Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Please feed the trolls

Recently Skepchick helpfully posted a transcript of the SkepchickCon 2013's "Fight the Trolls" panel.

The panel in title and members differs little from SkepchickCon 2012's "Don't Feed The Trolls" talk.

This fact and the central point of Skepchick's criticism of the "Don't Feed The Trolls" mantra is reiterated almost immediately in this year's panel:

RW: I’ll start just by pointing out last year we had a panel similar to this called “Don’t Feed the Trolls,” and it was sort of an ironic title that I chose because people tell me that all the time whenever I respond to somebody who’s trying to bully me. Inevitably I’ll have someone watching on the sidelines say, “Don’t feed the trolls,” meaning that by giving the trolls attention, they’re only going to be worse. And that’s absolutely wrong.
I do think that there are some people who could fall into that category, people who just want any kind of attention, and when they get it, that makes them worse. I do think that person exists. But by and large the people who bully me online, bully other women online, I don’t think they necessarily want attention. I think what they want is silence. They want you to shut up and go away and stop talking about women’s rights. 
RW: I want to briefly highlight the point you just made about how real-life bullying is often done out of sight. So is cyber-bullying. It’s only made public because we are “feeding the trolls.” If it were up to the trolls, it would by and large be a private experience and that’s what it was for me and for many other women for a very long time before you snap, and you start publishing the e-mails you get, re-tweeting the tweets you get. Your followers don’t see the trolls sending you tweets unless you’re pointing them out. And that’s what it means when you tell someone “Don’t feed the trolls.” It means, “I want you to suffer in silence so I don’t have to see the bullying that is happening.”

Skepchick has for quite some time hosted a page explaining their perspective on "Don't Feed The Trolls":

What you think ["don't feed the trolls"] means: Just don’t reply to people or publicize their insults and they’ll go away! All they want is attention.
What it actually means: Suffer in silence. Read those emails about what a fucking cunt you are and then quietly delete them. Go lay in bed and cry until you don’t necessarily feel better but can at least pretend like you feel better so that we can all continue our lives blissfully ignorant of anything bad ever happening. The abuse will continue to come, because they don’t want attention – they are bullies. They want power over you. They want your silence, and they got it.

It is plain to see that this is critique of "Don't Feed The Trolls" is quite baked into Skepchick culture. 

By itself, this doesn't mean a great deal. Skepchick merely disagrees with the often-cited rule that engaging with critics is nearly always bad.

This similar in some sense to stating that there are exceptions to Rule 34 and it may not be in fact a fundamental law of the universe.

However two factors here are interesting:
  1. The idea that "Don't Feed The Trolls" (DFTT) is bad advice is spreading
  2. The behavior of those engaging in this advocacy is suspect
To illustrate these two items, we'll continue to a recent vocal critic of DFTT is one Caroline Criado-Perez.

Caroline Criado-Perez is a 'feminist' advocate that is most famous (even Wikipedia famous now) for a recent ruckus over the presence of women (or lack thereof) on banknotes in the United Kingdom.

Criado-Perez had to deal with several "trolls" in her campaign to change the banknotes, the majority of comments coming from Twitter users.

Of course, use of the word "trolls" to describe the people interacting with Criado-Perez is quite inadequate as the messages ranged from mildly displeased incredulity to definitely illegal bomb threats.

Criado-Perez has since deactivated her Twitter account and gave a speech in which this was said:

If there’s one thing I want to come out of what happened to me, it’s for the phrase “don’t feed the trolls” to be scrubbed from the annals of received wisdom. Not feeding the trolls doesn’t magically scrub out the image in your head of being told you’ll be gang-raped till you die. What are victims meant to do with that image, the rage and the horror that it conjures up? We’re meant to internalise it until it consumes us? Well I’m sorry, but I’m not having that.

To anyone with a few neurons firing, it is quite plain that "don't feed the trolls" is advice altogether different from "don't phone in that bomb/rape/murder threat to the police".

Naturally, Criado-Perez did contact the police several times. Unfortunately police departments have difficultly keeping up with Twitter, as there are technical as well as jurisdiction issues. The legal issues in play here do not need enumerating - all that we need to continue is the realization that no rational actor is honestly advocating that one should ignore bomb threats.

To get a better picture of how Criado-Perez did "feed the trolls" in the usual sense, consider the following exchanges between Criado-Perez and those that would dare @mention her alias on Twitter.

A "Nicky Clarke" attempts to give Criado-Perez some advice about corralling her fans:

Presumably some overzealous fans were busy shouting down those that would suggest Caroline Criado Perez not "feed the trolls".

Nicky Clark continues:

How did Caroline Criado-Perez respond?

She tweeted the following -

First tweet from Caroline Criado-Perez:

Second tweet from Caroline Criado-Perez:

Here Criado-Perez has plainly assumed that Nicky Clark did something worthy of legal action. Criado-Perez threatened lodging harassment charges against Clark if Clark dared continue an exchange that Clark had already left.

Coupled with these statements was a signal to all the followers of Criado-Perez that Nicky Clark was by Criado-Perez's measure a harasser.

Here are some of Criado-Perez's other greatest hits:

Caroline Criado-Perez is not merely "feeding a troll". 

Caroline Criado-Perez IS a troll.

Worse, Criado-Perez seems to be frighteningly unbalanced in a very transparent manner.

There should be no objections in stating that dropping f-bombs on everyone that voices minor criticisms of your behavior is not good public relations.

Supporters of Criado-Perez might say that what Criado-Perez needs is solidarity, understanding, and friendship. It is however precisely the intent of those offering 'solutions' that Criado-Perez no longer has to deal with what she faced previously.

For this constructive criticism, these helpful souls received profanity laced tweets and threats of legal action.

Let's traverse back to Skepchick's formula for troll-feeding success and find some general rules.

Within the Skepchick video, one thing that surfaces is the need to feed the "trolls" but to not put them on "equal footing". One must clearly communicate to the audience the troll will be presented to that one does not view the troll's opinions as having any merit whatsoever. That is to first communicate that the troll exists and is horrible, but not necessarily engage ideas.

In practice, this roughly translates into being as dismissive as possible. Skepchicks take time to share their favorite ways to provoke a troll and publicize the troll's message in humorous ways.

The problem is this only really pans out for the most absurd of messages.

In fact, it is quite telling the sort of "trolls" these "feminists" choose to "feed".

Bait that "social justice warriors" like

Wondering how to get a reaction out of "feminists"?

The majority of messages that receive responses are of the following types:

  • Insults based on appearance
  • Insults based on intelligence
  • Suggestions that the recipient deserves physical abuse
  • Threats of rape
  • Threats of murder
  • Slurs that are said to be sexist/gendered (e.g. the c-word)
  • Criticism of tactics (i.e. suggestions of "seek to educate" or "don't feed the trolls")
There is a very short list of things that 'feminists' online will choose to respond to. Of course, there are those that get so much feedback that responding to everything is nearly impossible.

Yet there remains a pattern of responses such that we can easily tell what is going to provoke a response. We can create a set of rules that determines how they prioritize the messages they receive. 

First, 'feminists' would deal with threats any sane person would. Police. This step is ultimately rational.

Of the remaining messages, 'feminists' will respond to the most anti-social, hateful and psychotic tweets (that are not threats) with an amazing reaction time. This is nearly guaranteed. The message will either be re-published in some form or indexed for later retrieval. It will inevitably make an appearance the next time 'social justice' activists wish to cast their opponents as psychopaths.

Then we comb through messages that insult a female's looks or intelligence. These messages are often matched with snarky comments about male sexual performance and desirability.

The fourth step of the response algorithm will hunt for opportunities to spread dirt, ignite long held grudges, enlist the support of Twitter in some fake scandal or manufacture controversy involving celebrities.

Soon after this comes the call-outs of the till-now supposed allies of the beleaguered activist. This is where anybody remotely suggesting that things are not uniquely horrible for Team Twitter feminism is outed as a hater. Donglegate is one instance in time where this happened several times - discussing the behavior of Adria Richards served as a casual litmus test for just who qualified as "true believers" in the ill-defined pseudo-progressive wasteland that is embodied by Atheism Plus

The troll-feeding frenzy typically ends here. It is curious as to why exactly, but we can present some examples of items that aren't so appetizing for the self-identified feeders of trolls.

Posts that Twitter feminism ignores

Criticisms of their friends (or fans)
With few exceptions, the Atheism Plus types will ignore criticisms that skips them as subjects in favor of their friends.

For example, when a fellow 'feminist' loses it on Twitter and later chooses to sit in a protected account cocoon for an indefinite period of time, it's quite certain that no riveting defense of their character will be written by one of their "social justice" pals. 

In the social justice wing of Twitter, there have been at least four separate instances of people rage deactivating their accounts in the past year. 

Most of the time, blog-everything troll-fighter faction know precisely who they are. Moreover, they often speak of this sort of event being precisely what is wrong with either:
  1. The internet
  2. Some subset of the internet (Twitter, Reddit)
  3. Their activist movement of choice (atheism, skepticism, etc - provided it has already been branded as significantly male)
  4. Video gaming
It qualifies as the "bullying" that many say should be eradicated. Given this it's difficult to imagine why more people aren't documenting the treatment of people similar to Caroline Criado-Perez.

One may say that there is simply too many examples to be able to step back and speak to each incident.

However Occam's razor may lead us to conclude that many would rather spend time speaking about an issue than trying to address incidents more directly.

Also it might be that many of these so-called activists realize that their comrades are hardly figures evoking sympathy - in fact, much of the movement of only has lukewarm feelings about the contributions of many of its supporters. Someone out there might want to be in Criado-Perez's corner, but find her affection towards sending angry tweets a difficult pill to swallow.

Further, it is often that these social justice bloggers actually enjoy watching people being fed to the wolves online.

A recent example comes from Chris Clarke's departure from Pharyngula:

OK, so it’s no secret that I’ve left Pharyngula. Not because of any falling out with PZ, whom I still adore, but because of the tenor of the commentariat. There are a number of regulars there who are fine people, and a number who are deliberate jerks in situations that do not call for deliberate jerkery, and a Venn diagram of those two sets would overlap considerably.
[In their writings, the commentariat was] remarkably dismissive, casting me as PZ’s “assistant” and belittling my work except where it took part in the petty shitfights the commentariat find important.

Of course the other author of Pharyngula, PZ Myers, largely did not care. There was a half-hearted attempt to change commenting policy - the laughable effort to solve the problem of the commentariat was outsourced to the commentariat in an open thread of ideas. 

This was to be expected, as PZ actually loves his crowd of assholes. Criticizing the commentariat on Pharyngula is a complete non-starter. If Clarke made it a simple choice between his involvement and removing comment forms, Clarke would be asked to leave.

Similarly, when Skepchicks respond to a "troll" on Twitter or even go as far as naming names of people existing in the same building as they are within, they rely on the internet hate machine eviscerating their opponents.

This mode of operation makes sense under the assumption that notions of "solidarity" do not truly exist in the land of vocal bloggers and tweeters.

Nobody truly cares if Chris never writes another blog post or Caroline never writes another tweet.

At the end of the day, what is paying the bills (or at least driving one's ego) is the horde of gushing fans.

The horde is not interested in hearing about how Caroline's story is complicated and maybe they should have been kinder to Chris.

The horde just wants the next hate-read.

Criticisms longer than 140 characters
There is some correlation between criticism that lives past a few paragraphs and criticism is not composed entirely of insults.

This correlation might mean that one simply does not find cause to respond to a criticism that does not seem as adversarial as others.

That is to say that the critic that is dropping f-bombs in your Twitter mentions is more likely to find your wrath more frequently than the critic writing verbose dissections of minutia.

It is understandable that many "busy" activists would choose the "too long, didn't read" route and engage with those that do not need as much investment of time.

But let's go over what happens to the lengthy criticisms.

If one harassing evildoer chose to write a lengthy critical comment on the online property of those with a conscience, chances are it simply result in a ban. It won't be indexed for all eternity as evidence of hate. It will simply be deleted.

Obviously the next course of action is to post content to a blog or forum not directly under the control of the subject of the criticism.

What happens next is two things:

The wall of words is merely just more "harassment" from "the haters" who are in some way all responsible for one another. Whatever snippets make the rounds through the social justice land only serve to remind the players that they are the beleaguered saviors of the voiceless.

To appreciate the attention span problem this movement has, consider that they also have a brevity issue with things they agree with. For the most popular pastime of Twitter activists is taking photos of people holding a half dozen word statements scrawled on a whiteboard.

Records of their own statements
Perhaps the most famous villain in this saga remains a character using the alias ElevatorGATE.

The crime ElevatorGATE was most often cited for was described as "harassing" and "stalking". This comes from ElevatorGATE's frequent use of a tool called Storify to document their interactions on Twitter.

One can read about how everyone reacted to Storify in an earlier post.

All we need to establish here is that these people are not at all ready to discuss what they may have said on Twitter.

Of course, when a rich old white guy says something on Twitter, they circle like vultures hoping to "call him out" in their perverse "call out culture".

Meanwhile, if ElevatorGATE happens to use Storify to document their hypocrisy and ridiculousness, they would rather to never feel obligated to respond to their own statements. It would be much easier of Twitter/Storify and related services simply expelled the "harasser" that had the nerve to mirror what they said.

Feeding trolls and breeding trolls

This is not a complete list of critiques that die on the vine waiting to be fed by the empowered equality ensemble.

Perhaps the problem viewed concisely would be the realization that many "activists" really don't act truly insulted until one drops a few magic words on them.

This presents a very specific set of choices for those that feel the need to spread their displeasure to the person they see as the cause of their foul mood.

Perhaps some concepts from evolution can be borrowed to help understand what is happening here.

Let's say you have a population of a few thousand critics.

Why do critics exist? Maybe one is voicing controversial opinions and making provocative statements online. Just a guess.

It might sound like victim blaming, if it wasn't already so obvious that politics is a voluntary bloodsport.

Welcome to activism. One doesn't "just have an opinion" online. If Twitter "feminism" truly believed that opinions are "just" opinions, they wouldn't be so exasperated about perspectives (and people) they abhor.

Back to our population of critics. How does one deal with them? They have different messages and motivations. The choice of extreme responses would be to ignore them all or to "feed" them all.

The response from "social justice" Twitter advocates has been a selective feeding program. But it's more of a selective breeding campaign, created from a morphing of goals based on the environment so-called "trolls" are placed in.

For the motivations of "trolls" could broadly be a mix of two factors: the desire to point out your errors, and the desire to make you feel bad about them.

The audience and end goals could be very different - one may want to make your ideas look ridiculous, while another simply wants you to jump off a bridge.

The question becomes whether or not choosing to address only the most deranged of one's critics leads to an expansion of their numbers.

Of course, it's done on purpose - it casts a sympathetic light on the "activist" that is allegedly being bullied. The other activists share this in a "see how bad it is for us" manner and the subject of the trolling acquires a higher profile.

In this sympathy fest, the message sent to the critics as a whole is that this group is deeply unserious about addressing perceived problems as it is only interrupted by truly antisocial behavior.

One has "fed" a troll only to potentially create another, if others in the audience choose to exchange a mildly judgmental comments for an expedient rage-tweet and 15 minutes of troll fame.

Thankfully there appear to be other choices available.

The first change would be relatively simple. People like Caroline Criado-Perez would engage people as they would normally, except in the future simply avoiding being the first person in any given exchange to drop profanity or insults on people.

Then perhaps there is a more balanced approach to criticism generally. Simple admissions of imperfect judgments of people would perhaps be better than applying labels of "misogynist" and "racist" liberally.

Finally publicizing participation in friendly disagreements may save discussion from the gutter.

What could be the slogan for this effort to engage with a more diverse set of opponents?

Please feed the trolls... equitably.


  1. My understanding of the discourse:

    Hateful Slurs:

    Skepchick: Fuck you, you neckbeard virgin douchebag/chill girl man-pleaser.

    Troll: Well fuck you, you ugly cunt.

    Skepchick: This goes on my page of hate to show how persecuted I am.

    Tone policing

    Skepchick: Fuck you, you neckbeard virgin douchebag/chill girl man-pleaser.

    Troll: Could you avoid personally insulting so we can focus on arguments?

    Skepchick: This is tone policing. You're oppressing me by denying my expression of righteous anger.


    Skepchick: Fuck you, you neckbeard virgin douchebag/chill girl man-pleaser.

    Troll: (I'll just try to ignore the insults and focus on the arguments) Overall, I agree with you on point x and z, but on point y, I think you are in error for reason a...

    Skepchick: Look at this mansplaining douche. He clearly thinks that his dudebro insights are so earth-shatteringly insightful that my ladybrain would be instantly swept away by his manlogic.

    Does this cover all possible ways of interacting with Skepchick types? I'm curious about what other approaches can be taken.

  2. Got a good laugh there Julian, but I have more savory things to do with my time than engage SJW types. Like clean up dogshit at my local park.

  3. Another great article. This could have been written a few years ago. RW's videos, tweets, and blog posts are where the real trolling is initiated. Say something inflammatory and just display the angry responses claiming they came out of nowhere. State for the record that all you're "guilty" of is being an outspoken female online. What triggered the primary example of "rape" and "death" threats about Rebecca's dismissive attitude on male infant circumcision while railing against the horrors of FGM? Only a brutal dismissive lack of empathy with a few insults as to how he can't excuse his poor sexual performance on his circumcision thrown in for good measure would provoke such a response. Instead it was flaunted about stripped of all the context that, no doubt, demonstrate how she purposely pushed every one of this guy's buttons.
    They also utilize the poor short term memory of their fanbois. Harriet Hall's t-shirt made perfectly logical sense as a response to RW scathing blog post about why she was boycotting TAM for failing to bow down to her specific demands. Throughout the whole post, she dragged TAM and the JREF through the mud. She wrapped up with her vow to never support the event again. That Skepchick will cease to participate in any official capacity at TAM and that there were other events much more deserving of the Skepchick seal of approval.
    Skepchick had already, in fact, pulled out of TAM. Therefore, how could a t-shirt expressing solidarity with the JREF possibly "offend" Skepchicks who were not supposedly going to be present? However, Amy's tearful early departure was astonishingly publicized, as if Rebecca's inflammatory statements had never been uttered.
    To sum up, it is clear that the troll baiters are in no way victims of abuse. They are voluntary perpetrators and deliberate manipulators.
    A classic example that you pointed out in an earlier post, was Amanda Marcotte's tweet mentioning child mortality in response to the royal baby's arrival. Somebody who absolutely glorifies abortion as the ultimate act of female empowerment, also lacks the basic human decency for compassion when a much-desired and beloved child enters the world. For the record, I recognize that the legal option to terminate an unwanted pregnancy is necessary in our imperfect world. But you have to be a depraved narcissist to celebrate the destruction of a defenseless and innocent portion of humanity. Oh wait! Just say a fetus isn't actually a human. Othering isn't just for those who have a voice that must be silenced.
    It seems like your decision not to reveal your gender has been wise because it's disarmed the SJW's from categorizing you as an MRA/misogynist or a gender-traitor/chill girl/sister punish-er. It also protects you from being doxxed into silence like Franc Hoggle, Intergralmath(Justicar), Skeptickle, and AmbrosiaXX.
    On the bright side, I don't think they've been able to identify Elevatorgate. I'm very impressed that Storify is standing by the principles it was built upon.
    BTW, have you seen the YouTube video on the Colonel Absconder channel? It's an absolutely hilarious response to PZ Myers and the Baboon commenters' epic failure to recognize an April Fool's joke. If you hate PZ Myers and have a twisted, juvenile sense of humor (I admit it), it's comedy gold!