American politics are a mess. I have never been more disturbed and concerned about the future of our nation than I am right now. Our politics have never been more partisan. Our leaders have never been less willing to compromise. Grand gestures and impossible ideology have become more important than doing the right thing. Ad hominem attacks are the norm. Red herrings are the rule of the day. Trivialities and irrelevant criticisms are tossed out instead of meaningful dialogues. Watching the campaign machines start to spin up, and witnessing the travesty of our debt ceiling fiasco a few short weeks ago, I realized something rather profound. Our politicians are acting exactly like Internet Trolls.
(Note: be sure and answer the poll at the bottom of this post)
Internet trolls have been around for a long time and have been the focus of intense scrutiny. Most netizens know what a troll is, but for the uninitiated, a troll is anyone who enters into a forum or discussion on the Internet with the intention of disrupting the conversation for no better reason than they can. Trolls are everywhere; they lurk on Facebook, in IRC channels, on the Usenet, on forums and discussion boards everywhere. Think about the last time you’ve seen a Facebook discussion “blow up” into 50+ responses that degenerated into emotional name calling or that started out as one topic and ended up on another. Most likely, a troll was to blame.
What are the attributes of an Internet Troll?
- They love the personal, or ad hominem, attack. They attempt to negate your position or argument by talking about a perceived personality, lifestyle, or physical flaw.
- They use red herrings, or irrelevant distractions, to shift the discussion away from the topic at hand.
- They lack in-depth knowledge of subjects they speak about. They consider themselves authorities by virtue of having an audience.
- The use attention-seeking gimmicks. They make ludicrous claims or statements or perform extreme actions to get others to pay attention to them and not the topic at hand.
- They use intentionally inflammatory rhetoric to ignite already tense discussions and later claim they were misunderstood when confronted.
- A complete unwillingness to compromise or concede any point of view except their own.
- They use repetitive comments on trivial or irrelevant topics over and over again.
How do the traits of an Internet Troll compare to the politicians in our government?
- Ad hominem attacks: A perfect example is the fact that there is a general unspoken silent racist intolerance towards Obama because he is black. Or the claims that Obama is not an American (although that is also a red herring). These are personal attacks that have nothing to do with his policies or his ability to be the leader of this nation. The fact that this red herring and associated personal attacks have distracted us for so long, and continues to do so, speaks to the power of the troll.
- Red herrings: The debate about Obama’s childhood Muslim connections is a red herring. This distraction has continually plagued the President and has no bearing on his appropriateness as a leader. None. This is a red herring designed to play on the intolerance and fears of the fundamentalist Christians in our nation. And it works. Devoid of critical thought, an irrelevant and trivial past association becomes a red herring that distracts us for months.
- Lack of in-depth knowledge: Michelle Bachmann is promising $2.00 gas if she is elected. Gas was about $1.79 a gallon when Obama was elected and she claims she will get us back to that figure, but has presented no plan to make it so and has shown no understanding of the industry and the reasons why gas prices fluctuate and are growing. Even more drilling in the U.S. will not significantly lower gasoline prices. So how is she going to do it?
- Attention-Seeking Gimmicks: Presidential hopeful Rick Perry all but physically threatened Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernake, saying his actions would be “almost treasonous” and they “would treat him pretty ugly in Texas.” This statement catapulted him into the media spotlight and was designed as nothing more than a gimmick to let the Tea Party know he was giving them lip service.
- Intentionally inflammatory remarks: See above about Rick Perry.
- Unwillingness to compromise. There are too many examples to list here. I’ll only mention that the debt ceiling fiasco is a perfect example of this.
The list is incomplete, so I encourage you all to post comments on this thread with more examples and troll characteristics and comparable political behavior.
What is the Source of Political Trolling?
I have been dealing with Internet trolls for years. I have been a troll myself – I think most of us on the interwebz have been guilty of trollish behavior from time-to-time. I learned to expect this type of behavior from people on the Internet because of the pseudo-anonymity of people who post, but I was shocked by my realization that our national public figures are acting like these Internet trolls.
I was shocked until I took it one step further and looked for the reasons why we find it so acceptable for our politicians to be trolls. I didn’t have far to look what I consider to be the preeminent reason. The past decade has been characterized by the Ascendancy of Fox News and the vitriolic personalities on the network who are the epitome of trolls and the bane of reasoned and cultured discourse.
Fox News has done a superb job of focusing on irrelevancy, preying on the fears of its constituents, and completely erasing the line between facts, news, propaganda, and opinion. Day in and day out it’s filled with so-called political commentary that is really nothing more than sensationalist opinion meant to incite a high emotional response, detract from real issues at hand, and drive a very specific political agenda. The commentators, pundits, and political figures who back Fox news or who wish to gain the attention of the listeners and viewers have turned to ever more inflammatory and derogatory language and positions to make themselves appear more passionate and able to lead than the man (or woman) with whom they spar politically.
There is an entire cable network that churns out trolls and trollish behavior at an alarming rate. It’s incredibly easy to do, too. A troll need not be an expert in anything. A troll only need topple the man who is an expert. A troll needs only a strong opinion, a decent vocabulary, and a simmering anger that others will confuse for passion.
A troll is designed not to build, but to destroy
A troll is designed not to build, but to destroy. The sad thing is that a political troll will confuse his actions with patriotism – a self-rationalization that allows him to justify the abhorrent behavior he displays the precarious positions he stands for. A troll will play the fiddle while Rome burns, satisfied and content that they have done something positive when all that they truly achieved was the lighting of the fire that burned a civilization.
How do you deal with trolls? On the Internet we’ve learned only one surefire method of getting rid of trolls: don’t feed them. Ignore them. Don’t bite when they attack. Don’t acknowledge their existence. Don’t allow them to degrade or ruin a conversation. Any comment, any reaction, any acknowledgment of the troll only feeds the troll and makes it more likely that it will hang around and continue to harass and disrupt the discourse. This is extremely difficult to do and takes the willing cooperation of everyone involved in the discussion. Everyone must ignore the troll. No one can feed him. If even a single person feeds the troll, you have to start all over again.
Vote for Moderation; Champion Compromise
You can imagine how rare it is to successfully fend off a troll. Trolls specialize in baiting, flaming, and attacking. They excel in divide and conquer. They live to destroy and they are very good at it. Get ten people on a discussion on the Internet and a troll will appear. Similarly, in our current political environment, it will take all of us, or a vast majority of us, to reject the sensationalist propaganda, hate filled ad hominem attacks, repugnant red herrings, and general uncivilized behavior of our current politicians. Both Left and Right. We have to, as a nation, stop embracing the short-sighted, destructive, and trollish behaviors that have become the hallmark of our political system lately. We have to vote for moderation, we have to champion compromise. We have to elect leaders who understand the difference between rhetoric and reality and are willing to do the right thing for America, even if it means they are only single-term politicians.
I will say this in closing. President Obama is clearly not a troll. If he were on an Internet discussion board or engaged in a Facebook debate, he would be the poster who posts intelligent, well-reasoned arguments, who works with everyone to find common ground, and is willing to listen to alternate points of view. This is the centerpiece of his Presidency in my opinion – intelligent discourse. Obama is the lone rationalist trying to wade through a sea of intolerant, racist, anti-science, distraction-loving, trolls. This is why I will vote for him again; he’s one of the few political figures today who does not engage in trollish behavior. We should all learn a lesson from his example.