Civility Lost: The Rise of the Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls.”

It’s a modern-day-truism. It is as important to navigating the digital frontier of the Web as knowing how to parallel park is to obtaining your driver’s license. (Modern update to the road test rite of passage: the examiner scolded my oldest son when she thought he was looking at the backup camera in the minivan during the parallel parking phase.)

In this Internet Age we have the ability to connect with people on a scale never before imagined. But with great power comes great responsibility, Uncle Ben tells us. (“Don’t be a dick – stop the bad guy!” probably would have also been one worth mentioning to Peter.) And, sadly, it seems that we have failed to rise to the occasion. “Online safety” is another modern addition to the list of topics that parents have to address. Cyberbullying. Cyberstalking. Catfishing. Words that exist – and concepts that we have to wrestle with – in our digital age. The Internet has put information and connections at our fingertips. But for every solution it offers, another new worry seems to spring from this Internet Pandora’s Box.

Well, I danced with the Devil a couple of weeks ago. I fed a troll.

The whole thing started Saturday, April 27th. The Saturday of Avengers: Endgame opening weekend. While the Russo brothers had once again appealed to people to be decent and not reveal spoilers many people chose instead to share critical plot points.

As I was browsing Reddit, I came across a significant spoiler post in /r/firstamendment. I am a passionate supporter of the First Amendment. I think it is the cornerstone of our democracy. I believe in the concept of free speech and the marketplace of ideas. I also believe in common courtesy as a necessary social lubricant and a moral imperative. So I asked a simple question back to the original poster.

“Why would you do this? This is just cruel to people who want to enjoy the movie. This is an honest question – why would you do this?”

The author of the post did not respond. In fact, he deleted his account shortly thereafter. But another commenter responded to my question.

“Because the 1st amendment says he can”

I was genuinely curious. I have written before about my desire to talk to people with different views than my own. I think more dialogue, not less, is the answer to the increasing polarization of our society. I responded to this comment and the following exchange occurred. Throughout it all I wondered if a real conversation was possible. No matter how many different ways the other person tried to insult or bait me, I was only interested in trying to talk.

(I have no interest in trying to shame or attack this person. I’ve substituted “PT” – for “Presumed Troll” – in the exchange instead of using their Reddit handle.)

Me: Why would you do this? This is just cruel to people who want to enjoy the movie. This is an honest question – why would you do this?

PT: Because the 1st amendment says he can

Me: Because you have the legal right to? I’m not asking the question “Should it be legal for you to do that?” The only reasonable expectations as to what happens after this is:

-no one reads it (no impact)

-someone who doesn’t care reads it (so no impact)

-someone who has already seen the movie reads it (no impact)

-someone who cares and hasn’t seen the movie reads it (ruins the experience for that person)

You’re not OP but would that be your answer? I’m not attacking you but am genuinely interested in understanding your perspective.

PT: Maybe I just like being a dick? Sometimes it’s fun to be a dick.

Me: I would not want to feel good by making others feel bad. That is a me statement, not a you statement.

Thanks for sharing.

PT: ….uhm, yeah. You can tell its a “me” statement, since I was the one saying it. That’s how communication works. You didn’t do so well in school, did you?

Me: Well, I’d point out that we often infer tone in written communications that doesn’t always match the intended one.

I was emphasizing the fact that i was sharing something about myself in order to make it clear that I was not intending it as a passive-aggressive attack on you. I am interested in understanding perspectives different from my own. I think that when we only talk to people we agree with it only increases the differences between us as opposing to bringing us closer to together.

I’m also of the opinion that kindness is rarely regretted. None of my comments are intended to be inflammatory so if they read that way to you, I’d ask you to believe me that it’s not my intent.

PT: Then why, after I told you something about myself, did you feel the need to tell me that that statement with about myself? Did you think I forgot who I was talking about? BTW, in my experience, I’ve NEVER regretted being a righteous jerk to people. It makes me smile when I think about it. You can live your own life, but I would humbly suggest being a jerk every once in a while. It will give you self confidence, and prevent people from thinking they can just walk all over you.

Me: I’m good but thanks. I’ve had a good life with the choices I’ve made. I’m old enough to have plenty of things I regret – but kindness has never been one of them.

I was just sharing my perspective as that’s what your comment made me think of.

PT: I didn’t say you would REGRET being kind, I said you might ALSO ENJOY being a dick. How do you know you wont like something you’ve never even tried? If your kid said “I hate broccoli” even thought they had never even TRIED broccoli, what would your response be?

Me: I’ve been married 3 times, I’ve got 3 kids, I’m a veteran, I was a cop, I went back to school very late in life. I’ve been lucky enough to have had a life rich in experiences.

Among the things I regret are some of the times I’ve been a dick. As I get older I tend to think of my actions more in terms of “will this action I take – however small – make the world a little bit BETTER or a little bit WORSE?” That has been my consistent message to my children – do things in the world that make it better.

PT: Wow, that is one of the dumbest paragraphs I have ever read. And I’ve read the bible. I’m glad your not a cop anymore, I don’t want someone like you in charge of keeping my community safe. I’ll try this, even though you are probably to dumb for it to stick.

You are not significant.

You are just a person, like everyone else. And when your dead, no one will care. That’s called life. And if you can’t feel good about being a dick to someone, A) I doubt you were ever a cop, since thats what ALL cops do, and why the got into the job in the first place, and B) you sound like you’ve lived a very sheltered and myopic life. Grow up, and be an adult. Stop playing cops and robbers, and think about life in the real world as opposed to the way Oprah and Dr. Phil think about life. I hope one day you will mature a little bit

Me: Sounds like we agree that we have different perspectives.

I’m me. I think I’m as significant as anyone else.

I’d be happy to share that I have been a cop and that I’ve not led a sheltered life. My assumption (although, again, making wrong assumptions about written communications is a risk) is that you’re not interested. That’s OK. I don’t expect that simply because I can share my perspective that anyone cares.

I’m not interested in attacking you or convincing you of anything. I am always interested in other perspectives and you’ve been kind enough to share yours. Thank you for that.

PT: Well if you are a cop you actually a little bit LESS important than most people.

Me: I’m not anymore. That was more than 20 years ago in the Air Force.

PT: LOL, oh so you weren’t a real cop. You were just playing GI Joe. You are REALLY compensating for something aren’t you? Why didn’t you get a job that would contribute something to society? Instead of just leeching off of my tax dollars, why didn’t you do something that helps society? For your explanation of “everything I do, I ask myself if it will make the world a better place or a worse place.” It sounds like you have NEVER done ANYTHING to make the world a better place. How come you don’t want to do something useful in life? Why do you like sucking off of others hard work? Doesn’t it make you ashamed to know that you are wasting your life?

Me: My assumption (again, please feel free to correct that if I’m mistaken) is that you’re trying to insult me. Why? We don’t know each other (another assumption) so this is our only interaction. Did one of my responses anger you? If so, I’d be curious to know what I wrote that triggered this response. If you’re willing to share, that is.

I assume (3rd one) that you’re just trolling me. If that’s the case, providing you this amusement cost me nothing and didn’t upset me so I’ve brightened someone else’s day at no real effort on my part. An unorthodox method to bring a little bit more happiness into the world but the world is a wondrously diverse place! 🙂

PT: Well, no, I’m not trying to insult you. I’m confused as to how you can say “I always think if what I’m doing will make the world a better place.” but yet, youve never had a job or taken a role in life that ACTUALLY WOULD make the world a better place. I’m asking you to explain why if you care about “helping people and making the world better.” why would you be a air force cop? That doesn’t absolutely nothing to make the world better, it only makes things worse. I’m trying to understand your insanity/stupidity. So, one more time, put your listening ears on.

If you “try and do things that make the world better and improve peoples lives,” how come you don’t get a job that would do any of those things?


Me: Well I’m happy to share if you’re interested. I assumed you weren’t. But why do you think that the work an Air Force cop does only makes the world a worse place? Is it law enforcement specifically? The US Armed Forces or their role in US policy?

PT: I’m waiting, tell me why. Why would you do something that makes the world a worse place?

Me: Well it would be helpful if I understood what it is about that work that you think makes the world a worse place. I don’t share that perspective so I can’t answer the question the way that you’ve asked it. If you shared what it is driving your question I might be able to speak to my opinion regarding your perspective.

PT: What does it matter how I view cops and the air force? Its YOUR job. I’ll try one more time, cause I’m not going to learn another language just because you can’t speak english. People in the police and military are dangerous people that should not be trusted. So how can you do a job that makes the world a worse place? Last try child.

Me: Well you kept asking how i reconcile my perspective on my desire to do things that make the world a better place with the fact that I was a cop in the air force – saying that work was making the world a worse place. I don’t see it that way so I wasn’t able to explain it to you.

Thanks for clarifying, though.

“People in the police and military are dangerous people that should not be trusted.”

That gives me a better perspective on where you’re coming from. The smartass answer would be that people in the police and the military are dangerous people but that does not necessarily mean that they can’t be trusted. But here are some of my thoughts.

I think that the problem with our current system of law enforcement is that it doesn’t have the rigorous controls I would expect in an industry in which peoples’ lives are literally on the line (I mean both the public and the police). We have stronger financial controls, for example, in publicly traded companies. SOX compliance can be a headache – but it serves a good purpose. Adequate system controls do not end with “hire good people”.

In terms of the military, I’d applaud our Constitution for placing our military under the command of a civilian leader. It’s not a fool-proof system but it does largely place responsibility for the use of our military power with elected leaders. In our democratic republic, it ultimately places responsibility for the use of the armed forces in OUR hands as citizens.

These are all thoughts I’m happy to share with anyone genuinely interested. I would normally have a conversation like this over a beer but that is not a strict requirement.

PT: No Im not interested in enabling your alcoholism. Everything else you just said is so mind numbingly stupid I’m now just convinced your nothing but a worthless troll. Also, you said ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about how you are Contributing something usefull to society, you spat a whole bunch of bull shit about “controls” and a “civilian leader” Which has nothing to do with what I asked. You really can’t read very well, can you? I’ll try one more time since I’m a good person. How can you say “I always try to think if I’m making the world a better place.” when you have a job that IN NO WAY makes the world a better place. Can you read that, boy? Do you need your mommies help, son?

Me: You seem very passionate about this. (I could be misinterpreting your tone, of course.) Both law enforcement and the US Armed Forces do good in the world. Of course, with both of those complex systems comes plenty of bad as well – some intentional, some not. I think we clearly see these institutions differently. That’s OK. Diversity – especially diversity of thought – makes us stronger.

That’s it for me tonight. I’m off to continue watching The Office with my 12 year old (first time viewing for him). It’s a lot of fun discovering that your kids have the same sense of humor as you do! I’ll be back online tomorrow if you’d like to continue chatting, though.

Have a good night!

PT: I like how you IN NO WAY actually told me what “good” that either of those things do. It’s because they don’t do any good. I’m glad you finally learned something tonight. You are dismissed child. It’s such a shame your child is being raised by an idiot. Why don’t you let it run loose in the woods. Maybe a family of raccooon would take your son in. He’d have a better chance at growing up right than he would with you.

PT: Looks like you learned your lesson not to talk back to someone who knows what they are talking about. DISMISSED BOY!

Me: Good morning! Are you an Office fan? We watched the episode last where Dwight is (Acting) Regional Manager until he accidentally fires a gun in the office. Have you seen it? Hilarious!

Seriously, are you okay? You seem really worked up over this conversation.

PT: I just wondered if you happened to come up with a good reason for why you did a job that serves no good purpose in the world. If you want to be a cop, why wouldn’t you just be a dick all the time? Thats seems to be what you like in life?

Me: This seems to have really got to you. If you’d like to talk, I’m willing to listen.

PT: answer my question.

Me: Your question presupposes a perspective that I don’t share. Why do you think that work serves no good in the world? That seems to be the point you keep coming back to. I don’t understand your perspective but I’m willing to listen if you’d like to share your view.

No matter how many different ways I tried to have a real conversation with this person, they remained on the attack. I wondered if there was an element of appearance at play here. Was this person unwilling to appear to have “backed off” in the thread of comments? I tried another angle. I sent them a private message via Reddit. This exchange occurred next.

Me: Hey just wanted to check in on you. If you’re just trolling that’s fine. But your comments seem really angry. I’m not messing with you. Just wanted to make sure you’re okay.

PT: Yeah Ill be ok, when you answer my question, dumbass.

Me: I’d like your thoughts for a piece I’m writing

From time to time I write about topics that interest me. A recurrent theme lately has been how we interact with others – especially strangers and especially when we disagree. Our exchange has me thinking and is going to serve as the basis for a new piece.

I’ll be using our comments back and forth in the piece. I intend to redact your username. This isn’t about singling you out but rather is more about where online exchanges fit into our society. If you’re willing, I’d be interested in your perspective on our interaction. As with the public thread, I would include your responses but not identify you.

I am working on the piece now but don’t have my specific questions for you yet. Would you be interested in sharing your perspective with me?

PT: No, because I don’t believe you. Answer my question.

Me: No, I am serious. I am not trolling you – either in the Comments thread or in the private messages. If you’d like, you are welcome to see the questions and then decide whether you would like to respond.

I’m sketching out the draft now and I expect that the things I would be interested in learning from you will come out as the draft develops. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll have some questions for you. I’d prefer to send them all to you at once rather than peppering you intermittently. I may have some follow-up questions based on your responses, of course, but I respect your time and would like to get your comments as efficiently as possible.

PT: NO, I want you to answer my question.

Me: It’s a sad commentary on society, in my opinion, that we seem so unwilling to extend trust in online interactions. (It’s probably a ‘chicken or the egg’ scenario… do we not trust people online because online interactions skew towards the horrible or do online interactions skew towards the horrible because we do not trust people online?)

If you’re genuinely interested in the question you have framed, my response would be that I see the value, or ‘good’, in the work that both law enforcement and the US armed forces do. So I can’t explain the dichotomy you present between my desire for my actions to align with “doing good” in the world and the inherent “bad” that you seem to assign to both those institutions – because there is no dichotomy from my perspective.

Now, as I mentioned before, I think discussions regarding our system of law enforcement of the use of our armed forces are complex and nuanced. I would never suggest that only “good” comes from the work of those two groups. But again, you seem either very passionate or very invested in trolling so it’s difficult to address those nuances.

Again, I’m not trolling you. Our conversation (but not your identifying information) is serving as the basis for a piece I’m writing. I’d love your responses to some additional questions I’m developing but you’re under no obligation to answer them.

Have a good night! (If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, good luck! I think tonight will be a tough one!)

PT: If you can’t understand the dichotomy you are living in, then I think I found your problem, son. Think about how you live your life on a deeper level, and maybe you will understand how to be a happier person. Your ignorance about yourself is why you can’t see how much harm you are doing.

Me: Still attacking? Honestly, I’m surprised. I’ll send the questions over tomorrow, most likely.

In an online world in which hostility seems to be the first reaction, perhaps they saw my private message as a trap. I’d repeat my comments to PT:

It’s a sad commentary on society, in my opinion, that we seem so unwilling to extend trust in online interactions. (It’s probably a ‘chicken or the egg’ scenario… do we not trust people online because online interactions skew towards the horrible or do online interactions skew towards the horrible because we do not trust people online?)

If our online interactions were a passing fad or a niche community I probably wouldn’t care. But as the DIGITAL world increasingly becomes OUR world, how we engage with each other online increasingly matters. When we overlay what seems to be a more aggressive polarization of our political process (i.e. how do you feel about President Trump?) the outlook is even more bleak. How can we find common ground and talk across our differences when our first reaction to any disagreement in perspective seems to be “ATTACK”?

I wish this post had a better ending. I wish I had found a way to have a genuine discussion with someone who sees things differently than I do. I’ve written many times in the past about the need for more talk across differences. I will keep trying, though, to connect across our disagreements. I think it’s the only path forward for our troubled nation.

I hope you agree with me. (But if you don’t, I’m willing to listen.)

As I promised him, I reached out one more time with an opportunity for him to comment. I sent PT this private message via Reddit:

Would you care to comment?

I’m finishing my piece about how we engage with others across differences – especially in online interactions. Would you care to respond to any of these questions?

Do you have any comment on the overall exchange between us – both in public comments and private messages – in the post regarding an Avengers: Endgame spoiler?

Do you think a face-to-face discussion would have progressed differently than an online exchange? If yes, how so?

Do you have any comment on how people talk across differences in our society today?


Three days later he has not responded.



Filed under Essays

6 responses to “Civility Lost: The Rise of the Trolls

  1. Elizabeth Doxtator-Morenberg

    You’re a bigger person than I am

  2. I have known you for more than 30 years. Your life has not been sheltered but met with determined optimism. One of the things that I have always respected most about you is that you have an unshakable core value to continue your education through life experiences, intelligence and with a heart. I have seen your “be a dick” phase and it did more destruction to you than to those you were not being kind to. The fact that you recognized that at such a young age and veered back to your true nature is just an example of your wisdom and intelligence.
    Your time in the middle east while serving your country is about as “unsheltered” as you can get. You have three sons that are a testament to your dedication to making the world a better place and your determination to accept and learn from those around you. You have walked away from your previous two marriages having learned invaluable lessons about yourself and about how other people need different things. Your marriage to the great and wonderful (you are so lucky to have her) Queen solidifies the fact that if you put good into the world, good will come back to you. You are smart, kind, determined, dedicated, adventurous, wise, playful, curious, open, honest and so much better off because you CHOOSE happiness and kindness.
    I pity the poor combatant that feels that the only true value in the world is being a dick. I pity this poor man should he need someone to stand in front of him and protect him while he is spouting off that those protectors have no value.
    I thank my higher power that there are people with such positive energy in the world and I weep at the ignorance of others.

  3. Mykl Sandusky

    Sadly, I did not even take the time to read the transcripts thoroughly, as speed reading confirmed the anticipated. A few years ago, I joined every online online ‘discussion’ forum I could find. Today, I use Reddit as a search engine, occasionally. It is a damn shame a few can ruin it for everyone, just like they did in kindergarten. I strongly suspect most trolls operate at that level still.

    I haven’t seen you since our cross school wrestling practice, but from our online interaction see the same intellect my buddy from junior high had.

    Here’s an idea. Want to create a bot to respond to trolls? It can keep them busy and give them the attention they seek, while the rest of us use this technology to interact like human beings.

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