Basically, they're anonymous online bullies. And while I understand the temptation of not feeding them and their cry for attention, sometimes it's actually better for you to deal with them, say what you need to, and move on. I'm not saying you should dedicate hours of your life to something that's clearly not going to result in anything productive, but I'm also not of the opinion that ignoring something will necessarily make it go away. Or that there isn't some benefit to be had from calling out a troll and taking them to task. Not for them, but for you.
The internet can be a strange and wonderful place. Full of thoughtful discussions, intelligent people, and worthwhile dialog. I've found numerous sites like this with great commenters and a sense of community, that even when you differ, the overall goal (to understand and explore a topic) is what everyone is there for. I've found this to be especially true in most Feminist spaces, and I'm probably more inclined to comment on Feminist issues because they're varied and complex and range from politics to activism to pop culture. I also engage on certain social networks, like Twitter and Facebook, although I generally try to keep those more casual.
I obviously don't expect to be agreed with every time I express a thought, but I've gotten a lot out of thoughtful disagreements and explorations of topics from differing perspectives. As long as everyone can be respectful, it's usually a constructive way to discover new ideas and different ways of considering your opinions. I find that useful because the world is a pretty big, strange place, and my perspective is as limited as I let it be. Not falling into the trap of assuming everyone thinks the same way I do is important, even when it's frustrating and challenging.
There is a rather huge difference between this and dealing with "trolls". If you haven't experienced this, trolls are people who, even when they don't know it, are not contributing to a discussion. They're either derailing it on purpose or doing so out of "concern". The latter will usually tell you not to take things so seriously, that you're getting too worked up, or that whatever issue isn't as important as some other issue. The former, the kind of person who is actively trolling, is usually trying to get a rise by saying something deliberately inflammatory or insulting. Sometimes they really believe it, other times it's because they're bored, and sometimes it's because they're just unpleasant and want to spread it around.
I've encountered trolls most often when I'm discussing Feminism. It should be relatively easy to figure out why. A lot of issues that Feminism deals with make people uncomfortable, and gender issues are something a lot of people resent and don't want to see discussed. So they'll try and derail a conversation at any opportunity. A troll isn't interested in your point of view, they aren't interested in counter arguments, and they aren't interested in listening.
And sometimes they want to bully and threaten you into silence. Which is where I object to the idea of ignoring them because I don't actually think that solves the problem.
I've had more experience with "real life" bullying than I'd like. But one thing I definitely learned...ignoring them did not make them go away. It just amped up the level of abuse. When dealing with a troll I think the goal needs to be to make your point, make it well, and make it in a way where you don't feel like you need to revisit it unless you want to. I think it's important to stand up for the things you believe in and denounce bullying, even when it's probably not going to make the person be nicer or kinder to anyone. It's not the point. The point is to say something and not feel as though you have to be quiet and nice in every situation.
Now, of course, one should only do this if you feel safe to do so. I wouldn't suggest anyone do this if they don't want to and it does come with some risks. Some trolls are persistent, some can get very nasty, and you should probably make sure there's a banning or blocking function because it can save you a lot of grief if it escalates for any reason.
Personally, I've dealt with all kinds of trolls. Usually when dealing with subjects like privilege, homophobia, and other general Feminist topics. I've been threatened, I've had people attempt to contact where I work, and I've had more than one instance of people implying they are "keeping an eye" on me in one capacity or another. All over reasonable statements like "Wow, that oil spill is pretty terrible." or "Prop 8 being repealed in one court did not solve homophobia or the issue of gay marriage everywhere. We still need equality for everyone.". It's always a little shocking to be called names and threatened with even implied harm for statements that are not insulting or even particularly controversial. The oil spill was bad. Prop 8 is not over and homophobia is a major issue in this country. Some people will always find a way to feel persecuted, though, even when they're white, male, straight, and not poor. Usually they'll tell you they feel "discriminated" against for their opinion. I find that's usually the group of people that gets the most hostile. People with unexamined privilege get the most angry when that's questioned, directly or not.
Recently, for instance, a young man got very angry with me on a thread because I used "sophisticated" words and had an opinion that was different than his, that I laid out logically, rationally, and reasonably. I backed it up with things like facts and history. To him, this was the equivalent of pooping on his lawn, I think. He fell back on some misogynist insult classics, the most notable being "cunt". As though calling me the slang term for a body part was going to rock my world and send me running for cover. Words like that haven't bothered me for a long time, and I won't even get into the history of using terms for the vagina as an insult. I know that "cunt" is a pretty offensive term to a lot of people, it just doesn't happen to bother me. I like "twat" better anyway.
In that situation I had several choices. I could have let the entire issue go, I didn't have to engage. And once he started being abusive, I could have just walked away and not bothered responding. But I looked at his wording, at the way he was choosing to insult me and several other people and I thought...I'm not going to be intimidated. I know I'm not going to change his mind, I know he's a troll, and I'm not thrilled that he's threatening to keep a "watch" on me because he thinks he has more of my personal info than he really does.
But it was really that threat, the one that was an implied "I'll come after you", that made me say something more. Because I'm sick of that. If you disagree with me, that's fine. But if you can't come up with a more intelligent argument and have to resort to the word "cunt" and threats, then you're a coward and I'm not going to act like that's okay. People are constantly trying to silence women this way and I'm over it. Find a new way to express yourself.
I thought about this a lot with the recent shooting in Tucson. Because sometimes the crazy person on the other end really is crazy and they really will act on it. And that's a scary thought.
Now, I'm not a politician and I'm hardly a public figure. But there are some issues that matter a lot to me and I think taking a stand is important in whatever way you can. Would I get into that kind of thing with someone over a recipe for mac and cheese? No. Over marriage equality? Yes. Because in the end I think silence on issues like that just gives the bullies power they don't deserve. And I'm not going to be quiet just because they don't like hearing that everyone deserves to be treated like a human being. I think that's important enough to stand my ground on.
In the end, you need to do what's right for you. I would never advocate that people do things that make them feel unsafe. But I would like to say: it's okay to stand up for yourself and it's okay to tell the bullies to fuck off. Especially if you can do it with grace and style.