Trollery! — How Vulnerable Are You? And Can You Spot It?

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I’m wrapping this series up today with some questions to help you see how likely you are to have an encounter with a person who is intentionally trolling. It has a lot to do with the things you choose to talk about on the Internet, and with your style of interaction.

How Vulnerable Are You?

Here are four questions to ask yourself to gauge your vulnerability to intentional trolling.

  1. Do I often blog about or discuss social issues on comment threads where a lot of other people are also commenting?
  2. Am I engaging consistently with a group of friends and making a conscious effort to grow our networks and find more readers for our blogs or for a project?
  3. Do I give people I’ve just met the benefit of the doubt and value the free exchange of ideas to the point that I am prone to ignoring the indicators and chiming in to correct errors or defend my position?
  4. Do I have a respectable number of friends and followers who share my links often?

If you can answer yes to more than one of these questions, and especially if you are aspiring to a large, diverse, not-overly-political but quite socially-conscious audience (as I am), it’s in your best interest to know the indicators and discipline yourself to deal with trolling while you’re small. Because if you wait until you get big to learn, it will overwhelm you. If you blog frequently and your schedule is tight, a single encounter with a trolling person can put you off your game for days. And we just can’t be having that! 😉

Can You Spot the Trolling Here?

The Feminist Friday thread from Victim to Charm earlier this month. I am not going to say anything about the person doing the trolling except to note that is what they’re doing. No judgment of other peoples’ Internet tendencies and no speculation about motivations from me in a public post. I am not even identifying the handle, but it’s so obvious, there is really no need for me to. Look at the thread if you are interested. It will jump right out at you.

Intentions and judgments aside, though,  this is habitual behavior. I know because Google tells me so. And whatever else this person has going on, they seem to enjoy trolling feminist threads, in particular.

I do not know why Diana responded to the original comment. I responded much later, for two reasons.

  1. Diana responded early in the day and had not received a response by the time I was able to really engage on the thread.
  2. I vaguely recognized the handle, and wanted to see whether this was a clueless debater or a person who engages in habitual trolling. The only way to know for sure was to engage with them and pull some information out of them.

No matter how well a person disguises their identity or how false they play with their actual views, every rhetorical decision gives information to people who know what to look for. Rhetoric can be analyzed on its on terms, and decisions are behavior. So rhetorical decisions can say quite a lot about the person making them. That’s something to remember. It’s rarely a good idea to leave many hundreds of words on a single comment thread for the social science geeks to put under the microscope.

For most of the conversation, I was sincerely debating and studying that person’s style so I can recognize their comments when I see them again, even if they change usernames. But the last long comment I left on the thread was for everyone else as much as for the person I am referring to. I reached the point where writing that last one was worth it, despite the fact that it took too much my time. Here’s why.

  1. I’d already spent a lot of time engaging with that person. The time was a sunk cost, I was sure what I was looking at by that point, and I needed more out of the encounter.
  2. I was clarifying my own position on some things, both for myself and for the other feminists who hang with me on the Internet.

I was first-drafting a series of boilerplate responses. Even though I was responding directly to specific comments there, I can revise a lot of that stuff, break it up into smaller comments, and save it in a text file so I can just respond to overly-tenditious and otherwise wrongheaded commenters on threads I am moderating by copying and pasting a set of standard responses. Basically, I was taking one for the team by the end of that conversation. I already had this series in mind.

And just for fun. Some of you may remember me making a big appeal to welcome For a Feminist Anyway to WordPress a few weeks ago and getting a good response in the form of people going and saying hi on this thread. The person who trolled the thread at Victim to Charm also commented there. I did not answer it, because it was obvious bait and I did not want to feed trolling on a thread owned by a blogger I just met.

This is one reason why the username seemed vaguely familiar, but I did not realize all this at the time I was arguing on Sabina’s thread. If I had, I would surely have ignored this person rather than responding, and would have cautioned Diana to do the same before she left her first response. But then we wouldn’t have a four-part series on trolling.

I hope you’ve found these posts helpful. As I learn more tricks for moderating threads and avoiding getting sucked into exchanges with people who are just commenting to wind us up, I will certainly share it.

Tune in tomorrow for my #1000Speak post, and next week, we’re doing Feminist Friday at Things Matter.

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Trollery! — Here is How I Handle It.

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How I respond to trolling behavior when I see it depends on where it’s happening. These are my rules of thumb. I make exceptions at times but for the most part, these are the best ways I have found of dealing with it.

On My Own Blog

The first thing I do, if I have any question about a comment at all, is put the commenter’s IP address, username, and email address on the moderation list. I do it before I approve the comment, and before I respond. That way, I control whether or not their subsequent comments come through, and I control when they come though.

I have a policy that establishes a clear baseline for what is acceptable on my threads at Sourcerer. If a first comment is so egregious that I don’t want it on my thread at all, I remove it and flag that commenter for permanent moderation until I see what they are up to. If it doesn’t rise to that level, I still flag that person for moderation to pre-empt the possibility of someone stumbling into it, responding, and things getting out of hand while I am not looking.

Do not engage — This is the first and best way to avoid drama on the Internet and the only real proof against intentional trolling. If I am absolutely sure I am dealing with trolling behavior, I send the commenter’s subsequent comments straight to the spam folder and pretend the first one is not there, even if I allow it through. I am not above unceremoniously dumping comments in the trash without a word, but I try to do that only when people don’t respect my policy.

Leave a single reply and see what kind of response I get – I do this if I am not sure, but I don’t spend a lot of time on the comment and don’t try and address everything. I just pick out one idea to question or criticize, and above all, include something conciliatory. Habitual trollers love, love, love to run into people who agree with some of what they say, but not all. That is an opening of sorts, and they exploit it. Sometimes I let them have the opening just so they’ll give me more information about what they’re up to. I only do this on my own blog, or one where I am sure the owner won’t mind. Diana and I have had more than one private conversation about things happening on threads, and one or the other of us has said “give them a little more rope and let’s just see if they hang themselves.”

On Someone Else’s Blog

Do not engage is my first rule. I let the owner of the blog handle it, and I try to stay away from questioning motivations or making assumptions about malice vs. ignorance. If it looks like trolling, I just assume it is until I have more information to go on.

When I stumble into it, the genie is already out of the bottle, and I want to support whomever is dealing with it, I don’t start a new thread of conversation with the person who is trolling. I leave whomever is responding, short, encouraging comments that give the trolling-person little or nothing to latch onto, and I like all the comments on the thread except the trollish ones. I don’t intervene in the conversation because that only fuels the flames and sucks me into it right along with the other person.

For All Cases

Never fight fire with fire. Flame wars got their name for a reason. Be calm, point out errors, ask for evidence, and register disagreement as snarkily as you like. But don’t attack the person, and whatever you do, do not allow yourself to be baited into an emotional exchange or into spending a bunch of time addressing comments point-by-point. Unless you have a reason to do so (as I did recently), it is never a good idea to get into a point-by-point criticism duel with a person who is tossing things onto a thread two and three hundred words at a time. I’ll talk a little tomorrow about why I spent so much time arguing on that thread.

Next: How vulnerable are you? And can you spot the trolling?

(Since I am hosting the linky for #1000Speak, I have been asked to post my compassion post tomorrow a.m. to make the linky available to bloggers who are in the much earlier time zones than me, so the final installment of this series will run this afternoon.)

Trollery! — Eight Trolling Indicators

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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.