Take Back the Internet: How Good People Can Beat the Cynics and the Trolls

cynics; trolls; leadership

As you’ve notice, the tone of online communication has changed so much in the last few years.

Harsher. Angrier. More dismissive. Divided. Tribal. Angry.

Like you probably do, I find social and the comments section on many platforms discouraging…even depressing. It’s like the mean people took over the internet. Or like we become mean people when we go online.

Because when I talk to people in real life, it’s rarely as bad as it is online?

What’s going on?

So many people are turning off comments on articles,  on their YouTube videos or other channels altogether. They have various reasons, and as someone who has to wade through hundreds of comments a month on this site, and my social media accounts, I completely understand that.

If I ever cut comments on any of my channels, it would be because the quality of discussion is too often hijacked by the trolls and cynics.

But I don’t want to close my comments sections. Why?

Because I really value dialogue from good people.

Because I learn from readers like you. And because I actually value different perspectives, not just my own.

And I should say, so many of you have been SO encouraging. If I stop all comments, we stop encouraging each other.

So thanks for being awesome like that.

So here we go: Don’t let the cynics and the trolls win the internet. Most days, these days, it seems like they’re winning, even taking over the character and tone of network news.

But when it seems like they’re winning, what do you do?

How Instant Access And Algorithms Empowers Cynics and Trolls

As long as there have been people, there have been angry people and perpetually angry people.

In the past, though, cynics and trolls had to interact in front of real people. They’d have to say something in the lunch room in the presence of their co-workers, or line up at the microphone at a meeting to be heard.

And they’d have to do their own research. They didn’t have an algorithm handing them more and more incidiary things to read and watch every few minutes.

Pre-social media and algorithms, they had to use email to complain, which means they pretty much had to use their real name and expect a real response by a real person.

There was a social check in that…the idea that you were part of a community where people actually interacted with each other.

But now, emboldened by a keyboard, algorithmic confirmation bias, and seemingly endless amounts of time, they seem quite dedicated to spreading hopelessness and misery. And as the algorithm feeds you more and more extreme content of what you like, you get even more convinced you’re right and everyone else is wrong.

Social media and comments threads now give cynics instant access to anyone who will let them rant, groan and show the rest of the world how much they think they know. And as you have the latest idea, you hit publish, rant, and get involved in a comment fight that covers everyone with mud.

And, the algorithms that drive most online platforms are only reinforcing those people’s opinions, whether they are wrong or right.

Algorithms don’t challenge confirmation bias, they fuel it.

Tristan Harris calls what the algorithm is doing to our conversation the ‘downgrading of humanity‘.

Yuval Harari warns us about the hijacking of our minds and the ability to be able to think for ourselves. Ironically, as the algorithm lures us into more and more extreme content, you think you’re thinking for ourselves when in fact the very opposite is happening.

As a result of all this, the collective dialogue is suffering:

We “know” more but think less.

We’ve convinced ourselves that opinion matters more than dialogue.

Rudeness and name-calling have become a substitute for disagreement.

That can’t win.

It’s a recipe for social suicide.

The Antidote to Trolls and Cynics

So what can you and I do?

Naturally, you can edit and even ban the cynics and trolls.

I try to ban as few people as possible, but every month I end up banning a few people from commenting on my site or my social channels who honestly just want to pick fights.

There’s an intense debate about censorship and free speech, and I’m on the side of free speech. But here are my house rules. This is my site, and it’s my channel. I treat it a bit like life: you can be rude in my house, but do it a few times and you won’t be invited back.

Threaten me or my family and neighbors, and I’ll ask you to leave immediately and you’re no longer welcome. Get really aggressive and I’ll call the police.

But it’s not just about minimizing harm. It’s about accelerating the good.

But you and I can do much better than that. Much better.

You and I can have meaningful dialogue. Helpful conversations. Constructive conversations that move the dialogue and mission forward. That’s why I haven’t banned comments and still engage.

Also, fundamentally, I believe there are far more good leaders and thoughtful people than there are cynics and trolls.

But here’s the tension: the silence of good people on the internet is killing us and fuelling them. When the good people shut up, the trolls and cynics feel louder.

The antidote to cynics and trolls is intelligent, hope-filled conversation.

So, I’m asking you to be a force of good this week by doing two things:

1. Leave an intelligent, helpful, constructive comment on someone’s social or site this week

It doesn’t have to be on my channels (although I’d welcome that, of course), but just leave one somewhere to let humanity know all hope is not lost. Okay?

None of this means you have to agree with the writer (discussion and debate help us all learn), but courteous, grace-filled thoughtful debate moves the dialogue and the mission forward. I KNOW that’s what you bring to the conversation.

Chances are you just think your voice doesn’t matter much. I promise you, it does.

If you want to follow, this is me on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Let’s fuel what’s good.

2. Say something helpful and constructive in face to face conversations

Conversations go south in real life all the time. What do many good people and even good leaders do in moments like that? We simply shut down.

Don’t.

Say something helpful, something intelligent, something heartfelt, something constructive. Look to leave the dialogue and the world a better place.

And if you encounter a cynic or troll who says something unfair like “___ are just useless places run by selfish people”, look them straight in the eye and ask this question: Really? And just sound surprised.

Most cynics and trolls don’t know what to do with a real person who lives with hope. And if they get rude, just say “I’m sorry, you can’t talk to me that way” and then go on with your intelligent conversation with the other good people in the room.

So what can you do? 

I’m truly convinced that there’s a bit of a cynic, isolated thinker and troll within all of us.

So, a part of your strategy to take back the internet has to include a way to combat those inner negative voices and those who fuel you and me to deeper and more extreme despair.

1. Think For Yourself, Not By Yourself

One of the biggest shifts to happen in the last decade is the impact of algorithmic suggestions on almost all our content.

Some of us are old enough to remember when Twitter and Instagram had chronological feeds. It showed you all your friends in chronological order of posting, and when you were ‘done’ seeing everything, it told you: You’re all caught up. 

Years ago, almost every online content producer switched to both endless scrolling (you are never done or caught up) and algorithms that control what you see, all designed to get you to stay engaged longer.

To make matters more interesting, companies like YouTube added the autoplay and up next feed. Those videos are selected based on content AI thinks will make you watch longer.

As Tristan Harris and Joe Rogan discuss here, those videos are usually skewed toward more extreme content. Watching a WWII video? The auto-suggest might cue up a video denying the Holocaust. Watch that, and even more extreme content comes up next.

Soon you’re in a wormhole of ever-increasingly extreme content. A video on organic baby food takes you into an anti-vaxxer video. A dieting video might take you to videos glorifying anorexia and bulimia.

The sole goal? To keep you watching longer. The longer you watch, the more money YouTube makes.

What this leads to is you going deeper into subjects in profound isolation.

You’re thinking by yourself, but you’re not really thinking for yourself.

A few simple things you can to think for yourself, not by yourself:

Stop endlessly scrolling.  Put limits on what you watch. Or if you can’t control yourself, delete the apps and use load your favorite apps in a browser and scroll once a day. The glamor and addiction wears off fast.

Don’t click on the auto-suggests. One of the worst things you can do is let AI make your choices for you. If you want to read or watch further, pull back, think about what you want to watch or read, and search for it yourself.

Talk to real people about what they read, watch and consume, and curate your content accordingly. As I talk to friends, I find out what they love and buy the audio book, watch the video or grab the book myself.

Increasingly, you become what you click.  So choose your clicks carefully, and retain your ability to think independently of what the algorithm is telling you.

And discuss what you’re learning with real-life people, not in online groups where everyone agrees with you and is more extreme than you are.

Think for yourself, not by yourself.

I realize this sounds a bit extreme, but if you look at how extreme our culture has become in the last few years, radical counter-measures are not a bad idea.

2. Read and listen to something that doesn’t affirm your viewpoint

Break out of the algorithm and read, listen and watch widely.

Think back to the public library or even Blockbuster when you could walk into a room and choose from hundreds of options, not just the ten that someone (or some code) thinks you’d like.

Find out what people who don’t share your exact perspective are reading, and read that. Watch someone completely different. Go way outside your normal genre.

Cross-disciplinary learning is one of the best forms of learning anyway.

Know nothing about astronomy? Go learn something.

3.  Learn from people you disagree with instead of judging them

It’s so easy to think you’re right to judge people who disagree with you.

Don’t.

Learn from them. Just because someone doesn’t think the way you think doesn’t mean their stupid. Highly intelligent people hold opposing views. Some of them are smarter than you are.

Learn from them. Be open.

So many narrow-minded people see this as a threat. It’s not. Sometimes my views change, but even when they don’t my understanding broadens. Frankly, as a former lawyer, I know that understanding the opposing point of view is one of the best ways to get people to accept your thinking.

Ridiculing and dismissing others makes you look stupid.

So would you speak up today?

Your voice is exactly what this world needs right now. And there are far more of you than there are of them.

What are you learning about trolls, cynics and the crazy dialogue we’re having?

Scroll down and leave an (intelligent) comment. 🙂

Tired of the cynics and trolls winning the day? Take back the internet, and your leadership. Here's how to beat the cynics and trolls.

45 Comments

  1. Travis Segar on November 13, 2020 at 11:22 am

    If you want a master class of this post in action, check out Tim Keller’s Twitter feed. He engages, clarifies positions when needed, and then moves on. And sometimes he just uses the “thanks for interacting”

    Great post. Be the good we want to see in the world… Even if it’s a virtual one… 🙂

  2. LindaBeth Greet on November 12, 2020 at 1:20 pm

    Love it! We have been purposeful in challenging algorithm’s on our social media. Thinking – Christmindedness, versus filling our heads with knowledge will be a light shining, as it is filled with grace and truth, just like Jesus!

  3. Rick Hill on November 11, 2020 at 5:54 pm

    “Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility. For the person who is unwilling to grow up, the person who does not want to carry his own weight, this is a frightening prospect.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 12, 2020 at 7:19 am

      100%

  4. John Ryerson on November 11, 2020 at 3:11 pm

    https://www.tvo.org/video/the-age-of-fake-realities-is-upon-us understanding how media are being manipulated matters for all of us. This author interview is very helpful. The goal of trolls and those leading disinformation is to keep us in the anger mode and not give space to the rationale. Being angry all the time is exhausting. empathy can help.

  5. John Lee on November 11, 2020 at 1:39 pm

    Carey,
    Thanks for insightful and practical stuff you put out.
    I enjoy reading and learning from you.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 12, 2020 at 7:18 am

      Thanks John!

    • Melinda Smith on November 12, 2020 at 3:28 pm

      Ditto! I see the fruit of the Spirit in what you post!

  6. Gary on November 11, 2020 at 1:30 pm

    Like you, I have no problem at all with differing opinions. However, when anyone insists their opinion is the “right one” they immediately lose a little credibility with me. If they get angry about it they lose more, and if they start posting offensive memes or spiral down into a profanity laced tirade well . . . they are no longer credible at all. My momma “didn’t allow no cussin’ ” in her home and I don’t tolerate it on my page. After all, profanity is the verbal palette of the simpleton, right?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 12, 2020 at 7:19 am

      I hear you. Certainty is also generational…the younger you are, the less comfortable you seem to be with it.

  7. Jake McNamara on November 11, 2020 at 12:11 pm

    Carey, you’re words, advice, and stories gave me the confidence to accept the position of being an Online Campus Pastor at my church. Just know that your voice and content truly matters!

    I’d also love to ask a question: You’ve mentioned before that we are only just adapting to online experiences, but not innovating. What areas are the areas you see innovation coming next for the local/online church?

    Keep it up!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 12, 2020 at 7:21 am

      Jake that’s so exciting. Congrats. I still don’t see a ton of innovation right now, but there are a few churches who are starting to see the future as micro-churches distributed across cities and other areas of the country. Rather than building new facilities as campuses, they’re leveraging people’s homes and other facilities to gather people and grow the mission. That encourages me. I’ll write about it in my 2021 church trends post.

  8. John Ryerson on November 11, 2020 at 11:16 am

    @ responses to today’s letter

    First, calling out is about shaming , calling in requires listening, learning and love. When someone is being hurt, calling out is ok , it is a judgement when though

    I am very worried about the spread of conspiracy theories eg QAnon
    in the US and Canada. Recent news has been about the penetration of these theories into evangelical churches. eg the antimask protests in Aylmer. Why?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 12, 2020 at 7:25 am

      I’m deeply concerned about the same things John.

  9. Mary Lewis on November 11, 2020 at 10:41 am

    Thanks Carey, I too have noticed that the social media conversations have become heated and like people are not willing to listen to each other any more. They “raise” their voice and yell their opinion louder. We must be the salt and light to the lost world especially in our social media interactions. Asking for God’s wisdom before answering a post are always good ways to start. Keep up the good work. I appreciate your blogs and your podcasts.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 12, 2020 at 7:26 am

      Thanks Mary, and yes…what a great thing to do. Ask for God’s wisdom.

  10. Stephanie on November 11, 2020 at 9:30 am

    THIS!! This is so so so timely! Thank you for your words. What an intense season we are in! Heartbreakingly, I’m in the middle of watching family members turn their backs on each of because of differences of opinions and beliefs, all fueled by these algorithms! This will be an important article to share with others to promote surrounding ourselves with beautifully, diverse people and the benefits that brings to all of us.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 12, 2020 at 7:23 am

      That’s so sad Stephanie. I wonder if they could see what’s happening to them if it would help….the radicalization and alienation of friends and family the alogrithm fuels is so sad.

  11. Vicki Scruggs on November 11, 2020 at 9:29 am

    Great article, Carey — and as always, extremely relevant for our environment today! So true about the two-fold aspect: culling out the influence of cynics and trolls as well as advancing the positive. More and more, I have come to appreciate the impact of actively “doing good” — especially as a witness — in all of our current forums, platforms, interactions, etc.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 12, 2020 at 7:23 am

      Yes to that Vicki.

  12. Roy Young on November 11, 2020 at 7:48 am

    Thanks Carey, I pray before any reply. If I forget, I mess up and see no improvement in the conversation. Thank you for your continuing encouragement

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 12, 2020 at 7:23 am

      That’s such a good practice Roy!

  13. Jack Latimer on November 11, 2020 at 7:04 am

    Great read and great advice.

    • Lois Langman on November 11, 2020 at 8:15 am

      Thanks Jack for sharing this. Definitely a good read and one by one we can make this world a better place.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 12, 2020 at 7:24 am

      Thanks Jack. Appreciate you!

  14. Chris Eidse on November 11, 2020 at 6:52 am

    That’s a well thought out and really helpful article Carey. Thank you. I like the diverse influences that you draw on. Yuval Harari always has fascinating insight.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 12, 2020 at 7:25 am

      He does. There are many things I would have different views on than Yuval, but I think the point is I can still respect him and learn from him. I want to maintain that posture.

  15. Acai on October 5, 2015 at 5:34 am

    This is good. I’ve come across these types of people and I always respond. I feel that leaving such a remark hanging is degrading to me. It doesn’t matter of they continue to make negative remarks after my response because other people can see by then that the negative person has a problem. Coming across these types in real life gives you another option, of course – a good thump – and so I suppose the internet encourages, in a funny way, assertiveness and challenge minus violence.

  16. chrismancl on March 31, 2015 at 9:57 am

    Great Encouragement Carey. I’m an executive Pastor in Minnesota and I recently started blogging. It’s something I’ve been thinking about doing for quite some times. At this point I haven’t attracted any trolls and to be honest, I’m happy if they just stay away.

    Keep writing! Your wisdom is impacting my life. Thank you!

  17. Paul Cummings on March 4, 2015 at 10:28 pm

    Shortly after I commented on your site, I received an email from Disqus saying Alpha and Omega had started following me. I visited their site and made a comment. I do believe it’s important to comment when your heart tells you it’s important for someone to hear. An individual named Nogods commented back immediately. Looking over the posts on the site, he had a comment for anyone who believed in God. A man looking for an argument. I engaged him twice. The first time, he came back with his “Empirical Evidence” and I responded with mine. The second time, he went a little off track and his argument was getting longer, but much weaker. That time I prayed before I responded indicating it would be my last response then went on to prove his comments were based on creating an argument I wasn’t about to have, then gave my personal experience with God which addressed things in a tangible way the comments he made. He never responded. I prayed that God would touch his heart and that he would truly hear what I felt motivated to write. I have since continued to pray for him but have heard nothing more from him at all. I agree that an intelligent, helpful and constructive comment goes a long way with some people. Some people, well, they really are just there, behind the screen and keyboard, to just get people to argue with them, unseen, and unknown. But thanks again Carey for this post. It was helpful!

  18. Frank on March 4, 2015 at 5:37 pm

    Several months ago I stumbled onto your blog and have found many so helpful that I have shared them with other leaders at our church. As this blog suggests, it is time to stand up and speak kindly and graciously in all areas of our life and the internet is a very needed place to begin. Edmund Burke’s quote I believe is most appropriate: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Keep up the good work, Carey!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 4, 2015 at 6:46 pm

      Frank…thank you. I’m so glad to hear the blog is helping you and your team. Welcome to the community!

  19. Michelle Kleene on March 4, 2015 at 4:20 pm

    Oh wow! This is so right on Carey! Thank you for sharing your kind, intelligent thoughts!! I really needed to hear this. I lead in an unhealthy congregation where many act this way and some act this way in meetings as well…….usually blasting the leadership. It’s so helpful to have your insight and blog in my world. I constantly need to keep on top of my own emotions in being non reactive, non defensive, not taking thing personal and in responding with care & empathy. That’s hard to do when one is continually being shot at.
    I greatly appreciate your blog as it has helped strengthen and sustain me in the past two painfully turbulent years of leadership.
    May God bless you and continue to strengthen you in this Ministry!
    Michelle

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 4, 2015 at 4:38 pm

      Thanks so much Michelle. Really appreciate the feedback and so glad this has been an encouragement.

  20. Chris on March 4, 2015 at 3:30 pm

    Timely Carey, very timely. In the future we are all going to have to take more responsibility for what we say AND don’t say. It’s no different in the digital world as it is in the real world. And in many ways, today, the digital world has become reality. I take exception to people who hide behind their computer screens and tear things down or people down. I know I’ve been the victim of cyber-bullying from trolls and cynic’s and I’m in my late 30’s.
    In one particular situation, the hate speech was so intense that I had to go see someone to talk through it. When I came back to it, I called them out, in a loving and respectful way, and then challenged them to be better human beings. Some apologized profusely. Others…they could have cared less. So I just started praying for them and trying to find ways to be nice without being a pushover.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 4, 2015 at 4:39 pm

      Thanks for mentioning prayer. Very very powerful in these contexts. Thanks Chris!

  21. Stephen Budd on March 4, 2015 at 3:01 pm

    The Lord gives me opportunities to exercise my gift of patience and love when individuals become critical and unreasonable online. More often than not their argument will be centered around the scriptures and they will walk a fine line of bibliolotry. If we are not careful we can end up worshipping the scriptures and completely miss Jesus. John 5:39-40.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 4, 2015 at 4:39 pm

      We can so easily miss Jesus. Thanks Stephen!

  22. John A. Giurin on March 4, 2015 at 12:03 pm

    A strong backbone/foundation in Christ helps…
    …especially when folks are trying to build themselves up by tearing others down.
    Thanks for the insights, Carey.

  23. Lawrence W. Wilson on March 4, 2015 at 8:12 am

    Carey, this is great advice, and just what you do every day with your blog and social media. Thanks for being one of the “up” voices. I’ll join you!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 4, 2015 at 8:36 am

      Thanks so much Lawrence. That’s what I want to be…and for sure that’s how I see you!

    • Lynda Gruen on March 4, 2015 at 1:42 pm

      I concur! Brother Carey, I have enjoyed reading your blog entries. Thanks for the healthy challenge. = )

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