A plague of “tone trolls” dominates online discussion

The “tone troll” is a real critter. They are the most common subspecies of Internet troll, mostly harmless but super annoying, and easy to spot in the wild: they complain about the tone of a message, rather than its substance. They fixate on the allegedly poor attitude of anyone who challenges them. You can’t just have a difference of opinion with a tone troll: you will be declared dismissive, close-minded, arrogant, unprofessional, negative, or all of the above.1

Tone trolls will see hostility even when it’s not there — equating disagreement with hostility is their defining trait — but they really get their knickers in a twist about any trace of actual snark, frustration, or contempt in the delivery of a point. They act like emotion and personality are verboten in debate (though they will deny this). A genuinely mean-spirited tone may be unpersuasive, but it doesn’t actually have anything to do with the validity of whatever is being said. Of course.

Sometimes tone trolls turn the accusation of tone trolling on their target. It’s just another evasive tactic.

“I was one called a tone troll by a tone troll,” a Facebook friend reported. “It was like Inception.”

Tone troll resistance is futile: avoidance is the only viable tactic

Online arguing is dominated by sparring with tone trolls and trying to get them back on topic (if they were ever on it in the first place). I won’t do it.2 While some useful critical analysis can come from smarter tone trolls, it’s too rare and too tedious to extract. The species mostly just reacts emotionally to the cognitive dissonance caused by ideas that are incompatible with their faith-based beliefs and practices. They usually just stay doggedly on task: MUST DESTROY MESSENGER.

Learn to recognize them, and do not engage.

  1. Physical Therapist John Ware: “It's a mathematical fact that the number of times an internet poster complains about tone is inversely proportional to the number of quality references they cite to support their position. Here's proof…”


  2. I never bother to argue with a tone troll, not even to accuse them of tone trolling. If I believe someone is a tone troll, I simply avoid them: life is too short. ↩︎