Internet Trolling & (Autism) Acceptance

Internet trolling requires a commenter to manipulate the emotions of someone they cannot/never see. This often-used bullying tactic implies significant strategic planning. More sophisticated baiting tricks ignite a poster’s fears. Understanding how trolls make online traps – and how to diffuse their bombs – deserves commentary and its own supervillain (hero?).

While some persons with autism have delayed or minimal speech, we communicate in other ways. Technology allows us to communicate with each other more than at any other point in history. To help prove my point: Instead of simply typing a comment (below), would you otherwise have taken the time to hand write and mail me a letter? You can also contact me via Twitter @FaceValueComics, or Dave Kot on LinkedIn. See?

Trolls don’t care about an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), or autism. Ironically, trolls presume more competence towards an autistic commenter than some professional helpers. Trolls have two goals: 1) get your attention through emotional triggers, and 2) continue the discussion like a chess match. Surely, these master manipulators know their target is wounded, or emotionally compromised; they improve their odds of winning an argument or exposing flaws in another commenter’s logic. Trolls play dirty.

Soliciting anger is easy- just insert inflexible political or social observations in a comment section or during a family reunion. Never reply in anger. Our primitive (hippocampus) brain functions begin activating in a fight-or-flight response. When angry, our brain redirects language skills to action-based preparation, like tensing muscles. We aren’t our best selves when angry and literally can’t communicate no gud know mor. Instead, go for a walk. Identify what angers us before returning to the keyboard. Without first understanding our anger wounds, we willingly walk back into the fray.

Fear is a troll’s most dangerous weapon. The best trolls plant doubt in a commenter’s mind. Doubt undermines our presumed acceptance within the online community. Trolls don’t just tell commenters that they’re wrong, they insult them. Nobody should fear a polite disagreement, especially one supported with reasonable points of view. However, questioning one’s acceptance in the group is the troll’s best use of fear. This isn’t just autism acceptance- this is Lockean Social Contract Acceptance. We feel like we are part of an (online) community and abide by its rules, or accept living by ourselves as banned/deleted outcasts.

We know what Broken Matt Hardy does to trolls’ comments, right? 

For example:

This blog post isn’t about internet security or identifying online child predators. Where I live, public schools teach that information in 3rd grade. If any of my illustrations made sense, I presume you’ve at least a third-grade education. Please, no comments about bad news about or in the internet. No, this article addresses how trolls try to get under our skin, and how to stop ‘em.

Let’s decode how I tried to troll you. My first statement was a fact. Reviewing what I wrote, one could defend my sentence. I planted a hook; something of fact or accepted fact. Already, you agree with me. Now, I start insulting you and pushing you out of the social group. “Where I live,” implies we don’t live together or near each other, ergo, we are out of the group since they had the last comment. They are still in the group since they are most actively commenting. To feel like a part of the group, we might defend ourselves, but out of fear. We often see comments borne of fear. These replies focus on a presumed insult or offense but ignore the meat of a discussion.

Next, I offer a veiled compliment: “I presume you’ve at least a 3rd-grade education” if you made sense of anything. Finally, I remind you of what you might not know about internet security or identifying online predators. Did you miss recent news about hacking? Is there a national search for an abducted child and kidnapper? What are you missing? Sheesh- if you don’t know, well…you’re not part of the group, whom you presume ALL knows the splashiest news you don’t know. Again, fear of unacceptance chokes us.

To defuse trollish fears, reaffirm your place within the group. ARE you unwelcomed if something I wrote didn’t quite make sense? ARE you out of our group if you’ve less than a 3rd-grade education? Does it matter where *I* live? Do trolls’ insults jeopardize your ability to be a part of an online community? When/if you answer these questions, our fear subsides and our position within the community grows stronger. We didn’t run away (the other biological response to threats was anger). We needn’t reply to trolls in fear; just because you see a trap doesn’t mean you should spring it. Walking away with self-confirmation diffuses this trap.

Lastly, we find contempt and disgust among the tools of a troll. These similar emotions typically inject sarcasm, but as a static comment. For example, “Good job!” In an of itself, this could be praise, too. Without inflection, tone, or context, words can be used sarcastically…or not. If sarcastic, what else was implied? Why didn’t someone like me? Am I still part of the group? It’s difficult to ascertain one’s intentions by just a short comment (even among other sentences). Therefore, we should simply accept the best possible impression of our commenters, absent of malice. Isn’t this same respect what we seek?

Wait- what about sadness? Can trolls make us feel sad? Unless trolls know us very well, they cannot sadden us. Sadness implies a feeling of regret and longing, which we impose on ourselves. Most trolls are mere passers-by along our journeys, so they know little about us that could sadden us. To make us feel sad, trolls would have to use some personally historic hook, which is unlikely. Trolls loathe sadness because it almost immediately disconnects the commenter from an argument. Sadness can replace other emotions if we finally believe we are out of the group which we wanted. We reflect on happier times, happier posts, and happier commenters, and feel sad to (mistakenly) believe we’ll never have those experiences again. We make ourselves feel sad, not trolls.

How do we explain emotional affirmation to children with autism? I think online acceptance is a challenge facing neurotypical children, too. In this instance, at least, we are united: we seek acceptance and reaffirmations of social rules and roles regularly. (Sally sells seashells by the seashore.) I have an answer about (online) social media acceptance: show ‘em, don’t tell ‘em. C’mon; I write comic books- whaddya expect?

TWizTravis Woo competes professionally in Magic: the Gathering card game tournaments. He’s graciously agreed to partner with us about online bullying. We’ll use his likeness and online persona to literally illustrate trolling and emotional traps in our comics. See, I believe Travis plays a troll online…the worst kind: Provocateurs. Since Travis is well-read and deeply philosophical, he seeks intelligent answers to creative comments. I think Travis understands how some provocative news generates attention. I also believe he is genuinely seeking answers to socially-uncomfortable questions at times. Make no mistake- he doesn’t censor himself.

Be Warned– Provocateurs almost always announce their intentions of fierce debate. Look at titles of posts and videos. Listen for sheepishly awkward commitment to the provocative statement or question. Master Trolls want a good discussion. To engage this character, be well-armed with cited facts and well-articulated opinions. Spell correctly. Quickly missing these basic rules dismisses your contributions to the group. Expect a minefield of emotional traps inciting anger, fear, and contempt. I’ve shown you how to defuse them. If you do, the Provocateur welcomes you back into the discussion as an equal. Again, the Master Troll weeds out weak participants and expects deep answers to their provocative statements. Enter discussions at your own risk, but sometimes Provocateurs offer new insights. I recommend simply reading about their journey without comment. Remember- everything lives forever on the Internet.

I look forward to collaborating with Travis as our story and characters take shape. While very direct, I respect Travis’ use of time. I choose not to take offense to his comments or questions because I honestly believe he seeks deep answers. In turn, he readily excuses my mistakes and brashness. I feel like he understands me, or at least what I want to do.

For example, Travis’ character will ask of the Zephyr: “I thought you had autism? Should you really be carrying a sharp sword?” Is he sarcastic? Is he well-meaning but cumbersomely blunt? His comic book character will reflect both aspects of Travis’ online personality. Additionally, the “Troll Wizard” studies alchemy. He commands an army of small trolls. These short homunculi beset the Zephyr. They try to inflict verbal injuries, using the basic techniques of trolls. How well does the Zephyr handle these strange new encounters? Is the Troll Wizard trolling him by leaving behind notes signed, “Much love, T.W.”?  Look for more to come soon from Face Value Comics!

Did I do a “good job?” Do you like to play games? For a chance to see sketches of the new comics BEFORE they go to print, please play along. Leave a comment to the Facebook page where this post originally appears. Reply with “Good Job!”     …without quotation marks, but with the one more exclamation mark than the last poster. One comment per person of this kind, please (read: don’t try to out-do yourselves with multiple posts). I’ll randomly select a commenter and contact them within one week of this posting.