Last week, as Hillary Clinton stood at the brink of suspending her candidacy, I changed my Facebook status to “Gene Koo respects and admires Hillary.” I meant this in all sincerity: I proudly supported Clinton’s Senate campaigns, and I marvel at what she accomplished in her historic run for President. But in less than an hour one of my friends had changed her status to, “… does not appreciate Gene’s sarcasm.” Knowing that I had campaigned for Barack Obama, she read my sentiments with skepticism.
I understood her distrust. I also worried about it, so when an anti-Hillary message showed up on an Obama mailing list, I shared my Facebook story and pleaded for civility. Soon enough the author of that email sent me a nasty message, questioning my judgment and obliquely threatening my family. A few discreet inquiries later I learned this fellow had been doing the same to other members of the list.
My email adversary was revealed as an “Internet troll” – someone who gets his kicks from goading others into emotional responses. Like their counterparts in folklore, Internet trolls live under bridges across the gulfs that divide us and exploit those divisions for their own perverse pleasure.
Trolls, of course, pervade all media. Clinton’s “iron my shirt” hecklers in New Hampshire were contemptible pranksters affiliated with a Boston radio show. But as the durability of that condemnable prank demonstrates, trolls had a big effect on this year’s political discourse.
One reason for this is that the compelling nature of this primary drew many people online not just to donate money, but to engage fellow citizens in conversation. Some were new to the rough-and-tumble of online discussions. I remember how one email list member who kept forwarding rumors became distraught and finally dropped out when others admonished her about listserv etiquette. I felt terrible that this person – clearly new to email lists – fell victim to a culture gap. That same gap can lead other relative newcomers to become easy marks for trolls. Those of us who’d engaged in meaningless online debates about TV shows or hobbies have developed some resistance to their antisocial behavior. They still anger us, but we’ve learned to discount their “flamebait” as background noise inherent to the medium.
Mainstream media also played a role in feeding the trolls. News shows regularly read from blogs when their pundits need to catch a breath of hot air. Despite polling data that, until recently, showed relative harmony between Clinton and Obama supporters, reporters kept hawking the acrimony storyline until it came true. Meanwhile, media stalwarts like the New York Times were busy trying to out-blog the blogosphere, creating poorly designed discussion spaces where trolls and newbies swam in a toxic mix, surely contributing to both reporters’ and readers’ sense that the Obamaniacs and Clintonistas were all rabid wingnuts.
So I’m not surprised that my friend saw me as a troll on Facebook. That’s what’s so pernicious about trolls: they are scammers who steal not money but our civility, and like other scammers, they erode our trust in each other. We might be tempted to run at them like the Billy Goats Gruff and knock them out with righteous fury. But unlike the fairy tale, Internet trolls are only emboldened by indignation.
The heated primary that just ended presages a general election that will be contentious enough without the meddling of trolls. So let’s remove the habitats that spawn them. Websites can redesign online discussions to dampen bad behavior, just as good email programs filter spam. Journalists can deny trolls the public attention they crave. And we, as individuals, can stay cool the next time some outrageous pundit, blogger, or email correspondent tries to get our goat. We might even work to heal the divisions that necessitate the bridges where they dwell in the first place. Personally, I’m looking forward to having lunch with my friend next time I’m in town. There’s no better cure for political distrust than a good dose of empathy, humility, and good cheer.