You’ve probably heard of internet trolls if you’ve been on the internet for any amount of time. These are people who make it their mission in life to post comments (or other content) with the intention of getting a reaction out of others. Sometimes the comments seem innocent enough, like someone who is “just asking questions.”
I see this all the time with the anti-vaccine crowd. When it has been explained to them over and over again that we rely on herd immunity to protect children who cannot be vaccinated, they ask, “Why is my unvaccinated child a danger to your vaccinated child.” This leads to a series of comments about how vaccines are not 100% effective, which leads the troll to burn a straw man and shift the conversation to how vaccines must be 100% poison because they’re not 100% effective. And don’t even get them started discussing the fact that vaccines are not 100% safe.
Other times, the commenters are authentically “unhinged”, in every sense of the word. They post inflammatory comments that range from plain, old xenophobia to outright racism. It’s almost as if Donald Trump himself has taken to the comment section. Nowhere is this more true than in the comments section of the Baltimore Sun. If someone is killed or shot, the trolls show up in force and blame the violence on everything from “Libtards” to “monkeys.” And we all know what they’re trying to say by writing “monkeys.” (They’re not talking about White people.)
Then there are other comments that you shouldn’t click, the ones that break your heart.
The other day, the Baltimore City Police Department posted on their Facebook page an update on the stabbing murder of a 19 year-old. In the comments of that post was the comment from a man who wrote that the victim was his son.
I couldn’t help myself. So I clicked on his profile. In it the father posted a picture of his son along with a message:
“I swear I can’t believe I’m writing this. No parent should. R.I.P. my lil Asshole! God I will never be able to call you that again. You still had the best years of your life ahead of you. I truly loved you. You’re my oldest son. Now I will never see you grow into the man I know you were capable of becoming.R.I.P.”
He also “tagged” his son on the message, so I was able to click on the son’s page… Which absolutely broke my heart.
In the son’s Facebook page, I read several messages from someone who seems to be his wife, writing in his name. She mentions the things you’d expect from someone who loses a partner. She also mentions that they’re expecting a child. (There was going to be a baby shower soon, too.) And the latest message is that there will be a candlelight vigil for him at the spot where he was stabbed.
It took me about 15 minutes to get a hold of my mind and slow it down. I started thinking about the loss that his life will bring not only for his family but for the city as a whole. Nineteen years old is very, very young, with plenty of chances of turning his life around. (He seems to have been in trouble recently, but that’s neither here nor there.)
I also got to thinking about my thesis and how it was going to impact people I’ll never know. But that is for another day. For now, I can only recommend that you don’t click on the comments of a news article, or even on social media, unless it’s your own social media account, or your blog, or a blog you trust. Some people are out to get a reaction out of you, while others will get a reaction out of you inadvertently.
A few will break your heart.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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