by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
Like most things in life, the Internet is a mixed bag. Sometimes, online discussion is very, very good. And sometimes, online argument can go very badly, and there is a name for those who embrace a deleterious argumentative practice that is made possible by the Internet. We are speaking of the trolls.
Thinking one's way into Internet trolling isn't very difficult. There are news stories, blog postings, and opinion pages. With these, there are comment threads for critical discussion. Sometimes on these threads, there are hundreds or even thousands of comments. Now, when there are many people talking in a room, sometimes the best way to be heard is to raise one's voice. But, alas, there's no volume on the internet. To be sure, there is the practice of writing in ALLCAPS, which is the written equivalent of shouting. But anyone can do that, and on the Internet, all such shouting is rendered equally “loud.” So the only way to be heard on the Internet is to have content that captures the eye of readers, and in a comment thread, few things attract attention better than comments which are rude and abusive. Thus a troll is born.
We should note that Internet trolls come in many shapes and forms. There are some who post unflattering pictures of their exes online, there are others who bully classmates on Facebook, and there are those who intentionally post false information in the midst of natural disasters. We are not talking about these trolls here, but much of what we say will likely be relevant to them. The trolls we are concerned with are those that dominate discussions with overblown objections and personal attacks, who seem immune to criticism, and who thereby derail Internet argument. A further feature of trolls of this kind is that they seem to thrive on the negative reactions they elicit. Responding to them and defending your view causes them to become even more unhinged. It seems that the best thing you can do is simply ignore them.
But here's the trouble. It seems clear that engaging with critics is a good thing. In fact, it is not merely a good thing; it is what one ought to do. This is an old thought, and one exceedingly well-articulated by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, with the observation that “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” The thought is that even if you're right and have excellent reasons to believe so, if you have no reasons that address the other side of an issue, you have no ground to make the comparative judgment that your side is better. The consequence is that those who have critical things to say should be of great interest to us, and we should feel deeply obligated to take up with them. That's a really important reason for why argument matters – even if you're right in a disagreement, you need the grounds for preferring your own side, which requires knowing the other.