20 April 2014
Strictly speaking, a troll is defined by Wikipedia as "a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community." This may be done accidentally or deliberately.
A looser usage of the term is anyone who you find very annoying on the internet. A friend recently asked me how I cope with internet trolls, which prompted this piece.
Many negative outcomes can happen if you handle trolls badly. In no particular order:
A key point with each of the above negative outcomes is that they arise as a result of your reactions to the troll. None of them can be caused by the troll without your doing or saying something.
Whenever I encounter a public web communication that I find outrageous (for whatever reasons), the first thing I do is remind myself of the reason I am communicating in public on the internet. My objective is to share my views to influence those people who I think can be influenced by what I have to say.
That means I accept there are other people, perhaps many other people, who I cannot influence because their minds are too closed. Being realistic about this stops me worrying about my failure to convince them.
Sometimes the answer will be obvious. On other occasions it may not be; if in doubt assume the person is reasonable.
Subject to available time, I will seek to engage with the person. If someone has posted a reasonable comment or tweet in response to something I have written, then courtesy requires me to respond, if I have time. If I don't have time, I may ignore it, or preferably post a short apologetic comment about my lack of time.
Either the content of the communication or the past behaviour of the person may indicate that the writer is not a reasonable person with an open mind. I have no obligation to engage with such a person. However I may choose to respond as indicated below.
I never allow myself to forget that the real audience for any response that I make is not the person who I am responding to, but third parties who may read the other person’s comment, and my reply if I choose to make one. In many cases where the other person’s comment is poorly expressed, or is so extreme that no thinking person could agree with it, I will often ignore it without feeling any need to respond.
If the other person’s comment could lead a neutral reader to have some sympathy with that view, or could cause the neutral reader to think less well of me or something I have written, then I will usually respond.
Many things cannot be explained properly in 140 characters. However it helps when I have an existing website page that covers the point and so I can respond with a few words and a link to the existing page.
If I think I cannot respond to someone else’s comment properly in 140 characters, I will often let it go. Sometimes if I don’t want to seem discourteous, I will even write something like “I am sorry but I cannot give a proper response to your point in 140 characters.” I may promise to write a new website page about it, but only if I am sure I can fulfil that promise in a reasonable timescale.
One thing I regularly take into account is the number of followers that the other person has. If he or she has few followers, I am more likely to ignore the other person’s comment if it is intemperate. Some of the worst trolls have only a handful of followers.
The older I get, and the more abusive internet communications I read, the less often I get angry. I have trained myself to never respond when I am angry. It only leads to poor quality responses.
It is essential to always respond with politeness and courtesy, not matter how abusive or impolite the other party may be. You should never get into the gutter with a troll.
Furthermore, as with examinations, respond to the actual point that the other person has raised; not to what you think may be behind it.
One reason many people are so vituperative on the internet is that they hide behind anonymity.
As explained in my piece on making public website comments my policy is that everything I write, anywhere, is always under my own name. That increases my self-discipline about what I say, since I know that I will be stuck with it forever.