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Let’s feed the trolls…science!

Trolls have an insatiable appetite. Let's see how they like science!

Trolls have an insatiable appetite. Let’s see how they like science!

Spend enough time on the internet (especially Twitter) and you’re bound to come across trolls– people (usually men) who spend a large portion of their time seeking people out to harass (common favorites seem to include climate scientists, women, social justice advocates, evolutionary scientists, reproductive rights activists, but anyone can find themselves a target).

A lot has been written about trolls, inlcluding why we shouldn’t “feed” them with our responses, but why this is unsatisfactory and ultimately ineffective because trolls are autotrophs who don’t need us to feed them. But not everyone has the time and energy to engage, and there’s no way to know how effective standing up to trolls is, which can leave you feeling like you’re between a rock and a hard place. Nobody likes being harassed, and it’s hard (for me, at least) to overcome the instinct to just let go, ignore, and hit the block button — especially as a scientist.

I’ve thought long and hard about ways to respond (or not respond) to online harassers. I’ve often just retweeted abusive tweets, and let my followers respond. Sometimes, I’ll respond with a positive comment to let them know that what they’ve said has no effect. Most often, I block or report the person for harassment. But I’ve never been fully satisfied by any of these strategies.

So, let’s try something different. The next time someone trolls you, respond with a science fact– and ONLY a science fact (it can be anything, not necessarily related to what you’re being trolled about). No insults, no rational debating, no sarcasm. You can use #TrollScienceFacts* (credit to David Steen for taking this idea to the next level with the tag) to let your followers know that they can join in on the fun, too, which can start an avalanche of awesome science facts cascading through the internet. A science fact is a compassionate act, allowing you to maintain a high ground and not escalate. A science fact is fun, and takes some of the stress out of being harassed. A science fact is helpful, and may actually have a positive impact where attempts at rational discourse would fail.

And, best of all, a science fact fulfills that need to respond without engaging, and sends a message that trolling is neither effective nor acceptable (especially if others get involved) without you having to expend much effort or use up precious emotional bandwith.

(Feel free to use #TrollHistoryFacts, or whatever suits you — Glendon Mellow came up with #TrollArtFacts.)

Categories: Communication Diversity

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Jacquelyn Gill

26 replies

  1. Now I kind of want to troll your comments just to see what kind of facts I can get! Mwahahahaha! (No, seriously, I like science facts)


  2. In a tweet, you wrote: “Maybe one day we’ll try to inspire the next generation of young scientists with a team of people who are as diverse as our universe.”

    Will any of these diverse young scientists have political views that differ from yours?


    1. Political views are irrelevant. If you’re implying that I’m defining a troll as someone I disagree with, your assumption is mistaken. Trolls are bullies, regardless of political affiliation. Their goal is to shame and silence those with opinions they disagree with.

      I don’t actively seek out climate deniers, anti-choice activists, men’s rights activists, or creationists (as an example of common themes I run into) and yell at them on the Internet. I don’t follow hashtags and call people names. I don’t find ways to retweet people who’ve blocked me just to mock them and incite my followers to harass them. See the difference?


  3. In your article you say “…and sends a message that trolling is neither affective nor acceptable (especially if others get involved)…” Did you really mean to use affective? Effective would seem to be a better choice. I’m not a troll – just a nitpicker.


    1. Nope. I know plenty of people who disagree with me on a range of issues that don’t resort to harassment. I will engage with anyone who is respectful and curious, even if they disagree– and I frequently do. Trolling is big about disagreement. It’s about bullying people into silence. Perhaps you might ask why some groups feel the need to harass others more.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Audubon’s VP recently wrote about their decision to keep comments open.

    They refer to Popular Science’s decision to ban comments after citing studies on how trolls can damage reader perceptions.

    I assumed most readers can recognize troll comments as noise, but it seems antagonism causes a psychological reflex that can polarize or create unfounded doubt. Perhaps moderating comments is the best way to solve the issue when it gets out of hand?


  5. Rather than the conventional wisdom of “Don’t Feed the Trolls” feed them something indigestible… That just might work! Their primary goal is getting a rise outta people, so the main thing is not to feed that need. I have had some luck making them bored just with short, simple, straight, factual answers. The best anti-Troll potion is boredom.


  6. For actual trolls, you have to ban them. You could respond with any string you want (ie “abc”) and they will come back and say “abc sucks” etc…


    1a. Noun
    One who posts a deliberately provocative message to a newsgroup or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument.

    1b. Noun
    A person who, on a message forum of some type, attacks and flames other members of the forum for any of a number of reasons such as rank, previous disagreements, sex, status, ect.
    A troll usually flames threads without staying on topic, unlike a “Flamer” who flames a thread because he/she disagrees with the content of the thread.*/

    As for people who actually, physically, harass others offline in addition to using online tactics, I don’t see how a science fact is going to deter them from this criminal activity…


    1. This approach doesn’t preclude banning at all. I’ve had run-ins with many different kinds of online harassers– everything from GamerGate to aggressive climate deniers. And I’m not talking here about the folks whose activity spreads offline to criminal activity like doxing or SWATting. Those clearly require different measures (and there currently isn’t a lot you can do in those cases anyway, without better laws and law enforcement).

      The broader point is that it can difficult and emotionally draining to ignore or engage, and neither has done much to reduce trolls on Twitter. This is just an idea to give you something tangible to do that’s positive (i.e., not insulting or wasting energy), and turns the trolling into an opportunity to both spread awareness of the harassment, get some support, and share information, all in one go. Banning can certainly be part of that process.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Great idea. Wonder what works best, something simple like “you’re just water with some impurities” or something slightly more enigmatic like “there are rings without unique factorization”? Maybe a follow up study of the efficacy of this treatment in a year or two would be useful.


  8. Just to clarify, any science fact known to science in the universe…not one relevant to the troll’s actual harassing tweet, right? (my only experience with harassment is anti-GMO people every so often, & giving them the science behind GM doesn’t do much good much of the time; but any science fact, that’s an interesting idea.


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