9/12: trolls are, unfortunately, not a hoax

In the September 5-18, 2016 issue of New York Magazine, Reeves Wiedeman writes about a particularly immoral type of person: those who would deny that a mass shooting has occurred, and who would actually go so far as to verbally attack surviving family members as they attempt to mourn. In the article, Wiedeman chronicles a shift from those who were initially skeptical of Sandy Hook–the conspiracy theorists, convinced that the government had arranged a stunt tragedy in order to pass gun legislation–to those who lingered on after all the questions had been asked, so as to troll the victims under the supposed guise of public service.

It’s hard to tell where the line between the two types of mental instability lies; the hoaxer might plausibly be denying reality in attempt to avoid responsibility or change. As Wolfgang Halbig, one of the most active hoaxers, stated in his interview: “I feel good, because I really feel deep inside my heart that no children died that day.” Note how he himself frames this (as many Republicans have): a feeling that overwrites facts. This is often coupled with impossible demands, knowingly requesting definitive things that those in mourning cannot provide (and dismissing physical evidence such as death certificates that could have been photoshopped, or funerals that might have been staged) so as to more comfortably assert that they must be correct. As Wiedeman notes, even Halbig doesn’t know what would convince him–an exhumation might not be enough; confirming that the bullets were made by the AR-15 in question might still leave doubt–which really means that there’s no risk that he’ll have to eat his metaphorical hat, or, in this case, to “pay for a billboard apologizing for all the harm [he’s] done and to promptly check himself into a mental institution.”

The hoaxer has convinced themselves, too, that they are not malicious, but their actions are exactly those of a troll. He waits or agitates, spewing out theories and arguments meant to rile people up, often under the guise of “getting to the truth.” Some of these trolls might even believe this–full disclosure: I’ve been accused of trolling people, even when I make it clear that I’m playing devil’s advocate on a position. A troll often stoops to personal attacks and violent language; a hoaxer perhaps doesn’t realize the harm they do when they deny that violence has occurred, and yet abnegation is a particularly damaging type of violence. After all, no erasure can be accomplished without at least a little force behind it.

What, then, separates the hoaxer from the troll? Neither listens. Neither offers an end-goal, or anything that would allow them to be disproved or defeated. Perhaps the hoaxer can exist only with regard to a big picture: the person who doesn’t dispute that 9/11 occurred, but suggests that it was allowed by the government. The second they revert to the intimate scope–to claim that an individual’s suffering isn’t real–they cannot be seen as anything other than cruel, than a troll. Freedom of speech aside, perhaps there are some ideas that should not be shared in public, at least without some absolutely damning proof. And no, the absence of proof from the government is not proof enough for the hoaxer–not if they’re coming after wounded, suffering families.

We must consider more than the harm that the reality of a situation might do to our own fragile psyches; we must think about how our reaction will affect those around us. What I write might offend, and I must bear that in mind; when I push too hard or too soon on a subject (as when I callously considered the sort of response I desired from Hillary on the day after the Pulse shooting), I must at least apologize or recognize how that affects those around me. Though blogging may sometimes feel like screaming into a space, sound travels, and should it eventually reach someone, I must be at least partially responsible for its effect.

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