How to Temper Internet Trolls: Tips from the Field

Troll doll photo by Erik Solheim via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Troll doll photo by Eirik Solheim via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Written by Ghausia Rashid Salam. The original version of this post appear on Bolo Bhi's blog. Learn about this and other partnerships.

We see them on social media all the time — those peculiar characters who jab, mock, criticize and even berate others, seemingly for their own satisfaction. Trolls are part of life, and thus part of life on the Internet. 

It is important to understand that there is a difference between harmless, good-humored trolling and vicious, abusive trolling. Friends and acquaintances may tease each other or joke in good humor, but on the darker end of the spectrum, there are individuals whose sole intention is to create an environment of hostility and discrimination. A troll is someone who harasses people, spreads rumors as facts, or relentlessly criticizes others in order to provoke an emotional response. The good news is that there are many ways to combat trollish behavior.

Troll Psychology 101: Analyze your troll!
Trolls often want an audience to witness their abuse and bullying — they typically crave attention. They may attempt to publicly humiliate others or deliberately voice criticism before a large audience. When opining on political issues, an online troll may say the same thing to different people, typically opinion leaders such as talk show hosts and news anchors. In doing so, they seek to win the approval of authority figures.

When trolls attack political or public figures, the intention is almost always to cast negative light upon the individual. The troll may speak ill of the person’s political affiliations or public opinions. In some cases, even aspects of their personal life will come under attack. As hurtful and mentally distressing as the deeds of online trolls are, that cannot serve as an excuse to limit, censor, or ban social media or other online expression in any way. There are many other ways to deal with the problem. The staff team at Bolo Bhi have compiled this list of tricks and tools for dealing with trolls. 

Understand the difference between trolling and expressing opinions
Unless a troll’s message contains  an explicit threat to one’s personal safety, or a direct incitement to violence, there is no cause for any action at all. Even if the idea carries an aggressive tone, it is still protected as free speech. You can either a) choose to ignore the criticism, or b) address it by engaging in civil, polite discussion, or c) if you do not wish to engage in a lengthy debate, only tell the person that you understand what they’re saying and that you can just agree to disagree. This is especially important when you occupy a position that frequently places you in the public eye, such as working for a media group, the state, or a public sector organization.

Block and report as spam: All social media platforms provide the option for users to block unsolicited commenters and report them as spam. This may not be a permanent fix –you block one account and others may pop up. Despite the fact that this may only serve as a temporary deterrence, it is an important one, as we will go on to explain in step 4.

Do not feed the trolls: A common phrase on how to deal with online bullying is “do not feed the trolls.” When someone is harassing and/or threatening you, there is certainly a serious issue, but when an online troll is only trying to provoke a response out of you, it may  be better to simply ignore the troll. Online bullies and trolls feed on other people’s rage, discomfort, and unhappiness. Reacting with discomfort and annoyance to trolling is giving trolls what they want. We are not asking you to make light of threats or to not deal with harassment. Deal with it, but do not exhaust yourself by engaging with an aggressive troll.

Report abuse: Remember in step two when we asked you to report individual’s statements as spam? This is precisely why. All social media platforms offer an abuse policy and a method to report abusers. Click on these links to read policies for Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. When writing the email, remember to provide all necessary details, screenshots of the accounts’ tweets, the screenshots reporting spam and lastly, a list of all accounts that are involved in harassing/trolling should be included.

Investigate the troll’s identity: Sometimes it is easy to understand a troll’s ideology by reading the content they share on social media, or the tweets or comments they post publicly  public, or they might even write on a blog. By investigating public content (not a violation of the troll’s privacy), you can understand their ideology, which may be against your own opinions, political affiliations, or beliefs.

Change the narrative: Use your knowledge of your troll to inform the social media public about how you’re being harassed by someone because of your opinions and views. This will expose the troll to criticism, rather than becoming the target of criticism yourself by reacting poorly to trolling attempts.

Block IPs yourself when possible, or through external sources: Trolls will often operate with multiple identities — if you block one social media profile, another may take its place. If you’re being trolled on a website or blog such as WordPress, there are numerous options that allow you to block the IP address of a troll, making it more difficult for them to harass you using different identities. In cases where IPs are not identified such as social media, the websites in question cannot release information such as IP addresses to a civilian, and can only do so when an official request is made by authority figures. In these situations, take a screen capture of the content that is harassing or threatening you, and get in touch with site staff who can help you take steps to ensure your personal and online safety.

Protect your privacy online: The content we share through social media connects us to friends and family, but it can also be used against us. It is essential to familiarize yourself with the policies of all social media platforms you use, and to know your privacy settings from status updates to your photos. Make sure that your close friends and family protect their privacy too, as trolls will often target what they perceive to be your weakness, such as your nearest and dearest.

Bolo Bhi has a list of resources for maintaining your digital security, and ensuring that personal, sensitive information does not fall into the hands of anyone who means you harm.

This post is part of a new Advox partnership with Pakistani digital rights group Bolo Bhi. Learn about our partnerships with digital rights organizations around the world here.

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