Story Time: Defeating a Troll

A few years back I was a moderator for a large Atheism community (like a FB Group) on the now defunct Google Plus. On one occasion I stood up to some individuals who appeared to be trolling.

For context, the original troll was bashing “Social Justice Warriors”, and I had cause to think this person was trolling other than the options he was expressing. The point of this story isn’t about “Social Justice” or to support it, but rather on how to deal with persons being intentionally obnoxious. The specifics are my hazy recollection, and don’t really matter.

At some point the original Troll called in his buddies to help, but they were all very much the same, so I refer to any of them as “Troll”. The discussion went something like this:

Troll:“SJW’s are bad.”

Me: “I don’t see there is anything inherently wrong with working to promote Social Justice.”

Troll: “Ha! You must be a SJW too!”

Me: "But why am I a SJW? You don’t know anything about me. All I did was try to ask why Social Justice is bad.

Troll: “Women have reached income equality with men.”

Me: “I’m pretty sure that isn’t universally true, and even if it were, what’s wrong with supporting income equality between men and women?”

Troll: “SJW’s are using ‘reprehensible’ tactics.”

Me: "That may be true for some of them, and I do not support reprehensible tactics. I don’t think everyone supporting Social Justice uses these tactics. I do see that there are really issues of Social Justice that need to be addressed.

Troll: “You really are a SJW, aren’t you?”

Me: “Again, what part of this makes me a SJW, and why is it bad to support equality?”

Troll: “I can’t say why, I just know you are.”
[Note: Someone really said that to me.]

This discussion went along the same lines for some time, with different trolls swapping out. Each time I responded by calmly asking for reasons and justification, and not taking any bait offered. Troll could never justify his own argument, and eventually wandered off. I never once resorted to my moderator authority to end the topic, in part because I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction.

My point here is that when a person is being deliberately objectionable, instead of arguing, it may be better to ask them to explain themselves. They probably can’t justify their own claims, and turning their own words against them is far more effective than trying to counter them point-for-point. A point-for-point argument is exactly the response they are hoping to get, and they become frustrated when you refuse to give it to them.


I have had very little success with this tactic, which I have tried frequently, including at PS.


They often “explain” their views by deliberately trying to make more off-topic provocative statements so as to recruit troll-bashers at your site to react to those statements.


I largely agree with this, but there are some exceptions where they will cite a large body of apparently scientific work and, if you don’t respond to it to debunk it or explain why it’s somehow misleading, will leave the impression you have nothing to say when you ignore it.

I’m talking about all sorts of misleading or cherry picked statistics on the distribution of IQs, violent crime, gun ownership and violence, violence done by women against men, evidence for alternative explanations for income inequality besides discrimination, etc. etc. The Salvador Cordovas of prototypical right-wing fascism, who dress up in a cheap lab coat and spew impressive-looking figures and studies while railing against minorities, immigration, women, feminism and so on.

If you deliberately ignore all that they even have a tailor-made talking point for that, namely that “the left hates facts”.

It needs the right situation. PS is unlikely to attract that sort of troll; most topics are not politically sensitive, and people here are generally more thoughtful than the average forum.

Yes, that happened in this encounter too, with a few troll-bashers jumping in, but I left it out for brevity. Fortunately I was online to repeat my call for justification, undercutting the trolls efforts to spark further argument.

More generally, don’t fall for the “bait” offered. Question the premises and derail the obnoxious argument.

I find that this works very well in refereed arguments where there is finality: that is, in a court of law. I have never found it very effective when arguing with pseudoscience – at least, not effective at convincing the adversary. It makes hilarious theater if done well, however, and may sway the bystander.

I see a few names I could mention. Questions are seldom answered.


The main reason why threads here go on endlessly without any finality is that there is no mechanism here to hold to account posters who are repeatedly called out for acting in bad faith, or who recycle the same PRATTs without ever acknowledging their errors.


That’s not the sort of trolling I encountered in my story. No one here is motivation by hate, spite, or cruelty, and there is little political discussion. There are a some I don’t agree with, but I think they are sincere.


You just described most of the Internet. :upside_down_face:


I think this makes sense, actually, if you consider what the function of ID is. If one thinks it is meant to be a scientific theory, one will be confused at the fact that its adherents never work to render it in scientific terms, or express it in ways which can possibly appeal to scientists.

But that’s a mistake. ID never has been intended, by the vast majority of its adherents, to be a scientific theory. It is a con game. But unlike a pigeon drop, where the “mark” finds himself holding an envelope full of paper when he thought he had an envelope full of cash, the lack of finality in argument means that the mark goes on believing that he has acquired a great treasure.

And from the mark’s point of view, he HAS acquired a great treasure. Science now affirms his God. He cannot understand why people still have questions, because all of the mark’s questions have been answered. Is that not enough?

Unfortunately, this means that while the arguments for ID almost all originate in dishonesty, those who are the targets of the con go on repeating them. Sometimes they do this innocently. Sometimes they have been at it so long, and have got so much emotional investment in the idea that they have NOT been conned, that they become as passionate in defending these dishonest notions as the people who originated them. So you have a transparent scam, and yet, the scam is spread like a chain letter by the victims thereof.

To such a victim, scientific objections largely miss the point. And so you get the oft-repeated accusation of making a “straw man” argument, which would be slightly less amusing if it were not being levelled by Worzel Gummidge as he speaks from a straw podium. And the fact that these arguments are all indeed PRATTs goes unnoticed by those who make them. They tend to think that they are poorly understood by others, and that their grasp of the core philosophical issues is superior even if their biology is not.


Not relevant here, but by even replying to a post, and continuing the conversation, you are providing a platform to the other party and giving their views exposure.

For this reason, I always block anti-vaccers, and occasionally some others when it is clear to me that neither I nor they nor bystanders could be learning anything from the interchanges

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It’s sort of relevant. In others setting I could have blocked them and been done with it. Here I had to work within the rules of that community - rules I helped to establish after previous owner/moderator abuse. By the end of that discussion I had the moderation team on alert for further bad behavior from these trolls. I don’t recall if we actually banned them or they just wandered off to play elsewhere.

It’s a tough call.

The metaphor that often comes to my mind is that annoying guy at a baseball game who continually demeans players who don’t meet his expectations. Wouldn’t it be great if someone went up into the stands, pulled him down on the field, and had him flail away at some fastballs or have some hot grounders go flying right by him? There is something to be said for putting the troll on a stage, and letting them fail in front of everyone.