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Trolls & the NYT Bestsellers

What do trolls and the New York Times bestseller list have in common?

More than you might think.

It is often stated that bullies act out of a lack of self-esteem. But it is postulated that the opposite is also true: early humans that were good at convincing others of their superiority were perched at the top of the social hierarchy and demeaned others to keep their lofty position. Their followers aped their behavior and adopted their opinions.

Malicious internet trolls tend to be narcissistic, perhaps sociopathic. They need to lash out at other people to make themselves feel better. They usually rely on the cloak of anonymity, but not always. Superstars can be just as guilty.

They know that participants tend to conform to the rules and mindset of the bullies. 
A highly dysfunctional troll can start an attack with stealth with no fear of real reprisal, unless they accidentally target a master hacker who is capable of coming after them with a return cyber-attack. They do this certain that they will gain followers.

If you know such a hacker, I'd like his/her number.

The problem is, people who would never consider themselves bullies, who would never intentionally hurt others, can be drawn into the fray. They may agree with the troll's position, not necessarily the way it was expressed. The troll could be a friend (virtual or real), a relative, or a coworker, but acquaintance is not necessary to gain support. People jump in for myriad reasons.

The opposite of the troll is the cooing elf. Positive posters are motivated by the same phenomena. When the top “elf” loves something, others rush in with praise in their desire to be part of the “in” group. Elves also adopt the opinions and behaviors of their leader.

That is how books that are inherently flawed and barely readable can rise to the top of the NYT bestseller list.

When an elf is attacked by a troll, the battle becomes a free-for-all, dragging in totally innocent bystanders. You end up with a gallows mentality. A faction of the population enjoys a good show, particularly a gruesome one. It is why crowds gather to cheer on combatants when a fight breaks out.

                            But the positive review elves don’t cause any harm, right?

On the contrary, rewarding bad behavior or false praise can be just as toxic as trolling. If friends, family, or total strangers who have never read the book jump in with five-star ratings, it skews public opinion. 

Is there a solution to this problem? 

Not entirely, but there are steps we can take.

It would be nearly impossible to eliminate the cloak of anonymity offered by a virtual world, but attempts are being made to discourage trolls. An administrator can take down any post they consider inappropriate, but how do they decide which posts are “appropriate?” It’s a thin line between abuse and freedom of opinion. You can report abusive messages or direct threats from a troll. The administrators can block the accounts, but that doesn’t keep the troll from assuming a new identity.

If the situation gets stressful, quickest and easiest way to cope is to unplug and refuse to engage. Bullies get bored when they no longer get a rise out of you. You may be tempted to delete your social media accounts. However, authors are encouraged to have a social media presence to market their work, so removing your online presence isn't the best option. Either way, you'll have a hard time getting the troll war erased on review sites. You may need to take a break for a while, until you no longer feel the need to throttle someone.

As for society as a whole, we could aim for higher standards of online behavior:

We can teach our kids (or students) to think for themselves and to consider very carefully before they post anything online.
Stop laughing.

We can teach them to never post a review until they can display a sufficient grasp of the language.
Please, for the love of literacy.

We can encourage civil discourse in all public arenas: the internet, television, radio, the printed press, congress.
I see your smirk.

We can encourage journalistic and reviewer integrity.

I can hear you howling.

We can stop "trading" or writing reviews for books we've never read or refuse to pay for fake reviews and social media "likes." You may mean well, but you are enabling and harming the integrity of the process.

Don't bother sending hate mail.

Short of rewiring human nature, there is no simple solution. We can only change one person's character at a time: our own.

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