Why Trolls Attack!

For many years, I’ve worked as a tech­ni­cal edi­tor and writer. As a result, I’ve had the priv­i­lege of proof­read­ing the work of some tru­ly bril­liant, high­ly edu­cat­ed peo­ple. I’ve also had to write high­ly tech­ni­cal mate­r­i­al that was then reviewed by experts. The review process is usu­al­ly cor­dial and intel­lec­tu­al­ly stim­u­lat­ing. Edu­cat­ed peo­ple are gen­er­al­ly grate­ful when you fix their typos and their dan­gling par­tici­ples. They tend to be tough but fair when crit­i­ciz­ing your writ­ing. They gen­er­al­ly stick to a ratio­nal dis­cus­sion of facts. So I was unpre­pared for the kind of com­ments I got from the gen­er­al pub­lic after I start­ed blog­ging.

Occa­sion­al­ly, some­one would say some­thing like, “Wow, that’s inter­est­ing.” But most of the com­ments are noth­ing more than poi­son pen let­ters: abu­sive non­sense intend­ed to serve no oth­er pur­pose than to pro­voke an emo­tion­al response. In short, I often get attacked by Inter­net trolls.

In this Web site, I explain sci­en­tif­ic research about human nutri­tion. Reac­tions to my Web site and blog are mixed. Peo­ple who have actu­al­ly stud­ied nutri­tion or dietet­ics in col­lege or grad­u­ate school love my work. How­ev­er, many peo­ple who have no train­ing in nutri­tion or dietet­ics hate my work, sim­ply because I tell them things that they do not want to hear. They want to hear that fat­ty foods are good for them. As a result, they wor­ship the self-appoint­ed nutri­tion gurus who tell them to eat meat and fish instead of pota­toes. They heap scorn on me for point­ing out that peo­ple who eat a diet based on unre­fined starch­es and veg­eta­bles are gen­er­al­ly slim and have a low risk of chron­ic degen­er­a­tive dis­eases. As a result, I get a lot of hos­tile com­ments on my blog, hos­tile tweets on Twit­ter, and even some hos­tile e-mail.

I’m dis­ap­point­ed that nobody seems to post seri­ous com­ments about the sci­en­tif­ic issues I dis­cuss. Instead, the feed­back is filled with non­sense, insults, and wild accu­sa­tions from peo­ple who are obvi­ous­ly une­d­u­cat­ed. Com­menters have told me that I don’t know what I’m talk­ing about, that I don’t care about human health, that I’m in league with some orga­ni­za­tion whose work I actu­al­ly oppose, or even that I hate women (because one of sev­er­al per­sons whose work I crit­i­cized was female). Such com­ments are not only obnox­ious, they are stu­pid. I rou­tine­ly delete stu­pid and obnox­ious com­ments.

The troll metaphor is appro­pri­ate for two rea­sons. First, the trolls of mythol­o­gy were stu­pid, ugly, and poten­tial­ly dan­ger­ous (though per­haps slow-mov­ing). Sec­ond, the trolls of mythol­o­gy could oper­ate only under the cov­er of dark­ness. They turned to stone in the light of day. Like­wise, Inter­net trolls sit alone with their com­put­ers, thrilled by the oppor­tu­ni­ty to annoy peo­ple who would nev­er social­ize with them in per­son.

The first rule of Inter­net eti­quette is “Don’t be a troll.” The sec­ond is “Don’t feed the trolls.” The Inter­net cre­ates an envi­ron­ment where bad behav­ior is often reward­ed but nev­er pun­ished. As any dog train­er can tell you, that’s a recipe for dis­as­ter. Nev­er reward a dog for doing some­thing that you dis­like. Oth­er­wise, you will essen­tial­ly be train­ing the dog to mis­be­have. Sim­i­lar­ly, if you respond to Inter­net trolls in any way oth­er than by delet­ing stu­pid com­ments and block­ing repeat offend­ers, you are reward­ing them with atten­tion for behav­ior that should be dis­cour­aged.

I usu­al­ly delete stu­pid com­ments from my blog, unless the stu­pid com­ment offers a use­ful “teach­able moment.” Like­wise, I gen­er­al­ly ignore abu­sive e-mail, unless I want to get a bet­ter under­stand­ing of troll psy­chol­o­gy. Such cor­re­spon­dence has allowed me to test a the­o­ry about trolls. Some trolls are just jerks. They just want to annoy oth­er peo­ple. How­ev­er, some trolls gen­uine­ly believe that they are par­tic­i­pat­ing in gen­uine intel­lec­tu­al exchange. These sin­cere trolls think that what they are say­ing is true and impor­tant. They think that they are daz­zling you with their bril­liance. If you break off the dis­cus­sion with them, they imag­ine that they have “won.” They gen­uine­ly don’t real­ize that they are mak­ing fools of them­selves.

The sin­cere trolls are suf­fer­ing from a prob­lem called the Dun­ning-Kruger effect. Psy­chol­o­gists David Dun­ning and Justin Kruger found that peo­ple with poor intel­lec­tu­al and social skills typ­i­cal­ly don’t real­ize that their skills are poor. Because of their lack of skill, they can’t notice their own mis­takes. Nor does any­one in their dai­ly life bring those mis­takes to their atten­tion. As a result, peo­ple with poor skills end up think­ing that their skills are above aver­age. In oth­er words, igno­rance and incom­pe­tence beget over­con­fi­dence. For­tu­nate­ly, this prob­lem can be solved through train­ing. As the unskilled people’s skills improve, their over­con­fi­dence melts away.

not-trivial-front-coverThere seems to be a dis­tress­ing­ly large num­ber of sin­cere trolls in the Unit­ed States. I think that the prob­lem stems from fail­ures in our edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem, which I’ve explained in my book Not Triv­ial: How Study­ing the Tra­di­tion­al Lib­er­al Arts Can Set You Free (www.nottrivialbook.com). In the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, pow­er­ful peo­ple with­in our edu­ca­tion­al estab­lish­ment decid­ed to pro­mote a method of read­ing instruc­tion that slows down the rate at which peo­ple learn to read and leaves many peo­ple func­tion­al­ly illit­er­ate. The rate of learn­ing is so slow that many adults “don’t know much about his­to­ry, don’t know much biol­o­gy.” Our edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem also delib­er­ate­ly sup­press­es the for­mal teach­ing of the triv­i­um: gram­mar, log­ic, and rhetoric. Yet those are the dis­ci­plines that you must learn if you want to go on to have real intel­lec­tu­al dia­logues with oth­er peo­ple, about any sub­ject.

The sin­cere trolls have nev­er learned how to parse or rea­son. Thus, they can­not be per­suad­ed by facts. Nor can they rec­og­nize the flaws in their own rea­son­ing, even when those flaws are point­ed out to them. As a result, they will be unwill­ing to learn any­thing until they dis­cov­er that they have a lot to learn. Yet they will not make that dis­cov­ery until after they have already learned a lot. So pity the trolls. Just don’t feed them.

narcissists-cover-01Update: Inter­net trolls are basi­cal­ly nar­cis­sists. I explain the psy­chol­o­gy of nar­cis­sists in my new book Don’t Feed the Nar­cis­sists! The Mythol­o­gy and Sci­ence of Men­tal Health. Nar­cis­sists are peo­ple who are try­ing to occu­py a high­er social rank than oth­er peo­ple think they deserve.

Nar­cis­sists want to be large and in-charge. They want the three p’s of social rank (pow­er, pres­tige, and prop­er­ty). Yet they lack the intel­lec­tu­al and social skills to earn the admi­ra­tion and oth­er good­ies that they so des­per­ate­ly desire. As a result, they end up try­ing to bul­ly oth­er peo­ple into sub­mis­sion. Yet this child­ish behav­ior can back­fire. It can cause them to lose social stand­ing.

The Inter­net gives these peo­ple oppor­tu­ni­ties to engage with peo­ple who would nev­er social­ize with them. It offers them count­less oppor­tu­ni­ties to strug­gle for dom­i­nance. Inter­net trolls are basi­cal­ly play­ground bul­lies, but you do not have to allow them to treat your blog as if it were their play­ground.

5 thoughts on “Why Trolls Attack!”

  1. Enjoyed this post.
    I do enjoy the ideas you present and then I do fur­ther research.

    Thanks so much for your thoughts on Trolls… hope I am nev­er one.

    Ron B

  2. Hi, I just want to say I’ve just dis­cov­ered this blog and it’s fab! It’s tech­ni­cal­ly a nutri­tion blog which has the sense to pro­mote the veg­an diet. I’m cur­rent­ly cre­at­ing a veg­an web­site and if you don’t mind I would cer­tain­ly like to link back to your blog post, (as I know very lit­tle about nutrition)and that way you can edu­cate my read­er­ship as well, this is clear­ly a good source of info!

  3. I also meant to say that you are so right about the trolls, and I am going to have to learn to deal with them in a calm and mature way, — and not feed them as you say. Their com­ments wind me up when I read them else­where, I reck­on it’s gonna feel worse when they’re on my own web­site. Thanks for this post.

  4. Hi Lau­rie

    First of all I would like to paint a pic­ture of my sit­u­a­tion so you can appre­ci­ate my frus­tra­tion.

    I’m a veg­an and a keen fit­ness enthu­si­ast. On the out­side I look like a typ­i­cal fit­ness freak who trains hard and eats well and wears reg­u­lar trendy cloth­ing and hair­styles… but when peo­ple get to know me they’re always sur­prized to find out that I am what you would describe as an artis­tic soul and I enjoy what soci­ety believes to be alter­na­tive meth­ods. (Which in my eyes aren’t exact­ly alter­na­tive) If I had a buck every time some­body asked me how I main­tain mus­cle mass on a veg­an diet I’d be a bil­lion­aire!!
    Cur­rent­ly I’m a Homoeo­path­ic med­i­cine stu­dent in South Africa and I have an undy­ing pas­sion for pre­vent­ing dis­ease and cre­at­ing well­ness. My career and my hob­by go hand in hand. If I’m not in class and I’m not lift­ing weights or run­ning I do research.
    Being involved in the fit­ness indus­try and hav­ing a sis­ter who is a keen fit­ness com­peti­tor, I am bom­bard­ed by what I would call regur­gi­tat­ed hog­wash on a dai­ly basis. The cur­rent sit­u­a­tion of this ‘fit­ness’ indus­try is so alarm­ing to me that I feel like it is my duty to set it right. I think any­body that is active on social net­works and aware of cur­rent media will agree that this fit­ness inspired high pro­tein and ani­mal prod­uct diet is show­ing no signs of slow­ing down. Peo­ple are so brain­washed that you can’t even con­vince them with sci­en­tif­ic facts about phys­i­ol­o­gy I study at var­si­ty that what they are doing is wrong!! (I have this debate with my sis­ter every day… bless her… I love her too bits… BUT.…)
    In my pur­suit of knowl­edge I am find­ing con­tra­dic­to­ry infor­ma­tion every­where.…

    And now I final­ly found a blog that I can read and not feel con­fused about. Thank you!!!

    I think a lot of my frus­tra­tion when doing research is due to the Dun­ning-Kruger effect that you men­tioned. I have late­ly been giv­ing this issue the name of “the sheep effect” where une­d­u­cat­ed peo­ple (like these gym bun­nies) like to just fol­low the mass­es and regur­gi­tate any infor­ma­tion that they have read.

    What I have resort­ed to now is silence.… When I find myself in a sit­u­a­tion where peo­ple are say­ing “baaaah” I bite my tongue because I just know that I am going to waste my ener­gy.


    Late­ly I’ve been feel­ing bad about it…
    The rea­son why I’m study­ing to become a doc­tor is because I want to help peo­ple and how am I help­ing by let­ting them kill them­selves?

    So thank you for giv­ing me new inspi­ra­tion to preach what I prac­tise.
    I love your blog and hope that we can share knowl­edge form this moment forth.


    Christe Kotze

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