Internet trolls commanded the headlines du jour earlier this month, after former Major League Baseball pitcher Curt Schilling responded to threats made against his daughter. Schilling was roundly lauded for outing the teenagers who tweeted vile things about Schilling’s daughter.
The focus of conversation in the aftermath was almost exclusively on the nameless, faceless trolls who send off inflammatory tweets or Facebook posts from their cell phones and quickly move on. That Schilling was the primary player in this drama was somewhat dubious, given his penchant for going off half-cocked against minor slights.
But in that sense, Schilling is a perfect model for the topic of this particular conversation. The media that so heartily applauded Schilling’s justified response is also complicit in poisoning the water.
Trolls are not just semi-anonymous egg-shapes on social media, however. Some of the most prolific trolls are professionals in what is a booming business.
And you know what? I can’t blame the trolls themselves; nor can I blame the outlets that pay trolls for their purposefully incendiary brand of takery. Trolling is indeed lucrative, but only because consumers of information allow it to be.
Lisa Simpson and Paul Anka said it — well, sang it — best on The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror VI: Just don’t look.
Trolls thrive on backlash, because backlash generates clicks, which increases ad revenue, which pays the bills. They’re doing the job for which they’ve been trained, and the only way to stamp it out is to eliminate the job. That isn’t accomplished leaving frothy-mouthed comments, which actually works in the opposite direction.
Ignoring trolls is the only way to sure ensure their extinction from media.
In the 2015 college football season, pledge to not click links that purposefully troll. Avoid columnists and pundits whose reputations are staked on hot takes. And, if you end up consuming a troll’s work, do not leave comments or angrily share the content with others to hate-read.
Now, there are important distinctions to make when separating purposeful trolling from . Trolling is not the same as simply offering a viewpoint opposite yours. Reading or listening with an open mind to contrary perspectives can be educational, even if you don’t change your mind.
So how do I know if what I’m reading is a troll or genuine, you might be asking yourself. Great question.
1. Is the main crux of the argument predicated on a stereotype?
A sweeping generalization is a surefire way to attract eyeballs and generate backlash. Nothing brings out the mob quite like employing negative stereotyping — did you know SEC fans are all backwoods hillbillies and Pac-12 fans are all pot-smoking hippies? — and a mob brings traffic or ratings.
2. Has the person opining on this topic recently generated a wave of negative feedback for offering a similar opinion, or for previously taking on the individual/entity at the center of said topic?
Trolls believe themselves to be Pavlov, ringing the proverbial bell for the dogs. And indeed, they are — but they’re also Pavlovian in their own right.
See, media trolls only understand reaction. Thus, if one sees a sizable response from a particular fan base, the troll will return to that well until its dry. In some cases, the well never dries.
The most notable example recently is the ongoing war between certain media factions and the knee-jerk reactionaries of #FSUTwitter. While there were certainly valid criticisms of Florida State to be made in the last few years, stupidity like a photo of the Seminoles walking past Joe’s Crab Shack going viral reflected poorly on the outlets sharing it.
Of course, #FSUTwitter’s reaction didn’t help.
3. Is this person typically a contrarian?
Going against the grain isn’t a bad thing. Opinions that deviate from the pack are actually necessary, otherwise we’ll just mindless sheep. However, professional contrarianism is its own brand of trolling.
I define professional contrarianism as a media personality always straying from popular sentiment, no matter how ridiculous. A team kicked a star player off his team for domestic violence? Well, let me explain to you why it’s actual the coach or the offending player’s teammates’ fault.
That isn’t intended as thoughtful debate; that’s trolling.
4. Does this person make a loaded implication without explicitly stating his/her intention?
A radio show I enjoy recently made the mistake of playing a soundbite of Stephen A. Smith — arguably King of Trolls — offering implications about former Oregon Ducks and current Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. Smith was vague enough in his terminology that he could deny the very serious charges he was implying, but clear enough that what he was dancing around was evident.
Not all trolls employ this tactic; some have all the subtlety of a jackhammer. However, an especially skilled troll knows how to craft an inflammatory take that waves a foot over the boundary of good taste, without actually crossing it. Then, he/she waits for the inevitable backlash so he/she can shrug and say, that’s you making that conclusion.
This doesn’t cover all forms of sports media trolling, but