“Dawn take you all, and be stone to you!”For just at that moment the light came over the hill, and there was a mighty twitter in the branches. William never spoke for he stood turned to stone as he stooped; and Bert and Tom were stuck like rocks as they looked at him. And there they stand to this day, all alone, unless the birds perch on them; for trolls, as you probably know, must be underground before dawn, or they go back to the stuff of the mountains they are made of, and never move again. – “The Hobbit,” J.R.R. Tolkien. (Yes, it really says twitter in this section of text. This is the only place in “The Hobbit” or any of the Lord of the Rings books where the word twitter appears.)
Though I have largely enjoyed my experiences with online outreach, there are, to put it mildly, lots of unpleasant people on the internet. An extremist opinion and an anonymous forum for expressing it can be a recipe for some particularly nasty conversations. Some people seem to take pleasure in disrupting a conversation even when they have no particular stake in it, and these people are commonly referred to as “trolls.” There are various strategies for dealing with them (for example, here’s an explanation of this blog’s comment policy). In general, “don’t feed the trolls” is a common piece of advice for those engaged in online discussions. “Don’t feed the trolls” means that if someone is behaving in an inflammatory manner, you should simply not respond. While it’s certainly true that many internet trolls enjoy a combative discussion and that engagement may give an extremist idea more exposure than it would otherwise receive, I’ve never liked the idea of “don’t feed the trolls.”
Those of you who follow me on twitter know that the marine conservation community has to deal with a surprising number of trolls (or, as I call a subset of them, “whack a doodles”). In addition to plenty of attacks on my credibilityand personal insults, I’ve experienced numerous publicly expressed desires for my grisly death. During the CNN screening of Blackfish, several activists asked how I would feel if someone kidnapped my children and locked them in a small box for their whole lives (I don’t have any children, but I imagine this would not feel great). These violent threats included at least one from a local activist who knows where I live. Though many of my friends are horrified by what I experience as pushback for voluntarily engaging in discussions of some controversial topics, most women on the internet receive far worse abuse simply for being female. As Andrew recently said on twitter, “don’t feed the trolls” implicitly means “silently accept abuse,” which is something I cannot abide.
There are other good reasons to engage with trolls. As a scientist and science communicator, when I see an incorrect idea being presented, my instinct is to publicly correct it. When I see colleagues and friends being unjustly attacked, I want to defend them. There is also value in my sharing with my scientific colleagues that these kinds of extremist viewpoints are out there.
While I am under no illusions that anything I say will change the mind of an extremist, I very well might change the mind of someone else observing the conversation. If that observer sees incorrect information repeatedly shared and no attempts to correct it, they may believe that the idea has some validity. Though there are valid concerns about influential science communicators amplifying otherwise-fringe views by engaging with them, I’d rather have someone exposed to an extremist or wildly incorrect idea in the context of me explaining why it is wrong.
I would much rather spend the limited time that I can devote to science education and outreach talking about cool things I’ve learned about the natural world then debunking nonsense or defending myself and colleagues from unjust attacks. However, I much prefer Bilbo Baggins’ approach to dealing with trolls. Instead of ignoring them, trick them into talking so much that sunlight, the best disinfectant, gets them into trouble.