ON FEEDING THE TROLLS October 25, 2013

Today’s blog is about blogging.

If you blog on religious topics, you know that there are a couple of issues that are guaranteed to set at least some commenters off into paroxysms of rage. On a site like this, Islam and Mormonism are two prime detonators. I’m open to very wide ranging discussions on anything I write. But what do you do about comments that are so far beyond the pale that you can only see them on a clear day?

In the past few months, I have had several such waves of responses. I wrote some posts that referred to the Qur’an in what I hope were sober and scholarly terms, only to evoke responses that sounded as if I was praising the 9/11 attacks. And here’s the point. What do you do with comments that are utterly over the edge?

A specific case in point. I recently dealt with a comment that condemned me for referring to Islam as a “religion” (The horror! The horror!) rather than a fanatical cult of Satanic violence dedicated to global conquest. Do understand, the reference was not to some particular parts of Islam, or to some adherents, but the whole religion and all its supposedly mindless followers. Even worse, for this commenter, Islam was at its heart a cult devoted to ritual human sacrifice. Why did I feel the need to defend such an evil faith? Was I a dupe, or an active conspirator? Pick one.

So what do you do with something like this? How do you argue with dingbat assertions? (“Well, Dwayne, firstly, I can’t agree that there is any evidence that Muslims commit human sacrifice…” or similarly, “Um, I really don’t know of evidence that Mormons keep virgins imprisoned beneath their temples.”) Detailing objections to these rants takes a vast deal of time, and it is futile because it just provokes more and worse. Unless your available time is unlimited, at some point you have to give up, leaving the commenter with the last triumphant word.

So do you leave the comment in place and unanswered? Or what else can you do?

Put another way, what would you do if a commenter started claiming that Jews committed the ritual murder of children, or presented some of the classic hideous stereotypes of African-Americans?  You certainly can’t argue against these despicable positions point by point. So do you just leave the comments out there?

My own position is that, at some point, some comments go beyond the realm of controversy and become outright hate speech. At that point, I will simply delete them, and mark the commenter so that s/he can no longer post on the site. Call it censorship if you wish.

When I have done this in past years, commenters have protested that my actions are “cowardly”: this from people who never give their real names in posts, and hide behind the mask of anonymity. No, I am not going to debate people who believe that the Jews caused 9/11, or that Muslims are a human sacrifice cult. Nor am I going to leave their nonsense in place on any website with which I am associated.

I actually have quite a bit of experience studying internet subcultures, and spent a fair amount of time in the 1990s exploring the wilds of internet discussion boards. Even then, one of the persistent nightmares of the Internet was the troll, the commenter who repeatedly makes absurd and outrageous statements in order to disrupt an ongoing conversation. Usually, their goal is to invite and inspire angry ripostes, to generate furious exchanges. The more you respond, the more extreme and often obscene the conversation becomes. Arguably, such exchanges contribute to the malice and even instability of the rogue posters. Such behavior is only made possible because trolls operate anonymously, usually deploying multiple pseudonyms and web accounts. They would never have the nerve to publish such garbage under their own identifiable names.

The only possible and acceptable response to such provocations is simple: “Please Do Not Feed the Trolls.” Do not answer them, do not engage with them, and if their comments pass beyond the bounds of sanity, do not permit those remarks to remain in place. And those are the principles by which I propose to operate. Civility has to mean something.

One other question: just why, apart from force of habit, do we allow pseudonymous comments about blog posts? If we were setting up the system afresh today, we certainly would not initiate such a practice. Anonymous/pseudonymous postings may well be necessary in repressive societies like Iran. But in the West? Why? Many newspaper sites have already made the decision to end anonymous comments and posts.

I’d particularly be interested in hearing from my fellow bloggers about this proposition.

By the way, do feel free to comment on this post, but you must include your full real name in the body of your comment. I am done dealing with anonymity.

In my opinion, so should all Patheos sites.


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