Dealing with Trolls

This weekend will be SkepchickCon/CONvergence, where I will be on a panel talking about dealing with trolls online. Previously, we managed to come to a general consensus on what defines a troll. I’ve also posted some resources on comment moderation, to which others have added. Now we come to the big question.

Aside from moderating them out of existence, how do we deal with trolls?

Ignoring them isn’t necessarily an option, particularly when dealing with social justice issues. I’ve talked previously about why “Don’t feed the trolls” is based on oversimplified notions of psychology. Beyond that, however, is the fact that “trolling” is often an accurate representation of the worlds that many of us deal with. We don’t want to make it disappear because it’s exactly the thing we want to address. Jay Smooth recently put it better than I could.

Ill Doctrine: Why I Will Feed The Trolls If I Damn Well Want To from on Vimeo.

These trolls aren’t just distractions. They embody the very issues we’re dealing with as we try to change the world, and ignoring those issues has never once made them go away.

Given that, how do we cope with trolls in our spaces without giving them the control they’re after? How do we have discussions around them without losing the ability to have the discussions we want to have? How do we make it clear that they are socially unacceptable without being completely derailed?

Who has some good strategies?

Dealing with Trolls

33 thoughts on “Dealing with Trolls

  1. CT

    1. join them by trolling them back
    2. as blog/forum owner, block every trolling post, disallow trolling
    3. as blog/forum owner, allow select trolling thru, allow regular commenters/posters to tear the troll apart, or, if you will, ‘explain’ why they are wrong

    bad things:
    re 1. you are what you want to stop. trolls will know this. much high fiving on the back channels that they made you stoop to their level. unless owner is diligent, community will die IME
    re 2. must fend off claims of censorship, some borderline people leave because they like controversy which can be construed as trolling, unless the owner is diligent, community will die IME
    re 3. draws trolls to the blog/forum where they have contests to see who can get a comment/post thru moderation, much high fiving among the trolls on the back channels. must fend off claims of censorship, some nicer people will leave since the regular posters/commenters will spend all their time ‘beatin up’ on trolls.

    good things:
    re 1. can’t think of any good things – commonly known as a troll blog/forum, eventually everyone but the trolls will leave.
    re 2. can if extremely persistent create a good resource forum/blog without much comments/replies.
    re 3. can if extremely persistent create a good resource forum/blog if owner can minimize how much of the trolling is seen by the random user.

  2. 3

    Ban people not for making trollish arguments per se, but for goal-post moving and otherwise throwing out controversial ideas, then refusing to defend them and trying to move on to the next subject.

  3. 4

    I like 3, personally, but it can increase tone trolling because a casual reader has less reason to be pissed than the blog owner as only the tip of the iceberg is showing.

  4. 5

    I like the idea of talking about a troll, rather than addressing them directly. Discuss as a group the ways in which that person is wrong and, if it is a derail, move right back to the subject at hand in the next sentence. I think this is one est of dealing, but I think there must be other ways that could form a holistic approach.

  5. 6

    I don’t think there is going to be one single strategy that will always work, as there are different kinds of trolls who troll for different kinds of reasons. That said, the minimum that needs to be there are clear ground rules, giving clear warnings, and making good on your threats. I think it doesn’t even matter too much what the ground rules are exactly.

    Some things I like, in no particular order:
    – three strikes rule
    – demand explicit acknowledgement of certain basic facts/arguments as a requirement for staying in the discussion
    – creating quarantine threads, for people who want to continue debating a troll or a particular side discussion
    – explainations why someone is disemvoweled, blocked or banned

    Of course, I should add that it’s easy for me to talk, my blog doesn’t attract many readers and I haven’t had much trouble with moderation yet – I haven’t even felt the need to put up a proper comment policy statement yet. So my opinions are mostly from the perspective of a reader and occasional commenter.

  6. 7

    I’d like to second Deen’s nuanced approach rather than somewhat absolutist approach in @1.

    I also think that yours and say Greta Christina’s approach of requiring content and the blog host calling out what’s not ok and why helps a ton. Everyone is on notice of what’s acceptable and why. With first nod to neutrally applicable rules, enforcement or disagreements by the host or commentators seem less arbitrary and viewpoint driven. i.e. the enforcers are subject to a norm (cite rules first, petty peeves second) as well.

    I think the commentatorate self-policing approach fails. The main problem is that the loudest most interested plurality’s view becomes the only acceptable one. Or this could be seen as a feature if you’re going for either maximum conflict or maximum agreement with the host’s views.

  7. 8

    I’m not sure how the blog software works, but can you set up a ‘dumping ground’ thread to where obvious shit-stirring garbage (and maybe responses} can be moved? Trolls can’t then claim censorship and the stupidity will always be there for future ridicule & reference.

  8. 9

    Another thing that can help (and often already exists) is an easily citable clearinghouse of facts that can be used to dispassionately show a troll’s arguments to be invalid. A short “you’re wrong, and here’s why” will give people who might otherwise believe the crap that is being spewed a way to educate themselves, while denying the troll the over the top reaction they need.

    Won’t work on 100% of the cases, but until my patent for Troll-B-Gone is approved and passes EPA review, I can’t offer too much more.

  9. 10

    I do appreciate Jay’s argument, but I think it depends on what your primary goal is. If your primary goal is to expose the kind of fallacious thinking the trolls engage in, or to show people insulated by privilege that the kind of hatred you experience every day does in fact exist, then CT’s Option 3 may be the best way to go about this.

    If your goal is conversation, though, and enabling all commenters to find their voices, then Option 2 is really the only way to go. My own approach is pretty much Thou Shall Not Suffer A Troll To Live. I have heard from a lot of readers that conversations in my comment threads have actually changed their viewpoints, and I think the absence of trolls has a lot to do with that: people tend not to have their backs up as much when presented with a contrary viewpoint.

  10. 11

    I’ve never run my own blog before, so I cold be completely off base. One of the most important things to me is transparency. When commenters start claiming they were banned because they’re friends with the wrong person (an accusation I’ve seen leveled against many bloggers here at FTB), or something equally petty, it would be nice to have a place where new or infrequent readers can see why the troll was banned. A memorial, if you will.

    Also, I’m very fond of a thread dedicated to hosting off-topic discussions where trolls and the hopelessly confused can be dealt with rationally and without derailing.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents worth.

  11. 12

    Oh and even though I’m the type to (over)write out specific rules and regulations, with definitions and examples of unacceptable behavior, and the consequences that are to be expected, “My blog. My rules” is the only justification you should ever need.


  12. 13

    on the blog, post their trolling comments disemvoweled in red print with large print before and after saying ‘hey everybody, lets laugh at this idiot!’. in cons and the like, steal some bits from insult comedians. be nasty and crude enough to shock them. then point and laugh. loudly. then ignore them and/or talk over them. civility is worse than wasted on trolls. it encourages them. so does argument, anger, or dismay. the basic idea is to make trolling painful by making THEM the object of derision. this may be steroids talking, but it seems like a good idea.

  13. 14

    I’ve been accused of being a “troll” and had no frickin’ idea what the hell anyone was talking about. Making the ground rules explicit instead of just assuming everyone who comes across a blog is acculturated enough to know how to function in the discussion in ways that won’t get them dog-piled might be sort of nice.

    Several YEARS ago, PZ was dealing with some pretty serious issues with his employment because of how out-spoken he is. I was concerned for him, as a fellow academic. So, I wrote a letter to UofM and I went on his blog and shared the letter that I had written. I had not been involved on his blog previously.

    Someone else posted something that many people disagreed with, and a few of the people on the blog (who seemed to be regulars) laid into him, calling him names, and just being complete jerks – doing that *thing* where instead of responding to what the person says, you just call them “stupid” as if their “stupidity” is self-evident.

    I said something to the effect of: I don’t agree with him either but I can understand his perspective; and the way he is being treated here is pretty messed up.

    When I did that, they turned on me, insulting me, calling me a “troll” and all sorts of other accusations.

    It was FUCKING unreal.

    It’s only been recently that I’ve been active on his blog, and it seems to be a whole lot better or maybe I’ve just gotten a thicker skin. At least this time I knew what I might encounter.

    I was immediately called a “tone troll” and accused of a bunch of stuff. However, there wasn’t this oppressive majority completely ignoring the substance of what I was saying simply because I dared voice my concern that perhaps insulting the crap out of someone instead of simply responding to the substance of what he was saying is sort of pathological.

    I mean, with the story that you just wrote – perhaps if you would have said something about the abuse that Jeff was receiving you would have gotten dog-piled and called a “troll”?!

    When I think of a “troll” I think of the type of person who goes on anorexia support forums and makes fat jokes or anonymously makes grotesque threats to naive isolated people for shits and giggles. So, I hate it when people throw the word around.

    If the comment has NO substance at all and is insulting or threatening, I think ignoring it is absolutely reasonable. If anyone addresses it, they should be brief. Talking about and not to them is infuriating to someone who wants attention, so I think that could be effective.

    If there is substance to what they are saying, just respond to that and only that (if you can manage it).

    Use questions (that they can reasonably answer) a lot and just keep repeating those questions if they attempt to evade or change the subject. If they answer those questions, they might actually be interested in a substantive discussion.

    Refuse to engage with them until they have responded.

    If they are just an attention-getter and are unwilling to have a real discussion, they will become very frustrated that you are refusing to allow them to dominate the discussion and drive the social dynamics.

    If anyone is doing anything that is considered unacceptable by the ground rules – give them a warning. If they persist – three-strikes you’re out is as good a rule as any.

  14. 15

    I agree. There are a bunch of things that are thought of as trolls code phrases. It’s easy to stumble into them accidentally and no way to defend yourself. I think “intent is not magic” gets heavily misused as well. This problem is pretty much unique to Pharyngula, though. Greta attracts a significant number of trolls and manages to reign in over-zealous defenders and keep trolling under control without derailing discussion.

  15. 16

    “If there is substance to what they are saying, just respond to that and only that (if you can manage it).”

    Just to be clear – I’m not being sarcastic there. Sometimes it is really difficult to manage to keep your cool.

  16. 17

    “be nasty and crude enough to shock them.”


    Should I go to the noise show or the freethought convention? Now you don’t have to choose! New from Spishack…

    Just saying – that is a very risky game to play.

  17. CT

    It’s easy to stumble into them accidentally and no way to defend yourself. I think “intent is not magic” gets heavily misused as well.

    This is a #3 bad things as well. When the regulars get used to the trolls, they often just assume everybody is a sockpuppet. Pharyngula is definitely #3.

  18. 19

    I’m pretty strong on harshing the squee of drive-by disruptors over at my place, because even gnawing on the nasty as chewtoys only amuses some of us and we have come around to being more considerate of our readers by not cluttering up our threads with the fallout. Our strong stance does end up making Hoyden rather a CT-#2 type space, with far fewer comments than we used to get when we spent more time engaging the contrarians for our own version of the LULZ.

    For me in the end it came down to refusing to be shamed (via free speech arguments) into hosting the presence of those who just wanted to spread muck on my rug, when the only purported benefit of putting up with them was that the “party” would be more successful/popular, and only at the expense of silencing less aggressive voices. We are now explicitly “a space where ill-natured and vexatious commentary intended to stifle the voices of other commenters simply is not tolerated”.

    You’re welcome to look at my comments policy for ideas if you like [link].

  19. 20

    I think maybe you should allow a few of the ‘useful’ trolls – much as I hate them, people who JAQ off can be useful to lurkers. I was a lurker for a good few months before I started posting here (I’ve been on the site since it started, but I think I didn’t start posting till around January). During that time, I learned a lot from people answering those who were obviously JAQing off – which is why I’ll entertain those trolls even though I know they’re trolls now. I know I’m not going to reach the troll, but I might reach an ignorant lurker. I know because I was an ignorant lurker at one point.

    The ones who scream abuse with or without massive abuses of formatting and CAPSLOCK (not to mention punctuation!!!!!!), on the other hand, deserve to be summarily ban-hammered. They’re not helping, and they’re not useful as a teaching point to others.

    As for the JAQers… I’d probably let them go a bit, then when it becomes obvious they’re being dishonest in their rhetoric (again), warn and then kick them. That way people don’t cry “censorship!” at you (too much) but the fact that you don’t tolerate abusive behavior and dishonest debating is established.

    ‘course, your blog, your rules. Do what you want.

  20. 21

    OT: Agh, you’re on the left now! And Ophelia’s on the right, and Jason’s on the left, etc. Now I’m going to be all confused for like half a day.

    I guess we have to bring Greg back just so I’ll be able to find all mah blogs. 😀

  21. 22

    @Ace of Sevens in #15:

    It’s easy to stumble into them accidentally and no way to defend yourself.

    Of course there is. You can admit your ignorance, apologize, and promise to do your homework. If you do, most people will give you a second chance (likely even on Pharyngula). The problem is, of course, that for many people that response doesn’t come naturally – especially for skeptics who love to argue, and people who think arguments are about winning even more so.

  22. 23

    @22, actually no. First of all, this doesn’t necessarily involve ignorance. Look at what happened to M.A. Melby who criticized a specific provision of an anti-harassment policy. This was after establishing a solid record of exposing the sexist assumption in Thunderf00t’s assumptions. Soem peopel couldn’t get over the idea there may be reasosn to point out problems with the policies beyond concern trolling.

    In some situations, any apology can get treated like it’s patronizing. Look at the guy who said that he was sick of the flame wars, then apologized for saying it badly and clarified that he did not mean that we shouldn’t push back against misogyny, it just gets tiresome and was greeted with sarcastic thanks for giving women permission to care about sexism. Pharyngula is not a model of how to handle trolls. The alleged three-post policy is more like a one-post policy in practice where lots of things can get you presumed to be a troll. Pointing out bad arguments is concern trolling or derailing, for instance. THis isn’t all the time, but it’s a strong tendency.

    Again, this problem is unique to PZ. All the other bloggers here manage to handle trolls without encouraging this atmosphere. Most of them do a good job.

  23. 24

    @Ace of Sevens in #23: I just wanted to add that I don’t think it’s ever impossible to recover from being mistaken for a troll, as you seemed to suggest in #15. Difficult, yes, but not impossible, even on Pharyngula. Don’t want to get too far off-topic though, so I’m going to drop this argument.

  24. 26

    Nearly on-topic (and admittedly cross-posted from another Minnesotan’s FTBlog): I’ll be attending Convergence this weekend (in large part because it’s being held all of ten miles from where I live), but I’m not going to be able to get away from home for too many hours, given that I have an 8.5-month-pregnant spouse who has fairly good grounds to make justified demands on my time.

    Anyone care to suggest which Convergence events would be most worthwhile for an atheist who’s more interested in Skepchick/FTB fandom/socializing/networking than general (albeit happy) geekery?

  25. 27

    Rieux, the best for that would be the parties in the evening. FtB and Skepchick have adjoining party rooms. Also, I hear that the volunteer set-up and tear-down from the parties will be particularly good places to socialize. 😉

  26. 29

    “@Deen: No, you said something that sounded like something used to support arguments I disagree with. There’s no recovering now.”

    Yep – that would be hitting it on the head there.

  27. 30

    Oh yeah – and whatever you do – don’t just delete comments with no explanation for no apparent reason. That just happened to me too.

    As someone who has just recently been active on FtB – simply having a standard placement for a link to a comments policy for each blog would be helpful.

    It doesn’t have to be detailed, or be standard, or even good. However, it should be available and give the people commenting an idea of what to expect.

    The only standard thing about it should simply be, “Each individual blogger reserves the right to moderate comments without appeal and without strict adherence to any stated policy.”

    – or something like that.

    Whatever works.

    I think a heads up would just make navigating FtB a little less um….. land mine like. 🙂

  28. 31

    Just for the record:

    I THOUGHT that just happened to me, but it didn’t. The moderating was being wonky and eventually my comments re-appeared.


    Plus they were taken seriously and the blogger revised his post because of them.

    I guess I read THAT one wrong!

  29. 32

    Ace of Sevens #23:

    …M.A. Melby who criticized a specific provision of an anti-harassment policy. This was after establishing a solid record of exposing the sexist assumption in Thunderf00t’s assumptions.

    You are mistaken. M.A. Melby said nothing about Thunderf00t or harassment policy in their post. They were talking about something that happened “several YEARS ago”, likely on Sb where we can’t get at the comments.

    This is the same sort of evidence-free whining as the pitizens put on FTB, only specifically targeted. Your bias is showing =/

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