Something we hear frequently is that politics are getting more and more polarized with each side viewing the other as villainous and acting in bad faith. Many see the internet as a primary culprit because we can create like-minded echo chambers, and we can get riled up fighting for our side against the other side. That’s quite different from pre-internet days when we often didn’t even know who people voted for or what their political party was. Back then, trolls were still a fictional creature from a Grimm’s fairy tale, not actual people who like to anger their ideological enemies for sport.

According to the Urban Dictionary, a troll is

One who posts a deliberately provocative message to a newsgroup or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument

Trolls are there to rile people up, not necessarily to persuade or convince others. They just want to watch the mayhem ensue. Wickipedia adds:

In Internet slang, a troll (/ˈtrl/, /ˈtrɒl/) is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory,[1] extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the intent of provoking readers into an emotional response[2] or of otherwise disrupting normal, on-topic discussion,[3] often for the troll’s amusement.

This sense of both the noun and the verb “troll” is associated with Internet discourse, but also has been used more widely. Media attention in recent years has equated trolling with online harassment. For example, the mass media have used “troll” to mean “a person who defaces Internet tribute sites with the aim of causing grief to families.” . . .

Application of the term troll is subjective. Some readers may characterize a post as trolling, while others may regard the same post as a legitimate contribution to the discussion, even if controversial. Like any pejorative term, it can be used as an ad hominem attack, suggesting a negative motivation. . . . At times, the word can be abused to refer to anyone with controversial opinions they disagree with.

Image result for venting vs. passive aggressionSome would imbue trolls with extra intelligence, only considering someone to be a troll if they are making disingenuous arguments for their amusement, not making specious unsupported arguments that are inflammatory but that they agree with. Regardless of the definition, most blogs, including ours, encourage people to steer clear and not engage. “Don’t feed the trolls” is an oft heard refrain when someone is disrupting a discussion online.

Historically, venting has been seen as a superior way to deal with anger to bottling it up and letting it leak out in passive-aggressive ways; holding it in is seen as dangerous, even life-threatening. If so, our current president appears to be the picture of mental health, and all this venting that people have been doing in the wake of the election is a net positive. Some scattered individual citizens acting out in violence against minorities have felt emboldened since the election to vent their feelings.  Aside from these more extreme acts, there’s a sentiment, particularly among older people and conservatives, that political correctness is bad for society, that it’s better to say what we think than it is to be hyper-sensitive to the feelings of those who might be offended; they might say we are fooling ourselves about everyone getting along. Some would say it’s better to get that negativity out there rather than keeping it at a low simmer inside.

But maybe it’s not.

I recently watched several episodes of a You Tube show called Mind Field. Each episode explores an aspect of psychology.  I highly recommend the series to those interested in psychological experiments but who don’t want to kill a weekend trying to come up with their own experiments. Here’s a link to the trailer for Episode 3:

In Episode 3, the host conducts a psychological experiment that exposes one downside to venting our feelings. The experiment proceeds in three phases:

Phase One: Reading & Responding to an Inflammatory Essay

Participants are tasked with giving feedback to a person about an essay written by another “participant.” The essayist is fictitious. The essays are specifically designed to push the buttons of the individual asked to give the feedback. For example, a black woman is asked to review an essay written by a racist. As she reads the essay, she becomes extremely agitated, to the point that she finally has to go to the photo of the “essayist” that was placed in the room and put the picture face down because she can’t stand to look at him. She is very upset. Each of the participants reads an essay designed to inflame him or her.

Phase Two: Venting or Reflecting

When the participants are emotionally riled up, half of them are taken to a room filled with beautiful artwork and objects and they are asked to sit quietly and reflect for a timed period. The other half of the participants are taken to a similar room but given a baseball bat and encouraged to vent their feelings by smashing everything in the room. Some of them really go overboard, attacking and dismantling even the shelves and table. The more they rage, the more they can rage.

Phase Three: Vengeance

Image result for venting vs. passive aggressionIn the next phase, participants are given a shock buzzer and an intensity dial and paired with the original “essayist” whom they are told is in another room. If they are the first person to hit the button, they are permitted to administer shocks to the essayist at whatever level of intensity they choose. When they administer the shock, they hear the other person cry out in pain. If the other person is first to hit the button, the other person is permitted to administer a shock to them at whatever level they choose. In reality, there is no other person since the essayist was a fabrication of the experiment.

Consistently, the people who had been encouraged to vent their feelings with violence in phase two administered higher levels of shock, some cranking the intensity dial all the way up. The people in the reflection room, on the other hand, were more subdued and reluctant to administer the shocks, even apologetic for doing so.

Conclusion

While it’s an interesting experiment, there are a few issues I see with its broad application to internet trolling & venting:

  • Physical violence is not the same thing as arguing. Maybe that’s a difference of degree rather than kind, but if the experiment shows that venting with physical violence makes us meaner, that doesn’t necessarily mean that heated arguing does the same thing.
  • All participants were riled up, but reflection time resulted in people becoming unwilling to exact vengeance on their “enemies.” And perhaps the internet is naturally a reflective medium. After all, aside from obsessive personalities who can’t stop tweeting at 3 in the morning so they can be fresh in the morning for their job running the free world, most of us take time to step away or to refuse to feed the trolls.

What do you think?

  • Does arguing on the internet make people meaner and less empathetic to opposing viewpoints?
  • Does it depend on one’s personal temperament?
  • Where do you draw the line on defining “trolls”?

Discuss.