A Quick Note on Avoiding Bottom-Feeding Trolls in Mass Media

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Wiccans and the larger Pagan community had a major victory lately. We got a talking head on the Fox News network, Tucker Carlson, to apologize on-air for sensationalist, distorted, and false remarks involving Pagan religions. A mix of quick-moving Pagan advocacy organizations and a groundswell of outrage from the community as a whole made them (or at least Carlson) re-think their earlier comments. We should feel good about this. We got an apology, and Fox News now knows that pushing that particular outrage button might have negative PR consequences (and no matter what you think of Fox News, they are in the business of adding viewers, not subtracting them).

That story had its genesis in a bit of good news, the University of Missouri recognizing the validity of Wiccan/Pagan holidays. Likewise, another bit of good news, a challenge to California’s “Five Faiths” prison chaplaincy policy being revived by the 9th Circuit Court, inspired a newspaper columnist to take aim and set phasers to “offend.”

Debra J. Saunders

Debra J. Saunders: You mad bro?

“In its wisdom – and yes, I am being ironic – the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco issued a ruling Tuesday that revives a California inmate lawsuit to force the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to hire a paid, full-time Wiccan chaplain. […] When I read the complaint that Wiccans aren’t treated the same as adherents to mainstream religions, I figure that’s what you get when you join what for some is a do-it-yourself theology. It’s like atheists suing because they aren’t welcome in church.”

That’s Debra J. Saunders, a conservative columnist for the generally center-left oriented San Francisco Chronicle. She plays a role, the conservative gadfly for the lefty media outlet she inhabits (conservative-oriented outlets often do the same thing, running a “token” liberal, it’s a well-worn method to engage/inflame readers). Just like Fox News, Saunders saw a story that she could frame as an outrage, distorted the facts just a bit, then let fire.

“If I turn into a frog over the weekend, I take back this column. Until then, I’m just a chump who pays taxes so the Ninth Circuit can pull rabbits out of hats.”

Ms. Saunders is a professional, and she knows what she is doing. She welcomes your ire, she feeds on it. She uses your angry e-mails and letters as confirmation that she’s doing her job correctly. Her job isn’t to win more readers by appealing to a broad base, her job is to make you mad. Then, when you do get mad, she uses your angry letters as further fuel for her antics.


“I thought I would share this letter because it does three interesting things. First, it wrongly argues that editors would reject any opinion piece that is derogatory toward a religion. That’s ridiculous. Just ask the Catholic church. Second, it demonstrates a special brand of tolerance — a brand that wants to censure dissenting opinions, without even noticing that its demand for censorship is in itself intolerant. Third, it is anonymous. So much for the force of one’s convictions.”

What she’s doing is trolling. Professional-grade trolling, and we shouldn’t feed into it. Unlike Fox News, there’s little to be gained from her apology, and getting angry at her is exactly what she wants. WIth trolls all you can do is ignore them, and refuse to engage with them. As members of a minority religion we have to be savvy about which battles we pick, and we have to realize when someone is goading us into a conflict because they want that conflict, because it actually benefits them to have us mad at them. Debra J. Saunders is a bottom-feeding troll who wants Pagans to be mad at her, but the best thing we can do is simply encourage people to not read, support, or interact with her. We gain little from acting against her, and we have much bigger battles to fight, so leave the troll alone.