Dealing with Trolls

A few comments from experience.

I just finished writing a pretty lengthy article about blog comment moderation for Maria’s Guides, the site where I’m putting most of my tech content these days. The piece, which will appear tomorrow, has a lot of tips and advice for bloggers.

But it also touches on the topic of Internet trolls — you know, those people who use the veil of anonymity to disrupt forums and blog comment threads with offensive, controversial, or off-topic commentary, mostly to get a rise out of other commenters.

Trolls aren’t new. In the old days, we referred to them as flamers and the exchanges that resulted from their behavior were flame wars.

I’ve dealt with trolls and people who just don’t have any courtesy at all on this site and elsewhere. I have since learned and confirmed that the only way to deal with trolls and other offensive commenters is to (1) prevent them from having a voice on my blog, (2) ignoring them on other blogs/forums, and (3) in extreme cases, avoiding blogs/forums where they comment.

In other words, ignore them and they will go away.

June 30, 2014 Update
I’ve finally gotten around to writing up the site comment policy on a regular page (rather than post) on this site. You can find it here: Comment Policy.

You would not believe some of the crap people attempt to post on this blog. “Offensive” is putting it mildly sometimes. But I have a strict comment policy — thanks to the abuse I put up with in the past — and I stick to it. Post a comment that violates the site comment policy and your comment will never be seen by anyone on this site.

What does this do? Well, the casual troll who doesn’t come back to reel in his victims doesn’t even notice that his comment has been deleted. And since the offensive comment never appeared, no one replies in kind or in defense of what was said. No more trolling, no flame war.

The hard-core trolls — those folks who actually use their offensive comments to get under people’s skin and then feed upon the responses — they do notice that their comments didn’t appear. Sometimes they try again. Other times they complain in a comment or in email. Sometimes they get even more offensive. Guess what? I delete that crap, too. And after a while — after they have wasted minutes or even hours and days of their pitiful lives trying to cause trouble here — they give up and go away.

Yes: Ignore them and they’ll go away.

After all, there’s always other more fertile ground for their efforts: blogs and forums that aren’t moderated by people who care.

Result: there are no trolls here. This blog remains a civil discourse zone.

Now, apparently there are a handful of bloggers who doubt the “ignore them and they’ll go away” concept. These people have evidently spent too much time on blogs where trolls are allowed — or perhaps even encouraged — and have likely been victimized. Some of these people have also been contacted by email and offended there. These people have begun speaking up, whining and complaining on their blogs and elsewhere. They seem to think that we somehow need to fight back against trolls — perhaps by stooping to their level and getting just as offensive in our responses.

Each time these people post one of their whining complaints against trolling they are feeding the trolls. That’s right. They’re just letting the trolls know that their offensive comments are hitting their marks and giving them plenty of ammunition to keep up the trolling.

I maintain that the best way to fight back against trolls is to…well, I already said it above. Do I really need to repeat it here?

Get a grip, folks. This isn’t high school. Stop acting like it is.

Comments? Let ’em rip. Just remember the Site Comment Policy. I take it seriously here.

Update: @Beeclef on Twitter shared this link. Very funny.

7 thoughts on “Dealing with Trolls

  1. I so agree, Maria. Well said. Just saw this happen on Facebook with my local TV station. Wish they’d just deleted the idiot’s offensive comments right away but it turned into quite a flame war and the idiot got all the attention instead of what the wall post was covering – a local policeman who’d gotten shot in the line of duty during a routine traffic stop. It was later learned that the suspect had wanted death by suicide, and his wish came true. So the focus of the comments turned to the idiot poster rather than the senseless, tragic event. Pathetic.

    • Offensive comments should never be approved. That TV station was neglecting its responsibilities to its audience.

      But I really believe that many sites allow trolls and flame wars because it generates more hits. Apparently, that’s more important than maintaining order and civility.

  2. Reminds me of the KKK rallies or more recently, the Westboro Baptist Church. Such small ineffectual groups of fanatics when standing alone. They beg for confrontation and turmoil. Add a jeering crowd in the streets, and you have front page news, from which they thrive. We empower them by showing up. Ignore, and they would shrivel and die.
    So Maria, what if it’s not a troll. I would think it difficult to moderate a comment board objectively. Now you can be pointed and direct. Do you have any problem with someone else having the same type of delivery, particularly when they are diametrically opposed to how you feel about an issue personally.
    I have no idea what you reject. If it’s YouTube type commentary, that’s a no-brainer. What if it falls in the grey area? Do you get a second opinion, or does the grey area always get the benefit of the doubt?
    My own experience has been that when people begin to personalize their comments, that’s when it wanders into the grey. If a person blogs though, they should expect some of that, and not be too thin-skinned… after all, they are the person behind the blog.

    • Another friend also drew comparisons to Westboro. I just wish the media would stop giving them the attention they crave.

      How to moderate? Sometimes it’s difficult indeed. I recently had a commenter who kept making the same argument over and over. He didn’t add anything new. It was not only annoying me, but it annoyed other commenters. So I stopped approving his comments. He fought back a bit and then went away. I suspect he was trying to promote something.

      Other times, a commenter seems normal enough but his comments get progressively nastier. Sometimes you don’t even realize he’s sunk to personal attacks until a few comments slip by. That’s when letting the commenter get the benefit of the doubt gets me in trouble.

      The other day, I had a comment that began with the line “You are a buffoon.” I didn’t read any farther; I just clicked delete. The comment policy clearly prohibits personal attacks. Calling me (or anyone else) a “buffoon” qualifies as a personal attack. Surely a difference of opinion can be stated without calling the other party names.

      I have pretty thick skin — heck, I’m a New Yorker at heart! — but I just don’t see any reason to allow things to get nasty. Occasionally, however, someone will say something that so clearly identifies him as an asshole that I approve it and then blast him back. Then, if he tries to fight back, I delete his comments. Mean of me, but hell — HE started it. And I always get the last word on my blog.

  3. Well said and done Maria. I would agree that Trolls are just looking for some attention, good or bad. If ignored they will go elsewhere. If responded too they will stay. I like the expression “don’t feed the trolls.”

  4. A lot of the times what comes across as trolling is little more than an opinion that a) differs from your own and b) bugs you. The idea that these dissonant opinions are all vile assaults is more a result of political correctness than it is a sudden absence of civility. People are as people have always been. It’s those who cannot handle being disagreed with that are the true reason why trolls derive so much enjoyment from what they so. Ignoring a problem does not make it go away, it just allows the problem to expand and grow bigger. I don’t think we ought to spend hours refuting nonsensical claims by each person who chooses to voice their opinions online, or defend endlessly against aggressive flamers, but there is at least something to be said for a well-placed comeback. I just don’t understand this mentality of pretending not to see things that bother us. I don’t think ignorance is the final solution to human indecency.

    • I do agree that some people can’t handle being disagreed with. But, at the same time, it’s the WAY that people voice disagreement that causes problems. I’ve read (and discarded) many cruel personal attacks against commenters here by people who lack the courtesy or intelligence to compose a well-reasoned argument for why they disagree. Saying “you’re wrong because you’re stupid” is not acceptable in polite society (or this blog).

      Your comment is a great example. We obviously disagree about how to handle trolls. Yet you presented your views politely while not compromising what you wanted to say. So your comment appears here and is food for thought for others — including me.

      My own observations — through years of dealing with trolls on BBS systems (1980s and 1990s), message boards and forums (1990s, 2000s, 2010s), and blogs (2000s and 2010s) has convinced me that the best way to deal with nasty, hateful commenters — the trolls that I wrote about — is to ignore them. When they don’t get a rise out of the people they’re trying to rile up, they really do go away.

      But no, I don’t consider someone with a differing opinion a troll just because the opinion differs. It’s got to do with how they interact and what their goal is.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment!

What do you think?