Rebirth of Reason

War for Men's Minds

Please Don't Feed The Trolls
by Adam Reed

1. Three times is enemy action.

In the beginning there were Usenet News bulletin boards. Next came mailing lists. The first were great, then the time to wade through the garbage that pervaded open newsgroups became greater than their value, and the value declined as the most useful participants realized this and left. Today, newgroups are as good as dead. It has been six years since I last found any benefit in an open Usenet bulletin board.

Some useful mailing lists survive, thanks to strict moderation or very selective membership. Most of the once-great mailing lists are defunct. When the We The Living mailing lists folded, most of their best contributors came here, to SOLO. So did the trolls who first destroyed Usenet and then destroyed the mailing lists. Open or practically open websites, including SOLO, are next.

I find SOLO useful enough to post on, primarily because minds in active intellectual engagement with what they read are still the most productive way—at least for me—to identify errors and flaws in my own ideas and arguments. In the words of Eric Raymond, "With enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow." I do not expect agreement, but I expect the discussion on SOLO to be responsive, rather than dismissive, to Randian ideas being discussed. Otherwise the rising waste of my time in wading through garbage will make it increasingly unlikely that I will find that occasional insight that changes my mind—which is another way of saying, something to learn from. And then I, and others who are here to learn with passionate engagement, will be gone. I am writing this article in the hope that it is not too late to stop the trolls.

In Scandinavian folk tales, a troll is a scary thing that lives under a bridge, and dedicates its life to preventing the bridge from being used for the purpose for which it was built. In internet fora, a "troll" is a participant whose participation is counterproductive to the purpose of the forum she intrudes on. Trolls may be classified, first, by motivation: the psychopathological troll and the missionary troll.

2. The Psychopathological Troll

The psychopathological troll is motivated to participate in an internet forum by psychotic delusions or compulsions, or by a neurotic seeking of false self-esteem. The postings of a psychotic troll are unlikely to make any recognizable sense at all. On SOLO, the moderation of first posters effectively eliminates truly psychotic trolls. The neurotic troll either seeks to obtain false self-esteem by manipulating the reactions of others, or by demonstrating his "power" to destroy what others enjoy. The neurotic troll is often manipulative enough to make it past the initial moderation. However, on a Randian site such as SOLO, the neurotic troll's primacy of consciousness soon becomes evident: rather than respond substantively to the actual claims and arguments in the articles and posts he attacks, the neurotic troll twists and spins whatever he responds to, into whatever he has "the perfect answer" to. Then the original poster points out the manipulation and the neurotic troll is exposed. After two or three incidents of this type the neurotic troll usually gives up.

3. The Missionary Troll

The missionary troll is motivated to participate in an internet forum by a desire to win others to his favorite belief system, or at least to convince others that his belief system is worthy of consideration and respect. Thus, missionary troll's primary focus is on how his participation in the forum affects the consciousness of others—while in contrast the truly selfish participant's primary focus is to improve the correspondence to reality of his own knowledge. If an error of fact or logic is pointed out to a rational man, he will change his mind. If an error of fact or logic is pointed out to a missionary troll, the troll will either (1) ignore the correction, and proceed without regard to it, (2) misrepresent the correction and proceed regardless, (3) divert the argument in another direction to hide and ignore the substantive import of the error that was just identified. Indeed, the surest sign that one is dealing with a missionary troll is that he is totally evidence-proof and never changes his mind. The substantive litmus test of rationality versus trolldom is, when does one celebrate a success? I celebrate success when I bring my mind to a more accurate identification of reality. So, when comments in the discussion thread of my article on "The Ontology of Emergence" led me to reexamine Ayn Rand's view of the status of relations as existents, I changed my mind, edited a correction into the article, and celebrated the achievement of a more accurate identification of the relevant facts than the one I had before. A troll, on the other hand, considers himself successful only if he changes the mind of someone else. Perhaps the only thing that I have never seen on the internet, is a troll changing his own mind.

Missionary trolls are pervasive, persistent, and above all numerous. They are the vast majority of active trolls. The following sections of this article, which deal with the identification of trolls and trollcraft, are applicable primarily to the missionary troll.

4. Identification: The Apprentice Troll

The apprentice troll is one who has not yet achieved mastery of trollcraft, and lacks the habits of stealth that delay the identification of a master troll. Thus, the apprentice troll will often let her mask slip in the most inopportune way. For example, when a Randian disagrees with some detail of Objectivism, or with the prevailing opinions among Randians and Objectivists, he will be careful to present first the full rationale and context for his disagreement. An apprentice troll, on the other hand, will pretend interest in or even agreement with Objectivism, while stating—casually and without noticing—conclusions that flow from his true premises. Two examples:

(a): A missionary troll for Christianity believes that Christianity is the foundation of Western civilization, and therefore an intellectual threat to Christian belief is sabotage of the very foundations of that civilization. Therefore, she writes, "I have a feeling that the Inquisition was directly related to the same hostile forces which actually caused the Crusades ... Islam. If there were Islamic saboteurs hiding out in Spain (which there were), then under sufficient conditions of duress it seems understandable that they could have decided that drastic measures to ferret out those infiltrators were necessary ... so much of what we've been told about history was written by those who enviously hate western civilization and have seen fit to entrench their campaign of lies within history books." Celeste Norcross never bothered to learn that Ayn Rand regarded Western Civilization as based on the heritage of Classical Greece, and Christianity as an obstacle to its development. But then, an apprentice missionary "knows" that his position is the only one worth knowing, so why bother to learn anything else? Hence praise for The Inquisition.

(b): A missionary troll for libertarian nihilism believes that objectivity is impossible in ethics, and therefore to base moral judgement on an objective criterion—comparable to a chemist's "litmus test," an objective criterion for distinguishing acids from bases—is something to be condemned. Therefore, writes Robert Davison, "SOLO is worthwhile, because there are no litmus tests." Litmus tests bad. Objectivity bad. Subjectivist nihilism good. SOLO?

The mark of the troll is not mere disagreement with the target forum. The Jesuits, for example, know that one must understand the target in order to have a chance of making worthwhile converts. They are also concerned with honesty, because they know that a dishonest argumentator cannot remain credible. One of the Jesuits' operational principles is that one must never pretend to adhere to the targeted ideology, no matter how intimate one's knowledge of it might be—falsehood always has consequences that cannot be hidden for long. It would be excellent for SOLO if we had a Jesuit or two posting here, because we would then benefit from knowledgeable and honest criticism, and from insights that simply would not occur to someone who already shares a Randian perspective.

The apprentice missionary troll is the polar opposite of a Jesuit's knowledgeable and honest criticism, being neither knowledgeable nor honest. At the extreme, that kind of troll is simply not interested enough in any viewpoint—other than the one he is trying to spread—to learn even its foundations.

(c): A prime example of this opposite-of-Jesuit phenomenon is one Andy Postema, who repeats "I am an Objectivist" like a mantra in nearly every posting. Yet this same troll does not know enough to recognize that time and again he is posting sentiments directly opposed to Objectivism, like the following: "As for the problem of infinite regression, I don't see it. It's not a scientific issue. We don't need to settle the metaphysics of original causes for a valid scientific inquiry into the origin of the Earth (or even the universe, for that matter). So why must metaphysics intrude upon a scientific inquiry into the origin of life on Earth?" Does the reader need to be reminded that Ayn Rand's most caustic critique was of "science"—and indeed of any would-be intellectual endeavor—attempting to "do without the intrusion of philosophy?" Yet only a few words later, the troll repeats his habitual mantra: "I am an Objectivist."

The apprentice trolls detract from the usability of the target fora primarily by volume that comes from numbers, by making us wade through mountains of muck just to filter it all out. Once they have a handful of postings on their record, their trollhood is easily recognized by all except the rawest newbies. Newbies will be confused, but the owners of the site might not mind. Once the apprentice troll is identified, its postings seldom succeed in provoking a response from anyone whose time is worthwhile. Eventually the apprentice troll either drops out or learns trollcraft.

5. Trollcraft

In the last week, we have seen on SOLO the performance of a master troll calling itself "The Grammarian." It was an inspiring demonstration of several productive—or is it anti-productive?—techniques of trollcraft:

5.1: Brute force

The most powerful technique to guard oneself against refutation is to post a large volume of words. The normal post in a SOLO discussion thread is about 50 words. The Grammarian's first post ran to 934 words, the second 581, the third 2944, the fourth (posted at the same time as the third) 1873, and so on. 6332 words in just the first 4 posts to the discussion! It typically takes about 50 words to refute 10, so to refute such a volume of trollstuff would have taken over thirty thousand words. Of course no one has the time or the priorities for writing thirty thousand words about such garbage, and so The Grammarian can always claim that no one could refute everything—or even a small fraction—of what he posted.

5.2: Plagiarism

In view of the volume of posting required by the brute force technique, it is not surprising that the master of trollcraft keeps an archive of material culled from the internet over many years, and uses it to troll with only the minimum of editing required to give the impression of having written the material specifically for the target forum. The material is seldom or never attributed to its source. The first reason for plagiarizing—rather than making the proper attributions—is to create the impression that the troll just wrote it. The second is to hide the fact that the troll only copies the most highfalutin'-sounding snippets from generally disreputable sources. For example, The Grammarian's post 151 in the "Intelligent Design: What Does It Accomplish" discussion thread is copied verbatim from a page on the panspermia.org web site. But if it were attributed, the reader would notice the rest of that page also, e.g., "One could argue that the standard darwinian theory of evolution must be flawed, if the President of the United States thinks an alternative merits consideration."

5.3: Stealth by eclecticism

If the master of trollcraft is a missionary troll the last thing he would want his prospective marks to find is existing refutations of the position he seeks to convert them to. But if the troll is to avoid refutation, in the age of Google he must conceal the identity of the dogma that he is a missionary for. Instead, he poses as an eclectic opener of debate. All he seeks, he says, is to "open minds" that, like Ayn Rand, do not consider the issues debatable. If the mark is stupid enough, then by the time he finds out what it is that he is being converted to, he is already too far gone to consider the refutations. The stealth eclecticism also has the advantage of giving the troll a wider selection of crackpottery to plagiarize from.

It is likely that The Grammarian is not done yet, and that additional trollcraft will be demonstrated as we watch.

6. What is to be done?

The troll's long-term goal is to make converts, but in the short term his goal is to get his marks to consider his crackpottery intellectually respectable. His "proof" of purported intellectual respectability is that rational people consider his crackpottery debatable. Any effort at refutation is wasted, because the troll is not engaged in debate. He only needs the appearance of seeming irrefutable, and he can always post an even larger amount of plagiarized material, until the effort one would need to refute it all eliminates any possibility of productive achievement in the target forum.

The only effective countermeasure is to refuse to be drawn into the troll's project. Please don't feed the trolls.

[Note added after publication: I neglected to consider the part-time troll, or more accurately the troll who does try to "pay his dues" by contributing articles and honest discussion in areas in which his "missionary position" happens to coincide with the purpose of this forum. Examples would include "dues paying" by Reginald Firehammer back when he was on SOLO, and by Robert Davison recently. I find it reasonable to ignore the troll when he is trolling, and to interact with him when he is in his reasonable, "dues-paying" mode.]
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