How to handle internet trolls

This post is not about software or apps. It’s mostly about politics and comment trolls. But there are some generic thoughts which might be useful for others also – hopefully not by inspiring you to troll competing companies or apps.

If you’ve been on the internet for a few years, you must have ran into them. Trolls. Haters. Crazies. Leaving out poisonous comments or reviews, preposterous lies or hidden insults. In my golden years of blogging I sure had my share – fewer since I’ve retired from daily blogging. Some were obvious – people with rude language and opinions. Some were subtle – I don’t even know if they were very weird fans or very subtle haters. Not that it matters, anyway.

2012 is a political campaign year, at least here. And since TV channels and newspapers side with their owner’s political party, it’s inevitably up to the internet to be the democratic discussion field, the agora of fair exchanges of thoughts and opinions. Only it isn’t. Because, you know, people aren’t stupid – not even those in power. There is money at stake with official or unofficial PR teams working non-stop to leave comments, reviews or forum posts to influence and persuade others. Which only proves that the internet is a democracy – and everyone has the freedom to say things, even the ones that get paid to do it.

Now, back to trolls. Paid or unpaid, they have a common result: to divert the discussion, distract and change opinions. And, from what I notice, they are successful. In Romania we call them “postaci” (a pun crossing “posting” a comment with “stupid” as in prostanaci, meaning they tend to comment blindly, on command, disregarding the subject discussed), and they have been a common presence on the sites of major newspapers or news websites. During campaign years they are more active on blogs than ever.

Take the case of Cristi Manafu’s post about Bucharest mayorship candidate Nicusor Dan (sorry, romanian). Plenty of positive comments, and two trolls(one of them having also spammed this other important blog. With only two comments, they managed to divert an entire discussion thread from discussing the candidate to discussing them. There’s a saying that “a rotten apple spoils the whole bunch” and, in the case of paid or freelance comment trolls, it’s true.

Or the case of another troll commenting on all the blog posts about the same candidate from a given period (1, 2, 3 – just search for mastic).

The easiest thing for a troll is come up with crazy accusations. There is no such thing as “too crazy”. Why? Because this sparks two kinds of reactions:

  1. The vast majority will comment back in reply, telling the troll how absurd he is. They shouldn’t bother. He knows that – he also knows that by diverting the comments from the subject in the article to the subject in his comment, his goal has been achieved – also because it drives even more people towards the second kind of reaction.
  2. A smaller section of the readers will start to believe. Not in all the absurd claim, obviously. But, you know, maybe part of it is true. Sure, there are no such things as green alien zombies trying to take over the world using this guy as a mind-controlled puppet, but.. hey, maybe he isn’t as spotless as he might look, since there are people believing monstrous things about him. And the troll wins big.

The second easiest thing for a troll is to look normal. An ordinary guy, just doubting things, with some minor hard to verify disinformation; answering replies, bringing somewhat logical arguments. Nothing weird in this – just a normal guy of different opinions – and that’s why it’s so hard to identify him as a troll or postac. One would need to look him up online, see if he’s the occasional reader of different opinions, or a paid guy infiltrating multiple comment threads.

The big illusion we all, sooner or later, fall prey to is that we can use the internet to convince people. We can’t, not directly. You can persuade people, if you do it in a subtle way. Just by force of arguments you won’t really change one’s mind, regardless of how polished and logical your words are. But by being subtle, by saying things like “I don’t know, this still seems fishy to me“, you can spread doubt. Because doubt is easy to spread, while conviction is hard(there are infinite levels of doubt, but only one level of absolute conviction – the 100%).

My point being that blogs are personal spaces of opinion. If a commenter has a different opinion than mine, there’s no point in him trying to convince me of his, or in me trying to change it. All we can try to do is exchange information – and let that information be processed by others as they see fit.

And if you don’t like a troll comment turning the discussion towards other topics, you should probably just remove it. The troll will be angry because of it, but he was probably angry anyways. Tough luck – maybe he should start his own blog instead of spamming others.

7 thoughts on “How to handle internet trolls

  1. Kyle Newsome says:

    Nice post. This is some great food for thought and I would argue still pretty relevant to software and apps.

    I agree that sometimes it is just better to remove comments that seem off course, though I always have this conflict of guilt that I am creating my own illusion as a result. It is certainly a tricky subject to handle sometimes.

  2. Ivan says:

    “Akkosina was easily angered and was always angry about something or someone. When he heard that the Buddha did not get angry with anyone he immediately decided to visit him. He went up to the Buddha and scolded him for all sorts of things, insulting him and calling him awful names. At the end of this angry speech, the Buddha asked this man if he had any friends or relatives. “Yes.” Akokosina replied. “When you visit them, do you take them gifts?” the Buddha asked. “Of course, I always bring them gifts.” The angry man replied. “Then what happens if they don’t accept your gifts?” The Buddha asked. “Well I take them home and enjoy them with my own family” “And likewise,” said the Buddha, “You have brought me a gift here today that I do not accept, and so you may take that gift home to your family.” And so with patience, wit and loving friendliness, did the Buddha teach about how we react and accept the “gift” of angry words.”

    TL;DR: People can have negative opinions about something as much as they want. Just do not give a fuck about it.

  3. dissid3ntly says:

    Please allow me to begin by quoting you:

    “Now, back to trolls. Paid or unpaid, they have a common result: to divert the discussion, distract and change opinions. And, from what I notice, they are successful.”

    You’ve defined trolls here by the consequence of their actions, and bemoan the result. That being a successful diversion, distraction and/or morphing of opinion upon something that you’d previously considered to be an apparent truth – obviously something you wanted the comments under to reiterate and reinforce rather than question and present alternative “realities”.

    I’ll partially ignore the contradiction that arises later in your piece, wherein you say that “you won’t really change one’s mind” – of which opinion is SURELY a part of.

    What if the person you consider to be a “troll” is correct, and subsequent comments and conversations reflect that greater truth than yours? Are you still considering them a troll? Would you be able to accurately and separately identify the greater truth in a duopolistic discussion? Despite your conflicted and invested stake?

    I don’t think so.

    I think you’re not even capable of taking on those you consider “trolls” head on, and that that is the very reason for this “piece” of “opinion” pretending to be “advice” on “trolls”.

    The deeper truth might be that you don’t know what is an appropriate “piece” for a blog about development, what constitutes valid “opinion”, how or what it is that “advice” is, nor what the fuck a “troll” is.

    Good luck.

    ps let me save you some time… you think I’m a troll. You’re wrong, in every sense of the word, which means every other of your judgements on what constitutes troll like behaviour and outcome is in question. So I’ll say it again, just so you get it… Good luck.

  4. admin says:

    @Kyle, @ivan – thanks, very nice words

    @dissid3ntly: the only reason I see for your fierce and acid comment is that you either honestly believe that I am wrong, or that you recognize yourself in my above description of what I think trolls are(which would indeed make you one, in my interpretation).

    “The deeper truth might be that you don’t know what is an appropriate “piece” for a blog about development, what constitutes valid “opinion”, how or what it is that “advice” is, nor what the fuck a “troll” is.”

    I gave my definition of a troll above. You obviously make the cut – through acid remarks, swearing and personal attacks you managed to distract the discussion to yourself and your words instead of mine. Good for you. Happy?

    Now, let me make things clear for you about the internet in general and personal blogs in particular: nobody forces you to read a blog you don’t agree with. Unless you are paid to do it, whenever you read something you don’t like you can simply move on instead of wasting precious time writing detailed comments.

    I will leave yours above because it only proves the point in my post. You might not be a troll in the dictionary meaning of the word, but you sure are one in mine.

    You probably fail to see a blog as it is – the owner’s *personal* space of expression and mistake it for a forum, where everyone is equal. By its nature, it is not. This blog is *mine* and it reflects *my opinions*, as misinformed or erratic as they might be.

    “appropriate “piece” for a blog about development” – really? Are you sure you know better than me what kind of pieces I want to write on my personal blog? Mmm.. not likely. Sure, I might have mentioned this blog as being about development – but it’s also something I like to be able to change whenever I want – one of the few freedoms one really has in life.

    So, that’s about it. Talk to you later, everyone.

  5. Kyle Newsome says:

    I see no problem with this being on iDevBlogADay. Dealing with/accepting trolling is in some way a part of managing software in its production phase.

    I’m not sure what sort of consistency and caliber you are looking for dissid3ntly, but I like that iDevBlogADay is different at times and relatable on a personal level. Instead of scorning anyone for what they choose to write and share about, just go read other blogs or write one yourself.

  6. johnpierre says:

    Haha. Love it. After round one, Alex – 1………dissid3ntly – 0

    Alex, you’ve got your head on straight. Nice post. What a breath of fresh air.

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