Prairie Lights: More than one way to skin a troll


You could counter hate with hate, but maybe humor would be more effective.

Here’s another feather in our cap: In addition to incredible natural beauty, wide-open spaces and no congresspersons currently suspected of child molestation, Montana recently made the Top 10 list of “friendliest states online.”

That is according to a study that took into account the percentage of hostile comments per state, the relative number of people who have claimed online harassment and whether or not a state has anti-cyberbullying laws on the books.


Ed Kemmick

The percentage of hostile online comments was compiled by Wired and Disqus, using software to “map the troll topography of the United States.” The software looked for comments that were “rude, disrespectful or unreasonable” and were likely to have the effect of provoking a user to leave a discussion.

I was reminded of that study recently when I happened to read a New Yorker magazine from November 2015. I pick up old copies of good magazines when I come upon them, saving them for my trips to the Y, where I favor workout devices that allow me to read. It’s about the only multitasking I do, come to think of it.

The article in question told the story of Megan Phelps-Roper, whose grandfather, Fred Phelps, founded the infamous Westboro Baptist Church in 1955. Phelps-Roper became the church’s first social media star.

The church had long been on the internet, but mostly it was known for sending members with deliberately outrageous signs — “God Hates Fags,” “Rabbis Rape Kids,” “God Hates America,” etc. — to protest at all sorts of events, including military funerals.

Phelps-Roper took that kind of messaging to Twitter, where she soon amassed thousands of followers and became obsessed with the “connections” she was making, good and bad. She also loved the give and take, the chance to argue with and to taunt all the miserable hell-bound sinners who disagreed with the teachings of her church — approximately everybody else in the world.

But then a strange and wonderful thing happened. Haltingly, she got into extended debates on Twitter with David Abitbol, an Orthodox Jew living in Israel. In the early days of the internet, Abitol had created a directory called Net Hate, listing websites run by anti-Semites, Holocaust deniers and assorted racists.

Phelps-Roper was interested mainly because Abitol had read the Old Testament in Hebrew, and thus was able to deepen and expand her understanding of the Scriptures, which had been warped almost beyond recognition by the brainwashing she had experienced as a child.

Later, she developed a similar online relationship with a man she knew only as C.G. His tack was a bit different from Abitol’s, but it had the same effect, of making her question her beliefs, and to wonder why hate had become the central message of her family and her church.

The upshot was that she ended up leaving the church, with her sister, and eventually she started dating and then moved in with C.G.

The article was only two years old, but it seemed to come from a whole different era. People changing their minds because of interactions on social media? People using Twitter to foster friendly engagement with ideological enemies? What?

I wanted desperately to believe it was possible, despite how certain prominent public figures have made Twitter into one of the most divisive technologies on the planet. This article served as a reminder that things don’t have to be that way.

Maybe I’m being a Pollyanna because I live in a relatively friendly state online, but the story of Megan Phelps-Roper gives me great hope. Or at least it has me feeling less like we’re all doomed.

Most of us are unlikely to have the opportunity to convert a member of the Westboro Baptist Church to sanity, but even a little bit of online civility might go a long way. Pseudo-religious fanatics like the Phelps family, and internet trolls generally, thrive on insults, even on hatred and revulsion.

You might feel better launching some bitter zinger across the ether, but if you can ever remember when doing so did any good, please let me know.

Phelps-Roper’s two Twitter interlocutors, on the other, had amazing, productive results by engaging with her on a human level, without mocking, shaming or insulting her. They were thoughtful, patient and kind — three traits that are antithetical to the troll mindset, but which, like vinegar on stone, gradually dissolved a lifetime of hate.

I’m willing to give it a shot. Anyone else?


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