I am sure there are many more indicators than this. They strike me as the big ones, and more importantly, the ones any blogger can learn to be alert to, given enough experience interacting on threads. I think of them as behavioral markers — I am not looking to identify people as trolls, just to identify online communication as trolling and develop consistent ways of dealing with it.
1. No profile art and nothing at all linked to the comment. No blog, no G+, no gravatar, no nothing.
Some people don’t have gravatars, and some don’t have blogs. So be careful with this one, lest you mistake someone who’s just trying to make a connection and/or is new to the blogosphere for a trolling person. Only a consideration when all the elements listed are absent, and when you’re already looking at a comment and wondering about it. In and of itself, and without supporting context, it is a weak indicator.
2. Comments are audience-inappropriate.
This requires subjective judgment at times, but often, it is so easy to see, the only question is whether or not the person is aware that when they leave a comment on a public thread, they are speaking not only to the blogger who wrote the post, but potentially to the entire audience of the blog. For example, waxing eloquent about the unhealthiness of sugar on a thread where foodies are talking about pie.
Even if the comment begins by discussing pie, if it moves from there into a long-winded diatribe on the evils of sugary treats, it’s audience-inappropriate. Even people who understand the dangers of sugar and might agree with the comment don’t care to read opinions about that while they’re trying to chat with friends about the delightfulness of pie.
Audience-inappropriate does not necessarily mean offensive or objectionable, though audience-inappropriate comments do often offend. It just means the commenter did not take the time to look at the sort of blog they’re commenting on, or else, (in cases of intentional trolling) they did take a look and decided to try and provoke someone.
3. Comments are consistently way too long for discussion threads.
I’m a master of the long comment, and I often say too much. But I don’t habitually leave four or five too-long comments on a single thread, and I try to be mindful of the other bloggers’ preferred style of communication on blogs where I comment often. Everyone has their own opinion about what constitutes too long, so your mileage will vary with this one.
Sometimes, though, you just look at a series of comments and go “Why? Does this person not have a blog or other social media to be looking after?” I’m talking about habitual essay-length comments that have little value for moving a conversation forward and read like either hastily-written blog posts or people just spewing words. You know the type I mean. I consider this a form of spam if it is egregiously persistent. When it lands on a thread I am moderating, nine times out of ten, I treat it like spam.
Intentional trolling usually starts with a short- to medium-length comment calculated to get a response. If someone responds, the essay-length comments follow. You never want to address these point-by-point without good reason. And if you do, you need to be alert to the fact that you’re probably talking to a person who’s trying to lure you into the quicksand of a never-ending essay duel and suck away hours of your time.
4. Attacks people rather than ideas
This one is a no-brainer. Attacking people on my blogs is a bannable offence, and the most skillful intentional trollers don’t do it because of people like me who enforce zero tolerance for that sort of stuff. But it is an indicator and it happens often.
5. Makes sweeping generalizations without evidence
Not always an indicator. One generalization is not that big a deal. Some people are just prone to this and some people do it without thinking when they’re into a passionate exchange (no one’s perfect). The test is how the person responds when they are asked to back up what they just said.
6. Does not acknowledge requests to back up unsupported assertions
This is a biggie. Non-acknowledgment of a direct but friendly request to back up something that requires proof is a huge red flag. Especially if the person keeps right on defending the statement, or even worse, starts spouting more of them while people are still processing the first one. Often coincides with presenting opinions as facts, or with basing an argument on assumptions that are debatable without acknowledging that the assumptions are open to question.
7. Responds to a thoughtful, friendly, and well-considered rejoinder with more of the same
In other words. You point out areas of disagreement and seek clarity for the sake of finding a common starting point for a discussion. They rephrase what they just said in an even longer comment that makes no attempt to answer your objection. Once you get to this point, you are in danger of being sucked into the quicksand. it’s best to respond to the second comment with a polite, single sentence indicating that you are done, and move on to something else. Or else ignore it altogether.
8. Employs logical fallacies so consistently that you wonder if they are doing it on purpose
Again, a major red flag. People who are good at rhetoric and logical thinking might be prone to using one or two fallacies in areas where their knowledge is weak. And everyone slips up occasionally. But people who are good at discourse-type conversation do not use many logical fallacies nor use them often, and pride themselves on not doing this. Honest arguers tend to either acknowledge logical fallacies when they are pointed out or get defensive. They do not plow blithely along as if no one pointed it out, because it is embarrassing to get caught in one. Any time you see someone with otherwise good language and argument skills using a ton of logical fallacies in a long-winded comment, they are likely aware of what they are doing and are just saying that stuff to get a rise.
It is not difficult to learn to spot this kind of thing, and I hope at least a few of you find this helpful.
This is part two of four. Tomorrow: How to deal with trolling once you’ve recognized it.