Internet trolls: the cockroaches of the web. They’re gross, they’re unsettling, but sometimes, there they are, scurrying across the floor in front of you. Here’s what to do about it …
If you spend any time online, and especially if you establish authority in your topic, you’ll eventually have to deal with a troll.
Most of them are minor pests, and some of them can be a real problem. But any variety of troll can temporarily put you off your game and cause you to second-guess yourself.
In this episode I talk about:
- Why Eleanor Roosevelt was wrong (though still awesome)
- The pseudo-troll, and how to engage with them
- Dealing with the Don Quixote
- What to do if the troll gets truly nasty
- Why most trolls resemble flaming bags of poop
- The relationship between anonymity and trolling
The Show Notes
- The WELL — a pioneering online community that doesn’t allow anonymity
- Godwin’s Law, created by the (sometimes maddening, always thoughtful) good guy, Mike Godwin
- The Downside to Online Authority, a Copyblogger post I wrote on trolls
- Keeping It Real, nice post from Chris Guillebeau on criticism, blog policies, and handling differences of opinion online
The 3 Types of Trolls You Meet Online (and How to Deal with Them)
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Sonia Simone: Greetings, super friends! My name is Sonia Simone and these are the Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer. For those who don’t know me yet, I am a co-founder and the Chief Content Officer for Copyblogger Media.
I’m also a champion of running your business and your life according to your own rules. As long as you don’t lie and you don’t hurt people, this podcast is your official pink permission slip to run your business or your career exactly the way you think you should.
Today I’m going to talk about one of those perennial topics: the troll. You might have heard on one of my earlier podcasts, I have been online a long time. I got online about 1989, so I have seen a lot of different flavors of troll.
It’s a funny thing that you can have 1,000 amazing experiences and 1,000 amazing interactions and really feel like you’re onto something. Like you’re helping people move toward what they want to get. And then you get one troll and it sours the whole thing. It’s kind of like you can have 100 happy people in the swimming pool and everybody is having a great time until one person poops in it.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Like so many famous quotes, she probably never actually said that. There’s no record of her ever having said those words in that order, but she said something similar. In my opinion this is something of a useful delusion. It’s a great way to live your life. It’s a great approach, a great mindset.
Why Eleanor Roosevelt Was Wrong (Though Still Awesome)
Going back to the pool thing, people actually can make you feel fairly crappy, at least in the short term, with or without your consent. I’ve found that telling yourself that you’re being stupid because you let some anonymous creep make you feel bad does not, in my experience, help you feel any better.
There are a couple of things that do help you feel better if you’re dealing with one of these creatures. One of them is knowing that you’re not alone in battling these cockroaches of the web. I’m going to talk a little bit about some kinds of trolls I have seen and some specific best practices I have found in my time on the web for handling them.
The Pseudo-Troll, and How to Engage with Them
The first one I’m going to talk about is not a troll, but is sometimes identified as one. I might call this the Ralph Nader type. There’s actually a real-life version of this. Not that Ralph Nader is not a real person, he is, but I don’t know Ralph Nader. I do know a gentleman named Mike Godwin, and Mike is most known for something called Godwin’s Law, which is as an online discussion grows longer the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one. In other words, the longer you argue about something online the more likely it is that somebody is going to say, “You know who else ate Paleo? Hitler.” Whatever the argument might be.
Mike is a superlative example of this type of person. Mike loves to argue. Mike loves to take a strong position, research the hell out of it, and then argue with you until you’re both lying on the ground. Mike can get in an argument with anyone or anything. Mike can get into an argument with traffic cones, pieces of string, the color green. Mike can, and will, argue with absolutely anyone. And he gets a hold of his point and he argues it until you want to do something illegal to make him go away.
We all have these folks who show up. They might be devil’s advocates. They’re just passionate arguers. Sometimes they have a lot of time on their hands and they will drive you nuts. Now, I’m Facebook friends with Mike. I know him slightly in days long past. I’ve had dinner with the guy. He’s actually really awesome. He’s done a lot of great work on the electronic freedom front. But it’s just a fact of the Internet that Mike, when he’s in argumentation mode, will make you bananas.
Driving you bananas doesn’t mean somebody’s a troll. That’s the point I want to make here. Just because you have somebody on your site who’s really argumentative or just won’t let things go, that’s not necessarily a troll.
By the way, notice that Ralph Nader and Mike Godwin are real people. They’re actual human beings. They’re not fictional characters. One of the things that distinguishes a troll from just somebody who likes to argue, in my opinion, is that this kind of insanely passionate advocate normally is not anonymous. It is totally fine to engage with these folks, argumentative folks, folks who just love to get into it with you.
The discussion can be productive. It’s possible this person might get you to look at your own biases from some new perspectives. I’m not saying that they should or will change your mind, but it’s always a good idea to look at our assumptions and our beliefs and see if they really hold up under scrutiny. That’s not a real troll. That’s just, let’s say, a passionate advocate.
Now we’re going to talk about real trolls. The most important thing to know about an Internet troll is that they feed on attention. In particular, they feed on negative attention. It makes them feel important. A lot of people do not talk about the fact that feeling important is one of the biggest drivers of human behavior that there is. I think we don’t talk about it because everyone feels silly doing something because it’s going to make us feel important, but we all do. People will do all kinds of things — making charitable donations, buying $1200 shoes — because it makes them feel important.
The thing that makes a troll feel important is making somebody upset, hurt, angry, something along those lines. That’s why the first rule of the web is, “Do not feed the troll.” If you have an actual troll, giving that person any attention at all gives them what they came to you for, which is negative attention. The most important troll management technique is you have to turn their mic off. You have to remove their ability to communicate with you or communicate on your platform.
Dealing with the Don Quixote
I have three kinds of trolls that I’ve seen come up fairly regularly in the amount of time I’ve been on the web. The first one is a real odd character that I call Don Quixote. This person has decided that there is some practice or topic or point of view that is inherently evil. If you are a content creator on that topic then you become the dragon and it is their sacred duty to take you down.
You will be sorely tempted in this conversation to point out the fact that there are not, in fact, any dragons in the room. All there are, are windmills. This person is arguing from a completely false starting point and you are not going to be able to make this point. The whole point of a Don Quixote is that they are irrationally possessed by this faith that whatever it is you’re talking about is somehow wrong and they have to fix it.
There are people in the world who just think that anyone who tries to teach marketing or selling or business is a scam artist because these are inherently un-teachable topics. Which, if you know me at all, you know I think is a complete load of crap. But there are people who believe that quite fervently. You get them around business or marketing. You get a lot of them in nutrition and fitness. Of course we’ve seen some really unappealing examples in video games. You see it in politics. You even get it, though, in weird tiny niche topics. You’ll get people who become Don Quixotes about fountain pens and ink.
There’s one guy who is a total Don Quixote about fountain pen ink. If that’s not a sign that your life is totally out of control, I’m not sure what is. It’s very tempting to try to engage with this person because their foundational argument is so off and you feel like if you could just help them see facts they would change their mind, but you’re probably just going to be denounced as a shill. You’re a tool of big dragon. That’s why you are representing the dragon interest.
I have no idea if these people are actually mentally ill, but their argument is crazy. Because it is based on something that is just provably not right. Or, it’s based on an irrational attachment to something that is essentially a subjective point.
I do know that trying to rationalize a crazy argument will make you crazy. If you try and come in and convince someone making an insane argument that what they’re saying is insane, you’re the one who will go nuts. I have seen this more than once.
So my strong advice to you: most Don Quixotes are not evil people. They’re just misguided. They’re forming a non-rational attachment to a position that doesn’t merit this kind of impassioned advocacy. My advice to you is if they’re not constructive — if they’re not actually advocates but they’re just going over into irrational land — block them and move on. Just turn the mic off. Remove their ability to comment on your blog, your social media profiles, your podcast, what have you, and they will go away. Turn the mic off.
The second type of troll is much more disturbing. This is what I call the Hannibal Lector. There is some small percentage of our human population that has no empathy and finds it fun to frighten and hurt people. I have in the past been misunderstood on this, so I want to clarify. I am not in any way talking about anyone on the autism spectrum. This is not about folks on the spectrum. This is another kettle of fish completely. I am not a psychologist, but I believe that this the kind of person that might be labeled a sociopath. Some people just seem to be wired for it and I don’t think that there’s any fixing it.
Now, there are a lot of people who will show these tendencies: a failure of empathy and taking pleasure in frightening people, or making people really feel emotional pain. A lot of people will do it online and they won’t do it face-to-face, and that may be because this kind of person is not really a fan of paying the consequences of their bad behavior. So they are virtually always anonymous. In fact, anonymity for me is a big red flag for a troll. If somebody is using some kind of a kooky pseudonym and some kind of a kooky picture or someone else’s photo for their profile picture, my troll-dar goes right up and automatically they get put on the suspect list.
Anybody who makes you feel frightened, you need to: a) mobilize your friends and make sure that you feel safe; b) report any kind of threat to law enforcement; and c) take your own concern seriously and don’t be afraid to follow them up. Sometimes law enforcement has a tough time keeping up with some of these things that we encounter. If you don’t feel safe not only contact law enforcement, but keep following up with them until you feel like you’ve been heard.
More than 99 percent of these people never do anything. They just like to shake the ant farm and watch the ants panic. But you need to cover your own safety first. Even if it’s not a safety issue, even if it’s just a cruelty issue — comments about “go kill yourself” or these kinds of things — you have to remove this person’s ability to contact you. You want to mobilize some social support, because it’s a lot like seeing roaches in a restaurant. You need somebody to help calm you down. You need some human support that’s not disgusting. Please don’t kick yourself for freaking out.
If somebody says something just inexcusable and hurtful and ugly, it’s not you. It’s them. It’s not that you deserve it or merit it or that you should change your profile picture because you look bad in that one or whatever it is — it has nothing to do with you. This person is just roaming around the web looking for people to hurt because that makes him feel important.
Your brain does not have any wiring to filter out “Anonymous Jackass from the Internet.” Our brains are wired for face-to-face connection with other human beings, living within society, and living within groups that we have to get along with. When somebody comes and is horrible to you, there’s a big part of your brain that mobilizes and says, “What’s going on with this? What have I done to create this situation? How can we fix this? It’s not acceptable to be in a relationship with a person who has this kind of feeling about me. We’ve got to get this fixed or else I could be in danger.”
All these circuits are firing off and, of course, they’re not relevant to some anonymous weirdo, but we still have these feelings. Some people are naturally blessed with thicker skin than others. If that’s you, man, thumbs up. Right on. Good for you. I respect your ability to be more objective about this. But if you can’t, I’m right there with you.
What to Do if the Troll Gets Truly Nasty
Block. The techniques for this person, anyone who’s just seriously ugly — racist, fat-shaming, throwing around suicide, any of that crap that they throw around. Block them first. Remove their ability to talk to you. Report them to whatever the profile thing is — Facebook, Twitter — all of these guys have tools you can use to let them know that this person’s a bad actor. And again, contact law enforcement if a threat was made.
Thankfully, these guys are actually a very small percentage of people on the web, but they have a lot of time on their hands, so they look bigger than they are. Most of the time, we only have glancing encounters with them and we can just block them, report them, and move on. Just the most important thing is not to get caught up in trying to talk to them because then you’re only going to get more of the ick on you, which is what we’re trying to avoid.
The third kind of troll is what I call an Eddie Haskell. If you don’t know the reference, there used to be a silly TV show in the ’50s called Leave it to Beaver. Beaver had this friend, Eddie Haskell, who was this little troublemaker. He was really never up to any good. He was a bad kid. He wasn’t a scary kid, he was just a naughty kid. Most of the trolls you’re going to see online are Eddie Haskells. They’re essentially Hannibal Lector light. They’re Hannibal Lector, with no follow-through. They like to cause chaos. They like to upset people, but fortunately, they don’t have that real sadistic streak.
You’ll see these show up quite a bit. They’re usually anonymous. They’re almost always anonymous, and they show up with a stream of stupid remarks that are not mean enough that you immediately say, “Troll, goodbye,” but they’re off. They’re surreal. They just get a huge kick out of winding you up. This is this hilarious game of making you fall for their weird comment that doesn’t contribute anything.
They take a lot of sarcastic potshots, but unlike the Ralph Nader crusader type, they don’t actually have anything to contribute. In fact, I’m going to give you permission right now that if anyone is just regularly commenting with you socially on your blog, your podcast, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and they don’t have anything to contribute, even if they’re not technically a troll or technically a spammer and you just want to turn the mic off, please feel free. People don’t have a right to just annoy you with vapid stupidity.
Why Most Trolls Resemble Flaming Bags of Poop
Usually I’ll get an Eddie Haskell. It’s a game to them. It’s an Eddie Haskell kind of game. It’s a silly game. It’s leaving a bag of burning dog poop on your porch. It’s irritating. I’ll usually leave them with a, “Yeah, cute, nice try. Bye!” and block them. Of course, you can report if they cross the line into being nasty, but mostly it’s a dopey distraction.
Sometimes I see the advice that you should engage your trolls, that you should talk to them and find out why they have this negative behavior, because sometimes these people can become your greatest allies if you just really get in and recognize their basic humanity. I’m for recognizing the basic humanity of another member of our species. However, I am not for engaging with trolls, because in my experience, actually forming some kind of constructive relationship with a troll is a lot rarer than a pink unicorn, if it’s a true troll and not just the passionate Ralph Nader type who’s just argumentative.
Scott Stratten has what is my favorite quote on this. “Don’t try to win over the haters. You are not the jackass whisperer.” I think that’s really well-put.
The other temptation is sometimes people try to out-troll the troll, and I wouldn’t try that either. It leads to all kinds of mayhem, because what you’re doing is you are entering into a toxic head space that makes somebody a troll in the first place and it’s not a good idea. Just get rid of them. The most important thing is to turn the mic off. Remove their ability to get attention on your platform and they will go leave a flaming bag of dog poop on someone else’s platform, so it goes. Turn the mic off. Do not let them communicate with you because that’s going to throw you off your game.
The Relationship Between Anonymity and Trolling
Sometimes people ask if trolling is worse now and I think it is, but that may be a bias on my part because there’s always been a lot of trolling, and sometimes some very vicious trolling on real early Internet communities like Usenet. The trolling is worse anytime there is an opportunity for anonymity, because some people who might basically be fine otherwise, they’re basically not going to abuse anyone face-to-face, but they develop this very scary shadow personality when they combine a lot of time behind a screen with the ability to be anonymous. I don’t understand it and I truly don’t think anyone does.
Sometimes you see these psychology articles, but I don’t really think we understand what makes a troll a troll. The important thing is, when you encounter them, you need to remove their ability to communicate with you because this kind of toxicity will mess up your thinking and it will mess up your ability to take action and go where you want to go and we can’t have that.
I’ve actually seen trolls drive smart people, reasonable people, to make not great decisions and counterproductive decisions. Things like pulling their blog offline or all kinds of things because they got freaked out by this person who was coming after them in this irrational way. If a friend is going through this, give them some support, give them some love. It’s really annoying. Fortunately, most of us will never have to deal with this in a really scary way, but even in the minor irritation way, it can get you down.
I gave you Scott Stratten’s mantra for trolls, and now I’m going to leave you with mine: “Don’t talk to the trash. Just take it out.”
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Thanks so much, guys! Take care.