Truth Be Trolled

I’m on Twitter, and occasionally I’ll tweet something seemingly innocuous and then have dozens or even hundreds of enraged strangers attack me with ugly tweets. What’s the best response when this happens?
— Besieged

You can take the careful approach on social media, staying away from hot-button topics like politics and animal rights — only to get a beatdown from a Twitter mob for your #totalitarian!!! #whitenationalist!!! aversion to aftermarket eyelashes on car headlights.

It turns out that pile-ons by Twitter mobs are often less about content (differences of opinion) than about coalition-building, though the haters brandishing the virtual flaming pitchforks probably aren’t conscious of this.

A growing body of evidence supports evolutionary psychologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides’ theory that humans have a “coalitional psychology.” They explain that “because everything can be taken from a powerless individual or group,” we seem to have evolved a motivation to band together and work as a unit to “enhance, defend or repair” our group’s status. Basically, it’s in-group versus out-group, us versus them.

Not surprisingly, the common-enemy thing turns out to be big for group bonding (social glue through collective hating). Outrage functions as a “group-mobilizing resource,” notes Tooby, triggering the mob to go off on the poor out-group person who dared express an idea the group is opposed to.

Because outrage is emotionally-driven, and because it’s so often coalition-energizing, there’s no reasoning with the members of the mob coming after you: “But … you’re misunderstanding what I meant!” In fact, defending yourself in any way usually fuels the fire. Every tweet you put out there can be turned into something foul and horrible that you supposedly believe.

Often, the best approach is to go into your settings and “lock” your Twitter profile for a while so only followers you’ve approved can communicate with you. You can turn off notifications and block everyone who’s awful to you.

And you can also take a break from Twitter until the mob moves on to their next victim, someone who’s tweeted something truly repugnant, such as “I don’t get the big deal about LaCroix” — only to have thousands of strangers from around the globe demanding their death.