I’m a woman. I’m smart. I say what I think. Out loud. In public. I am, therefore, a target for trolls – especially angry, fearful men.
I’m also not alone. Everywhere I look online, men seem to be trolling us more than women. In the four years I’ve been publishing pieces in the digital age, all but one of my dozens of trolls have been men. On Twitter, on Facebook, on LinkedIn, on my own articles, on others’ articles I post, on comments I make in groups – men, men, men bullying and behaving in ways they would never (I hope) to my face.
Some women (J.K. Rowling, for instance) seem to relish counter-attacking their trolls, and are really good at it. However, a lot of us (me, for instance) find it upsetting or a waste of precious time and energy. It’s also useless – I’ve yet to see a troll’s mind or heart be changed by the perfect comeback, however logically and empathetically presented. To all my sisters out there like me, I offer the following eight tips that have helped me navigate the sometimes nasty swamp of online conversation:
1. Recognize troll behavior as such. Let’s be clear: respectful feedback, genuine disagreement, presentation of alternative evidence, or challenging questions are not trolling – even if they’re awkwardly communicated.
When a man turns into a troll, he is NOT interested in dialogue, understanding or learning. He is not interested in equitable communication. He is interested in establishing his dominance by humiliating you, and doing so in public for his own benefit. He will try to bully you into defending your ideas, your facts, or your very self. He will challenge your expertise, intelligence, and credibility. He will question your integrity and motives (a man in my field did all of the above in response to a one sentence question I posed in an online group.) His questions are not meant to engage, but to entrap. He may even enlist a buddy to help gang up on you. Don’t get tricked into defending anything about yourself or your information – that only legitimizes his tactics and wastes your energy. You will not change his mind – not even with your robust evidence, impeccable brilliance or shining virtue. And don’t get distracted or intimidated by his multiple messages, long posts or hyperfocus on one of your words or phrases – he’s just trying to disorient and overwhelm you with nonsense.
Like many monsters, sometimes a troll masquerades as a friend at first. He may ask a question that sounds like honest curiosity or an invitation to dialogue, such as “What about x?” or “What do you think about x?”. Try providing a short answer, then ask a question to find out where he’s coming from: “Why do you ask?” or “What do you think?” His response will reveal whether he’s a troll, or a delightful man interested in dialogue and learning.
2. Understand what drives troll behavior. Troll behavior is a fear response to a perceived threat. It’s aggression intended to exert power and establish dominance in the mind of the troll, and status in front of his audience, because your words threaten his worldview and therefore his identity and even existence. Being a smart woman who says what she thinks in public is a relatively new phenomenon in human history – a history rife with violent consequences for most women who publically contradicted or disobeyed men. Most men still believe, consciously or not, that they have a right to be in our space and dictate our thoughts, feelings and choices. We’re challenging deeply ingrained norms against a backdrop of sexual and gender-based violence. Also, in a polarized political environment where our president has emboldened extremists, there are growing mobs motivated by an “ethic of total retaliation” who just want to burn shit down, as well as operatives intentionally sowing dissent and false information on social media. Don’t be naïve or allow them to burn your shit down. They’re playing a game you won’t win online. They’re not interested in reason, understanding, connection or problem solving. Just destruction.
3. Know your true audience. The troll is neither your true audience, nor the majority. He’s just loud and manipulative. He’s using tired, old, primate tactics to try to silence you and feel superior. Be clear about who your audience is before you get triggered or disoriented. Who’s worth your valuable attention and energy? What types of people and behavior will you, and won’t you, engage with? Always keep your true audience’s feelings and reactions in mind when you decide what to do and say. Brené Brown (another gifted woman who gets trolled) has excellent advice: acknowledge your critics and give them a seat in the arena, then ignore their feedback. Remember you have WAY more allies and fans than trolls.
4. Know, and respect, your limits. You do not have to tolerate any behavior from a man in an online space you wouldn’t tolerate in any other public space or in your own home. You’re not obligated to open the door, much less invite them in! Your website and social media pages are your space. A troll may accuse you of “censorship” for deleting or not posting his comment. He’s either clueless about what censorship is or he’s just trying to bully you. When you delete, decline to post or don’t respond to a comment, you’re neither censoring nor “being judgmental”. That’s like saying your personal decision to be a vegetarian is meat censorship, or that rejecting unwanted touching is “being dismissive”. You get to decide what’s allowed in your space and damn right you get to discern (i.e. judge) what’s OK and what’s not OK in said space. No explanation or apologies are necessary. His feedback is not there to help you grow, it’s there to tear you down. (If you need more inspiration to just say no, read Ijeoma Oluo’s mic drop on rejecting men’s “harmful, distracting bullshit” online.)
But, if you’re considering engaging:
- Check in with yourself to see if you have the time, and the emotional and mental resources to engage. If not, don’t.
- Be clear about your goals for engaging. Do you seek understanding? Problem solving? To set a boundary? To recruit? To perform or role model for your true audience?
- Weigh the pros and cons – for you and your true audience – of speaking or staying silent. I often reply to trolls only because I don’t want my true audience thinking I’m complicit in what’s being expressed, or that I don’t have their back.
- Explore any “stuff” you have around needing to be perfect, needing to win, or being addicted to drama. Learn to let that go when necessary.
5. Develop a comment policy or personal rules for engagement, and stick to them. I moderate all comments on my blog, and my comment policy is posted on the sidebar of my blog page. Here are personal rules for engagement I’ve used in the past:
- Ask brief questions to get at the heart of his assumptions, concerns, or point (like I did here). I may ask about his goals: “Is your goal understanding, solutions, to change my mind, or…?” (Example here.) If he can’t answer, the answer doesn’t align with my goals or it reveals him to be a troll, I politely exit, like I did here or in my second response to Brainiac.
- Keep it short – brief answers give a troll less ammunition.
- Focus on one topic, and one person, at a time. Avoid getting flustered by pile on bullies. If someone posts multiple comments or messages (a tactic intended to overwhelm and disorient), I respond to only one, or say “that’s [#] messages, please pick one and we can dialogue from there” (see example.)
- Stay on target with the original idea or point, and your goal for engaging. Don’t get distracted by triggers and tangents – yours or theirs (see example).
- No name calling or people labelling. I do name behaviors (e.g., bigoted, mansplaining, troubling) if that’s how I see them. If someone calls me a name, I end the conversation, saying something like “I don’t dialogue with name callers, so I’m done with this conversation.” And then I don’t respond to anything he says in reply.
- Take it out of the public space if a borderline troll seems open to dialogue, but his behavior is negatively impacting your true audience: “[name of social media] isn’t good for meaningful dialogue. Please PM me and we can chat there.”
- Experiment with humor! My first response to Brainiac is one of my favorites!
- Consider redirecting other people on the thread (example here in response to Robert) instead of responding to the troll. This redirects focus away from the troll and prevents a negative spiral.
- If necessary, unfriend, unfollow, mute, block and/or report him -- LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter all have ways to do this, including comments in LinkedIn groups. Really, why would you want to stay connected to someone who behaves like a jerkface? Why would you allow them to continue their behavior with others, unaccountable? Don’t be part of the disease by allowing it to spread.
6. Take care of you, not him. It is not your job to caretake, rehabilitate, or save the troll. The emotional labor you put in for men that don’t deserve it keeps them weak, and takes its toll on you, sooner or later (just ask any woman in her forties). We need you for the long haul! Sometimes this means going dark or staying off social media for a while. Yes, you can.
7. Stay connected and supported. Reach out to trusted, reliable allies and friends (not your public social media feed!) when you feel isolated, overwhelmed, bitter, or disempowered. Vent, cry, rage, ask for advice, ask for empathy and encouragement, ask for whatever you need. Don’t try to suck it up or tough it out alone. Remember that one of the superpowers of women is our connectedness and sense of community. Every time we share our challenges, we help ourselves and other women feel less alone and less crazy. We help ourselves and others feel more powerful and connected.
8. Keep being smart and saying what you think. Out loud. In public. You have limited, precious time on earth. You have important work to do that is appreciated and needed by thousands of people. You are loved. You are not alone. Don’t ever, ever give up, or give away your power – especially to a few dillweeds who are scared of a girl.