I’ll never forget the gift I unwrapped last Christmas.
It came by digital delivery: A colorful package of incendiary words from an anonymous giver, conveyed with the care one would expect of a flaming turd deposited on a doorstep in a brown paper bag. The intervening year has spurred me to create some re-gifting guidelines – just in case a troll drops one by your online front door this, or any, season.
I’m used to trolls. I write a column. Yet anyone who has a personal blog, Twitter account, or public Facebook page – or has commented on a news site – knows the drill. Write or respond, and if the topic is the least bit controversial, wait. The dread creeps in, to paraphrase Carl Sandburg, on little hairy feet.
In my most memorable case, I’d written a strongly worded piece about stopping the hype and hysteria in education technology, calling out bad actors by general role at both extremes of the spectrum. Yes, the comments on the piece itself misstating what I’d said, speculating on my motives, and attacking me personally were troubling, but could have been anticipated. Worse was the anonymous vitriol on Twitter and anywhere else the post was discussed. There was no escape.
It wasn’t merely the anger and ferocity. It was the fact that this was taking place over Christmas. Peace and goodwill to all? Unlike death, trolls do not take a holiday.
Truth is, it’s no longer good advice to simply ignore the trolls. We’ve learned too much about them and the impact they have on how we perceive what we read.
A landmark study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison discovered the tone of comments on an article matters more than the content. “Rude” comments – even if they were identical in factual content as “civil” ones – both polarized readers and often changed perceptions of the news story itself. Ad hominem attacks (those directed against a person) increased negative perceptions of the original post.
Another study from Canada’s University of Manitoba found that personality test scores related to narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy and sadism “were highest among participants who said trolling was their favorite Internet activity.” It’s not called the Dark Tetrad for nothing.
In parallel to said troll scholarship:
- Popular Science, Vox, Re/code and other sites either removed, or began life without, comments. “The cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories,” reasoned Popular Science. “What should be a community devolves into an endless series of flame wars,” explained explainer Vox. And tech’s Re/Code effectively tossed the hot potato elsewhere, noting, “As social media has continued its robust growth, the bulk of discussion of our stories is increasingly taking place there.”
- Many more sites visually separated comments from the main post. Much of this has to do with design and page length. But it also provides a mental palate cleanser between textual dishes – what Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten once described as sirloin steak that “comes with a side of maggots.”
Still, online discussions – and the trolls that infest them – are not going away. If anything, they’re more distributed and prevalent, shifting from where a post may have originated to anywhere the originator or its readers choose to promote or dissect it. Facebook, Twitter, Reddit: All these and more are fair game for the anonymous or (I suspect more common) pseudonymous troll.
Knowing that if you write a post or comment yourself you are likely to become the target of a troll, what to do?
1) Correct actual misstatements or falsehoods. A favorite trolling technique is to offhandedly cite a fact (that isn’t), or claim something was in the post or comment to which they are responding (but isn’t), and build upon that falsity. I call this drive-by distortion. The troll is counting on readers not going back to check what actually was written. Correct it specifically. Just the facts, ma’am. Don’t try respond to even the most odious opinion if the underlying fact is accurate.
2) Maintain a neutral tone. Attempts at being clever or funny can be read as bitter and mocking. That only draws new trolls focused not on what you said, but how you said it. When finding the proper tone, think about how you’d explain your point to a five-year-old. One you like.
3) Be brief. Don’t rebut any critical comment, troll or otherwise, point-by-point. While tempting, it drags you into an endless downward spiral of tit-for-tat. Pick the most egregious misstatement (or find a common arc in the errors), firmly address, and move on. Be brief so you’ll be read.
4) Respond promptly. Dealing with trolls in a timely manner signifies you are reading reactions and may prevent others from piling on to the same point, like bacteria flocking to an open wound. Of course, the downside is they may also become antibodies, attacking the “intruder” (see: Fantastic Voyage).
5) Don’t respond to everything. If someone is venting or off-topic or promoting, but doing so without misstating fact or attacking, let it go. (I know. It’s hard.) These are the responses to your post or comment that you can ignore. Or flag.
These five tips have worked for me. I hope you’ll consider them my gift to you this commenting season. My only regret is that I can’t include, for that moment when you first unwrap the next troll’s flaming deposit, a shot of high-proof holiday cheer.