I spent the better part of a day recently exchanging online missives with Chicago-based pro-Hamas hate-site host and internet troll Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the notorious Jew-hating electronic intifada. What started out as an offhand spontaneous comment on a Twitter feed about the recent J Street conference soon devolved into a digital war unconstrained by Marquess de Queensberry rules, let alone the Geneva Conventions.
During the course of several hours, I was blocked – then (after I posted a screen shot illustrating my excommunication) unblocked – from Abunimah’s hate-site, became the subject of an in-depth Google background search, had my salary (obtained from a rightwing union-busting website) posted online, became the target of a public campaign to get me fired from a job I never had and a place where I’m not employed (an ironic tactic given Abunimah’s self-styled pro-labor free-speech defense of racist blogger and no-longer professor Steven Salaita), and for good measure was smeared as a bigot and “Muslim hater.”
As serious influence goes, Abunimah is pretty small potatoes. What elevates him a step or two above the archetypal basement troglodyte is the fact that his hate-sites attract somewhere north of 59,000 Twitter followers, including a small amen chorus of ditto-heads whose job is to repost blindly on social media whatever hatches from the mother ship. Being on the receiving end of what looks like an explosion of coarse and hateful invective – even if it only involves 25 people you don’t know – can be very intimidating, which is precisely the point. The aim is to discredit and shame you into silence.
In some sense trying to take on these provocateurs is very much like trying to beat the house in Las Vegas – trolls have pockets of resources and perseverance far deeper than any amateur for engaging in digital warfare. That includes the ability and time to wear you down first.
But if you simply can’t resist the urge to jump into the fray, here are eight pointers you might want to keep in mind before pressing send.
- Trolls aren’t communicating with you, only with their base. A followers’ list represents a hate-site troll’s most valuable commodity, requiring continual nourishment, maintenance, incitement and jealous shielding from potential poachers and outside influencers. Hate-site hosts and trolls therefore adhere to a strict modus operandi that involves the single-minded discipline of always pumping up that proprietary uncritical base. Be prepared for topics to be flipped on a dime and for posts to turn personal pretty quickly. Remember, it’s not a conversation with you so much as it is a pep-talk to the base. You’re just the wall against which the shit gets hurled.
- A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on. This maxim, often attributed to Mark Twain, is even more accurate in the digital age than back in steamboat and telegraph days. No matter how speedy your fingers, you’re unlikely to have the reach, stamina, and agility for keeping up with the online activity of a full time troll and chorus of ditto-heads. Be forewarned — the attacks turn personal pretty quickly.
- When you wrestle with pigs, as George Bernard Shaw observed, you both get splattered with mud, except the pig loves it. Don’t count on restraint or shame to regulate a hate-troll’s behavior. Be prepared to have your online accounts mined for anything that can be twisted for discrediting you. This includes photographs, personal and work-related information, family details, casual comments, friend and follower lists – everything is fair game, so be prepared. Count on the attacks against you to get creepier and more repulsive with each successive post.
- Don’t count on the corrective intervention of neutral observers. There aren’t any. Followers tend to be literally that, while interveners on your behalf are likely to be from correspondents whose help you’d most likely be better off without.
- Don’t allow the subject to be you. Answering incendiary questions and defending against lies and personal attacks is pointless, and only gives trolls the opportunity to make you the object of discussion and attack. You are not obligated to answer any inappropriate questions or continue any thread introduced to divert the focus from what’s important to you. Remember, from a troll’s perspective this is not a normal conversation and it’s not about objective facts, reasoned debate, or reaching common ground. Evidence you site will be dismissed as made-up and documented sources rejected as propaganda. Nothing you say is going to convince trolls and their ditto-heads, so maintain the discipline to know what points you want to make, don’t get sidetracked, and just keep pounding the points you’re looking to make.
- Hold your emotions in check. Avoid the excessive use of capital letters and exclamation points and don’t fly off the handle. Be deliberate in your posts – employ some humor, so long as it’s not forced – and be aware that everything you write will be sliced, diced, picked apart and distorted for use against you.
- You’re going to have to resign yourself to behaving a little bit like a jerk. Ideological bigots and hatemongers such as the Hamas flak Abunimah aren’t bound by standards of honesty, civility, or fair play, so be prepared to be hectored, shamed, badgered with repeated aggressive questioning of the do-you-still-beat-your-spouse variety, and targeted for character assassination and worse. Turning the tables on your troll is going to involve mimicking some of his own unsavory practices, such as posing the same provocative question over and over and over again no matter the context, relaxing your customary standards of discourse and logic, playing gotcha by parsing your opponent’s every word in the worst possible light, introducing unrelated sensational topics out of left field, mastering the accusatory non sequitur and getting over your concern about looking like a jerk. Of course, there’s an ethical line you – as opposed to the troll you’re battling — will not cross and a limit to how long you can hold your nose. Once you find yourself approaching that ethical line, you may want to consider hanging up the cleats and taking a nice relaxing shower.
- Know when it’s over. This may be the hardest rule to observe because there’s no referee to declare a winner. Hate-site trolls keep their followers engaged by continually introducing new topics. If they haven’t worn you down, they’ll simply bock you from their site (so their followers will only see one side of the exchange) or otherwise disengage and move on to the next outrage du jour. A not uncommon dodge, as I learned in by back and forth with Abunimah, is for the troll to feign victimhood and demand an apology for some manufactured slight as the condition for answering any more questions. How much longer to continue after that is a matter of judgment, but try not to become the crazy guy shouting into the well.
After spending the better part of a Sunday lowering into the muck, my takeaway is that wrestling with pigs is only mildly satisfying but entirely unproductive. You’re not going to change any minds, enlist new converts, show up your opponents for the racists they are, or change the course of history a single iota. Nor are you going to “win.” The momentary thrill of landing a clean rhetorical upper cut to the chin fades pretty quickly once it appears on the screen, then it’s not long before you’re hit with the realization that skirmishing online with a passel of vindictive nobodies has just been an enormous and unfulfilling waste of time.
As research for this post, I took the plunge so you wouldn’t have to. In that regard I was determined to outlast my Hamas troll and succeeded, but I’m not certain to what end. These guys and their ditto-heads can’t be shamed, convinced, or nudged into conducting civil discourse, let alone won over. And no matter how acerbic your wit, accurate your facts, or incisive your logic, there’s no winning, with the only result more grist for the hate mill. And as the news cycle spins trolls move onto the next manufactured controversy and the whole sordid cycle starts again with a new target to attack.
So reap the benefit of my research on your behalf and steer clear of the muck. Irrespective of the provocation or impulse to jump in, better to spend your time in the company of people you respect and leave the barnyard to the pigs.
Note: For a blow-by-blow look at how I fared, including what to avoid, search Twitter for @LNayman or #AliAbunimah. It’s not very pretty.