“Don’t feed the trolls,” but maybe…

A new piece from The Verge questions whether our approach to trolls online has been wrong all along. The article makes a convincing argument: by refusing to engage with trolling behavior, are we as brands and people doing the internet and society at large a huge disservice?

It all harkens back to Cliff Pervocracy’s analogy of the “missing stair,” where everyone works around the obvious dangers of a situation because they are so used to “dealing with it” by outright ignoring it. If someone speaks up about the danger, they are dismissed. Why complain when you can “just hop over” the missing stair? But on a systemic level, it all adds up to something so much more than a mere missing stair. For many people on the internet — especially women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community — it is an entire broken staircase, full of loose nails, jutting floorboards, and impossible leaps. And there are so many others who don’t notice it because they either get to use the elevator or are already on the top floor.

Not only does this sort of ignorance function as a kind of tacit permission, but it also ignores the inherent threat of the troll’s true intent. What the troll, the stalker, and the abuser really want out of the situation is to feel powerful and in control. And they will not stop until they feel it. Therein lies the most horrible aspect of the “don’t feed” mantra: rather than doing anything to address the trolls, the more tangible effect is to silence the victim and the reality of their abuse, or worse, to blame them for it. For far too many who promoted this idea, the true goal was silence, to avoid facing what is happening and the impossible responsibility of it.

Of course, there are the one-offs that do simply go away when ignored. But the big picture is complex and worrisome. Although brands and companies play a small role, there’s clearly a continuing need to set and enforce boundaries about what conduct is acceptable and what is not.

The powers that be in social media can’t just make it about who is saying bad words, try to algorithm their way out of the problem, or play every side in the name of “fairness” when it leaves so many of us to the wolves. They have to make an ethical choice about what they really believe and what ideology they want to represent moving forward. Because they cannot reap the reward of what they have built without taking on the responsibility and the cost of it, too.

Why it’s hot: We talk a lot about brands and their values. Those values need to translate to social media policies and general online rules of engagement wherever these brands have presence. “Don’t feel the trolls” as a blanket statement may dismiss winning opportunities to stand for something.