Cannabis Activists Above the Fray: Don’t Mind or Feed the Trolls in Comment Sections

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PHOTO: Simon Steiner, Creative Commons

Congratulations, cannabis activists: weed is now legal in two states. We’re witnessing historic change, not only in our country’s laws, but in our culture. Contrast Gallup’s first marijuana legalization poll in 1969 (12% in favor) with 2013’s poll (58% in favor). Yes, the tide has turned and we are now the majority. But the minority is vocal, and in comment sections on internet articles, the minority is downright dirty, rotten, and unbelievably mean.

If you’ve spoken out about your activism even a little bit, you’ve probably been the target of some of those horrid comments. So, why does this happen? And more importantly, how do we as a movement and as individuals deal with it without losing hope?

First of all, let’s put the vitriol into context. We’ve worked hard in this movement, and we’ve clearly kicked ass. Remember when mainstream media didn’t cover marijuana outside of arrest reports and “just say no” campaigns? How things have changed! And in reflection of our culture, and our increasingly politicized media, the majority of the press is favorable.

TrollSo when faced with positive articles about marijuana reform, what’s an armchair drug warrior to do? Apparently, spewing nasty, personal, hateful commentary on marijuana articles is a popular way to handle the stress of prohibition’s last gasps.

Nasty comments on news articles are hardly unique to the marijuana movement, and the phenomenon has been researched and written about extensively. You can find lots of stories about it on the internet – and naturally, the articles about nasty comments come complete with nasty comments.

Dr.Mitch Earleywine, psychologist, Ladybud writer, and cannabis advocate extraordinaire, co-authored a 2003 study published in Psychology Review, “A Theoretical Model of Triggered Displaced Aggression.” As Dr. Earleywine explains,

Our model suggested that people who flame others online are saying more about themselves and their situations than the person who seems to be their target. We saw a lot of aggression when someone got provoked by a person who they couldn’t retaliate against and then some innocent third party would trigger them with some innocuous but noticeable act. Imagine a guy whose boss berates him. He can’t scream back at her, but when he goes home and finds that the dog has spilled water, he completely over-reacts and takes it all out on the dog. Plenty of folks come home after a hard day of taking a lot of flack at work (a provocation) and surf the web. A subset then learn that someone delightful is leaving their town (a potential trigger). Now they’ve got a provocation and a trigger, and they lash out like crazy. It’s particularly bad when you add anonymity, which heightens aggression in a lot of situations, too.

“The Dad looks like he’s been smoking some pot.”

Since Sanjay Gupta’s CNN “Weed” special, more and more mainstream media reports have focused on families seeking medical marijuana for their seriously ill children. While these reports have clearly helped to change the minds of some prohibitionists, others have reacted in ways that are not so kind or understanding.

Many articles have featured Meghan and Brian Wilson of New Jersey, who have been fighting for access to CBD-rich cannabis for their epileptic daughter Vivian. While the comments on these internet articles have been overwhelmingly supportive, the vocal minority continues to disparage the family at every opportunity.

“What exactly are the motives of this family?” asked one commenter on an article about the Wilsons’ fight for access. “These parents should be drug tested,” said another. “These parents are just using their kid to get marijuana for themselves. The Dad looks like he wants the pot.”

While our first reaction may be to laugh at these comments or simply shrug them off, it’s not always easy for the people in the media spotlight, says Meghan Wilson. It’s hard enough to be struggling with a critically ill child, and to deal with the media on top of that. Add personal attacks to that mix, and it’s easy to get discouraged.

“I don’t even read the comments any more,” says Wilson. “The final straw for me was when a commenter on said ‘why bother? The girl will be dead soon anyway.’ I just stopped reading them. I dream about taking an ad out in a newspaper and replying to all the naysayers.”

doritosNot all comments are so directly mean spirited. Just about any article about medical marijuana is bound to get comments from people drawing from their own (often enjoyable) recreational experiences to poke fun at medical advocates. While this may seem comparatively benign, it can serve to perpetuate negative cultural stereotypes and de-legitimize the fight for medical access.

Yes, using marijuana can give you a case of the giggles, and it can give you the munchies. But while these side effects are often joked about by recreational users, they can also be life-changing or even life-saving benefits for patients with depression, with fears about death, with wasting syndrome. In this context, Dorito jokes just seem entirely inappropriate.

“There is nothing funny about medical marijuana, nothing funny at all,” says Diane Fornbacher, Ladybud Magazine publisher. “I’ve watched a lot of my friends (from the medical movement) die, and there’s absolutely nothing funny about that.”

So, how does an activist stay strong and keep motivated in the face of online comment attacks, jokes, and assorted nonsense? First off, go with your social support, says Dr. Earleywine. “We wouldn’t be cannabis activists if we cared about having everyone like us. Stick with your true friends and cherish the love.”

It’s also important, says Dr. Earleywine, to remember that the positive support behind your efforts far outweighs the negative comments. “Think about how many people didn’t say anything bad,” he advises. “If a website gets 100,000 hits per month and two people claim you’re an idiot, that means 99,998 didn’t. With that kind of batting average, it’s a wonder you don’t have your own candy bar.”

Finally, says Dr. Earleywine, activists can “take the comments for what they likely mean: somebody had a bad day. It’s a shame that this is how people show it, but bad days come and go.”

As marijuana becomes more accepted in society, and our laws continue to change, it’s certain that our movement will get even more media attention, which will inevitably come with some nasty comments on internet articles. If you’re a local activist in a state where legalization is being debated, get ready: CNN might just be knocking on your door soon, wanting to interview you for a story. Don’t let the fear of negative reactions stop you from speaking out and helping our movement gain momentum. Prohibitionists have been spewing this crap since 1937, and shit-talking in general has been around since forever – the internet simply provides a perfect outlet for continued political rhetoric, anonymous bashing, and random verbal attacks.

So with cannabis soon to be legal in every US state, keep your eyes on the prize – while it won’t make all the negativity go away, reading negative comments will undoubtedly be easier to handle while relaxing with a legal joint in your hand.