Learning from Trolls

I’ve been thinking a lot about an article from this weekend’s New York Times Magazine.  In How the Trolls Stole Washington, Amanda Hess discusses the political, historical and emotional sides to trolling.  While the term may be new to some readers, the activity is probably more common than anyone would care to admit. It often starts with an innocent post on social media, one that catches the eye of somebody who has an axe to grind or maybe some spare time on their hands.  The person posts some outlandishly negative remarks, maybe shares it with some friends, and then hijacks the initial post completely, changing the timbre of the conversation for their own purposes.

In her article, Hess describes trolling as “saying whatever it takes to rile up unsuspecting targets, relishing the chaos in the wake and feasting on attention, good or bad.” The chaos emerges from the emotional response from the commenters.  When we post to social media, we are personally connected to what we share.  We share our grief when we post about our loved ones who have died.  We share our joy when we post pictures of our pets and our children.  We share our pride when we post about an accomplishment from a loved one.  Those emotions can get hijacked by trolls and twisted into something else entirely.  Love can become anger.  Joy can become embarrassment.  Pride can become shame.

But that’s what motivates trolls.  As Hess writes, “trolling was always about the distance between people who care and people who don’t. The people who cared always lost.”  Hess also offers some advice to detach from trolls.  She writes that to detach from trolls we must learn “to withhold their outrage, to not ‘feed the trolls,’ to pretend there was a real distinction between doing horrible things and meaning them.”  It sounds like good advice.  Like most things, however, it’s easier to say than do.

At this point, you may be wondering what we could possibly learn from trolls.  I’m leading a Faculty Learning Community (FLC) on campus centered on Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion by Sarah Rose Cavanagh.  We met for the first time yesterday and the group is really enjoying what we’ve read so far.  I read the book last fall in preparation for the FLC this semester and I even wrote a few blog posts on the text already. (See this and this.) One of the concepts we discussed in our FLC yesterday was the idea of “emotional contagion.” Emotional contagion is “the phenomenon of having one person’s emotions and related behaviors directly trigger similar emotions and behaviors in other people.”  In the book, Cavanagh references a Facebook experiment where users were presented both negative and positives posts from peers. As you would expect, users who were presented with positive posts tended to share more positive things themselves.  Similarly, users who presented negative posts tended to share more negative content on their pages.  That’s the power of emotional contagion!

But how does this connect to learning?  Returning to the Spark of Learning text, Cavanagh also introduces the concept of “augmented cognitive load” and the positive impact the affective supports can have on learning.  It stands to reason that if positive emotions and supports can aid learning than negative emotions can impede it. To resist this impediment, we have to consciously set aside the negative emotions we experience so we can communicate and teach from a positive, supportive place.  This is important to the learning process, even when we’re faced with the urge to emotionally lash out against the “trolls” we face online or in our classrooms.

Cavanagh shares a quote from Ginott (1972) that sheds some additional light on the interplay between emotion and learning.  Ginott writes:

“I have come to a frightening conclusion. I am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather.” (pp. 15-16)

Don’t let the trolls dictate how you feel or interact or teach today.  Your mood makes the weather.  I choose to make mine sunny.


Cavanagh, S. R..The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2016.

Ginott, Haim G. Between teacher and child. Collier-Macmillan, 1972.


One thought on “Learning from Trolls

  1. Pingback: Learning from the trolls . . . the 8 blog | TPS Lower School Faculty Blog

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