If I was responsible for marketing internet trolling as a product I’d be pretty happy with the growth I’ve seen. I’d be looking at a product that started as the preserve of usenet posts and bulletin boards, spread to social media and is now dominating the news every day. When the topic of conversation isn’t online trolls, it’s professional trolls masquerading as journalists, bloggers or presidential candidates. Trolling is a profession now. It’s possible for someone whose only skill is a unique insight into being annoying to “annoy upwards”, generating more career success the more awful they become.
I manage online communities professionally. It’s my whole gig. Anyone who works in online communities knows how you’re supposed to deal with trolls. You’ve probably heard it too, whether you currently work with communities or not.
Don’t Feed The Troll.
Don’t give them what they want. They want attention, and if they’re starved of attention they’ll go somewhere else. Does it work? Yes, absolutely. Every time. It’s almost impossible to continue a campaign of annoyance against someone who refuses to acknowledge that you’re there. So why does nobody do it? Why, when we have more things to look at than ever, do we continue to feed the trolls?
Responding to trolls makes us feel good
I doubt there’s anyone reading this who hasn’t felt a sense of righteous indignation at some point, whether it’s from bad customer service, getting passed over for a promotion, being ill-treated by a friend or loved one or (here it is) reading someone being incredibly stupid on the internet.
Righteous indignation is an addictive feeling. It’s a way of telling ourselves that we’re good people, defining ourselves in opposition to something bad and actioning the opposition. You showed that you’re not the kind of person who thinks that’s ok, and ten points were duly awarded to Gryffindor.
When the troll inevitably responds with another comment, message, article or presidential campaign, we get angry again. Angrier in fact. Why didn’t they listen when we told them that they were a toilet idiot who believes the wrong things? Maybe they’ll understand it this time. Either way, we feel that little dopamine hit from getting angry and doing something about it.
It’s a feedback loop. The troll gets what they want, and so does the responder. The world can burn around them as long as they’re both getting a dopamine hit.
We don’t understand the ramifications of that response
Humans are bad at seeing the long-term social consequences of their actions. Every troll seems like an unimportant event in our lives, a small problem that we’re tackling, but each response adds to the culture of anger around us.
In communities, it’s toxic, and everyone recognises that. Anyone can tell you that 4Chan or various poisonous subreddits have been taken over by trolls. So what does it mean for our prevailing culture that it’s also being taken over by trolls?
Trolls are looking to profit from every social encounter (names have not been included for obvious reasons). When Troll Pundit #3 spouts something vile, someone pays her. Someone pays attention to her. She profits from both. When a games retailer deliberately antagonises an audience, it drives more traffic to their site and improves their SEO due to the constant chatter about them. Google doesn’t care if that chatter is negative, and the link juice will remain after the controversy has subsided. Some businesses base their whole business model around the fact that negative attention is great for their search rank.
Online trolls are no different, but their profit points are attention, conflict and power. Ideally, they get all three. They make people angry, so those people argue with them (attention), they argue back (conflict) and they force people to respond on their terms (power). Why would they stop? They get what they want every single time. Every time, someone who knows you shouldn’t feed trolls thinks that this time will be different, and that their pithy comeback will shame the bad person into repentance. It never works. Not even once.
We think the secret is a new and better tool
Online communities have been trying to solve the troll problem with new tools for decades. Between profanity filters, “disemvowellers”, IP bans, autoblockers and all the others, there are more tools than there have ever been. But trolls are more powerful than ever. The tools don’t work. The new discussion is around passing laws that punish website owners if people troll on their sites, or repealing ones that protect them. That won’t work either. Trolls don’t care. They’ll find a different way to do it, or just keep hurling themselves at the ramparts.
The secret has never been dealing with the troll side of the equation. Trolls aren’t idiots. They get around tools. They make new accounts, switch IPs, r3p14c3 l3tt3r5 w1t4 num83er5 or whatever they need to do. As soon as a tool is revealed, it’s figured out. Anyone who says they can make a community troll free with an amazing new tool is trying to sell you a bridge.
The actual solution is training people not to respond. On a community scale, this means explaining to your members why they shouldn’t respond rather than just pleading. It means, where necessary, using operant conditioning by punishing both sides of a flame war rather than just the troll. I’m Patrick Groome, and I just justified this blog post as being about community management best practises. Please continue.
To Defeat Trolls, We Need to Change Our Own Behaviour
Keeping a community free of trolls isn’t about finding a new piece of software, and it never has been. It’s about managing human behaviour to stop trolling from being a profitable way for people to spend their time.
On a larger scale, the scale we live our real lives on, it means not clicking that link. Not reading what the troll columnist, troll journalist or troll presidential candidate has to say. Not responding, even when we have the wittiest and most cutting response. Foregoing the dopamine hit that lies to us that we’re achieving something.