Trolls – How to Deal with Them?

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

Earlier today, Judith McDaniel, ETCJ editor of web-based course design, emailed me a link to Julie Zhuo’s op-ed in the NY Times, “Where Anonymity Breeds Contempt“* (29 November 2010). Zhuo’s article is about trolling, and she defines it “as the act of posting inflammatory, derogatory or provocative messages in public forums.”

Zhuo claims that studies prove “anonymity increases unethical behavior.” She also mentions a term for this behavior, “the online disinhibition effect.” (The embedded links are provided by Zhuo.) She suggests that site administrators “do their part by rethinking the systems they have in place for user commentary so as to discourage — or disallow — anonymity.”

Here in ETCJ, we don’t allow anonymous comments, and this safeguard has been quite effective. But, as Zhuo says, “Many commenters write things that are rude or inflammatory under their real names.” To prevent non-anonymous trolling, she suggests a number of measures, including a rating system for commenters, careful monitoring of posts, and a process for reporting trolls.

I’ve observed a number of trolls at work in a popular forum for the discussion of headphone equipment. I find Timothy Campbell’s description in “Internet Trolls: It’s ALL about ‘The Attention’“** (27 January 2006) to be very accurate.

If people aren’t aware of how trolls operate, they end up being dragged into long and often destructive arguments. And this is exactly what trolls are after. When opponents request and even demand that the troll be removed, other well-meaning participants jump into the fray to defend the troll. This is the troll’s ultimate victory — a flame war that often destroys a thread or entire forum.

It’s important, however, to distinguish between trolls and legitimate debaters. The latter don’t resort to personal attacks and base their comments on actual quotes, valid sources, and logic. Trolls, however, immediately launch personal attacks, ignore or even deny what they’ve said in previous posts, rely on red herring and strawman arguments, accuse others of attacking them personally, and do all they can to confuse the issue. They also fan the flames by dividing the forum into those who are for and those who are against them, forming an emotional “them against us” battle line.

For third party participants, the best protection against non-anonymous trolls is to suspend judgment and to carefully read the posts. On the one hand, trolls will give themselves away by immediately resorting to personal attacks, wild claims, and emotional or fallacious arguments. On the other, legitimate debaters will stick to the issues, refrain from personal attacks, focus on relevant arguments, and attempt to clarify rather than obfuscate.

Finally, perhaps the best way to distinguish between the two is reputation. Trolls have a history that follows them, and, in time, hopefully before they wreak havoc, they are identified.

Please share your thoughts and experiences on this subject. It’s a topic we seldom discuss openly, and many, especially in professional forums, find it difficult to believe that trolls really exist. Have you personally gotten into an argument with a troll? (Please don’t use actual names or information that could identify individuals.) What happened? How do you define trolls? How do you deal with them? Do you have any insights into what motivates them?

* Zhuo’s Webcite alternative.
** Campbell’s Webcite alternative.

8 Responses

  1. Jim,

    Another disturbing and related issue, is that there are online vendors who purposefully “abuse” their customers. I just read an article on Yahoo about that this week, but I can’t find it now. If find it again, I’ll send you the link. The point of the article was that a vendor bullied and abused a customer who complained abut her product and wanted her money back. The vendor commented that even negative feedback on his site increases the visibility of his site which in turn increases his sales. Therefore, it appears that this issue of negativity has broader social implications.

    • Thanks, Lynn. You raise a really important issue — trolling may be considered by some to be an effective strategy for increasing traffic. Just as people are drawn to traffic accidents, they may be drawn to flame wars. And some unscrupulous vendors may stoop to trolling to take advantage of this e-rubbernecking. This has to be a new high for low-down behavior.

      On another note, trolling can also happen in class forums with a student as troll and the instructor or course as victim. This doesn’t happen often, but it could be a problem. In this case, the troll unfairly attacks the teacher or course with the intent, conscious or subconscious, of disrupting the class.

      The troll posts wild and inaccurate charges against the instructor or course, causing panic, fear, and anger among students who haven’t taken the time to investigate the claims.

      Other students jump in to attack the troll, defending the teacher/course, and the result is a flame war. All of this can happen in a blink of an eye — before the instructor can step in to calm the panic.

      Once this level of chaos is reached, teacher intervention is probably ineffective. It’s as though someone has yelled “Fire!” in a crowded auditorium.

      Can this happen in a class forum?

      I think yes, but I haven’t actually experienced it. But I have seen the potential — a student posting an angry message out of frustration, based on a misconception of a policy or process. Other students quickly panic and begin to fill the forum with messages based on the error.

      However, cooler heads among students often intervene and prevail, setting the record straight — or the instructor comes in with a fire extinguisher before things get out of hand.

      With web-based social networking and forums growing in popularity as learning platforms, educators need to be aware of the potential danger posed by trolls.

      Institutions may need to address this potential problem via policies and training media. -Jim S

      • The problem in class is easily averted. If discussion is made a part of the grading system, and if you have a scoring rubric that clearly identifies proper conduct in discussions, then it will not happen.

        IMO, the biggest problem with online discussions is improper grading methodologies that actually encourage poor student participation.

        Perhaps that should be my next column.

    • It is in the New York Times Business Section, related to a company called Decor My Eyes. The idea is that bad behavior results in a lot of people yelling at you in Internet forums results, which in turn results in your business rising to the top in search engine results.

      This is not quite the same thing as trolling, because they really do have to use their real names in this strategy.,mQ22qbmmsyQ2AyQ3CQ27Q3CQ2AQ27Q27Q2Ay8Q2AHEqhlnqqQ2Ay8HmbtnbQ5ERsfV

  2. As a staff member of a huge discussion board, I have a lot of experience dealing with trolls. Here are some of the ways we deal with them.

    1. Our concept of trolling per se is slightly different from the definition above. To us, the provocative messages of the troll are intended to provoke unnecessary debate and flaming, often not actually reflecting the troll’s actual beliefs. It is intended to be disruptive, with no true constructive purpose. This differentiates it from the poster who goes overboard in a legitimate defense of a position.

    2. The right to post is not totally free speech. We have Terms of Service (TOS), and members must agree to the TOS before they can post. The TOS includes both a ban on trolling and overboard behaviors such as personal attacks.

    3. I recently visited a Yahoo-based discussion related to a news item, and I saw several posts from a poster who had a clearly racist user name, and his posts were consistent with it. He included the lyrics for a song praising the Ku Klux Klan in one. Both his user name and the content of his posts would not be allowed under our TOS.

    4. If someone makes a post that violates the TOS, anyone can report it by clicking on a “report” button. This sends a message to the administration, with a chance for the reporter to explain why the post is being reported.

    5. The reported message goes to a backroom discussion area, where it can be read by a team of moderators whose job it is to enforce the TOS. In some cases, the problem is obvious, and it is dealt with immediately by the first moderator to see it. If there is any question about it at all, the message is left there for moderators to weigh in on the proper steps to take. Sometimes it is removal of the post. At other times it is just counseling for the poster. At the most extreme, a poster can be permanently banned from the forum.

    6. Most actual trolling, as we define it, is self-policed by the community. Savvy veterans can recognize trolls, and they call the troll on his or her behavior. People who consistently troll get the reputation that Jim describes. I am thinking of one right now who clearly delighted in what he seemed to see as witty and clever posts that disrupted many discussions. He was banned from several threads, but mostly he got a reputation that obviously drew the scorn of the community. It looks now as if he finally realized that it was a reputation he did not enjoy, and he seems to be trying to reform his image. I hope.

    Is this a perfect system? By no means. The moderators have made some poor decisions at times, by their own admission. Some posters feel singled out and don’t understand why they are being moderated.

    And there is no telling what might happen. For example, we had a discussion a few years ago in which people voiced strong opinions about an organization whose procedures led to someone’s death. There was nothing that violated these TOS in the discussion. Opinions were strongly stated and persistent, but there is nothing wrong with that. Still, the organization that was being attacked has filed a huge lawsuit against our forum and the people who participated in the discussion, and the suit has yet to be resolved.

  3. John, thanks for this list of strategies from the field, from firsthand experience. It sheds light on a subject that’s been hidden in closets for too long. I haven’t seen a more comprehensive, enlightened list so this is, at least for me, a new landmark on the subject. -Jim S

  4. I treat trolls the same way I treat spam.

    I quietly and without comment remove their posts from the forum. The act of removal (my anti-spam system) also bans their IP address from making subsequent comments to the forum.

    This has allowed me to host both signed and anonymous comments for many years without incident.

  5. Stephen, I like your anti-spam system (I won’t use the acronym) because it’s quick and simple. It seems the best policies and procedures have that KISS quality. Thanks for the tip! -Jim S

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