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Dealing with Internet Trolls During Tragic Times

As the country mourns and struggles, Internet trolls continue to hate.

Source: Unsplash

As the nation mourns the latest school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the Internet trolls have wasted no time in doing what they do best — attack.

Conversations across the country are about gun control and mental health. According to a YouGov survey, for many, mass shootings are more about the mental wellness of gunmen than about gun violence. As a 2017 PEW Research survey found, though, for those who experience online harassment directly, these debates can have profound real-world consequences, ranging from mental or emotional stress to reputational damage or even fear for one’s personal safety.

While the survivors of the shooting in Parkland are forging forward with their mission, March For Our Lives, not only in memory of the 17 lost lives, but to prevent such a tragedy from happening again — the dark side of the Internet rears its' ugly head.

These students are being teased, mocked, and called "crisis actors." What's more disturbing is witnessing adults acting like children insult each other online. In times of contention, it's easy to get caught up in heated debates. We must remember that anger is temporary, but it will live online forever. Adults today (and always) are supposed to lead by example.

It seems our children are more mature than our grown-ups at times.

Tragedy and trolls

Is it possible that reaching out to your tormenter with a sympathetic ear can actually make a difference?

Carol Todd is a Canadian mother who took the tragic 2012 suicide of her daughter, cyberbullying victim Amanda Todd, as a call to action. She created the Amanda Todd Legacy Society and began its crusading work against cyberbullying and sextortion. Carol has put herself in the limelight, speaking at conferences and to organizations across North America.

As a result, unbelievably, she herself has been subjected to a barrage of online harassment. But one message stuck out more than any others. About a year ago, Carol received a note in her Facebook inbox that read: "You’re an alcoholic whore and you should die just like your daughter."

Don’t feed the troll. In her head, Carol knew that’s what she was supposed to do—nothing. But something made her ignore that sage advice. “I screen captured it and posted it on my Facebook wall so others could see,” she told me. Many of her friends online began offering words of support and criticizing the troll.

Then two weeks later, she got another unexpected message — this time an apology: "Miss Todd, I’m so sorry, can you ever accept my apology?"

Carol was dubious that these words from the same troll could be sincere, so she simply ignored it. Then he sent another. Eventually, her curiosity provoked, she responded: Why did you do this?

His answer was disturbingly, sickeningly honest. “He said, ‘Because it brings [me] joy.’” She laughs harshly, remembering this jarring response. She demanded to now why this would bring him any joy: "Do you actually know who I am?"

He responded: "No. I just know you lost a kid."

Carol was stunned to learn that the young man took pleasure in finding parents who had lost children and trolling them, often viscously. “He told me he was really horrific; he would tell parents they should go kill themselves,” she recalls.

Perhaps it was the mother in her, but Carol listened, and the young man’s story eventually came tumbling out. He was only 21, raised by an alcoholic father and a mentally disturbed mother, and was clearly suffering from depression. He had been bullied himself and was home-schooled as a result.

Carol Todd is a bigger person than most of us. She bravely allowed this troubled young man into her life, offered him a sympathetic ear, and even opened her inbox to him nightly. “Every night, he messages me to ask how my day was,” she says.

At her suggestion to just “go do random acts of kindness,” he took a group of homeless people in his town to Subway and bought them all lunch. “He literally changed his behavior. It makes me feel good. He needed someone to talk to him and guide him.”

It’s hard to imagine that reaching out like this would be the right response to a troll, but others have found this to be true too.

Lindy West shared a similar story of confronting her own Twitter troll on the radio show "This American Life." Lindy had waded into the raging online debate between feminists and comedians about whether jokes about rape can ever be funny. In response, a cruel troll created an account with her dead dad’s face and the name PawWestDonezo, a reference to the fact that her father, Paul West, had recently succumbed to prostate cancer.

The bio read, “Embarrassed father of an idiot.” Lindy published an article in response, saying how much those actions hurt—and why she would choose to respond to trolls. “I talk back because Internet trolls are not, in fact, monsters. They are human beings—and I don’t believe that their attempts to dehumanize me can be counteracted by dehumanizing them. The only thing that fights dehumanization is increased humanization.”

Changing the landscape

There will always be haters, but people are changing how they handle them.

Lenny Pozner, whose six-year-old son died in the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, told ABC News that he's still harassed online, more than five years later.

"But I'm glad people are not still deluding themselves with saying, 'Just ignore the trolls and they'll go away.' Because they have not gone away," Pozner said. "The trolls just get bigger and faster."

If you are determined to take on your cyber-thrashers yourself, and feel mentally prepared to do so, attorney Mitch Jackson offers some methods — but remember, some of them will see this as entertainment:

• Call attention to them without specifically engaging them.
• Ask the troll to fully identity himself or herself, and share his or her full name, email, or website.
• Avoid emotional arguments, and only use facts.

Preventing our troll behavior

Last year Stanford research revealed that anyone is capable of becoming an Internet troll under the right circumstances.

Especially in times of tragedy, it's important to realize that our emotional stress can be misconstrued online.

1. Be mindful with what you share: Check in with yourself. Your emotions at that time will live forever online. Think twice, post once.

2. Never assume you’re among friends: Be aware of your audience. People are quick to take your words and twist them, especially if they are posted with haste.

3. Be constructive with your comments, not combative.

4. Write as if the world is watching. In many ways, it is.

5. Give yourself permission to sign off if you don't feel you can post responsibly. You won't regret it.


Scheff, Sue, "Shame Nation: Choosing Kindness and Compassion In An Age of Cruelty and Trolling"(Sourcebooks, October 2017) excerpts.

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