When I was in ministry training I was in a group sent away for a weekend of training in conflict resolution in small groups. These are a big problem on places where you expect everyone to be nice (as people tend to do in parishes), since this expectation makes you blind to a conflict untill it explodes in your face.
One of the most important things I learned that weekend was that we tend to think that noone wants a conflict (we’re all friends here, right?), yet there are personalities who craves it, who feeds on a fight and gain privileges from it. The educator had put a special term on those persons – he called them ”conflict parasites”. Though the term is descriptive I’ve changed it to ”hero trolls”, since it’s slightly more positive. Calling someone a parasite is dehumanizing and that makes us lower our guard. When we deem someone as not of us, we’re also pushing the problem away.
With the internet the hero troll has become something we need to identify and be able to handle. Much like parishes can become hotbeds of bullying because of the notion everyone there are friends, safe havens online can implode in conflicts and selfdestruct.
How to identify the hero troll
Behind the shitstorm
The hero troll is the driving force behind a shitstorm (it’s a rough term yet descriptive enough to keep). This person goads other people to act hurtful and toxic against each other, often by being toxic itself. If you can neutralize this troll the conflict will lose momentum and it will be easier to solve. Bigger conflicts will often have central hero trolls and sub hero trolls, and they will be on all sides in the fight.
Here’s also our first pitfall. Our kneejerk interpretation of ”neutralize” is ”eradicate”. That’s both abominable and not possible for the two reasons I list below
It’s tempting to think that internet trolls are pure evil. We don’t see their faces, and we know that some of them are doing it ”for the lulz”. There are millions of ways people are dehumanizing internet trolls, especially the hero trolls, and the old trope of overage losers living in their momma’s basement is only one of them. In doing so we’re already playing along in the troll games, and we’re blinding ourselves to where the next one will turn up. It’s a double disfavour to ourselves.
The hero troll resembles a sociopath in many ways. Sociopathy, in turn, are the most dehumanized and villainised mental disability there is. This is also a double disfavour, to ourselves and to those on this kind of spectra. I’m not a psychiatrist, so you have to take my definition of sociopathy for what it is, still I define a sociopath as a person who have a hard time forming a moral center, and to link that moral center to the surrounding moral system. Acting as a good person is always an act of conscious will, not due the feel of others’ pain or for the emotional satisfaction in doing something good. In grey scale situations where you have to act on a moral backbone a sociopath have to rely solely on former intellectual knowledge. If that knowledge doesn’t exist, or the person is tired or bored, this person will act in a way that is beneficial for itself. In this respect the moral center is stuck on a two-year-old’s level ”if it’s fun for me it’s good”.
However, persons on the sociopathy spectra wants to be human and good (unless they for some reason have been pushed into a situation where they’ve defined themselves as evil). Subconsciuously they tend to gravitate towards situations where it’s easy to be good, either to organisations where the rules for being good are clearly defined; like churches and other religious organisations, military organisations, or companies with an elaborate corporate code; or they gravitate to places where there hardly are any rules at all so they can set their own agenda – like unmoderated places on internet.
The tricky thing about sociopaths is that they often lack insight of their own behaviour. Instead they revert back to the two-year-old level of ”if it’s fun for me it’s good” and can put up elaborate defences against facing having done anything wrong. To not spin off into destructiveness the person on the sociopathy spectra is dependant of an environment that clearly pushes back on toxic behaviour. It’s not fun to be that environment; intelligent persons on this spectra turns to manipulations, others turn to violence. The solution for the sociopath and its surroundings used to be leaving – most often the former burned all bridges and had to leave for a place to start over again. The vast memory and unlimited connections of internet have made this close to impossible.
All humans can revert to soicipathic behaviour. Prolonged stress and exhaustion lessens the ability to feel for others, and heightens the tendency to act selfish. Many of the atrocities commited in wartime are due to this. That’s why we can’t automatically assume that the hero troll is a socipath, and that’s why we can’t assume the hero troll is Evil. The hero troll is a human – one of us. Moreover, the hero troll wants to do good – the saying ”the villain is the hero of his own story” is spot on for this character.
Will not disappear
The other reason ”neutralize” doesn’t mean ”eradicate” is that humans doesn’t disappear. There’s a tendency to act like the solution to a conflict is that some parts of it goes away, wether it is trolls, whiners or people with a ”personality problem”, often without any distinction between the actions and the individuals behind them. As if we’ve forgotten that people doesn’t disolve in thin air. On the contrary the interconections between individuals have dramatically increased with the internet. To cut all ties to a unwanted person is close to impossible, and the plasticity of the web makes it easy for anyone to pop up again.
And, on a sidenote, to wish for someone to be completely eradicated is a troll thing. We are humans.
Identification of the hero troll in a conflict
When a shitstorm erupts it’s important to quickly identify the hero trolls since they are the ones speeding up the fan as well as throwing shit on it. If there are more than one they will be found on every side in the conflict. Again; we tend to think that people on our side can’t be trolls, but there are no hobby, group, religion, ideology, mindset or outlook that can prevent toxic behaviour.
Positioned close to the big drama
Drama is breathing air for hero trolls. Drama gives a chance to pose as heroes, and they will go to great length to create it. In a way they strive to create a reality that looks like an Hollywood adventure blockbuster, complete with explosions, since that makes it possible for them to stride in like the Main Hero and Put Everything Right. The fact that they seldom reach the denouement of the conflict doesn’t change this. It’s possible to pick enough hero points in the process to be happy anyway.
The drama is seldom centered around the hero troll itself, partly because one personality can’t generate enough incidents to feed the need. Instead the hero troll actively seeks out ”problems” to handle, often points of debate where it’s easy to see the sides, strides in and stirs the pot. Sooner or later its actions are noticed and people are starting to debate the hero troll itself. This is one of the few times the drama is centered around it, but it’s favourite situation for the hero troll – to its own group of followers it can now appear as the Great Hero Unjustly Accused Of Being A Troll and gain victim points and hero points in one go.
Pouring gazoline instead of water on the fire
Since drama is essential the hero troll will do anything to keep it alive. Any problem will be painted in overly colourful language, any inaccuracy in the arguments of the opposing side will be dragged out in the light and picked apart vigorously, unintentional mistakes will be treated as intentional malignacy, any person even remotely connected with the conflict will be dragged into it. Sometimes hurtful language is used, but often the hero troll doesn’t need it. It is extremely skilled in finding out sour spots in the opponent, stomp on them with spiked boots and throw the blame on the reaction onto the opponent.
Making a mountain out of a molehill
One of the most important techniques to flare a conflict and keep it alive is to make a mountain out of a molehill. It’s one of the hallmarks of the hero troll. Since it’s already uses colourful language it’s easy for it to put in absurd exagerations. Those exagerations are crucial to keep the conflict alive. And as the conflict is a shitstorm, fanned by the hero troll, few will have time for a fact check. There is seldom place for long and thorough replies in the ongoing argument, and any shorter refutations will be rejected as biased, or drown in the choir of upset voices.
A note on language; colourful language can be of any sort. Even the ”dry” academical voice can qualify, and a hero troll schooled in this style can use it creatively – even hide behind it since we don’t catch the colours in the same way as if it was a cockney speaking.
Co-acting squad (usually not trolls)
The hero troll is never alone. It relies on allies to keep the drama going, and those allies are seldom trolls themselves. It’s surprisingly easy to end up in that posse. All humans have a thing for drama – that’s why we’re watching movies, reads books and comics, and play video games. Fiction is a safe way to enjoy the ruse and excitement of situations that would be dangerous in real life. In a sense drama is a drug we all can become addicted to.
The hero troll is a master in creating a reality where the drama of the safe fiction feels real, and where every follower plays a hero role. It doesn’t need to blackmail people to stay, most often this atmosphere of adventure is addictive enough. However it makes sure everyone knows what is acceptable behaviour in the group and what’s not, often by illuminating behaviour in the ”enemy” that is despicable. And since the core member sees everything done to the enemy they do make sure to keep within the lines. But that fear isn’t the big reason they stay – it’s the dry reality outside the core. In many ways a member of a hero troll posse faces the same problems as a member of a sect, and while fear do play a role, the loss of the warm friendlyness of the group is an even bigger problem when leaving.
People outside the core, on both sides, often identify the co-acting squad with ease. They’re the normal people hanging around the hero troll sporting, for an outsider, an inexplicable admiration for it. The members of the squad use the same language and adapt the same world view as the hero troll. Since they are admirers and made to feel like co-heroes they pick fights of their own, in a way that support the cause of the hero troll. Most members of the co-squad are ”normal” in the sense that they otherwise don’t engage in manipulative behaviour. But, since staying in the core group means keeping friends and access to the drama drug, they also sport a blind spot to bigger flaws of the hero troll.
The co-squad serves two important purposes for the hero troll. It broadens its reach, making it possible for it to stir Great Drama in almost anything. And, which perhaps is more important, the co-squad feeds its ego, making it feel like True Hero. A hero troll is nothing without its squad.
The serial behaviour is one of the most important hallmarks of a hero troll. Addicted to drama it will always find a fight to blow out of proportions. You can leave one of them for a long time, months or years, meet it again and find that it’s still engaged in a conflict. When one dries out in its vicinity it won’t take long before another one errupts. A smart hero troll scrolls the environment for real problems to raise drama around and keeps them on the boiler to use them when the time is right. After a few years you can trace it through those conflicts since they create a string of incidents on the net.
(gradually moving away from proved toxic behaviour to new toxic behaviour)
If you’re up against a hero troll it may feels like its toxic behaviour goes unnoticed. That’s only true in the first stages of a hero troll career. The longer it spends trolling the more people will realise the destructive effects of its actions, critizise it or withdraw their support. Since the hero troll is dependant of a co-squad it will adapt to be able to keep the group. Partly by doing what every normal person would do and change problematic behaviour – like I said most hero trolls wants to be good.
But hero trolls will also engage in a sort of creative handling of reality. While it moves on from one kind of toxic behaviour it often ends up sporting a similar kind of toxic behaviour. And to clean its records it starts to eradicate history. This is one of the few times it’s harder to be a troll online than in real life. In real life the hero troll makes sure its most toxic behaviour stays at things said – not written. That way it can change history by suddenly tell another story about a former target, and stick to it like it’s the original narrative – shedding the older one. The co-squad will not be entirely fooled, but will adapt because of its affection to the hero troll. The squad’s behaviour will, if everything works out right, help change the surroundings too. The hero troll needs to do smart moves for this to work, but as soon as the majority have been won over to the new narrative is taken for de facto history.
Online everything gets documented automatically. To change history the hero troll needs to know how to erase its traces online. Some do, and uses the opportunity several times. That way it can recreate the changing of narrative online. However human minds are not entirely moldable. The changed narratives will confuse people, especially the victims of the hero troll, and while it may seem like there’s no proof, enough memories will be left for more and more individuals to distance themselves from it. The hero troll will, both in real life and online, play an increasingly difficult game of hide and decieve.
More important than identify the hero troll in a conflict is how to handle it. This will be the subject of the next blogpost.