I got my first troll the other day, and I’m not too proud to admit that he threw me off my game. He reacted to an article I published about decision science and conspiracy theories. He was “deeply disappointed” that my article didn’t meet his expectations. He claimed I didn’t know what I was talking about. He said he wanted to debate me on the topic (suggesting he’d win), but he didn’t make an attempt to reach out.
Yeah… he did what he set out to do, I guess. He got under my skin. He made me feel bad. If you see him, pat him on the back for a job well done.
I mean… who is this guy? First of all, only my parents are allowed to be disappointed in me, and the three of us are way past that. Second, as they say in MMA, if you’re going to call someone out for a fight, then you better show up to face them in the octagon. Don’t threaten me with a rough time and then scurry away into the shadows.
I wish he direct messaged me for a conversation. Maybe I could each learn a thing or two from my troll. Maybe I could teach him something. Either way, engaging in conversation feels pretty constructive, don’t you think? And more classy?
But also, I don’t want to talk to my troll. I have plenty of other people to debate with about all sorts of topics. And after checking out his website (because of course, I did that), I didn’t see the kind of expertise I was hoping for. His post suggested he was an expert on conspiracies and decision science. But his website didn’t show it.
Which made me realize something else might be going on with my troll.
The ROI of online rants depends on the purpose.
From a rational perspective, it’s hard to explain the utility of making negative comments on social media. For instance, some people rant to push an ideology; but when the rant is mostly a series of put-downs with no discernable worldview, this isn’t likely. Some ranters try to sell something (politicians do this for donations), or they try to build a personal brand (comedians and radio talk show hosts do this). But most run-of-the mill rants on social media don’t come with a sales pitch, and most average people aren’t brand-building.
So what’s the payoff? What do trolls, agitators, ranters, and cancelers get out of it?
You could argue the emotional benefits of ranting. We want to feel good. There’s nothing irrational about that. But research shows that ranting doesn’t work that way. Overly angry social media posts make people feel better in the short term but angrier over the longer term. The more you rant, the worse you feel. It makes me wonder: are people who criticize others on social media hurting their targets’ egos? Or are they damaging their own?
Beware the hot rant.
Sometimes we’re calm, cool, and collected. Maybe even bored. When we’re in this cool state, we’re more likely to be rational. We’re more likely to weigh the pros and cons of our decisions. We’re better able to evaluate the trade-offs and avoid bad choices.
But we’re not always calm, and when we’re not, it’s like we’re someone else.
When we’re in a hot state, we’re emotionally aroused. Maybe it’s passion we feel, like when we fall in love. Or maybe it’s excitement, like when we accomplish something amazing and feel like we can take on the world. Anger also shows up in a hot state, as does frustration.
Hot states have a way of sucking the rationality right out of us. We act on impulse. We freeze, fight, or flee, or we ride high on the feeling - and do dumb shit along the way.
You know what it feels like to be in a positive hot state: you feel euphoric, powerful, invincible. In a negative hot state, your skin gets hot. You get anxious and your pulse quickens. Maybe you get a knot in your stomach or feel unsettled. But it’s more than just a physical reaction. If you’re in a hot state, you’re more likely to do or say something that your rational mind wouldn’t allow. You're in a hot state when you shoot off, “Please see my previous email!” to a careless coworker, or swear at your spouse during an argument.
We don’t see the hot rant coming.
Hot states can be surprising. We’re not great at predicting how we’ll respond in a hot state. For instance, we might believe that if someone were to break into our home, we’d quite simply grab our gun (if we have one), find the intruder, and shoot him before he hurts us. In reality, in that hot state, we’d probably freeze up (unless we were well-trained to handle exactly this scenario). If a home invasion were to happen, and if we were to freeze up, we might look back while in a cooler state and kick ourselves for not taking out our intruder. We simply have little empathy for our hotter selves (psychologists call this the hot-cold empathy gap).
It’s also why something that sounds like a terrible idea in a cooler state ends up being exactly that thing we end up doing when in a hot state. Unpredictably.
A number of things can trigger a hot state on social media. Just one example is jealousy. If you’re in a slump, or already in a dumpy place, or not where you want to be in life, then the relative success of someone on social media can tick you off. Maybe you read an article that you wish you’d have written. Or maybe you see someone get press attention you feel you deserve. You might feel upset - and it might hit you before you can realize it or know what to call it.
And then you might say something critical to feel better. And just like that, you’re a troll.
Social media makes it way too easy to have few regrets.
Hopefully, when you cool off of a hot rant, you’re able to see things more rationally. You’re able to realize that ranting online doesn’t make you feel better. It doesn’t resolve anything. It has no real payoff. But at that point it may be too late: you did it, they saw it, and now it’s just about saving face by not backing down. Which is also a hot state reaction to shame and embarrassment.
If you don’t see things more rationally after cooling off, then maybe you’re just a jerk. There is that.
But also, social media makes it easy to move on without thinking much about how crappy you might have been with your tirade. It’s common knowledge that you can hide behind your computer on social media: we say things to strangers online we’d never say to their faces. We may not be anonymous, but we are unreachable (for the most part). We are safe in our homes, away from any real repercussions to anything we say online.
I recently had a conversation with a friend who used to be a successful CEO of a highly well-regarded non-profit. He told me that the more successful he became, the more hateful the comments directed at him on social media became. The more photos appeared online of him posing with celebrities, the hotter, more frequent, and uglier the rants. And there wasn’t much he could do about it. There isn’t much any of us can do, really. Social media protects us all from a lot of our typical social sanctions.
In the end, having a hater means you’ve arrived. Having many haters means you’re crushing it.
Political rants are hot moral rants.
Jealousy isn’t the only example of a hot state emotion that can lead to bad social media decisions. There are also the emotions wrapped up in our current political climate. Hate Trump? Then it’s likely to piss you off to see a post about how he was robbed of the election. Love Trump? Then you’ll get angry hearing people criticize his decisions.
On the surface, it seems like these rants stem from simple political disagreements, but research shows that it goes deeper than that. Underlying political debates are really moral disagreements. For example, you might think you’re arguing with someone about immigration policy, but in reality, you’re arguing about tolerance or charity.
Our morals define who we are and shape our identities. They also shape our perceptions of the world we want to live in. When someone shares a story on Facebook that completely contradicts our morals, we feel threatened. This is not something you can be unemotional about.
In the hot emotional states that go along with online political debates, we may not do the right thing - or we might do the right thing, but in the wrong way. We may be too blunt when we offer criticism or avoid doing something that requires immediate action.
When we cool off, we might have a hard time having empathy for the hotter versions of ourselves that rant and tirade. We might stick to our positions more firmly, especially when we feel the social media spotlight glaring down on us, just to feel better about ourselves.
But in the end, it really makes us feel worse. And we end up being part of the problem.
Not all rants are hot.
Of course, not all online tirades are impulsive products of a hot state. Some people are careful and strategic in their rants. What they say (or whether to say anything at all) involves calculated decisions. The strategic ranter crafts their arguments down to the word. They inject cost-benefit analyses at each moment. Writers of these tirades are asking themselves thoughtful questions, like “What do I want to accomplish here?” and “What words will get me there?” There’s an end-game.
But don’t be deceived. Even though cold tirades are well-thought-out, they can be destructive. For instance, during Tucker Carlson’s rant on Fox News about his concerns with the COVID-19 vaccine, he boasted scientifically inaccurate claims. For his viewers, it increased anxiety surrounding the vaccines. It also diminished public trust in health officials. Ultimately, “going off” like that can risk lives and compromise public health. Arguments between family members become more intense. The general feeling of political polarization increases.
So, it’s worth asking why these rants happen and if it isn’t worth making them stop.
But first, you need to recognize that there are three basic types of cold or rational tirades: the ideological rant, the entrepreneurial rant, and the thought-leadership rant.
Some rants are crafted to change the world.
Some cold tirades are written to make a point that comes from an ideology. We all believe in things. Some of us want to change the world with our beliefs, and what better way to do this than on social media? The world itself seems to be in danger. We’re in a climate crisis, people are suffering, and inequality in our society and abroad shows itself in countless ways. The world needs to know who’s to blame and how to fix it. Social media is just the thing to spread the message.
And, even though social media content has a perception of being fleeting, the effect of a good message can last for years. After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida, Twitter was the platform of choice for the surviving students to call attention to the issue of gun violence and the lack of political leadership they witnessed after the shooting. Their voice as victims led to changes in gun laws across the country and created an influential political lobbying organization.
The Entrepreneurial Tirade
There’s no sugar-coating it: cold tirades can earn the ranter some serious money. Conspiracy entrepreneurs are an example of this, making false political claims on social media to make a buck. Conspiracy entrepreneurs really cashed in after 9/11. Take Thierry Meyssan for example, whose claim that no plane crashed into the Pentagon was packaged up and sold in his book 9/11: The Big Lie. The content of the book was a lie. But, the book itself was a bestseller.
Today, social media makes it easier for tirades to turn into cash. Take Youtube makeup-mogul James Charles’ viral video regarding a feud he had with another Youtuber, for instance. While the video is now private, it had over 40 million views, may have earned Charles at least $75,000, and boosted his media presence.
The Thought-Leader Tirade
Personal brands can also be built on rants. Social media has made it possible for anyone to claim expertise in some subject matter and promote themselves as thought leaders. Sure, there’s money to be made in this, but it’s not about asking for a contribution or selling a book. These ranters want to build a reputation, to establish themselves as an intellectual celebrity.
We can find an ideal example of this in Elon Musk. You’re not alone if you think his business success depends on making himself the foil to other business leaders. He’s earned an enormous following because of his unconventional politics, his successful companies, and his mercurial media presence. And he’s as likely to lose money as he is to make money from his cryptocurrency tweets. But his following continues to grow because he knows what his audience responds to.
If a tirade gets likes and follows, then it’s worth the time to write it well.
Even though a tirade is cold, reactions to it may be hot, and hot reactions can often be negative and problematic. For instance, an ideological tirade encouraging people to fight back hard to win a stolen election can super-spread, reinforcing beliefs that lead to social disruption. An entrepreneurial tirade can be exploitive, making a buck off of peoples’ fears. These tirades can rally people to act impulsively in ways that are against their own interests as well as the interests of society.
Sure, cold rants can push people to care about climate change, to push for equality, or to curb gun laws. But a cold rant is still a rant.
How do you curb a rant (if you wanted to)?
It would be great if, when we had something to say, we would actually just talk to each other. It would be great if we could have real conversations about social and political issues, or openly admit “I’m envious of your accomplishments; how can I learn from you?” Social media makes it really easy to just reach out and start a conversation with a stranger. But it also makes it way too easy not to.
Maybe if we all got better at checking in with ourselves on a regular basis, both physically and emotionally, sort of like how trauma therapists ask their patients (like war vets) to do. It’s important to be aware of the signs of a hot state so you can keep your emotions from getting the best of you. But we’re human, so that’s hard to pull off. Sometimes the best we can do is just apologize. Or make it right by following up a bad rant with a genuine conversation.
But I’m hesitant to give advice on this stuff. I fear social media makes it too easy to care too little about making real connections.
Can we change social media norms?
Maybe the solution lies in norm enforcement. Tirades on social media are normative. This means that while we don’t all like tirades, we accept that they’re part of the social media experience.
But norms can change. Many behaviors that were once acceptable aren’t acceptable anymore. If enough of us were to publicly sanction undesirable behavior - such as calmly yet firmly calling out bad rants - then people might choose against it. Asking a stranger not to swear around your children or “no running” signs around a swimming pool are examples of informal (non-legal) sanctions. They curb decisions in a positive direction.
On social media, we can sanction in a couple of ways. We can choose to stop liking and sharing posts that read as rants. I know we love them, especially when we agree, and especially if we’re upset too. But can’t we take the higher ground for a higher purpose? Can’t we comment on the content we read by using a respective tone? What’s wrong with saying, “Though I agree with your point, it might be more appropriate to share it in a less charged manner?”
It sounds like lame advice when I hear myself saying it out loud. But you know what I’m getting at, don’t you?
The more often we each dole out sanctions when we come across a tirade, the less likely tirades would be considered appropriate. The more they will eventually conflict with social expectations.
It should be easy to do. We don’t need to be fearful. We can just hide behind our computers once we do it.
Social Media Companies Can Help (But Will They?)
Let’s get real: social media companies can do more to ensure that engagements on their platforms don’t lead to nasty real-life situations. They can help keep the peace without curbing free speech. What if social media platforms had a draft feature for comments? Better yet, what if they could do a real-time sentiment analysis of your post? If they think you’re about to rant, they could ask you if you want to sleep on it before you hit send.
I won’t hold my breath. Rants are unfortunately what makes a lot of people engage on social media, and social media companies need that. Or prefer that.
Maybe we should let it all slide. Maybe we should ask: “Why bother?”
One of the better reasons is to “bother” stems from the fact that our online lives and our real lives are converging: our online habits are having real-life consequences. Even a measured amount of anonymity is difficult to keep, and losing it means losing your privacy. Relationships have broken because of political arguments that started online. Hate has spread. And, in a more optimistic universe, my troll could have been a helpful professional resource.
But there’s good news. Real-life has trained us how to react in the digital space. We can handle mean-spirited trolls, pushy salesmen, liars, and even normal people we happen to disagree with. We know how to handle them because we do it every day at home, at work, or just going to the bank or grocery store. In the future, how we react to hot rants or cold, calculated tirades online will depend a lot on the tools we develop in the real world.
We lose our manners when we hop on the internet, but we don’t have to. We all deserve to be treated better. We all have the power to make it happen. We just have to choose.