here as well. The language we are socialized with that we reserve for when women are not present. Or at least that is one of my takeaways from a Microsoft Ignite conference I attended on diversity n tech. One of the main things men can do is to stop using those codas and start talking about and with women in a more equal tone with less prejudice and objectification.

It very much comes down to us. Understanding that we are interacting with real people. As such, we have a responsibility to treat others, no matter what the opinion or difference is, with respect and dignity. The sooner we do that while using these now not so new digital tools, the better off everyone will be. Perhaps that would even solve some of the rifts within the USA on a larger level. But it all starts on a personal level. We are the ones who create a more civil society in the end.

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