Wednesday March 09

How to deal with trolls

Probably the best definition of a troll I've seen is an online personality or content that upsets people (paraphrased from People who have been made upset is one of the strongest indications of a troll problem. The term trolling is often applied (wrongly, I think) to suggest inflamatory motives of the person who creates the content or message. It is wrong because in a mediated and remote environment like the internet, it is impossible to tell what the motives of a person are. Worse still, suggesting a person's motives is sometimes used abusively to slander someone. The belief that trolls know what they are doing is a myth. Most of them don't even realise they are upsetting people and sometimes believe they are being thought provoking.

So like all other moderators and weblog owners, I find the hardest part of handling trolls is determining whether it is a troller in action or not. I usually draw the line as soon as the troller attacks someone on a personal level, even if the content is meant sarcastically or as a parody. This approach may sound a bit anal, but I prefer nipping the bud early over having to handle a full blown flamewar. Flamewars upset me and when they occur, it reduces the pleasure I get from visiting my favourite websites and I want less and less to visit them.

Once you have determined that you have a problem, there are a few techniques on how to handle trolls. There is no such thing as a fool-proof automated method of handling trolls. As moderators you must be prepared to wade in, get your hands dirty and take responsibility for your actions. Trolling is a human problem and cannot be handled adequately by a computer.

I looked up more popular forums like slashdot and kuro5hin to create the following list.

  1. Banning them - This the most common way of handling trolls. It is easy, not time consuming and most CMSes have it as a feature. This is especially useful for moderators of large forums who don't have enough time or energy to handle trolls more personally. Banning usually gets rid of the problem completely when the troller is less than aggressive in his pursuit and won't return. But as a rule of thumb, it is usually better to make the ban temporary and not permanent.

    But banning is akin to executing a person -- there is no second chance and is often perceived as being unfair when it is used in contentious cases.

    Banning is also often counter productive because the more determined trollers can sign up as different users and continue their activities. What's worse is that banning also incites the determined trollers so they escalate their attacks. Even if you were to combine this with personal counselling via email, banning is not a good idea if you can help it.

  2. Deleting posts - This is bad for similar reasons as banning trollers. It doesn't stop the problem and it can actually make the problem worse because when the trollers realise what happened, they'll get even more angry.

  3. Editing the posts - I think anything to do with censorship is wrong. But I'm suggesting this method because it can be really really fun! I have taken posts by trollers and just edited them to say funny things and make the trollers look silly or say even complimentary things about myself or the website. The latter really makes the trollers mad because it is the exact opposite of what they intended. They keep posting and their posts keep coming out wrong. This method works best when you are online at the same time as the troller. The advantage of this method is that if it is done right, no one is the wiser except you and the troller, but the message to the troller is loud and clear.

  4. Ridicule the troller - By making wisecracks about the small points of the troller's posts, you can make the troller and his trolls look silly to his audience so that he will be shamed into keeping quiet. This works best with large sites with lots of traffic. But in doing so, you risk breaking the fragility of the self-esteem of the troller. So it is not a very nice tactic at all. If he is aggressive, the troller could take the ridicule as permission to make personal attacks against you. So the more you ridicule him, the higher he escalates his attacks.

    I do not like this method mainly because it sets a very bad precedent for the participants of your community. It encourages mob behaviour so that it is difficult for people to stop attacking (and they may become more violent) even as they cross the point of reason. And the next time someone even suspects that there is a troller in their midst, they may just attack the troller before you can do anything about it.

  5. Counselling trollers/trollees - This is the soft approach. Works brilliantly in cases where the troller is reasonable but is clueless that he is upsetting people. This method afford the moderator the opportunity to explain why people became upset and will probably even prevent future outbursts if the troller promises not to make the same mistake again. You can choose to counsel publicly or counsel privately and the moderator has to determine which approach to use on a case-by-case basis. Counselling often works best with empathy, with humour or in combination with other harder approaches. A kind of carrot and rod methodology.

    Don't forget that counselling must work with all parties. This means the moderator must also counsel the people who got upset! Very often this second part is missed out when using the counselling approach. The people who got upset must be made to empathise with the troller's position and also must be counselled to reduce their reaction should it occur again.

  6. Reasoning with the troller - The key to the success of this approach is endurance. You must outlast the troller, not out-reason him. If the troller is already incensed, his ability to see reason is reduced so it won't be quick or easy. But the state of incense is always a temporary one so if you maintain your composure, you can outlast his state of incense. And he will then be able to see reason again.

    This technique is the most diplomatic. But it can be very emotionally draining and it requires the cooperation of a lot of level headed people at the same time. Every trolling response that's posted only further lengthens the period of the troller's state of incense.

  7. Ignoring the troller - This is often called the "don't feed the trolls" method. It works because it reduces the troller's stature. (There are more techniques below that work on the stature-reduction strategy.) This method requires the cooperation of everyone in the forum or it won't work. And if you have ever tried to get six people to choose which movie to watch, you'll know why ignoring a troller is very difficult to execute successfully. Ignoring the troller is also less satisfactory because it is unlikely to lead to the troller learning from his mistake. Fortunately, many CMSes have an ignore feature built in. Users are encouraged to use the ignore feature to block all content from a troller. The problem with this is that when the troller returns to a reasonable state of mind, it will be too late for him. Everyone is permanently ignoring him.

  8. Reduce the prominence of the troll - Trollers often post inflamatory remarks because they want attention or to raise themselves above other posters. So reducing the prominence of their posts punishes them by reducing the attention they get. It also sends them the right message that, although they are valuable to the community, their post was inconsiderate. Reducing the prominence can be as simple as reducing the point size of the post or the contrast of the text to make it hard to read. Or if your CMs can handle it, move it to some out of the way place on the page.

    Reducing prominence needs a really special CMS (there are none that I know of that can do this easily) or it has to be labour intensive on the part of the moderator. It is very manageable and preferable on sites that are small. But it only works on sites that have a controlled environment like a forum (not a chatroom). But it can be very intensive if you have a large site with few moderators.

  9. Separating the combatants - This is a technique that I invented for forums. It means splitting the offensive posts off to a sandbox forum where they can stay until everyone has cooled off. It is very easy to do with most forum softwares because post-splitting is a common feature. Trolling raises temperatures temporarily among people who would otherwise be quite reasonable. It only takes a bit of time before their heads are back to normal. Which is why this method makes a lot of sense. You don't have to chastise anyone or embarass anyone. And the posts don't get deleted so all your content is intact.

    This technique is most effective (and less labour intensive) when the number of combatants are small and limited. Fortunately, it is CMS-assisted.

  10. Isolate the trollers - From slashdot: "Modify the software so that you "isolate" a user rather than ban them. By which I mean an isolated user would see his own posts, but no other user would. So the creeps wouldn't know right away that they'd been shut out, and would just think they were being ignored. And other users wouldn't have to deal with them. Maybe even make it so that isolated users see posts from all other isolated users, so that the sick abusive group members could brag to each other about their posts, not realizing that they're shouting into a vacuum."

    A really good idea, and beehiveforum can apparently (unconfirmed) do something similar to this right now.

  11. Complain to the authorities - Usually this means the troller's ISP. Everyone agrees that this is always the last resort and is used after banning doesn't work. But many ISPs, to reduce resource costs, will use dynamic IPs so you can't simply report the troller's IP to the ISP. And most ISPs won't have the necessary software to track down the troller based on the time of his activities in your community. On top of that, this won't stop the troller and it won't be the last you'll hear of him. So don't even consider this one. It's a waste of time.

  12. Make your community invitation only - This will prevent the casual troller from making his presence known in your community. But this will often reduce the size and the growth potential of your community. On the upside, it will build a community with strong links with each member so that the community will police itself. It's give and take with this method but the toll may be too high for most.

Whatever you choose to do, you cannot leave a troll situation on its own. At best it will fizzle and die out. At worst, you will lose good community members. Or, just as bad, your community could get a bad reputation. If you handle a troll situation, no matter what happens, you will at least gain the reputation of being a responsible moderator.

More tips here: Handling online vermin

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