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Is there a right way to address trolls (apart from “starving them”)?

At the start of the quarantine, you best believe a lot of us are unhappy. And it’s not simply because of boredom or the fact that what we’ve long held to be normal is gone. Per usual, it boils down to late-night press cons, lack of planning and empathy from people in power and rich influencers who see COVID-19 as a blessing. 

We take to social media feeds instead of the streets. Of course, this means we are susceptible to dealing with state-ran trolls. 

“Ikaw na lang mag-presidente” or “Anong ambag mo?” are some of the trolls’ favorite catchphrases. They’re in our Twitter, Facebook and even Instagram posts, pushing us to get even more riled up than we already are. There’s no desire for a productive argument nor to hear what we have to say. At the end of the day, it’s all about pissing the opposition off. 

Enter #StarveTheTrolls: a two year-old hashtag making a resurgence during quarantine. Last 2018, Reddit u/Rusty_fox4 shared this graphic, a detailed reminder on why trolls are not worth our time. One of their reminders was “Pag nag-react ka, talo ka.” 

“It’s a problematic phrase. Starving anyone is against the spirit of protecting food security, which is part of our pro-peasant agenda.”

Trolls have been in our virtual dungeon for a long-ass time. But let’s be real, is starving them the key? Is starving them even the right term in the first place? If you think “starving” sounds a bit elitist, then you’re damn fucking right. 

“It’s a problematic phrase. Starving anyone is against the spirit of protecting food security, which is part of our pro-peasant agenda,” says Sama-samang Artista para sa Kilusang Agraryo (SAKA), a pro-peasant organization. “We do want paid trolls to shift careers if that’s possible, but unfortunately, the way the country is being run and how businesses take advantage of low wages and job insecurity, people cannot just jump from one job to the next.”

At first, I didn’t find the phrase troubling—but that’s my middle class privilege talking. It had to take someone from Twitter to call me out before I saw reason. That’s what rage without thought gets you, I suppose. It muddles any attempt of understanding and empathizing. And these are two things we all need now more than ever. 

So if “starving trolls” isn’t the way to go, what should we do instead? We asked people who have experience on troll control: youth activist and pro-peasant groups. From ANAKABAYAN to Student Christian Movement, they share their 101 on dealing with online trolls. 

Student Christian Movement 

How do you personally deal with trolls?
It depends. Sometimes, we ignore it. We try to flesh out those who really have dissenting opinions or those willing to discuss.

Is there a proper way of addressing trolls?
Because it has been proven that many are paid, the best way to tackle this is to ignore them.

What is better? Educating trolls or ignoring them?
We educate those who look like they are open for discussion. If they look like fake accounts, we tend to ignore [them]. As a mass organization, we are continuously affirmed that the primary way of action is through grassroots organizing. Thus, dealing with online dilemmas become second priority, although still very important and indispensable.

Liberal Youth

How do you personally deal with trolls?
We have a “no engage” policy when it comes to trolls. We believe trolls exist for the sole purpose of annoying or provoking us. Thus, they take away the safe space we have tried very hard to create for real discussions where everyone is respected and heard.

Should trolls be taken seriously or not?
We would argue that the kind of leaders we have today is partly because of the existence of troll farms so, yes, we think it has to be dealt with seriously.

We believe that trolling could somehow be covered by free speech; we also believe in a fair, competitive and free market of sharing of ideas, be it in any social media platform. And trolls and fake news in a free, fair and competitive market will not prosper. But given the existence of troll farms and the current algorithm of several social media sites, there is a clear erosion of fair, competitive and free market for sharing of ideas. The market is clearly in favor of trolls and ‘fake news.’

“We do want paid trolls to shift careers if that’s possible, but unfortunately, the way the country is being run and how businesses take advantage of low wages and job insecurity, people cannot just jump from one job to the next.”

SAKA

Why can the phrase “starving trolls” come off as problematic?
If they starve just because we ignore their comments or refuse to engage with them, that means there is a problem with the way their wages are disbursed, and can benefit from unionizing. Contradictions can exist: They can troll people who advocate unionizing even as they unionize for their own benefit. Our lives do not have to be dictated by our jobs. Many of us at SAKA have livelihoods that directly contradict our advocacy.

How do you personally deal with trolls?
We block or hide batant redtaggers. Redtagging is dangerous; many activists who have been killed have been redtagged as justification for their murder. We are not averse to criticism or even harsh commentary.

We ignore most of them, but respond to selected trolls with whom engagement can be productive, whose arguments we use as a pedestal to unpack our agenda: genuine agrarian reform, national industrialization, food security through agro-ecology, the development of the agricultural sector. We do not expect to convince the trolls we are engaging, but we hope to convince the onlookers who read our responses. Once in a while we receive messages in private that let us know our responses are instructive.

Is there a proper way of addressing trolls?
The only one-size-fits-all rule is to always conduct yourself with dignity. Avoid unnecessary harshness, difficult as it may be. Sounding trollish yourself is an option—but only if it’s used instructively, to unpack a point, to draw attention to you as you unpack a point. Engaging a troll is rarely for the benefit of the troll; it is always for the benefit of everyone else who may be reading the exchange, the ones you have a chance of convincing to your side.

Should trolls be taken seriously or not?
Peasant organizations have a different sort of troll of our tails: state forces. Social media pages of the Philippine National Police and some local government units slander us, the Philippine News Agency under the Presidential Communications Operations Office spreads fake news about us, and just yesterday, the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) devoted a post to misinforming the public about our relief operations Tulong Anakpawis and Sagip Kanayunan.

Their state-subsidized misinformation campaign has provided faulty justification for the arrest of former Anakpawis Rep. Ayik Casilao and the six volunteers who had been in Norzagaray on a humanitarian mission to distribute relief. The NTF-ELCAC is a particularly dangerous state-subsidized troll that puts our lives in danger. We have no choice but to take them seriously.

“State-run troll farms are paid with money taken from the people by the government. This means we can’t really ‘educate’ trolls.”

If these trolls are starting to threaten your safety, what’s the best possible way to proceed?
If these trolls do not officially conduct the work of the state or the government, we simply block or hide them. On occasion, we respond to help unpack our agenda for onlookers. The NTF-ELCAC, however, we have had to respond to by making a new post entirely, just addressed to them. This is another case of acknowledging that you cannot convince the addressee of your response, but you hang on to the legitimacy of your fact-based and principled answers to convince everyone else who could be reading the exchange.

What is better? Educating trolls or ignoring them?
Neither. Trolls are a fact of life, and we deal with them accordingly. An advocacy group like SAKA deals with it by attempting to engage with them for the benefit of onlookers, the lurkers who are looking for information to help them decide in making a stand, the readers who look for others who share their views to make them feel empowered because they are not alone in standing up for their principles.

ANAKBAYAN

Why can the phrase “starving trolls” come off as problematic?
No one deserves to starve—it’s torture. The state, as the guardian of the status quo, will make use of its resources to preserve its hold to power—troll farms included. By this, we mean “starving” them won’t end the state-run false information spree. We must, instead, cut the problem at its roots by targeting the man currently at the helm.

Is there a proper way of addressing trolls?
A good way to deal with trolls is to drown their noise by speaking truth to power. Activists strive to set the conversation online—what issues we need to pay attention to in social media. By effectively and creatively exposing societal ills, state violence and systemic abuses we turn the people’s heads away from the narratives trolls shove down our throats. With this strategy, we render their scripts passé. Soon after, trolls self-destruct (case in point: last year’s transport crisis).

Should trolls be taken seriously or not?
Yes. They spread false information and pose threat to people online which, in turn, has grave repercussions in people’s lives outside social media. By not taking them seriously, we normalize the perpetuation of state repression however bound by the internet’s scope.

Read more: Don’t @ me: You can soon limit who replies to your tweets

What is better? Educating trolls or ignoring them?
State-run troll farms are paid with money taken from the people by the government. This means we can’t really “educate” trolls. Much like state forces such as the military and police, you can’t go on convincing them to not kill people because that’s exactly what they’re paid for.

On the other hand, you can’t just ignore them. We must, instead, expose such state propaganda machinery whose purpose is to conceal social realities with copy and paste rhetoric.

Read more:
Dealing with the nation’s pressing problems? Local gov’t tells citizens to DIY
Instagram needs to do something about its harassment problem
It’s easy to skew poll results on social media

Art by Tine Paz

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Rogin Losa
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