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19.08.2018

How I learned to love my online trolls.

I don’t want to brag, but I have an especially strong following of Internet trolls. And this isn’t just anecdotal: Someone at Twitter actually told me that I have some of the worst trolls on the platform. It could be that I was early to join the site, or that I joined during my time...
Time: 10:19     Date: 26.05.2018
Last US News - Opinion: How I learned to love my online trolls. NY Post 24 - US News

Now, not a day goes by when I don’t get a barrage of nasty responses to even the most innocuous posts. Sure, if I post something about politics, the trolling is predictable: tweets like “@sallykohn stupid u should have been aborted u f—ing commie!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” and “Next to the radical Islamic extremist who murdered 49 human lives on Saturday, you are truly one of the most hate-filled individuals I know of in this country.”

But even when I post apolitical things, I get trolled.

During the 2016 elections, I posted a picture of my dog in the park, and pro-Trump trolls filled my Instagram feed with #MAGA (as in “Make America Great Again”). Trolling my dog? To be fair, one person did post, “#MAGA but your dog is cute.” Which she is. But that’s not my point. Who trolls a picture of a dog in a park?

While researching my book “The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity,” I decided to find out. I reached out to some of my most vicious trolls and talked with them on the phone. I asked about the messages they sent me, but I also asked about their lives and their hobbies and their viewpoints and why they were on social media in the first place. I wanted to understand why they did what they did online but also who they were offline, in real life — and the relationship between the two. I learned three things that surprised me:

First, I learned that people feel less inhibited online — what scholar John Suler calls the “online disinhibition effect.” The people on the other end of technology are real, but practically speaking the exchanges on social media seem to only happen in our imaginations. We feel like we’re just talking to ourselves, like venting in a journal.

Studies show that if people can see a screen showing the eyes of the person they’re corresponding with online, they behave more respectfully and kindly. “If I don’t know you, I’m not going to spout off at you in person. That’s just not me,” one of my trolls, @LindaLikesBacon, says to me over the phone. But Twitter, she explains, is a different story. “It’s kind of like hiding behind an anonymous wall.”

“Do you think you’re nicer in real life or on Twitter?” I ask another of my trolls who calls himself @bmenyhert.

“Hopefully everyone’s nicer in real life,” he replies.

Even though the Internet in theory connects us more than ever before, we still experience it alone — and the experience of being online can be very lonely. This leads to my second realization: In addition to or even compounded by that sense of isolation online, my trolls felt invisible in the world at large. They didn’t think their tweets mattered because they didn’t think their voices mattered — or that they mattered, really. For instance, none of my trolls thinks anyone reads the nasty messages they post online. Certainly, they don’t think I’m reading them.

After I reached out to my troll @bmenyhert, he messaged me: “My apologies to you/whoever handles your Twitter ma’am since I have tweeted some d–k things in your direction.”

“Do you think about the impact of your tweets?” I asked @ArlingtonSteve, another of my top trolls.

“Well, honestly, I kind of figured no one reads or cares,” he answered. There was a defeatism in that answer. My trolls felt invisible and voiceless.

We need to think twice before labeling our social-media neighbors as trolls

Which relates to the third thing I learned, which is that we’re all suffering. I already knew this, of course. And I also know there’s much greater suffering in the universe than being a TV pundit visible enough to get hate mail. Still, it’s one thing to know that at a theoretical level and something else to experience it directly. Here I was calling my trolls to confront them about the minor irritations they’d caused me and they were barely scraping by on Social Security or in jobs they felt were pointless.

@LindaLikesBacon told me about her 24-year-old son who, at the time we spoke, was in rehab for a meth addiction. “I just went to see him,” she told me. “He seems to be doing really good. He’s only got a couple months in, but he’s determined to finish, so hopefully this will do the trick.”

Facing up to the online hate can be frightening, but it also can bring real change. Megan Phelps-Roper, the granddaughter of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps, was once a professional troll, tasked with spreading the organization’s message of hate. She targeted several prominent Jewish activists and leaders with smears and threats, but one of them, a blogger named David Abitbol, responded back not with hate but humor and, eventually, even kindness. And over time, because of the friendly and compassionate relationship they built online, Phelps-Roper left Westboro and renounced her life of explicit hate.

We all suffer and we all dream, we’re all vulnerable and we’re all afraid, we all just want to be seen and heard. Understanding that changed me. And changed my trolls, too, I think. After we spoke, @LindaLikesBacon wrote to me, “Enjoyed talking with you today,” and since our conversation, she’s stopped trolling me. Meanwhile, months after we spoke, another of my trolls sent me a note wishing me a happy new year. And they all kept asking when my book was coming out.

We need to think twice before labeling our social-media neighbors as trolls. Trolls are creatures who live under bridges and throw rocks, not actual people with fears and pain. For me, this realization only came after I came out from behind my screen and connected in real time. It’s harder to hate when we actually know each other.

Sally Kohn is a CNN political commentator, activist and the author of “The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity” (Algonquin Books), out now. She is also the host of the “State of Resistance” podcast.

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