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5 March 2011updated 17 Jan 2012 5:01am

Don’t feed the trolls

Surely we should be able to disagree without being aggressive?

By Steven Baxter

Every now and then, I find myself on the receiving end from those strange little creatures we call trolls. It’s not the abuse I mind – growing up as the fat kid in the classroom means you have to learn how to fend these things off with a combination of phlegm, humour and punching people in the face. My punching days are very much over, I’m afraid, so I have to make do with typing out words.

The abusive element doesn’t bother me; it’s the feeling that people are trying to close down debate. They want to run the show. They want to derail any genuine arguments by turning everything around to what they want to talk about. Not such a big deal when it’s a light-hearted comment, a throwaway insult or a bit of surrealist fun (which I heartily welcome, by the way); but not so much fun when it turns into threats, racism or downright nastiness.

Worse still, there’s a suspicion – just a suspicion – that they don’t want certain subjects to be discussed at all, except on their terms. It’s hard to escape the sense that these people are trying to intimidate others from having their say and facing similar abuse.

I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or not – let’s assume for the time being it’s a complete coincidence – but I always seem to find myself getting more of an ear-bashing by these hissy little jokers when I write about race and immigration, specifically if I say derogatory things about the BNP or EDL. Now I’m not saying that we should assume that supporters of those organisations are those who are responsible for sending me emails calling me the strongest swear word in the English language or putting comments under articles saying that I won’t be alive for much longer; but I do seem to get a few more sticks and stones when I talk about those subjects and those groups.

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Even if it is more than a coincidence, it would not be a very good strategy for these folk to pursue. You see, I am a bloody-minded and recalcitrant individual at the best of times; and if I ever did suspect that people wanted me not to write about certain subjects, I would make sure I wrote about them twice as much, three times as much, four times as much.

And I would keep going. Because I’d know that I was getting something right. I would know that I was hitting the right targets, and making these people feel scared. They would want to make me scared; but I would know that it would be they who had the most fear. And so I would be even more determined to keep going, and expose them.

I’m lucky, really. I’ve spoken to a few people who find themselves wearied by the thought of anticipating the trollish onslaught below the line on the posts they write, so much so that it makes them simply dread looking at comments or even writing blog posts in the first place. It’s easy to say, “Don’t look below the line; there be dragons,” but sometimes you just have to look – and besides, why shouldn’t you?

I know, I know; if you can’t take it, don’t dish it out, and all of that – but sometimes these aren’t people who are dishing anything out other than honestly held opinions. Maybe they don’t deserve such a shoeing for doing so.

There’s nothing wrong with disagreeing, of course. I like disagreeing, and I do it all the time. But when it becomes too aggressive, or too repetitive, it could discourage others from having their say, and I don’t think that’s fair. We should all be able to play nicely. Shouldn’t we?