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I’ve Been Thinking … Why Confronting My ‘Trolls’ Opened My Eyes

I don’t want to brag, but someone from Twitter once told me that I have some of the worst trolls on the platform. Okay, I am bragging, and I know that’s a weird thing to brag about, but in my less horrified moments I can see it as some indication that people who don’t agree with me are at least paying attention, which I guess is constructive. Still, I’ve had people ask me to never retweet them again, because my trolls are just too intense. Trolling really is hateful, and it often hurts. Sometimes a lot.

Trolling also very clearly hurts our society. Trolling was once only a creepy fringe phenomenon affecting the corners of the interwebs, but in 2016 the United States elected a Twitter troll as president. Suddenly, we all had a trolling problem. Then more and more people were feeling empowered to spew hate, and the subject of that hate were firing back with their own. As if overnight, trolling not only entered the lexicon of mainstream society but our bloodstream, too, infecting every aspect of our lives, online and off, and threatening the entire prospect of a civil and democratic society.

In reaching out to see if I could convince some of my trolls to talk to me, I focused on Twitter, because, frankly, that’s where most of them are. Twitter seems to be the most alluring modern platform for hateful expression. Sure, there’s a fair amount of hate spilled on Facebook and Instagram, and there are entire sites like 4chan and parts of Reddit basically devoted to hate, but most of my daily interaction with trolls is on Twitter. And they’re not all bots, not even most of them, from what I can tell. They’re actually real human beings. So I wanted to know what possesses human beings to spew such vile attacks. And does online trolling spill over into real-life hate? Do trolls believe the things they write? Do they think about the consequences? Or do they selfishly just want attention? Who are these people hiding behind their hashtags? And perhaps most importantly, given that the internet was supposed to be a neutral platform to bring humanity closer together, does the fact that it’s now infested with trolls reveal something profound not only about technology but out our essential human nature?

My plan was to contact my nastiest trolls. In the back of my head, I was optimistic that I’d have some transformative effect on them–like what happened when the author Lindy West wrote a blog post about how hurt she was by a troll who had impersonated her recently deceased father on Twitter in order to harass her. After reading her post, the troll emailed West in a confessional breakdown, admitting that he had been jealous of her self-esteem and thus was trying to destroy it. He vowed he would never troll again, and the two ended up talking on the phone for a heart-wrenching episode of the radio show This American Life. 

Yes, I thought, as I heard her account. That’s how change will happen, when we all start confronting hate with compassion rather than more hate.

But my encounter with my trolls didn’t go quite like that. I did end up with one offer for a date, I think, but mostly what I got from my conversation with my trolls was a deeper understanding of why perfectly sane people can be so bizarrely venomous.

I have so many trolls that I had to find a way to narrow the field. So I had an analysis done of my top trolls on Twitter, courtesy of the very helpful and tech-savvy folks at a company called Spredfast. They looked at my Twitter data for the fifty weeks prior to August 16, 2016. During that period, I had 158,000 replies on Twitter from 46,694 users. Many were from fans, but a distant subset were from trolls, including a number of “supertrolls,” some of whom tweeted at me, on average, more than once a day. I followed all of them and either tweeted at them or sent them messages asking them to follow me back so we could communicate. In all, I tried to contact more than a dozen trolls, including all of my worst offenders, and I heard back from about half.

Some of them didn’t want to talk. “My apologies to you/whoever handles your Twitter ma’am since I have tweeted some dick things in your direction,” @bmenyhert messaged me. Where is this magical intern who supposedly reads my social media feeds for me and takes all the hurt? Oh, wait: I don’t have one! Anyway, in the spirit of hiding behind their avatars, most of the trolls who said they didn’t actually want to speak to me were nonetheless delighted to message back and forth. “People have forgotten how to sit down and look people in the eye,” @bmenyhert wrote to me. “Myself included sometimes.” This is the same person who once tweeted me, “Not sure thinking is your strong suit, Sally. Stick to munching the rug.”

But thankfully, some of my trolls were willing to talk to me on the phone, and those exchanges were far more revealing. Imaging my surprise when they were not only civil to me but rather nice. I ended up realizing how much I had been thinking of them as either robots or monsters–anything but humans. Of course, one could fall down a rabbit hole pondering which version was their authentic self, whether they were being fake nice on the phone or fake mean on Twitter, or whether it’s perfectly possible that both manifestations are authentic, because, as Walt Whitman wrote, we “contain multitudes.” There’s also the possibility that my trolls were nice to me because I was paying them attention, or because they were simply uncomfortable being so cruel when talking to me directly. But my conversations with them, and research that helps explain trolling, led me to conclude that deeper forces were shaping these contradictions–and that these are contradictions we all contain.

Adapted from The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity by Sally Kohn © 2018 by Sally Kohn. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.

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; April 10, 2018). She is also the host of the State of Resistance podcast.

This essay was featured in the June 10th edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.