Sympathy for the Trolls

We should feel sorry for trolls

I once spent some time in Florida during Major League Baseball’s spring training. It’s a time when many young players from the top of the minor leagues (“Triple A ball”) get a shot at breaking into the majors. In what had to be an exciting moment for them, they would get placed into the lineup alongside established pros for a few innings or maybe even a few games.

What I most remember about those games was the clutch of paunchy middle-aged and older guys who sat in the bleachers and shouted abuse when the tryouts would have a bad moment on the field (e.g., “You suck!”, “Go back to Tidewater!”, “You ain’t major league, kid!”). For those of you who are not baseball fans, it is worth noting that someone who is talented enough to play Triple A baseball and who gets even a failed tryout with a major league team has gone farther in the game than 99% of the myriad little leaguers who dream of a professional baseball career. This observation would certainly have applied to the gang of fat critics screaming at the young players from the stands, who might between them have been able to muster up a few stories of their glory days on the junior varsity team in seventh grade.

I thought of those guys when I watched celebrities reading mean tweets directed at them:

Our natural impulse is to feel sorry for people who are subjected to the torrent of abuse that new technology enables; the victims themselves may feel understandable hurt and rage. Many of them are not celebrities who can insulate themselves with handlers. They might just be a high school kid who plays on the basketball team or won a scholarship or organized a successful prom.

As they deal with their pain, it may be helpful for the victims to reflect upon the misery of the people who take the time to send them hateful tweets or eviscerate them on websites. Many people desperately wanted to someday become a pro athlete or beloved stand-up comedian or famous scientist or gorgeous movie star or respected television commentator or rock-and-roll legend or even just the kid who could organize a successful prom. But it didn’t work out for them. And every day of their lives, via the very technology that is their tool of attack, they see other people living the dream that fate denied them.

New technology allows such people a chance to lash out in ways they never could before, and it’s wrong of them to do that. But it’s also pretty pathetic. If they come after you, it probably means you are more successful and a lot happier than they are, and that should be vengeance enough for you if you need that. It’s emotionally and spiritually challenging, but if you are victimized in this way, try to feel some sympathy for your attackers, who are sitting in mom’s basement or wherever day after day, brooding over life’s disappointments and raging impotently on their keyboards at complete strangers. That’s truly a life to be pitied.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

14 thoughts on “Sympathy for the Trolls”

  1. Dear Mr. Humphreys: Over 70 years ago, the sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote a poem (imagine an era when poems were on the sports page!) Its title: “They Never Boo a Bum.”

    1. That is perfect. Thanks, and thanks to Charles WT for finding that vintage newspaper clipping.

  2. In the good old days, the mean-spirited would pump up and vent their spite in malicious gossip at the water-cooler or bar or communal laundry. In a way this could do more damage by excluding the victim from a community, which Facebook is not. The most damaging online abuse is I suppose linked to such old-fashioned communal bullying, which it amplifies, as of outsider teenagers in schools (LBGT, fat, nerdy, foreign, whatever).

    Question: do stronger laws against hate speech (Europe) and libel (UK) have any restraining effect on online garbage? Googling indicates a fair amount of legislative concern on online defamation in various places.

    Another thought. Does abusive speech weaken the right or privilege of anonymity? People have a wide right to abusive speech, sure. But they should be prepared to own it. One complaint, and your anonymity is suspended administratively for 3 months. An analogy: it’s been suggested that officials who leak information to journalists in confidence, and are later found to have lied, have broken the trust implied by that confidence, and should be identified.

    1. Interesting thoughts, James. I suspect that the two proposals in the last para are not workable,though. For one thing, what’s a “complaint”? Does it have to be justified? Is the fact that someone is offended – or claims to be offended – a good enough ground to deny anonymity to a critic? Is the possible power imbalance (with the complainer much more powerful than the critic, in some cases) relevant?

      And for the leaks that turn out to be lies, I have some sympathy, but it can be very difficult to tell what is really a lie and what is a different interpretation – possibly an interpretation containing spin or wishful thinking or a desire not to say No to anybody. Again, a judgment call – made by whom? – that may have harsher consequences than it should have.

      Most politicians don’t deliberately lie – they just sugar-coat, spin for optimism, equivocate, anything to avoid saying ‘no, you may not have what you want’ or ‘no, I cannot solve the problem you have described’. Voters get to judge how they’re doing at election time, but having quasi-legal consequences in the meantime is too severe.

  3. Unfortunately, those same mean-spirited people also attack the vulnerable. Famous successful bloggers can, I hope, survive abuse, but a 16-year-old rape victim has a worse time of it. Telling her to reflect on the misery of her attackers might not be the best approach; it may feel like you’re just putting more responsibility on her, at a time when she can’t bear it.

    1. Maybe not framing it as having sympathy for them, but at least a causal story that removes the victim from the insult, and identifies the root of the ill-will in the perpetrator, who is merely acting out in a way that has nothing to do with the victim. This is an example, I think, of how the concept of libertarian free will makes us vulnerable to injury from our misplaced understanding of causation in the actions of others.

  4. The psychology of trolling, or even just needlessly unpleasant contributions, is strange indeed. It probably does come from individuals in internal pain. But there’s something about the anonymity of the web that might be seducing many into behaving in ways they would ordinarily not, or in ways that don’t really reflect their true selves. I’m sure people have been investigating the phenomenon. Either way, while always hard to do, compassion and forgiveness is the best soul cleanser.

    1. Experimental studies show that people are more comfortable being aggressive in email than face-to-face (probably because there are no cues that one is hurting the other person), and, that anonymity also increases aggression. Put them together and you have the Internet.

  5. Just as a suggestion … please no ads/photos of people sitting on toilets. That it’s Will Ferrell doesn’t make it okay. No, thank you.

    1. Will Farrell and Frank Zappa on the john are special cases and are quite acceptable in polite company. All others in such display are grotesque and should be poo-pooed. 😉

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