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The Dharma of Online Trolls

The greatest troll of all time was a man named Andy Kaufman.  Kaufman was born on January 17, 1949, and he made his living as a performance artist, professional wrestler, and self-proclaimed "song and dance" man.  

Kaufman had a show in vegas for a while, and he appeared on both Saturday Night Live and the popular sitcom, Taxi.  He died of lung cancer at the age of  35.

As part of his act, Kaufman would go on stage and act in a strange, anti-social manner in order to get a response from the audience.  He'd wear mismatch clothes, hurl insults, and occasionally ask for money while he was on stage to make the audience laugh, jeer, and boo.  In this way, he made them an unwitting part of the performance.

Of course, this didn't always go well for him.  Once, he was slapped in the face by Jerry Lawler, a professional wrestler, after calling him "poor white trash" on The Letterman Show and he lost his job on Saturday Night Live when audience members called a 1-800 number to have him voted off.

His performances were equal parts strange and disturbing in part because it was hard to tell if he was acting or expressing his true opinions. Was he a strange, troubled man impersonating a normal person when he was off stage.  Or was he normal, well-adjusted human being who pretended to be disturbed on stage.

The answer to that question will never be known for certain.  But that hasn't stopped a legion of Kaufman impersonators from popping up over the years.  In the age of social media where high engagement translates into money, there are people who make very good livings by saying very bad things.

These internet trolls make incendiary remarks, take contrary positions on issues of public safety, and call people names in the hopes of getting a response.  Once they get one, the end result is an endless stream of comments and personal attacks that is sometimes referred to as a "flame war".
Dealing with these individuals can be both physically and emotionally exhausting.  We don't go on-line looking for a fight, but it's inevitable that we'll find one if we spend enough time on the internet. 

Thankfully, on the days when we find ourselves trapped in an internet hellscape, surrounded by on-line trolls that wish to do us harm, Buddhism offers teachings in the way of the Four Bramaviharas or awakened mindstates, which help us come out of these interactions unscathed.

Equanimity:  The practice of remaining peaceful and calm in our daily interactions is equanimity.  One way to cultivate this mind-state is through the practice of seated meditation.  When we take a noble posture (back straight, chin slightly elevated) and practice meditative breathing, we train our minds to remain calm in the face of outside disturbances.

It can be difficult to maintain equanimity when dealing with a troll who says mean and hurtful things to us.  However, one way we can cope is to remind ourselves that we're witnessing a performance.

Remember, the goal of trolling isn't to have a reasonable discussion.  It's to antagonize the audience so that they become an unwitting part of the show.  An example of this can be seen in Andy Kaufman's appearance on the Fridays TV show where he purposely ruins the sketch in order to get a rise out of his castmates and the audience.

When he gets called out on his behavior, he plays the victim and the show cuts to commercial.  Online trolls behave in the exact same manner; pushing our buttons and asking, "Why's everyone so uptight?" when we respond.

So, if we choose to be part of a troll's performance, we can maintain our state of calm by remembering that it's all part of the show.

Sympathetic-Joy:  When we feel happiness at the success of others, that's called sympathetic-joy.  One way to cultivate this mind-state is to contemplate the interconnectedness of all things.  When we remember that we're part of a much larger whole in the same way that our heart and lungs are part of the same human body, we realize that we share in the success of other people.  This allows us to feel joy in the face of their accomplishments.

This practice is the antithesis of trolling.  Instead of antagonizing our audience with hurtful remarks and cruel jokes, we sympathize with them and try to make them feel good about themselves.  

One way to do this is to send messages of empathy and support to other people.  Even a simple message like, "Thanks for sharing," or "You raised an excellent point," can give a big boost to someone's mental state.  Naturally, some of the good feelings rub off on us and lift our mood as well. 

This is especially helpful when we notice that someone is being trolled.  Instead of engaging with the trolls and giving them the attention they crave, we can turn our attention to their victim; showering them with praise and goodwill.

This nullifies the troll-attack and lets the victim know that they're supported.

Compassionate-Action:  The practice of using our words or actions to remove suffering from the world is known as compassionate action.  One simple way to remove suffering from our own lives is to not engage with trolls when we see them on-line.

Instead of becoming part of their performance by reacting to antagonistic behavior, we can choose to continue scrolling past their comments to something that's more life-affirming.  Using the 'block' and 'unfriend' buttons are also simple ways that we can protect ourselves from trolls.  

If someone is consistently posting material that causes us mental or emotional harm, the most compassionate thing we can do for ourselves it not engage with them any longer.

Loving-Kindness:  When we use our words and action to bring happiness into the world, that's called loving-kindness.  One way we can do this by responding to trolls with the Metta prayer, which goes as follows:
May you be happy
May you be healthy
May you be safe
May you live at ease
Doing this breaks the stride of a troll's performance.  They are expecting venom but they receive love instead.  Often times, this will take the wind out of their sails; creating an opening for us to disengage from the conversation.  This response also dampens any anger or ill-will that is building in our hearts.

Of course, loving-kindness isn't only for people who troll us.  We can also offer prayers and goodwill to people who are struggling or who have shown us affection in the past.  Doing so is a sort of anti-troll behavior that improves the quality of people's lives as opposed to harming them
Trolls and people who engage in troll-like behavior have been part of human society for a very long time.  Following in the footsteps of people like Andy Kaufman, they use antagonistic behavior to elicit a response from people; forcing them to be part of the troll's personal spectacle.

Unfortunately, this type of behavior has become common on the internet.  However, Buddhist teachings like the Bramaviharas allow us to move through the world without being harmed by trolls whether we meet them in real life or online.

Namu Amida Butsu

 If you enjoyed this essay, you'll love my book!


  1. Love the brahmaviharas, Alex. Every time I am confronted with them my heart lifts. Thanks for today's pick-me-heart-up!

  2. i think its a reflection of the inner state. I have engaged with trolls and while some will continue many of them actually just needed someone to listen to them without judging them. life can be hard sometimes and when we listen to others we make their life a little easier. some people have a hard time building up their social repertoire too. people will make fun of them. hurl insults at them. and one day they just start doing things sometimes like you said for attention sometimes because they feel that this is the normal way to communicate. everyone has their own reason built off their own life experiences. not saying everyone can be helped but... sometimes a little goes a long way. very rarely are people born this or that way. usually it is a product of their environment. usually when i meet with rude hurt or angry people what i see is pain. sorrow. loneliness. i see indoctrination or culture. i see a self rarely assembled by choice like hand me downs cast off by the previous generation. clear warning though. since this is the self we are talking about dont expect it to change overnight or without effort. sure you might listen and help for the 30 minutes or few hours you spend engaged with the individual but as soon as the engagement ends they must return to the problems that began their tirade and a few hours is like a nudge against the amount of time that exists in a week. sometimes though subtle is significant.


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