Response is Reward: Why you can't win debating trolls on Twitter (or in life)

Some tips to roll the trolls and frame your own message on social media and elsewhere

Response is Reward: Why you can't win debating trolls on Twitter (or in life)

In our last newsletter, we argued that it’s usually a bad idea to argue with trolls like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. This led some readers to ask a question: How can we counteract trolls if we’re not supposed to debate them?

It’s a great question that gets to the very heart of the idea of framing a debate. And it’s especially important during this era of constant information warfare, supercharged by social media.

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Most of us are not being personally challenged to debate Kennedy. But many of us are likely tempted to take a stand against less famous social media trolls in our feeds. Here are some basic points to consider when deciding whether to engage someone who wishes to “debate” in bad faith for the sake of generating attention.

red and black dog signage
Please do not feed the trolls. Photo by Mark König on Unsplash

Anti-troll social media tips

1. Avoid the engagement trap. Social media algorithms reward engagement. When you reply to a troll’s bait on Facebook or Twitter, your reply amplifies the bait and ensures that other people you know will also see the troll’s bait in their feeds. This is true whether someone is baiting you with political argument — or other kinds of “click bait.” For example, have you noticed how many people in your networks respond to silly posts that ask whether you can solve an easy math problem or answer an easy question? These are known as viral prompts because people who can’t resist the bait help to spread the bait. Remember: A response is a reward. When you respond to a troll’s social media post in order to negate it, you are also helping to amplify it and increase its audience. The troll wins. In this way, the social media algorithms mirror how communication works in the real world. As readers of “Don’t Think of An Elephant” know, when you negate a frame, you evoke the frame. But on social media, the effect is even more pronounced. You don’t just evoke the frame by trying to negate it – you amplify it and spread it to the rest of your connections. (Like a virus.)

2. Frame the issue from your own viewpoint. If you don’t wish to amplify trolls, don’t respond to their posts. Instead, try posting your own proactive message. If you see a post spreading false information about vaccines, you could do your own post that says: “I’ve noticed posts containing false information about vaccine safety. I won’t take the bait by responding, but here are the facts…” Then deliver whatever message you were planning to write as a response to the troll, even if it’s just a link to a news story debunking whatever the troll is saying. Always base your arguments in facts, but argue from your moral values. Perhaps the troll will respond to your post and thus be forced to amplify your message and argue within your frame. At the very least, people in your network will see a proactive message to help inoculate against lies. Instead of fighting trolls, make a point of communicating proactively with your network from your own point of view. Emphasize your shared moral values, and always base your argument on facts.

3. Block liberally. A troll’s biggest fear is a lack of engagement. For the troll, there is nothing worse than publishing an inflammatory post and getting zero response. Trolls feed off of anger and outrage. Don’t feed the troll. If there’s a toxic troll in your network, block, mute or unfriend them. If it’s someone you know personally, just be honest. Tell them you value your relationship but don’t care to tolerate their online behavior. And if you don’t know the troll personally, even better. You can block them without hesitation, and probably should have blocked them long ago.

Troll exceptions?

Of course, there are some social media accounts with large followings that make a sport out of fighting trolls. Such accounts often do a fair amount of trolling of their own. They are not looking to change anyone’s mind – they are looking to juice their own engagement and increase their following by being an active participant in the troll dramatics of so-called “dunk culture.” Remember: Social media rewards negativity. But unless you have hundreds of thousands of followers and are addicted to growing your following, you need not play into the troll strategy.

In the case of well-known figures like Robert F. Kennedy Jr., leave the debunking to experts, professional journalists and others with the standing or audience to make a difference. Rushing to negate them will only boost their message. Instead, focus on lifting up your own message to those you are in a position to affect and influence.

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