Thursday, July 16, 2009

Troll Smacking

The net crawls with trolls. We’ve all run into them, and we will continue to run into them. But many people don’t know how to handle them. So let’s talk about troll smacking.

What Motivates Trolls

To fight a troll, one must first understand what motivates trolls. Trolls come in all shapes and sizes and use various techniques. But that’s only window dressing. At their cores, trolls are looking for something that only you can give them . . . a sense of power.

People who troll are psychologically messed up (that’s a technical term). They see the world around them and they don’t understand why they are so unhappy when everyone else around them seems to be living normal happy lives. They feel inferior and powerless, and the only way they know to overcome that feeling is to gain control over someone else. This is the same impulse that drives bullies and rapists and thrill killers, the desire to feel power over another human being.

If you don’t understand this, you will never understand the troll mentality. They don’t care about your politics. They don’t care about your religion. They don’t care about your hobbies. They only care about how you can make them feel. They need to control you to make themselves feel better, and the only way to control you on the internet is to find something that you care about and to attack it.

With this in mind, let’s consider how not to handle trolls.

How NOT To Handle Trolls

If you cruise the net, you will see many techniques for dealing with trolls. Most of these will only lead to more problems. Here are some common techniques you should avoid.

1. Lashing Out. Ok, this isn’t normally a recommended technique, but you see it done all the time. The problem with lashing out at a troll is that this plays into the troll’s hands more than anything else you could possibly do. This is miracle grow for trolls. The angrier you get, the greater the troll’s joy, because the greater your anger, the greater the troll’s control over you. The only thing you could do to make this worse would be to combine your anger with a threat. Nothing says helplessness more than an impotent threat. Avoid this at all costs.

2. Disputing The Troll’s Facts. “Mr. Troll, you have your facts wrong.” Give it up. You’re playing the troll’s game. The troll doesn’t care what you say, because it doesn’t care about winning the argument. It only cares that it found someone to exploit, and exploit it will. It will lie, cheat, and say whatever it takes to keep you on the hook until it gets the reaction it wants.

With each passing word, the troll gains more and more information about what matters to you. And as its knowledge grows, so does its control over you. Knowledge is power. It will get you.

But you say you can’t be gotten, right? Wrong, the troll had you the moment you began arguing with the troll. Not only does it get a kick out of you wasting your time trying to win a debate you can’t win, but it is using you like a puppet to fill up the board with gibberish. With each passing comment, you make it harder and harder for other posters to avoid being pulled into this argument. Congratulations, you’re advertising for the troll.

3. Politely Tell It To Leave. Some people suggest politely telling trolls to leave. This doesn’t give trolls the same satisfaction as an angry response, and it doesn’t fill the board, but it lets the troll know that it has annoyed you. You’ve nibbled the bait. And this will encourage the troll to try to reel you in, which can lead to the problems just discussed.

A corollary to this method is to post “DFTT” (“Don’t Feed The Troll”) or to ignore the troll’s post. This is generally good advice, except for two problems. First, and most importantly, you need to realize that you are playing a risky game. If the troll has targeted you, and you choose to ignore it, you are stating your intent to begin a battle of wills. You are telling the troll that no matter what it throws at you, you will ignore the troll. Thereafter, you cannot respond. If you do, the troll knows that it has broken you. You have given it exactly what it wants.

Secondly, on a public board, this strategy removes any control that you have over the situation. You will need to wait for the troll to make each of the next moves. You also need to worry about some third party coming along “to help you out,” and pulling you into the debate in the process.

How TO Handle Trolls

So what should you do? The only way to beat a troll is to deprive it of the one thing it needs -- the sense of control. How do you do that? Here are some rules.

1. Maintain A Positive Tone. Always use a positive and happy tone in your comments. Remember, the moment you show the troll that you are upset, it wins. If you stay happy, it loses and it will lose interest.

2. Exploit The Troll’s Inferiority Complex -- Attack Its Trollhood. Although you must maintain the positive tone, you should also work to exploit the troll’s inferiority complex. Anything you can do to make the troll feel that you control it will strip the troll of the pleasure of trolling and will drive it away.

In this regard, you should consider always adding a hint condescension to your comments. For example, address the troll in terms like “pumpkin” or “kitten” or “kid,” which demeaning or dismissive when used with mere acquaintances.

Also, try to phrase your responses as if you are judging the troll, and you aren’t impressed with what you’ve seen. For example, good responses to its posts include:

• “You can do better than that.”
• “You need to step up your game.”
• “Even for a troll, that was weak. Come on, make me feel it.”
• “Are you new at this? The normal trolls use more ALL CAPS.”
Notice that not only do these responses deny the troll the response it wants, they give you control of the relationship because you place yourself in the position of commanding the troll. This will strike at the very heart of why the troll has come.

3. Turn The Tables On The Troll. Remember, the troll is trying to upset you. To do that, they have set bait. Never take it. Under no circumstances should you ever respond to the points they have made. Instead, try the following. . .

a. Toss The Bait Back At Them. When they blast you with their best post, respond by tossing the bait right back. For example, ask them to rephrase the point or provide further explanation:

• “That’s a lot to read, can you shorten it?”
• “I don’t understand your question. Take another look at it and get back to me.”
• “Wow, you’ve got a lot of typos there. Do you want to fix those before I take a look at your point?”

Notice that in each response, you control the troll. You’ve given no hint that you bothered to read the post or that you are upset. To the contrary, you’ve told the troll that if it wants to continue, it will be on your terms.

b. Change The Topic. If tossing the bait back isn’t your thing and you want to have some fun, try controlling the conversation by changing the topic. This can be done in several ways.

First, look for some flaw in the question/statement. Can the question/statement be read in multiple ways? If so, answer it in the way it was not intended. This will be particularly easy where the troll attempts to use sarcasm, which can be read literally to change the meaning:

Troll: “Yeah, he’s smart.”
You: “Glad you think so.”

This can also be done where the troll uses words that have multiple meanings. For example, as Writer X reminded me, I recently had a little fun with a troll. After evading all of his attempts to get an answer out of me, he finally asked, “why won’t you engage me?” Seeing as how engage has multiple meanings, I switched his meaning and replied, “are you asking me out?” This stumped the troll, and he went away.

You can also change the topic more bluntly if you desire. For example, rather than responding to the post in any way, instead state, “Can I ask you a question?” and then ask the question right away, “Do you get Newsweek?” or “Do trolls wear hats?”

This is a no-win situation for the troll. If it answers the question, it is playing your game, something that goes against its need for control, and you can further exploit this by continuing to pepper the troll with questions until they leave. If the troll refuse to answer the question, then you make the troll look like a coward by going after it: “You didn’t answer my question” . . . “You still haven’t answered my question.” . . . “Why won’t you answer my question?” This again frustrates the troll’s desire to be the predator.

(In fact, you can use this technique to continue to frustrate the troll thereafter by simply following up any future troll posts with “why won’t you answer me?” And if it finally does answer, you can rub in your victory (“ha ha, made you answer”), and then demand that it answer further questions.)

You can also take a more aggressive stance in the initial question by asking something insulting, like “Hey Pumpkin, how are things in the old basement?”
4. Evade, Deny, Insult. When you try to change the topic, you can expect the troll to respond with something like “you didn’t answer my question.” Use the principles above to fashion an appropriate response. For example, make the troll work for it by responding, “what question?” Or try the evasive, “I thought I did?” or the insulting “you were serious?” or “you’re kidding right?”

5. Reverse Troll. If the troll can’t be sidetracked from its mission, and it just keeps throwing facts and argument at you, you should play reverse-troll. Simply respond, “All lies.” or “Nope.” When it challenges you to prove your assertion, just reply “no,” and then try again to change the topic. Few trolls will bother with you after that because they know they can’t control that conversation.

6. Insults. Finally, when the troll turns to insults, which it will, remember not to play its game. Your best bet is to look down your nose at the troll, either by making its attack sound childish (“Are we back in grade school now?”), by responding with humor (“And here I thought we were getting along so well.”), or by combining humor and childish treatment (“Now now, I won’t keep playing with you if you’re going to take that tone.”)


If you follow these rules, and always keep your eye on never letting the troll feel that it controls you, then you can dispatch trolls pretty easily and have a little fun in the process. Just remember that you should never take their comments personally, no matter what they say.

* Thanks to Writer X for having a post on her website yesterday that reminded me that I had promised to write this article.


Writer X said...

Andrew, this is priceless. Required reading for anyone who blogs. And, best line ever: “Hey Pumpkin, how are things in the old basement?” I'll have to remember that one.

Thanks for sharing your tips on Trollhood. You handle the trolls so well.

Tennessee Jed said...

In my short time posting, I have encountered a few of these guys so it's good to hear a voice of experience. At least twice I have inadvertently done the right thing and "viola" that ended things.

StanH said...

Great post Andrew! The best policy is DFTT, but occasionally a nasty critter will show up and refuses to go away, sometimes you have to crawl under the bridge and smack’em. You’re absolutely correct in your approaches, if you show any emotion your in it’s trap. You must remember that trolls don’t have a point (pretzel logic) …they’re only mission is to disrupt, they simply regurgitate opposing talking points. Play with trolls carefully, avoid them when you can, but if you must, suspend logic and reason and slay the beast : (

CrisD said...

Since I feel like I am in a safe place (ha-ha, if you knew how much psych I've taken, you would say I did not have degrees!!)
When I first started posting anywhere back in the fall I would start to sweat if ANYONE responded to me. I now recognize this as adrenaline. And, as you say, Andrew, you must harness it to be effective.
Dealing with challenges, whether they be from friendlies or Trolls can be fun.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, thanks. Sadly, I've had a lot of experience. I'm glad you liked the piece, and thanks for the idea! :-)

Jed, I hope this helps. If you understand how these guys think, then you know what they're after and it become easy to deal with them. The problem -- especially for people new to the net -- is the shock factor and the inability to understand why the troll would say the things they do. That's part of the trap.

AndrewPrice said...

StanH, Many times, you just don't have the choice to ignore them. If you comment a lot, trolls will often target you specifically. And when they start coming after you, if you don't squish them, they will be back time and time again.

CrisD, That's the perfect attitude -- see it for its full entertainment potential.

William said...

Great advice. I hope more people start doing this because that could beat the troll problem.

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: The article was not only very funny, but also deadly accurate. I read it in the wee hours of the morning, but I didn't have the strength to commend you on it until now--after three cups of coffee.

Commentarama Readers: For those of you who visit Big Hollywood from time to time, Andrew and I first met there about the time a troll calling himself AntiFascist started commenting on the site. I got irritated and started referring to him as Auntie Fascist, then Andrew went me one better and started demanding that Auntie make us all some pie. Auntie went on for months, but couldn't get past the pie barrier. We haven't seen him over there in several weeks now. Either his cave collapsed, or he is currently in rehab.

Joel Farnham said...

Andrew, when do you sleep?

Very good article. I have used these before, but mostly by accident. Thanks for laying it out in a consise manner.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, Welcome. Sleep? What is this "sleep" of which you speak? It sounds like a luxury we can't afford! :-)

Thanks for the kind words on the article. I figured you guys knew how to handle trolls, but I thought it might still be helpful to lay it all out so that everyone can think about it logically.

Lawhawk, the pie thing was great. AntiFascist used to run wild at BH and he was driving everyone crazy. The pie thing gave everyone a way to spoil his enjoyment from trolling, and it really reduced the number of posts he made. In fact, in the last month or so, he's barely posted at all, and when he has, his posts have been much less vile than they were before.

BevfromNYC said...

Great article. I try and stop myself before I engage the trolls, but sometimes I just can't help myself. It's a test of my resolve. But honestly, won't we "have arrived" when we get our first troll?

Plus, the pie bit is just plain fun! I like to think that Auntie Ef is off learning how to bake pie.

LawHawkSF said...

Bev: I hope you were knocking on wood when you wrote that. Can you imagine Auntie, Sojourner and Teh Stupid all arriving at the same time?

AndrewPrice said...

So you're saying I shouldn't have invited them? Whooops.

Mike Kriskey said...

I stumbled into a similar course of action with a person named Planet Hero at Big Hollywood. In a flash, I realized that I should speak and refer to this person as a teen-aged girl.

(Not that there's anything wrong with being a teen-aged girl, beyond the fact that I suspected Planet Hero didn't like it.)

Worked great!

I get frustrated though at places where everyone agrees with each other, and if you disagree about something, you're labelled a troll. I try to point out that "troll" has a specific meaning on the net, and not just a label for someone you disagree with.

At Threedonia, we've had a few trolls lately, which is a good sign. We've also had one or two liberals, and I've had to correct people who mislabel them. I want them to stick around and challenge us, as long as they return the respect they're given.

AndrewPrice said...

Mike, I agree 100%. I have no use for an echo chamber. In fact, we absolutely welcome dissenting opinions. If we're wrong, tell us.

I have long believed that if my ideas are any good, then they should be able to stand up to debate.

Too many people, unfortunately, assume that anyone who disagrees is a troll. I see this a lot at Big Hollywood, and it bothers me. Rather than listening to interesting dissenting opinions, people like to jump on these "trolls" and attack them in very nasty ways. That doesn't do anybody any good.

How do we expand our understanding of the world if we won't even listen to the other side.

(That said, a true troll, someone who is simply looking for a reaction, does no one any good either.)

Post a Comment