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Identifying and Managing Online Trolls

identifying trollsIf you have ever used the internet, you’ve likely encountered the ubiquitous troll. Trolling has, unfortunately, become an indelible part of the internet landscape.

But are all trolls the same?

We’re quick to dismiss negative comments as trolling or ascribe them to “haters,” but that’s lazy thinking. The fact is that these commenters may have dramatically different motivations, and understanding them is crucial to dealing with the comments in a constructive and professional way.

Please note that while you’ll find these kinds of individuals posting negative reviews, the advice for dealing with them doesn’t apply to those venues. Customer reviews are for customers, not authors, and any intrusion into that space may be met with resentment. The tips below deal only with interactions in a forum where the author is a welcome participant, such as Facebook pages, blog comments, etc. However, these examples can still be useful in understanding the motivations of negative reviewers.

With that in mind, I offer this brief guide to recognizing common varieties of negative commenters you may encounter, and ways of defusing the chaos they create.

The Genuine Troll

Genuine trolls are toxic pranksters who thrive on negative attention. They sow chaos for its own sake, seeking to disrupt meaningful communication and provoke an emotional response from their targets. Groups of trolls may flood a channel with inflammatory or nonsensical memes, a practice they have colorfully dubbed “sh*tposting”. Often, this content is meant to shock: pornography, hate speech, and cruelty are standard weapons in the arsenals of these provocateurs.

Because trolls define success by their ability to provoke an angry response, countermeasures involve shutting them down quickly, before they can derail the conversation and goad other participants into outraged bedlam. If you don’t have control over the forum and can’t ban the troll, report them to the moderators, block them, or ignore them.

Don’t respond directly to trolls. Any acknowledgement — especially an emotional reaction — is likely to intensify the harassment, and may invite attacks by other trolls.

The Stalker

Although trolls and stalkers both seek to cause an emotional reaction, they vary in their methods, purpose, duration, and malice.

Trolls engage in negative behavior for a laugh at someone else’s expense; stalkers seek to cause lasting harm to their victims.

Trolls tend to be opportunistic; stalkers are premeditated attackers who fixate on specific victims.

Trolls are hit-and-run offenders who quickly lose interest; stalkers engage in targeted, sustained abuse, sometimes over a period of years.

None of this is intended to trivialize the emotional and financial harm trolls have caused, but rather to distinguish between the motivations of stalkers and trolls. Any of the following behaviors may identify stalking:

  • threats of violence, rape, or death
  • doxing — the unauthorized publication of the victim’s phone number, address, or other personal information
  • contacting friends, family, or the employer of the victim
  • impersonation of the victim
  • defaming the victim through false allegations
  • harassing the victim across multiple online platforms
  • behavior that extends into physical threats, such as vandalism, threatening mail, or following the victim
  • harassment that continues for months or years

Stalking may escalate, and so any incident that falls into the categories above should be treated with extreme caution. Targets of stalkers should document all incidents of harassment, including the time and date, and report them to law enforcement if there is a credible threat of violence. Secure your accounts with unique, robust passwords. Crash Override Network offers additional prevention tips and resources for targets of stalking, including best practices for cybersecurity.

The Comedian

Trolls and comedians may appear similar at first glance, but where the troll is openly cruel and disruptive, the comedian is just trying to be funny. Unfortunately, he may not be as funny as he thinks he is, and his inappropriate jokes and satire may spark arguments.

Satirical comments and jokes don’t usually require a response unless they violate your site’s commenting policy. (You do have a commenting policy, don’t you?)

The Tribalist

On the less dire end of the spectrum, we have the tribalist. Tribalists take offense at anyone or anything that doesn’t mesh with their black-and-white view of how the world should be. Whether it’s politics, religion, sports, preferred operating system, favorite genre, or the Oxford comma, the tribalist will explode in righteous fury at any hint of a dissenting opinion.

For a tribalist, these aren’t just preferences or strongly held opinions, they’re part of the tribalist’s identity. A challenge to their opinion becomes a threat to their identity, with all the emotional backlash that comes with that.

The key to defusing tribalist behavior is emphasizing common ground. Reassuring the tribalist that their choices are valid and reminding them that everyone in that forum is there because of a shared interest helps to break out of the “us vs. them” mindset.

The Rager

The rager uses the internet to vent their displaced aggression at anyone who crosses their path.

Starbucks barista misspelled their name? That’s a rant.
Train was 20 minutes late? That’s a rant.
Formerly favorite author didn’t live up to expectations? You’d better believe that’s a rant.

Ragers are characterized by their disproportionate and frequent hostility. A quick investigation into their other posts will often reveal a pattern of furious outbursts wherever the rager has been. If that scathing review seems unreasonably harsh, it may not be the book (or the author) that the reviewer is angry at.

Dealing with the rager is no different than dealing with any other angry person: listen to them with calm, patience, and compassion. Don’t patronize. Acknowledge when they make a valid point, and let them know their opinions matter.

If the hostile behavior persists or crosses the line into trolling, it may become necessary to ignore or ban the individual. In most cases, though, a courteous and sympathetic ear works wonders. Without a constant stream of fuel to feed their fury, the rager’s anger will subside. You may even receive an apology.

The “Helpful” Critic

The critic isn’t always malicious, but their unsolicited advice can drive an author to tears. Here, we frequently see novice authors regurgitating whatever dubious tidbit of writing wisdom they’ve stumbled across that week.

“I liked the book, but I had trouble getting past all the adverbs. A good writer never uses adverbs. Ever.

When injected into a fan discussion, these comments can provoke angry responses from other members of the group, which provokes an angry response from the critic, which drags civil conversation to its fiery death.

Some critics are malicious, acting out of insecurity and a desire to bolster their faint self-esteem by asserting superiority or dominance over others. It can be difficult to tell which variety of critic you’re dealing with, but the response is the same in either case: give them the benefit of the doubt, and offer your polite thanks for the input. (This doesn’t work as well in live video, where the Critic may notice your eye twitching uncontrollably.)

Sustained debate is not recommended, as this breed of commenter tends toward a stubborn insistence on truth of their advice, and an endless capacity for argument. If the critic persists, you can invite them to contact you privately. That’s a good way to redirect them if they’re bringing down the enthusiasm of the group or creating friction with other members. You might even make a new friend or lifelong fan in the process.

The Irate Fan

Dedicated fans are a precious resource. Dismissing an irate fan as a troll is a sure way to lose that reader forever, and could cost you dozens of other readers as they hear about your shabby treatment of your former fan. When in doubt, err on the side of caution.

Fans may air their grievances publicly for a number of reasons. Perhaps they couldn’t find a way to get in touch with you privately. Maybe they feel the only way that their complaints will be taken seriously is to air those frustrations in public.

Whatever the reason for a reader’s discontent, they deserve to be heard and acknowledged. You don’t need to agree with them. You don’t have to change one thing to suit them. But at the very least, you should hear why they’re upset, and let them know you’ll consider what they’ve said.

This simple courtesy can win back an angry reader and strengthen your fan community.

Spelling Out the Rules

It’s a good idea for your blog, website, or Facebook page to include a commenting policy. A well-crafted policy establishes clear guidelines for visitors to your blog or Facebook page, and when applied consistently, ensures a healthy balance between free speech and a welcoming environment for your readers.

Your policy can be brief or detailed, restrictive or permissive as you like.

A typical policy may cover:

  • profanity
  • harassment
  • personal attacks
  • disruptive behavior
  • spam
  • affiliate links
  • off-topic statements or links
  • adult content
  • prohibited topics

If it becomes necessary to delete a comment, you can direct readers to your comment policy to head off accusations of unfair treatment. The ability to delete a comment and refer the individual to your site’s guidelines provides a disciplinary option short of an outright ban. This can be useful in accidental violations or cases when a valued member of the community steps over the line.

You’ll find examples of comment policies on most major websites. Examples of comment policies can be found at The Guardian, The Humane Society of the United States, and the Huffington Post. Use them as a starting point to craft your own policy.

Conclusion

This isn’t an exhaustive list of the characters you’ll encounter online, but it covers the most common varieties of negative behavior. Applying this “troll triage” to online comments can quickly identify the type of individual you’re dealing with, and suggest ways of minimizing conflict on your blog, troll-related or otherwise.

OVER TO YOU
What’s your strategy for dealing with negative comments? Do you favor strict moderation, or do you prefer a light touch when dealing with questionable comments? Let us know in the (lightly moderated) comments below.

How Indie Authors Can Remain Resilient: Know Which Critics To Listen To and Which To Ignore

Opinion: Why It’s Good to Get Bad Reviews

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4 Responses to Identifying and Managing Online Trolls

  1. K.S. Trenten June 16, 2017 at 6:05 am #

    Excellent article! There may be trolls who slip between the cracks of definition (oh, look, I’m being a Helpful Critic :)), but this does cover most of major displays of trollish behavior I’ve seen. Thank you for the useful advice!

    • John Doppler June 24, 2017 at 6:21 pm #

      Thank you! I’m glad you found it helpful.

  2. Alexander Rooksmoor June 15, 2017 at 10:40 am #

    I feel that the statement ‘Customer reviews are for customers, not authors, and any intrusion into that space may be met with resentment.’ utterly debilitating. It is those reviewers who have defined that space as being inappropriate for authors to be in, no-one else. You will find people on Amazon bragging about how they have harassed authors to such an extent as to get them to take down their books, they do it simply for their own kudos, not to benefit other readers. Many ‘reviews’ simply condemn the book without explanation. I received one that said ‘Bad.’ nothing else. Many criticise a book because it is not how they would have written the ending, not because the book is poorly written. We are in an age in which too many readers are angry if a book is not what they would have written, this is very different from the print marketplace.

    In contrast to published books, e-books are compelled to carry every last comment even if it is irrational. As has been noted in ‘The Guardian’ newspaper this is meaning many ebooks end up being very similar as reviewers (who are generally a tiny fraction of customers) police what they feel are the ‘rules’ of a genre. It stifles innovation in writing and ironically reduces customer choice. Some ‘rules’ are very personal, for example one man insisted that a book about medieval Europe not written from the Mongol perspective was ‘wrong’ and ‘childlike’ because it instead showed events from the French perspective. Not a view liable to be held by many people reading in English but still damaging to sales.

    Thus, I think you are wrong to rule out author responses to customer statements, especially when they are from a very narrow perspective and they condemn a book with no explanation of why they are hammering it. There are customers who like to simply hunt down authors and drive them off sales platforms, yet, at present we have no ability to counter that hobby. I think customers writing a review should be compelled to write at least 100 words as is the case on some discussion platforms and be expected to explain why they dislike the book not simply rant about how bad they believe it to be.

    • John Doppler June 24, 2017 at 6:21 pm #

      Thank you for the opposing viewpoint, Alexander!

      That’s a topic that’s frequently debated among indie authors. However, for two primary reasons, I feel that it’s bad form to respond to reviews.

      First, the author’s intrusion into that space may have a chilling effect on readers’ feedback. It’s awkward to provide honest feedback when you know the author is reading — and potentially challenging — your opinions.

      Second, that intrusion may provoke a defensive, angry, or even retaliatory response from reviewers.

      It’s certainly true that some reviewers leave painfully ignorant or malicious reviews, and that can be infuriating. But responding to those reviews is more likely to exacerbate the problem than to resolve it. In these cases, I firmly believe that silence is the best response — at least in that venue.

      And yes, that may mean turning the other cheek while some nitwit mistakenly rages about your book’s “poor editing,” based solely on the fact that you spelled “color” as “colour”.

      Customer review areas are a different environment than a venue you own. Your own forums are likely designed for interaction between author and fans, and that’s a much more appropriate place for responding to feedback.

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