In children's stories a troll is a fearful, loathsome, and darkly dangerous creature that lurks in the shadows and eats hapless kids who come within reach as they go about their business. In the blog-o-sphere of the adult world a troll is a darkly dangerous writer who lurks in discussion threads. Most trolls are relatively harmless though somewhat parasitic. They tend to lurk in threads that have made the headlines of the site and their aim is to exploit the interest and popularity of the headlines to forward a pet argument or issue.
Some trolls are more sinister. Rarely, they are skilled debaters with a covert agenda of disinformation and they lurk to sabotage and discourage open inquiry. They may even be hired guns engaged to lobby for a point of view. Examples include the occasional Monsanto partisan seen on OEN. Most commonly they are believers in an extreme point of view that sally forth to do battle for the cause; and the cause may have little to do with the topic at hand. (Think of how 9-11 discussions creep into popular threads.)
Why are trolls to be feared, and why do they cause so much disruption and tribulation? Some trolls like drama, and the rest of us are too easily drawn into the fray. Perhaps we too like the drama of a good fight, not unlike the lure of the children's fable. Kids like to hear stories like the Three Billy goats Gruff over and over because there is drama and suspense, but they know, having heard the story before, that all ends well for the goats and not so well for the troll.
Drama trolls are more annoying than fearful. They are easily dispatched. Folks seem to be much more fearful of covert trolls - the ones who masquerade as convivial like-minded writers but have a hidden agenda. They seek to infect the discussion with pernicious ideas that ensnare the unwary. They are the propagandists and spin-meisters, the insidious deceivers who weave seductively persuasive arguments, who introduce disruptive facts and alternative analysis. They create trouble and doubt. They strike unharmonious notes. They set friend against friend. We are inclined to say they don't belong; they are unwelcome outsiders and should go hang out on other blog sites where their misguided thinking is more welcome.
Whoa! Wait a minute. There's something wrong here. Covert trolls? Can anyone, no matter how guileful, force us to change what we think? Force us? Don't you and I have the final say on what we choose to believe and what we choose to reject? Can I, change your mind? Who's to blame if you do change your mind? Surely the culprit is not the beguiling troll.
But maybe trolls can slyly influence our beliefs. Such a person can gain our trust and we may uncritically accept their views and adopt them. That's often how it works with our parents. One of the jarring discoveries of adolescence is the realization that mom and dad are actually often wrong, poorly informed and lacking in insight. As a teen I was aghast at the evident stupidity of my parents. The aftershock comes as a young adult when we discover the same flaws in ourselves.
That preadolescent naive trust is not authentic trust, and we are shocked at the betrayal. Simple trust is not what is called for in adult conversation. We need to be prudent about the cordial hypocrites, the deceivers and the outright psychopaths who can be covert trolls. To recognize them we must think critically -- learn to recognize disinformation and deception by the content, not the trusted source alone.
Not everyone who disagrees with our community of progressive beliefs is actually a troll, no matter how tempting it may be to label disruptive contributors that way. It's easy to dismiss someone for their troll-ness so that we do not have our own beliefs confronted by what seems like heresy. To dismiss someone is insulting to them and is intellectual laziness or worse yet, cowardice on our part.
One of my favorite examples is Cass Sunstein. People on OEN seem to either love him or see him as the Uber-troll of government control. He's a prolific writer and researcher, and he openly advocates for deliberative democracy and transparency. But some see him as an advocate for covert operations; specifically they point to an early paper where he contemplates infiltrating extremist groups and infecting them with ideas that weaken their structures of insularity.
Dangerous? Subversive? Only if you're inside the extremist group, and then only if you doubt your competence to recognize that someone is being deceptive and inauthentic.
Or just maybe, the prospect of infiltration is dangerous and fearful because the "infiltrator" actually has a better grip on reality and truth than you and your fellow believers do in the cloister of the echo chamber. It's comfortable to surround ourselves with like-thinking friends. The cozy community of agreement becomes scary when an intruder makes us question our shared beliefs.
I recall the McCarthy era. Many in our nation were fearful of communists infiltrating our society and nefariously undermining American institutions. Communists and communist sympathizers were the covert trolls of that era. They included the late and beloved Pete Seeger and many other entertainers and scholars who challenged the orthodoxy of the mainstream. It took America a long time to see the McCarthy HUAC hearings as the inquisition that they actually were and we "burned" far too many good men and women with undeserved public scorn.
You and I can't defend ourselves from wrong ideas by building walls, or burning books, or ostracizing those who disagree with our orthodoxy. We can, however, equip ourselves to harvest the ideas that have virtue and value in their own right, and reject those that are deceptive or false and then proclaim our own truth. Therein lays wisdom.
As for the trolls, I say strive to become the biggest goat that you can be; and have the self-trust and guts to head butt those pesky trolls be they covert or blatant . This is the hero's role and the op-ed writer's calling.