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][1] about Bucharest mayorship candidate Nicusor Dan (sorry, romanian). Plenty of positive comments, and two trolls(one of them having also spammed this [other][2] 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][3], [2][4], [3][5] – 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.

[1]: “De ce voi vota cu Nicusor Dan pentru Primaria Capitalei M A N A F U *”
[2]: “De ce o să votez cu Nicușor Dan pentru Primăria Capitalei Jurnal roz de cazarmă și nu numai”
[3]: “Ce mi-a plăcut și ce nu mi-a plăcut la Nicușor Dan Chinezu”
[4]: “Nicuşor Dan pentru Primăria Capitalei”
[5]: “La o discuţie cu Nicuşor Dan, care sper că va salva Bucureştiul… Ariel Constantinof Blog”