You’ve seen it. You see it when you point out antisocial behavior, more often when that antisocial behavior involves racism or sexism or something else people are uncomfortable talking about:
“Don’t feed the trolls. Attention is what they want. Ignore them and they’ll go away.”
It’s nearly as strong a silencing tactic as “Oh, they’re just anonymous adolescent boys [which they're frequently not] so you can’t expect any different.” It is also just as wrong, something that started to come into the general consciousness of the internet with the #mencallmethings campaign last year. “Ignoring” the trolls, dealing with them on your own without social support, doesn’t make them stop. It makes you stop.
It’s not surprising the advice about trolls is wrong if you look at where it came from. The idea is based in the principles of operant conditioning: reward and punishment having an effect on the frequency of behavior, rats pressing levers for sugar, pigeons pecking at buttons for food, etc. The advice itself is essentially what was once given to parents of small children who act out. Don’t give them the attention, and they’ll find better ways to get it.
Do something you know is calming for yourself. Many experts advise you to ignore your child. You child’s behavior is to obtain a response from you. The calmer you are, the easier to thwart them.
The problems with applying that to trolls are at least three-fold. The first two problems come from the fact that we are not trolls’ parents, and these trolls are not small children.
This means we don’t have control over their environments. These trolls have buddies egging them on. If they’re on a Twitter hashtag, they see other people doing the same thing (reward). If they’re on a forum, they’ve driven away everyone who isn’t going to tell them how hilarious their ability to swear at someone is (reward). If they’re on 4chan or some sub-Reddits or other sites that self-selects for proud anarchy, well… (reward).
Nor is this limited to the internet. People aren’t stupid. They notice when someone is an “acceptable” target of vitriol in the real world. We’re a social species with a long adolescence devoted to figuring this sort of thing out, and despite knee-jerk denialist commenters on every post and article dealing with the topic, this stuff isn’t terribly subtle. Even offline, this sort of behavior–if perhaps not always this degree of behavior–is rewarded.
When trolls see no reaction from the rest of the world, there is literally nothing in this equation but reward. Who’s going to go away under those circumstances? Who will extinguish bad behavior when that behavior means they’re winning?
Not having control of their environments also means we usually don’t have opportunities to interact with the trolls when they’re exhibiting prosocial behavior. We don’t see them. We don’t reward them. The only chances we have to affect their behavior come during the period in which they engage with us. If we pass on that opportunity, we have no impact at all, except for the tacit acceptance that silence provides.
Yes, silence is a reaction, which is the third problem with the feeding metaphor. Not only is it behavior, but it is highly rewarding behavior to trolls. The important thing to remember about trolls is their purpose. It isn’t to get attention for themselves per se. It is to control the conversation. Sure, some trolls show up out of the blue to say, “Derp, I’m an asshole”, and wait for the show to start, but that’s very rare.
The majority of internet trolls show up when something contentious is being discussed or when someone contentious (like a non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-capitalist…I think you get the idea) is doing the writing. If nothing happens when they attack the writer, except that their targets get a little quieter, once again, they are only getting what they want.
Combine these three factors, and unless we speak up and say, “This is not the behavior I want anywhere near me,” all the trolls get is reward for their behavior. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a discussion to be had about how to deal with trolls without sacrificing the conversation. It does, however, mean that it’s very much time to stop telling us to ignore the trolls.