Dissecting Trolls

Most readers of this blog probably know that in Internet parlance, a troll is a person, usually partly or completely anonymous, who posts off-topic and usually really vicious or mean comments. Karl Fisch tweeted yesterday about the depressing nature of the comments left on a recent Huffington Post article about his influential “Did You Know?” video. I responded that I created a writing assignment based on some poor argumentation I found in YouTube.

I was looking for videos to share with my Hero with a Thousand Faces course students, and the first video I came across was one in which Tolkien discusses how he began writing The Hobbit. Essentially, a poor argument (on both sides) has developed in the comments on that video that Star Wars is a ripoff of Tolkien’s work. I read through most of them, and while I don’t advocate actually responding to comments of this sort, I did find that the argument on both sides was essentially composed of a series of ad hominem attacks. Neither side offered any support for their argument, and I kept reading to see if someone—anyone—would mention that the similarities that exist can be attributed to the fact that both stories involve heroic journeys and can be analyzed using Joseph Campbell’s theories regarding the monomyth. No one said any such thing. My own students have already studied Star Wars. They are currently reading The Hobbit. I knew that any one of them could explain the similarities between the stories based on solid evidence, which is something the commenters on YouTube either can’t or won’t do.

I created a writing assignment based on this idea, and I have full confidence that my students will be able to argue their points better than Internet trolls, but I cautioned them not to actually try it. Real Internet trolls don’t listen to reason. Or much of anything really.

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Don’t Feed the Trolls

I know quite a few new and prospective teachers and bloggers read this blog based on feedback I’ve received. I wonder if you have yet experienced the Web phenomenon known as the “troll.” Truthfully, I haven’t had too many problems with trolls, though they have occasionally cropped up. I have a clear comments policy, I moderate comments, and frankly, I don’t think much of what I write encourages trolls — it’s not exactly controversial or edgy.

I was utterly astonished when I read Vicki’s post in which she shares her answers to Scott McLeod‘s 2008 Education Blogosphere Survey:

What do you wish you could eradicate in the blogosphere?

Death threats and profanity. Small minds think that they can intimidate voices into being quiet. I am still missing Kathy Sierra terribly and wish she’d give us all a present and come back during 2008.

As recently as last December I received a death threat as well as some comments akin to those sent to Kathy calling me derogatory names and filled with sexual perversion. I wish there was a prefilter before it got to my premoderation or a “spam capture” or “smut capture” with automatic e-mail sent to the person who does it as well as a log of their IP address done automatically. These are a distraction and when they get back to my family, it makes them want me to quit.

When I read that, I thought, “Someone threatened to kill Vicki? I can’t think of a reason why anyone would say something like that to Vicki, who is one of the warmest, most genuine people you’ll ever meet. She is unfailingly positive in her encouragement of other bloggers and teachers, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why anyone would even think of harming her, much less send her a death threat. Frankly, I thought it was scary.

Obviously, if you receive a threat of any kind, I encourage you to report it. However, if it is your garden-variety troll leaving nasty, rude comments, I would ignore them — the reason they are so nasty is that at some point they learned that negative attention is still attention, and they will get attention quicker, in some cases, if they are rude. All these people did was transfer this behavior to the Internet, where it thrives because people feel anonymous and feel shielded by the distance between themselves and the person they are attacking. In fact, I would go so far as to say that most people who make trollish comments online would never say the same things to their target’s face. Most of the time, people will leave you alone if you ignore them.

But it is hard to ignore nastiness. I have my own trouble with it. I recommend doing the following:

  1. Filter your mail. If the person is bothering you via e-mail, see if you can set up a filter that will send their message to the trash without passing through your inbox. G-Mail allows you to do this.
  2. Moderate your comments. I know it can be a pain for new commenters to wait for their comments to be published, but I can assure you that with the large volume of spam and rude comments, it’s absolutely necessary.
  3. Develop a comments policy. Make it one that allows for respectful dissent and conversation. Ultimately, it’s your blog, and you can decide what kind of comments, if any, you will allow. However, if you have a fair comments policy, you should have few arguments about what is posted and what is not. I’d like to think people generally know when they’re crossing the line, but a comments policy will clarify things. Trollers might not bother if they know in advance their comment most likely won’t appear.
  4. Don’t stop blogging. While I respect the decisions made by those who truly felt threatened (Kathy Sierra), I think the trolls win when we quit. Any time you put yourself out there, you run the risk of meeting up with a troll, and they only get what they want when they realize they have bothered you.

Most of all, a piece of sage advice I first read in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: “Illegitimi non carborundum.”

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