The last month has seen more activity in the Middle East, complete with senseless murders and vast rioting. Yet again, this has spurred a great deal of head-scratching as to how in the world a feeble insult in the form of a minute-long YouTube video could inspire such a response. The usual explanations are everywhere: large groups of unemployed and alienated young men, hyper-conservatism fostered through theocratic rule and aggressive media filtering, or America’s incomprehensibly bad relationship with the entire region – there’s so much to choose from. However, whatever the situation over there predisposes people to feel or do, the fact remains that hundreds of thousands of people were rioting about a YouTube video. I propose to you that it’s because they aren’t getting trolled frequently enough.
Trolls are a vaccine for the social immune system.
Trolls provide an everyday lesson in human interaction, demonstrating a number of important truths of communication:
- People don’t change their minds about important things very often, or very quickly
- People often believe strange things for odd reasons, or sometimes no reason at all
- Almost everyone thinks people that disagree with them are idiots
The troll has no investment in or reason to defend her given stance – it’s entirely arbitrary. Without some kind of value judgment or formula of reasoning, there is no consideration of evidence and no use of logical reasoning – constructive discussion is just impossible. Arguing with a troll is, therefore, always a waste of time. The only sustainable long-term strategy is not to react, eliminating the incentive to troll by cutting the amount of attention she receives.
As it turns out, this is also the optimal strategy for dealing with the hyper-zealous. It’s hard to avoid taking the bait on topics we hold near and dear, but most often that’s the best outcome for everyone involved – especially if there is no established precedent of courtesy and respect. The only time people are looking for answers is when they’re asking questions. If they aren’t curious, they aren’t receptive to new ideas. Extreme beliefs are rooted in identity and social networks. They’re a core part of an individual’s narratives and assumptions about the world, all of which reinforce one another. Transforming worldviews is not something evidence and reason are very good at doing, particularly in the short term. The end result here is the same: there is little purpose in argument, particularly if it’s emotionally charged. Without trolls, however, that’s not a conclusion most people will reach on their own.
Embarrassment is an extremely effective teaching tool. In public situations, what most people fear above all else is to be shamed, especially in front of their peers. An effective troll does exactly that, sending people into vitriolic conniptions over utterly meaningless material, making themselves look inane in the process. When the troll is revealed as being a troll, it becomes clear in a single instant that the victims have fallen for a ruse. Not only did they just waste hours – sometimes days – of their time arguing fervently for absolutely no purpose, they’ve made themselves look like idiots in the process. Anyone that’s fallen for trolls can attest – it’s not a lesson quickly forgotten, and that memory comes quickly to mind when knee-jerk responses begin to tempt. Trolls build up our immunity to the craziest ideas and most ridiculous statements. They provide a reason to stop and ask that most crucial question: Is it worth it?