If you’ve spent any amount of time on social media, or just reading the comment section of a random video or article, than you’ve likely come across one of the Internet’s most notorious creations: trolls.
The word brings to mind mythical bridge-dwellers harassing passers-by and a technique used by fishermen attempting to snag unsuspecting fish. And both analogies are fitting metaphors for the Internet users lurking in comment threads, baiting others into pointless, un-winnable arguments.
“Trolls” derail conversations, incite anger in other users, employ name-calling to get their points across and turn could-be dialogues into shouting matches. Many trolls set out to wreak havoc on otherwise civil conversations, but others are unwitting. They don’t realize that their passion for a specific topic has slowly turned them into the kind of Facebooker they used to try to avoid.
The Internet gives each of us a strange power: the ability to stay behind a keyboard, free from the social norms of face-to-face conflict. It’s easy to get so caught up in an impassioned debate that you start inadvertently acting like the very people who annoy you.
Thankfully, there are warning signs that, you are, in fact, becoming a troll, so you can stop the process before online rage takes over, and it’s too late.
Here are five signs that you’re accidentally becoming a troll—and how to stop it.
You’ve Commented on an Article You Didn’t Like For the Sole Reason of Arguing with People Who Did
Have you ever visited the website of a news outlet that leans in a political direction you don’t agree with, just to post contrarian things in the comment sections? Do you go to the blogs of church leaders, theologians or writers you disagree with, just to express your disagreement? Are you a Yankees fan who regularly visits Red Sox fan forums just to talk smack to Bostonians?
You might be becoming a troll.
Sure, there’s nothing wrong with some good-natured debate with people who think differently, but if antagonizing other people on their own turf is a regular part of your internet usage, you might actually be trolling.
Read other opinions with an open mind, and dialogue with others with the intent of learning from their perspective, not just trying to change it. (That is, unless they are a Yankees fan; in that case, harass them without mercy.)
You’ve Commented on an Article That You Didn’t Read
In the age of Facebook, good headlines are supposed to do two things: 1) Inform you about the topic of the article/video 2) Be compelling enough to make you stop and actually want to read it.
Sometimes, headlines are so compelling, that people will simply make a judgment based on 9 words of summary instead of the 600 words of nuanced, information-heavy copy the headline is referencing.
But, one of the key behaviors of potential trolls is making uninformed, overly emotional reactions. Instead of posting an angry response to a headline, post a thoughtful reaction to an actual story.
Discussions and debates are more productive when all parties are well-informed on their positions, and it’s hard to know a lot of information if the only thing you’ve read about a topic is the headline to an article you didn’t look at.
You’ve Compared a Political Situation to the Rise of Nazi Germany
There’s an internet behavior principle called Godwin’s Law (named after the author who came up with it, Mike Godwin). It says, that essentially, if an online discussion goes on long enough, at some point, someone will make a comparison to Nazis or Hitler.
Take any topic, and let people on the Internet argue about it, and someone will eventually bring up one of the worst chapters in modern history. It’s not always necessarily a completely invalid argument, but, unless you’re referring to actual humanitarian atrocities and drawing some sort of geopolitical comparison, it’s likely in poor taste.
Using the most extreme analogy possible in an argument usually produces nothing productive—it only makes the other side of the debate get more defensive and inflammatory. And that’s something trolls do.
You’ve Attempted to Steer Conversations in a Different Direction By Posting Completely Unrelated Links to Controversial News Stories
Want to see an otherwise civil discussion about politics or current events come off the rails in a hurry? Bring up one of the following terms, with a link to an accompanying news story: Benghazi, climate change, anything involving something inflammatory Donald Trump said, the illuminati, gun control or any number of other slightly controversial topics.
It’s not that these topics don’t warrant thoughtful discussion (that is, aside from the illuminati); it’s that intentionally bringing up something to provoke emotional reactions outside of the context of an existing conversation probably isn’t going to lead to anything substantive.
Respond thoughtfully to other people’s ideas, try to stay on topic and resist the temptation to bring up something unrelated.
You’ve Addressed Someone As “Dummy,” “Idiot” or “Moron”
It’s happening. You’re becoming an angry, name-calling commenter. You are just steps away from the monstrous conversion to full-on internet troll. A discussion about the proper order to watch the films in the Marvel Universe (obviously, in order of release date, not narrative chronology, dummy) is not worth a rise in blood pressure.
Close your computer or turn off your phone and take a few deep breaths.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.