I’ve got trolls. Perhaps I’ve had them longer than I know, since I don’t routinely frequent the echo chambers of self-serving derision in which they preferentially huddle. I know for sure I’ve had them since I first voiced my support for the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report, before that excellent and evidence-based work was diluted into the tepid broth of political expediency. Now, as then, my trolls all seem to share social media DNA with the entities that mobilized the funds of self-interest to, for instance, expunge from our dietary guidelines an urgently essential emphasis on sustainability.
So, yes, I’ve got trolls, but I am not writing to whine about it. I consider it the very acceptable price to pay for picking up the gauntlet thrown down by Edmund Burke. I suspect many of you have done the same, and you may have trolls, too. Besides, you can’t really say you’ve made it in the Digital Age until you have a troll or two to call your own. There is something almost reassuring about the occasional encounter with their slimy little trails, knowing your efforts have attracted them. It suggests you are probably on to something important, and should certainly persevere.
Be that as it may, the trolls are, of course, up to no good. Sometimes their only agenda is their own notoriety, generally by exploiting someone who has earned recognition the hard way, with years of effort devoted to something genuinely worthwhile. Sometimes their agenda is rather more pernicious: mayhem itself. Troll currencies include discord, defamation, and doubt in perpetuity.
Doubt is among the currencies of legitimate science, too, but they are not the same species of doubt. The advance of science reliably establishes fundamental truths about climate change, diet and health, and the net effects of immunization, while always allowing for uncertainty at the margins, and leaving room for the advances yet to come from more science.
The doubt propagated by trolls is almost exactly the opposite. What they claim to know, they espouse with the absolute certainty native only to fools and fanatics. Isolated anecdotes are used to refute the weight of evidence, however massive. Convenient, and almost invariably hyperbolic headlines, in response to a study of often dubious design and conflicted patronage, are invoked to challenge the sum total of all knowledge on the topic aggregated until the day prior.
Much the same translates to their ad hominem mischief. A conveniently-timed photo of Gandhi, for instance, with a hand raised to swat a mosquito would make perfect troll fodder, under the caption: “Gandhi gets violent!” Were Gandhi a child of the social media age, a lifetime of devotion to non-violence could be called into the troll variety of doubt by photographic happenstance, misrepresentation, and derisive innuendo.
This matters not just to me, or others with trolls in their entourage, but to us all. The troll variety of doubt has forestalled climate change action so that islands are sinking, aquifers drying, forests dying, and ice caps melting. How easy to find one place in a warming world where climate change has changed sea currents, and created an isolated area of colder temperatures. An image of the single acre somewhere in the world where there is more ice this year than last is platinum in the hands of climate-change trolls.
The same is true of diet. The prevailing pop-culture allure of protein owes much to the efforts of trolls in the service of their paymasters. Do you think Homo sapiens need to eat meat to grow muscle? That is false. Do you think plants lack essential amino acids? That is false. Do you think the typical American needs to try to get enough protein? Actually, the typical American gets much more than needed. Do you think excessive calories from protein do not contribute to obesity like all others? They do. Does plant protein offer decisive advantages to the health of people and planet alike? Yes. But none of this precludes the weaving of a counter-narrative from anecdote and innuendo. Meat certainly confers an advantage to a famine-prone population facing protein malnutrition. Does this pertain to the overfed, overfat, protein-overloaded residents of the world’s industrialized countries? Only in the tales told by trolls, full of sound and fury, and signifying nothing but the manipulations of propaganda and some entity’s profit.
Two thoughtful publications have recently highlighted the vulnerability of health in general, and diet in particular to the reverberations of such misrepresentation. This occurs even when the distortion is not entirely willful, as it is with trolls; but trolls obviously make it much worse. Subtle bias, and the desire or even professional need to be heard above the constant modern din, can erode the reliability of any single study, to say nothing of the media representations of it. All the more reason to renounce the treatment of science, in any domain, as a Ping-Pong match in which every action directionally reverses the last. Science is much more like a relay race, in which progress builds on prior progress, and the directional advance toward any given finish line is reliable, and relentless. Yes, of course, a baton may be dropped; a scientist may stumble. There can and will be missteps. But these do nothing to obscure or forestall the trend of progress toward the prize, which in the case of science is understanding.
Much, then, depends on differentiating the messages from honest agents of current truth as it is best understood, and the willful misdirection of trolls. How is one to distinguish?
General distrust is one possibility, but I think, a bad one. A world without trust is an unpleasant place to live, and at odds with the unity that fosters our greatest strength. Besides, this method discards the baby with the bathwater. I think, to borrow a bit from Tennyson, it is better to have trusted and been misled than never to have trusted at all.
From Alfred Lord Tennyson to Ronald Reagan is a significant shift, but we have Reagan to thank for the best-known articulation of a better way: trust, but verify. Verification is the antidote to troll vitriol; vigilance is troll anti-venom.
Whenever confronted by brash claims and provocations, check the credentials, connections, contributions, and communication style of the source. Trolls often lack the credentials indicating actual expertise in the domains of their most emphatic assertions; they generally deal in false equivalence and refute the admissibility of credentials. But the next time you board a plane, or enter the O.R. on a gurney, ask yourself if hard-earned credentials might in fact matter. What’s good for the gurney is good for the gander, if you know what I mean.
Trolls tend to be connected to other trolls, so the patterns of derision and innuendo encompass not just them, but also the company they keep. Trolls tend to contribute little or nothing to the world other than misdirection; they generally haven’t developed useful tools or programs, or conducted studies. And trolls deal principally in a discourse of snark, derision, and defamatory innuendo. Serious people are focused on content; trolls specialize in disparaging tone.
Check social media feed. If it is unduly focused on trivialities, one or just a few people, endlessly repeated ad hominems, and displays a far greater interest in character assassination than adding anything of actual value to the world- you are reliably in the realm of trolls.
But of course, not all that assaults our comfort is trollish. There is a crucial need to differentiate trolls from whistle blowers, for instance. Whistle blowers deal in matter we actually need to know. At times, the seemingly acceptable status quo is just carefully tended façade; Harvey Weinstein comes immediately to mind. Whistle blowers are the brave among us who call out that hollow shell; they are the ones first to say out loud: “the emperor has no clothes!”
Trolls, in contrast, deal in ultimately un-intriguing intrigue, and non-scandalous scandals. Their specialty is inanities, sauced with innuendo, and repeated profusely in the hope that someone else takes interest. Generally, though, the work of trolls plays out like lighting a wet fuse: sparks at first, then an undignified fizzle. In contrast, whistle blowers may be drowned out at first, but their signal rises in time over the static as the call is amplified by others catching on. Truth flourishes in daylight. Troll drivel withers in it, although the process may be painfully protracted.
Though trolls are now rather rampant, we must all be on guard against a rush to judgment, too. Everyone should get the benefit of the doubt; everyone should be innocent until proven guilty. That goes for trolls, too; someone isn’t a troll just because someone else says they are! Trust, but verify; then judge.
The antidote to troll venom is the vigilance of verification. It is, as well, a commitment to understanding the truth by embracing the truth about understanding: it never derives from absolute convictions propounded into echo chambers, and it does not do 180 degree turns with every news cycle.
For evil to triumph in the world, it is enough for good people to do nothing. For trolls to triumph in the world, it is enough for gullible people to believe them. May we be good and trusting, but also vigilant, and apt to verify.
David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, FACLM, is the Founding Director (1998) of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, and current President of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. He has published roughly 200 scientific articles and textbook chapters, and 15 books to date, including multiple editions of leading textbooks in both preventive medicine, and nutrition. He has made important contributions in the areas of lifestyle interventions for health promotion; nutrient profiling; behavior modification; holistic care; and evidence-based medicine. David earned his BA degree from Dartmouth College (1984); his MD from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (1988); and his MPH from the Yale University School of Public Health (1993). He completed sequential residency training in Internal Medicine, and Preventive Medicine/Public Health. He is a two-time diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine, and a board-certified specialist in Preventive Medicine/Public Health. He has received two Honorary Doctorates.