There is a story, perhaps a unique story, of a troll emailing his victim to apologize. He had pretended to be her recently deceased father and had expressed his disappointment at her being ‘his daughter.’ His action was horrible. I am incapable of imaging the emotional pain that something like that would do. Then he apologized after she had expressed publicly the emotional pain that she had felt. The victim of this attack is a reporter by the name of Lindy West. So she contacted her attacker and asked him why. In his answer lies a hint towards the answer to general question: How do we stop the trolls?
His answer shouldn't be surprising; we see this all the time in offline experiences. It comes down to fear and shame. He is not what he is supposed to be. He's overweight, he’s single, and society is telling him that he isn't good enough--that he should be more than he is. That is incredibly isolating. I believe many people have felt that way at some point--felt like they aren't capable of living up to the expectations of their parents, friends, or society. I know I have felt that.
He is fearful of being made to feel small and weak by women. A woman had recently broken up with him and that, I expect, made him feel powerless. No one likes that feeling. He was directing his anger towards strong women in society because they made him feel weak by comparison. I've been there. I know what it’s like to be made to feel helpless by a woman, and it is most certainly not a feeling I ever want to experience again.
This isn't to justify his actions or any hateful action. What trolls do is terrible and the damage can be immense. Suicides like that of Hannah Smith in 2013 illustrate just how much damage can be done. Her case is not isolated. The damage is on a spectrum, suicide being at the extreme but everyone who has suffered bullying, either online or offline, has scars to deal with.
With an understanding of the terrible pain and tragedy caused by trolling, it is important to understand the context of why people do the terrible things they do. It is because something fundamental to their life isn't working. It isn't about the target; it’s about the aggressor's need to feel powerful when life makes them feel weak, and they have lost the feeling of agency in their life. According to nobullying.com “Many times, children who are bullies have suffered some form of abuse in their life.” The people who cause other pain “are usually crying out for help.”
The attacker in the death of Hanna Smith is quoted as saying “The day before she died i was sending her a load of abuse get cancer kill yourself e.t.c i didn't think it would go this far.” This echoes what the Lindy West attacker said: “When you included [the emotional impact of my attack] in your latest Jezebel article, it finally hit me. There is a living, breathing human being who's reading this shit. I'm attacking someone who never harmed me in any way and for no reason whatsoever.” The irony of this is that the trolls both want to hurt their targets but they don’t understand the damage they do. They don’t believe they have agency so they can’t believe that they can really hurt people.
So that gives us a better idea of the problem, but where does that put us in terms of a solution? I'll try to make this as cliche as possible. The answer is love. I mean that seriously though. Those that hate must be shown love. I know that's hard, and I know it isn't fair, but hatred will breed hatred. Someone has to stop the cycle. You can't just ignore them. They are like children ignored by their parents. They will keep misbehaving in bigger and bigger ways until they are heard.
Many people in this world are feeling more isolated by the appearance of happiness everywhere they look. Look on Facebook, “All of my friends have perfect marriages and wonderful children, and they're always so happy! I know because that's what they post for the world to see.” Of course what people project to the world isn't reality. Like the ‘perfect marriages’ of the 1950s, people don’t want anyone to know of their struggles and difficulties. Many people when they view that projected image of perfection feel small, alone, weak, a failure.
When a troll is being active, ask them if everything is okay in their lives. Ask them if they need help. They're likely to say, “No everything is great!” or turn it around and try to use it as another attack on you in the short term. If their attacks only elicit compassion they will either become bored of attacking or they will think about what they’re doing and maybe even seek help. And maybe, just maybe, as in the Lindy West story, it'll prompt them to be sorry.
This has real power. This isn’t just a story about bullying, trolling. This is a story of the cruelty in society. Julio Diaz was robbed at knife point and after giving the kid his wallet the kid was walking away when Julio called to him: "Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you're going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm." Now thats love. Julio ending up taking the kid out for dinner. At the end of dinner the teen gave him his wallet back, he gave the teen twenty dollars and then asked for the knife. The teen gave him the knife.
Cruelty is not the providence of the strong. Rather, it is the last refuge of the weak, of the fearful, of the powerless. Answer hate with love, cruelty with compassion. Love and compassion can change the world. You cannot hate your way to peace.