In all the debate about how nasty comment sections should best be dealt with, too few people recommend mockery, pile-ons or relentless hounding with dozens of links to peer-reviewed studies. And in my opinion, they’re missing out.
Forget “don’t feed the trolls.” What I’m here to tell you is that fighting back against trolls is fun — albeit a peculiar, geeky, pedantic kind of fun. It’s time consuming, requires thick skin and the tenacity of a bulldog, and unless you’re getting paid to blog, is probably not worth it. But if you have a lot of excess time and emotion just laying about, the payoff can be huge.
For a year as I recuperated from a busted ankle, my favorite hobby was Internet cage fighting. I commented almost every day on a website called Man Boobz, where the tagline is “Misogyny. I mock it.” To this day, the site continues to live up to its tagline, with blogger and moderator David Futrelle digging up some of the nastiest lady-hate ever spewed on the web for merciless critique.
However, the comment section is much quieter than it was even a year ago. During my time there, I was part of a core group of commentators (including Cliff Pervocracy) who sparred with trolls arguing not only the usual misogynist talking points, but that dolls were better than women, evolution was a myth and women discriminated against men based on how tall they were. In between, we created almost a whole deck of Magic: the Gathering-style cards featuring Man Boobz memes and in-jokes, and took part in a series of real-life meet-ups where I met some of my best friends.
But despite all the positives, to this day I’m unsure if my participation on Man Boobz — or, really, in any online discussion — was activism, entertainment or just pure self-indulgence. We regularly thrashed out topics like rape, women’s contributions to world history and society’s fucked-up beauty standards, but Cliff Pervocracy worried that the continuous snark we indulged sometimes tipped over into outright nastiness.
By contrast, Pecuinum (one of our most prolific commentators) seemed to be of the opinion that, even if we weren’t moving mountains, it was important to offer counterpoint to the kind of foolishness we saw being regularly spread around. There were MRAs (men’s rights activists) making wild claims that gangs of women were chasing them around with box cutters, but there was also plenty of the everyday nastiness that said that women just couldn’t cut it in science, technology, engineering and math fields or didn’t have enough upper-body strength to be firemen. For someone like me, who was rediscovering just how narrowly American society defined “people” but lacked the organizational skills to create a national protest, the idea that it was just as important to go after the everyday stuff was a compelling thought. Man Boobz, I decided, would be the proving ground where I could practice debate against the insidious fat-shaming and anti-women attitudes I battled with in everyday life.
Troll-Fighting Tactic #1: Mock Mercilessly
Where Man Boobz really helped me personally, however, was that it taught me how to “win” on the Internet (as dubious a distinction as that may be). Unlike stereotypical high school debates, where you get points for using specific reasoning strategies, Man Boobz was an arena where you had to fight all comers. There were people who used three-dollar words to dress up worthless ideas, people who would simply regurgitate the same talking points over and over no matter how you tried to get clarification on said talking points, or people who would spend hundreds of words arguing for a subject they only had a passing familiarity with. In an environment like this, speaking nicely to people and never pulling out the capital letters wouldn’t even put a dent in their 2,000 word screeds, so the core group of Man Boobz commentators had to develop new strategies.
Troll-Fighting Tactic #2: Cite Real-Life Sources
As I’ve said, Man Boobz’s original tagline was “I mock it,” but that was hardly the only tool we used. Pecunium agreed with this strategy, but he also was particularly good at unleashing the Credible Hulk and fighting facts pulled straight from trolls’ butts with real sources. It was only after getting hit with the fire hose stream of opinions on Man Boobz (at that point, comment threads regularly went over 400) that I fully realized how vital original sources really were, as opposed to a formality in academic papers. A troll might continue in the same vein as before after you posted the original version of what a long-dead feminist said, but in the process, they made themselves look pretty stupid.
Troll-Fighting Tactic #3: Retain Some Humility
The emphasis on citations also made me realize for the first time how uninformed most of my own opinions were. For example, I might argue passionately that dental dams needed to be used for all sex, only to have it brought up that there’d never been a definitive study done on them. I found that there were multiple sources for the number of women raped in the U.S. (though it was still a serious problem) and that there was actual medical reasoning behind banning partners of bisexual people from giving blood. Even though I might have a better handle on, say, evolution than the average troll, my ignorance was still more insidious than I had previously given it credit for. Today I still try to keep that in mind even when arguing for “the right side of history.” A little humbleness is good, even when your goal is to flip your opponent out of the ring.
Troll-Fighting Tactic #4: Give ‘em the Snark
Man Boobz also taught me that tearing into the trolls with snark can serve as a kind of stress relief, a benefit that I’d never imagined back when the advice I most often received for dealing with nasty people on the Internet was “ignore them.” My hunger for blood was never as great as when I was living in a frustrating housing situation where my housemate seemed bound and determined to check off every box of bigot bingo, regularly announcing that black people didn’t belong in a fantasy series or that non-gendered pronouns were nonsensical. To that end, one of my most satisfying memories is of spending almost an hour on the Man Boobz forum, systematically shredding a nerdy dudebro who had unwisely claimed that Game of Thrones had rape in it because that made it “historical.” Doing the same to people I lived with might have endangered my living situation, but my online shenanigans allowed me to brush off their real-life arguments with much less frustration.
Troll-Fighting Tactic #5: Be Creative
Of course, snarking back means you may lose the moral high ground in some people’s eyes, but as long as you’re not threatening them with death or posting their home address, creative smackdowns are a perfectly acceptable response to someone who thinks you’re lesser simply due to your genitalia. One of the more effective anti-troll methods the Man Boobz crew discovered was to take a troll’s more nonsensical statements and form a Mad Libs-style game out of them. Perhaps due in part to the usual “don’t feed the trolls” advice, many of our cruelest commentators seemed honestly shocked that we decided to fight back and would often flounce in confusion when they couldn’t come up with something equally amusing.
Troll-Fighting Tactic #6: Feed the Trolls Until They Explode
Finally, Man Boobz offered something that I had previously never had on the Internet and unfortunately can’t be easily replicated: We were a posse. The privilege of having a group on your side wasn’t something I fully appreciated until I tried to take on a nastyxoJane comment section alone. The result was the written equivalent of Johnny Storm vs. the billion monsters: a very pretty flare with nothing to show for it.
Having a buddy (or five) doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in the right, but having enough backup that you can flood a thread with body-positive messages means that a lot of trolls will give up and start crying that no one’s listening to them rather than continue to post about how ugly fat ladies are. On Man Boobz, we called it “feeding the trolls until they explode” (though I’m sure the term didn’t originate with us). As result of getting piled on, the trolls would often break out the gendered insults — specifically forbidden by Man Boobz’s mod rules — and then David would just have to perform clean-up by banning them. (Different article, but definite community rules and a firm hand on the ban button also have their place in troll control.)
Though I’ve spent some time trying to figure out whether these strategies are particularly fair, they are effective. At Man Boobz, 99 percent of the time these strategies resulted in the trolls either being banned or abandoning the comment section, though sometimes it might take them a few days or months to do so. Now, more than a year after the original group of core commentators stopped troll hunting, the still 200+ comment threads are almost entirely free of people trying to argue that it would be better for everyone if we just put men and women on different sides of the Mississippi.
One last warning: If you decide to use any of these strategies, understand they do have a time and a place. After I “retired” from being a regular commentator, I found that, unless I was commenting on, say, the more virulent parts of YouTube or Reddit, most comment sections are completely unprepared for an assault of snark. I still wince about the time I unleashed the full force of my ire on an LiveJournal comment section full of teen girls who didn’t understand how copyright laws worked. Sometimes, instead of bringing Tyler Durden to a tea party, it really is better just to write a gently worded note.
Have you ever met an internet troll? A troll is a special class of sociopath.
These nasty individuals are the sadistic ne’er-do-wells of the digital realm, the misanthropic misfits of information age. Unlike a normal person, when a troll enters an online discussion, he is not seeking truth or clarification. He usually doesn’t even know how to debate in an intelligent manner. All he wants to do is inflict pain, ridicule, and humiliation on a targeted person.
Encountering an internet troll can be a disturbing, even frightening, experience for someone who has not had to deal with one. It can be an unexpected event, a strange twist that takes the discussion to a whole other level. You are taken off guard and find yourself struggling to defend yourself, instead of exploring a topic.
You’re posting comments on a blog, forum, or social media platform like Facebook or Twitter. There are probably other people expressing themselves, some agreeing with you and cheering you on, others disagreeing with you and trying to debunk your assertions. The conversation is heated, or passionate, but civilized. Strong opinions are stated and countered with other strident points of view.
Suddenly, someone, usually anonymous or using a nickname (pseudonym), starts attacking you. They may use filthy language, wild insults, and crazy misinterpretations. Often they will put words in your mouth, along the lines of „So what you’re saying is….” or „Nutjobs like you are only interested in ….”
The main tool of the troll is accusation. It’s a form of psychological torture, to break you down by turning your words against you, twisting your statements and pounding away at one aspect of your viewpoint. No matter what you declare, the troll will question you as a person. Understand this immediately: it’s you as a person that they are attacking.
Personal attacks are often banned in forums, and not tolerated in blogs and social networks. Administrators tend to block and remove anyone who engages in trollish behavior.
The troll doesn’t care. Trolls don’t follow the rules or terms of service. They jump from one platform and one conversation thread to another, causing as much damage as possible. If they get kicked off a site, they’ll try to return, using a different username or a different computer.
Trolls are easy to recognize by their mode of operation. They will never compliment you for a smart statement, or admit that your question is difficult to respond to, or tone down the rhetoric with a smiley emoticon.
Trolls accuse and insult. Trolls needle you relentlessly. They love to flame others. They enjoy causing grief, making another person feel bad. Trolls will quickly move from serious discussion about an issue to a sustained personal assault.
The goal of a troll is to disrupt an online discussion, picking on one person, or on everyone who expresses a particular point of view. Trolls will also invade a presentation on a live videoconferencing channel or an audio podcast where people can phone in and ask the presenter questions.
Recently I encountered my first audio troll on my internet radio broadcast on BlogTalkRadio. My topic just happened to be dealing with trolls. Someone called into my online studio and I connected him to my show. Immediately, instead of thanking me for taking his call, he started accusing me.
„You haven’t mentioned the intelligent troll. Why is that?” he asked, all pompous, with a deep professorial voice. I replied, „There is no such thing as an intelligent troll, sir. That’s a contradiction, an oxymoron, an impossibility.”
I let him pester me for several minutes, mainly to demonstrate to my audience how the guy was a troll, how he behaved, and how to mess with a troll. I kept hammering away at how an intelligent person doesn’t pick fights with people just for a sadistic thrill. He kept trying to advance the idea that intelligent trolls exist and should be respected for their high IQ. I set a trap for him. I asked, „Do you consider yourself an intelligent troll?” He replied, „I think there’s a little troll in everyone.”
I cut the troll off by saying, „Well if you have anything more to say about the alleged intelligent troll, go ahead and say it, otherwise, I’m going to return to the topic of my show.” He started to mumble another accusation about how I refuse to acknowledge the „intelligent troll” and I hung up on him in mid-sentence.
This brings me to the issue of how to defeat a troll. Here are a few quick pointers on troll-smashing that you may want to copy and paste into a text editor, print out, and tape to your computer monitor for future reference.
(1) Ignore the troll. Just refuse to interact with him. Respond to others in an online discussion, but shun the troll and give no reply to any of his accusations or remarks.
(2) Post „don’t feed the trolls” in the debate thread and leave the conversation. Let others deal with him if they want. Just identify the troublemaker as a troll and move on to other websites or activities. If a person is trolling you via email, just stop opening and reading their messages. If you can blacklist them to prevent them from sending you emails, do that. If it’s on Facebook, block — don’t just unfriend, but block – the person and if necessary, report him as abusive.
(3) Keep hammering away at your viewpoint, harden yourself like steel, and never give in. If you want to disturb the troll for a short while, just to give him a taste of his own medicine, you can relentlessly restate your opinion, in complete oblivion to anything the troll says, like you’re not even reading his remarks.
(4) Misinterpret his statements. This is a very effective technique for derailing a troll and making them upset. You may even provoke the troll to give up and leave the conversation thread. Twist what they say and make it seem like the troll is agreeing with you. „I agree. Thanks for seeing my viewpoint. We seem to be on the same page now. That’s exactly right. Glad I was able to convert you to my opinion.”
(5) Praise the troll in a facetious way that translates into not-so-subtle rebuke. „Oh my, you are so incredibly well informed. You are the smartest person in the whole universe and everyone should sit at your feet and soak up your wisdom. Nobody can argue with you, for you have all the answers.” Then sign off and leave the discussion with „You sad and silly troll.”
Remember that the only purpose of a troll is to antagonize and cause trouble. There is no point in trying to reason with a troll. Generally, they are not educated in debate or rhetorical skills. All they want to do is hurl slurs and incriminations. They want to make you angry, upset, confused, and exasperated. They want to take over the conversation and reframe it as an analysis of how bad or stupid you supposedly are.
Trolls may have been victimized by a mind control cult based on humiliating people to cause them to go into meltdown mode, so they can replace a personality with their cult’s indoctrination. Other times you may suspect that a troll has been abused by a rogue psychiatrist who was keen on dismantling a person’s inner self and then manipulating the defenseless victim.
No matter what their origin may be, trolls enjoy raining on parades, maliciously pouncing on innocent people, and acting like a verbal predator. Trolling can turn into cyberstalking and cyberbullying (intent to cause serious harm or even suicide).
Learn how to quickly recognize a troll and you’ve won half the battle.
Mess with them briefly to expose their true nature to others in the audience or the discussion, then kick them to the curb by leaving the conversation. If necessary, report the troll to an administrator.