By Bryan Caplan
I never troll; my sincerity is controversial enough. In particular, I never (a) misrepresent my actual views, or (b) try to inspire negative emotions for their own sake. There is nothing transgressive in my heart. While I often expect my writings to upset readers, I always hope to convince everyone – or, failing that, to launch a friendly conversation. Indeed, my dream is a secular universal reconciliation – an intellectual climate where every participant is relentlessly fair-minded and good-humored.
Now you could say that “trolling” is a loaded word. We can debate whether someone is “trolling,” but not whether trolling itself is bad. Strangely, though, several people have praised trolling to my face. Their arguments were poorly developed, but seemed to amount to:
1. In the world of modern media, trolling is the most effective way to promote unpopular truths.
2. Trolling is fun for the trolls.
The first pro-trolling argument is dubious at best. If you want to spread unpopular truth X, you generally need to defend X, not a caricature of X. True, trolling is a good way to get attention and promote in-group solidarity. But it also alienates people who don’t initially agree with you. People who want to spread unpopular truths need to overcome the audience’s hostility, not court it.
The second pro-trolling argument is probably true as far as it goes. But you can say the same about every sadistic pastime. And when someone confesses, “I enjoy hurting people,” our reaction is normally to shun the speaker, not conclude that hurting people is good.
Of course, the weakness of these arguments doesn’t show trolling is bad. What is the case against trolling? Most obviously, trolling hinders the search for truth. The main mechanisms:
1. Opportunity cost. Trolling diverts intellectual resources from the construction of compelling arguments to the elicitation of negative emotions.
2. The argument tax. Even sincere intellectual argument is discouraging. Carefully listening to people we disagree with requires intense effort. So does designing intellectually sound arguments to persuade people who don’t already agree. And the payoff for all this mental effort is usually zero: Most conversations end in a stalemate, where everyone sticks with his initial belief. So what do trolls do? Willfully make the process even more emotionally taxing than it already is.
3. The lemons problem. Trolls know what they’re doing, but rarely admit it. It’s up to their victims to spot the trolls. This information asymmetry yields a classic adverse selection problem. The fact that the person you’re arguing with might be a troll makes sincere people more reluctant to argue. As these sincere people exit the conversation, the troll-to-population ratio rises. This in turn leads more sincere people to drop out, sparking a downward spiral in argumentative quality.
What is the combined effect of all three mechanisms? I can only speculate, but it’s easy to believe the search for truth would be 10% faster if trolling vanished forever.
To be honest, though, the main reason I don’t troll is straight-up Puritanism. Consequences aside, there are strong moral presumptions against insincerity and sadism. Unless the social benefits of insincerity and sadism clearly and heavily outweigh the social costs, you simply shouldn’t do them.
P.S. The game Are You A Werewolf? (perhaps better known as Mafia) puts two secret “werewolf” players against thirteen innocent villagers. Every turn, the secret werewolves select a victim to eat. Then the whole village (including the secret werewolves) votes to hang a suspected werewolf. When I play this game, I have an iron rule: Immediately convict anyone who breathes the words, “I’m the werewolf.” My reasoning: Even if the person isn’t the werewolf, he’s helping the werewolves by sowing confusion. I treat anyone who says, “I’m a troll” the same way. If you say you’re a troll, I believe you and we have nothing further to discuss.