Afternoon Inquisition

Afternoon Inquisition 3.26

One of the coolest things about reading Skepchick is learning from the great discussions that arise from posts, news items, and Afternoon Inquisitions. And I suppose that’s true of any blog or forum where the “community” aspect is promoted. Of course, invariably commenters who seem determined to derail threads and who are more interested in disrupting discussions than adding to them or learning from them will arrive and slow down the party.

So today’s Inquisition:

How do you handle so called “trolls” when you encounter them, and what do you think administrators of blogs and websites should do to them?

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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61 Comments

  1. I tend to either ignore them or mock them, depending on mood.

    If they’re on a forum, I expect them to be ignored by the mods untill they become obscene or booring, at which point I don’t mind them being banned. On a blog, I view that as sort of “someone’s house.” It’s their space for their opinion, and they invite us in for tea (or scotch, after hours). If they don’t want to invite assholes to the party, I’m fine with that. Their house, their rules.

  2. I’m all about banning trolls. I mean, it’s a fine line between justified troll-bans and just being a dick to stifle contrary views, but there is a line, and it is possible to use bans reponsibly.

    Basically, at some point, it’s going to be clear that a troll is not operating on a reasonable level. Whether it’s resorting to ad hominems or simply repeating the same line of bullshit that’s been repeatedly refuted by other comments, eventually you can point to a pattern of behaviour and say, “You are not contributing to this discussion. Goodbye.”

    That’s what happened with the one troll who popped up on my blog. He started off just doing the cyclical reply thing where he failed to address other posts who corrected him, then he descended further into calling me “fatass”. At that point, yeah, obviously you don’t have anything to add.

  3. One thing I like about this site is that trolls aren’t tolerated. At least not for long.

    No site that I’ve been an admin on has had enough traffic to attract trolls, so I’ve never had the opportunity to deal with one in that respect. And that’s an interesting thing, that trolls show up on popular sites only. They need an audience.

    I wonder what would happen if you could mark an account so that they could post all the comments they wanted, could see their own comments but no one else could. Sort of an invisible banning. Would they keep posting even though no one was responding?

  4. Of course, you need to distinguish between trolling and exposing disgusting ideas. However, trolls tend to drive antisense, and you will find them almost always in a destructive dissenting way. It is the destruction not the dissense, that makes trolls so annoyable. The best counsel is not to fed them. Also, trolls tend to accuse everybody else of trolling.

  5. I banned one person at the bug blog over a year ago, and he still comes by periodically and leaves gross (sexual innuendo type) comments.

    I still have to delete them from the spam que, and I’m sure he knows that.

    yuk.

  6. My blog isn’t popular enough to attract trolls, but if it were, I might deal with them by feeding them nibblets of attention in order to fatten them up, and then I’d let my devoted readers gobble them all up like turkeys at Thanksgiving.

    If the turkey trolls began to get out of hand, I’d just give a call to Sarah Palin. I hear she’s good with turkeys.

    Seriously, though, I like the way PZ Myers handles trolls. He creates a list of the top trolls and has everyone vote one (or two) out. This ritual, performed every so often, keeps the bloodthirsty crowd satisfied, establishes a deterrent, and unhooks at least one troublemaker.

  7. I’ve seen disemvoweling work wonders, but it’s time-consuming and requires a lot of patience before it takes effect. Teresa Nielsen Hayden treats a comment section like a garden that must be tended year-round.

    PZ Myers recently hosted Survivor: Pharyngula, in which seven persistent trolls had to survive a week of immunity challenges (e.g., answer “Why are there still monkeys?” correctly) while the regular commentariat got a chance to vote them off the blog. It was a lot of fun to watch. A few of the trolls got sucked right in, but most elected to simply stop coming back.

  8. What has to be avoided is banning people simply for disagreeing. Some people are just blunt in delivery when writing and may not have meant something to come off in a snotty way.

    If they are being an insulting jackass and repeatedly rehashing the same nonsense on a particular topic over and over and over with absolute refusal to see reason (see so-called True Skeptic), then I see no reason not to ban. But then there have been people who were never banned for doing things much worse (i.e., zombie Rystefn’s “I wish you would die” comments to Seth). So…

    I suggest a direct link to the code of conduct at the top of the page rather than embedded in the “about Skepchick” link so it’s easier for the casual commenter to find. I also suggest more specific guidelines other than “don’t piss us off” or “don’t be rude”. Some people legitimately don’t know what that means and need examples. I suggest using real examples (perhaps from previously banned people). Finally, I suggest including helpful tips for everyone keeping our cool. Like letting things go, give people the benefit of the doubt (at least at first), etc. Conduct is more than not being “rude”, it’s interpreting the intentions of other people.

    The new defensive atmosphere here (possibly due to trolls, I don’t know) has been off-putting to me because it leads to needless, often childish, disagreements. Hence my relative silence here as of late.

  9. Just to clarify: my first 2 paragraphs are general comments and the last 2 are Skepchick-specific, as I interpreted that the inspiration of this question was at least partially related to recent events here.

  10. If they’ve got me scared stupid, I just throw some milk on them. If that doesn’t work, then a little kiss is usually too much for them to handle, and makes thier head explode. Somethings, I just avoid the bridge they are hiding under.

    POP QUIZ!!!!

    What are those scenerios references to!

  11. @russellsugden:

    I think he was banned for two weeks and never came back, but I could be wrong.

    I think that there should just be some kind of bot(s) to deal with trolls, If it’s on a forum you could just create a topic which is likely to draw in trolls and use bots to post replies, thus keeping them occupied and away from the general population, sort of like counter trolling.

  12. I’ve become much more adept at ignoring them, but that’s partly laziness. I just don’t have the energy to waste on crafting a good reply.

    Personally I think trolls should be responded to once, maybe twice, from a rational “maybe-(s)he-s-just-deluded” point. And if that doesn’t work, i.e. the presumed troll doesn’t interact with the replies but just continues being stupid, I’m all for ignoring.

    Now in the real world that doesn’t work, because most people people aren’t as rational and lazy as me, but troll baiters are as annoying as trolls and should all hang. My friend Bob agrees with me and repeated this opinion to reporters just yesterday: http://webtv.tv2.no/webtv/?progId=294465

    If you can’t load that page it’s because you’re losers.

    Also, if you didn’t want an abattoir I think you could have made that clearer in the outline. And… no, sorry, there isn’t time.

  13. I keep hoping our latest one will come post on this thread. I am still learning the ways of scientism.

    I like to bat trolls around as long as they’re entertaining and stay out of the way of real conversation. That at least gives them the chance to show some game OR show that they really want conversation but aren’t great at communication.

    Once they show that they aren’t interested in dialog, then I’m good with banning them. It’s been a long time since I was a moderator, and even then it was at Internet Infidels and they had a huge process. If I needed to ban someone off my blog, I would wield a terrible swift sword.

    What’s REALLY fun, though, is deflating arrogant fellow skeptics. The JREF forums are fertile hunting grounds for that.

  14. I’m an administrator/sysop for one of the world’s oldest on-line science forums. We have a *wonderful* tool called a Bozo Flag. When we bozo-flag a troll, his comments still appear on the board…but…(heh, heh)…they ONLY appear to the troll. Nobody else can see them. Not even the sysops. Thus, the troll *thinks* his posts are still going public, but he’s really talking to an empty room.

    This has two advantages. (1) A banned troll just immediately returns under a new name. But a bozo-flagged troll just gradually gets tired of no replies and goes away.

    (2) It’s really effin’ gratifying to imagine the little turd wasting hours and hours talking to himself, unaware he’s been had.

  15. @mikespeir:
    I used to be a mod on a forum for young feminists, and our definition of a troll was someone who showed up exclusively to piss people off. We encouraged members to report suspected trolls and ignore them in the mean time; if the mods determined that a user was trolling, it was an instant perma-ban. Our logic was that while banning them gave them a shot of the attention they craved, it was faster and tidier than ignoring them while they stank up our community.
    We did try not to ban people just for having differing opinions, but we felt that if a genuinely held opinion was so obnoxiously aired that it couldn’t be distinguished from an effort to piss people off, they probably weren’t going to to contribute meaningfully anyway.

  16. I think it is necessary to let trolls hang about a bit and attempt to become functional communicators. However, once the decision to ban them has been made I think following the ban with a overt condemnation notice about the troll provides a great an open thread that allows people to vent about how obnoxious the troll was to them (without the troll being able to respond — which I think is a just punishment).

    I agree with the comment above about Pharyngula’s “survivor.” It was very fun to follow. I was particularly amused by the way “Kwok” was handled (not quite voted ‘off the island’ by people, but banned anyway by PZ and then further ridiculed in a couple of follow up posts after the ban took effect). I think this method of post-condemnation of a banned troll can be very cathartic for your blog community.

  17. The only way to respond to a troll is to ignore them. By giving them any attention of any kind, you’re giving them exactly what they want and encouraging further troll-like behavior.

    My problem is that I sometimes have difficulty telling the difference between a troll and someone who just has a “crazy” opinion. I get stuck arguing with jerks who are just trying to get a rise out of me.

    I’ve never heard of a bozo flag before, but I think @ekimbrough is really onto something. That seems like a superb way to attention starve a troll.

    I nominate that for COTW betcause it’s a fantastic idea that everyone should start using.

  18. Prevention prevention prevention. However…@ekimbrough: Niiice.

    @Dago Red: I thought of that too, but the blog operators/commenters are not the troll’s parents and don’t have the responsibility of “training” them to be normal human beings. But on the whole, it is a good idea to give people the benefit of the doubt.

    @phlebas: It is awfully tempting and sometimes too hard to resist when in need of chronic boredom-relief or if they say something especially flat out wrong that cries “fix me!” But if banning jerks makes a blog friendly again, I’m all for it.

  19. I’m in favor of free speech all of the time. I’m sure most of us have posted comments in a creationists blog trying to get across some actual science. I’m sure they consider us trolls as well, despite however polite we may be. Sometimes saying someone is wrong can be interpreted as rudeness and we might find ourselves banned for being a troll. We all have different definitions of what a troll is exactly. I say let them make an ass of themselves.

  20. I, personally think people get a little too sensitive on the net sometimes. I think that some posters are naturally more mature and professional than others. In fact, I think there is a wide spectrum of commenter blog posting professionality. However, I feel that these folks generally have an opinion that may be more or less vaild and should be judged as such. Just because someone doesn’t treat you like a deity in their response doesn’t mean you should necessarily write them off on that point alone. I think if they have something valid to say, they will be addressed as such. If they are not advancing the conversation in any way at all, then why would people even take time out of their busy lives to read their post? I think the best way to deal with them is to just ignore them and they will likely get bored and go try to get noticed somewhere else. I can see where the whole “my kids read this blog” argument could come in, but the website is supposed to have filters for such occasions. And if posts are really flagrant, they just get deleted. I say, if these people are jerks, just ignore them and they’ll go away. But if they are jerks who may have a good point, hear it out and snark back. Since when are we skeptics victims? I am skeptic, hoar me rarrr

  21. @hotphysicsboy: I’m so torn. On the one hand I’m “free speech!” On the other hand I sort of don’t like coming here lately — largely, I think, due to the trouble stirred up by alleged trolls. Ignoring is probably the best, least hypocritical thing blog frequenters can do, but people have to have willpower and resist the temptation.

  22. As I understand it, a troll is someone who’s trying to get a reaction, ruin the conversation, or otherwise cause disruption for their own entertainment. So, just being an asshole doesn’t make you a troll, but being a troll makes you an asshole. If someone’s here just to cause trouble and bother others, ban without warning or pity. If someone’s just an ass, but is actually making an attempt to participate, even if poorly, then they get warnings, and a short leash. If they pull too hard against the leash, hang them with it. Feel them out, get a sense of their intentions, and if you can’t tell the difference, get rid of them.

  23. @ekimbrough: That is too cool. COTW.

    This blog is very patient and the people on it bend over backwards to engage in constructive dialog with anyone. Look how long it was before Ture Spektick was banished. I didn’t even know what a troll was until he showed up claimed to be the smartest guy on the planet with advanced degrees in all reality and took a giant shit in the cherrios.

  24. @Kimbo Jones: My suggestion was not one aimed at disciplining the trolls, as you suggest. Rather, it was intended as a tool for an admin to smooth over the potential damage trolls create on their blogs by frustrating and scaring off their commenters. As you stated yourself, you don’t like coming here because of “trouble stirred up alleged trolls.” I agree with that sentiment — I often feel that way about Pharyngula. But, If you had an opportunity to voice your objections to particular commenters openly, and see how others felt too (and all with minimal interference from the troll itself) may you not feel more connected to this blog in some way? I don’t know…it’s just an idea. This kind of democracy toward banning, too, seems to me to be inherently fairer to those banned as well as helping a blog community deal effectively with trolls, and helps an admin with the tough decision.

    @Kimbo Jones: I think your point here is exactly on target. I think ignoring trolls is a great personal strategy, but not such a good policy for a blog admin (because it relies on a whole group having the same level of discipline). I have never seen a case where a troll is successfully ignored by a whole commenter group — there seems to be always one commenter who is unwittingly hooked, unaware the person who they are responding to is a troll. Its the nature of everyone coming and going, new and seasoned, old and young all talking together.

  25. I am a person with rather odd opinions and poor communication skills. I find it frustrating to understand a point I’m trying to convey, but lacking the ability to do so effectively. Sometimes I feel like I am a troll because of my own ineptitude and inability to understand the bigger picture. I am very appreciative of those who take the time to set me straight.

    That said, I think that chronic trolls should be banned; I don’t want to hang out with people who don’t want to hang out with me, but you have to tell me. In a perfect world, there would be some sort of “internet communications 101”-type class trolls could take to “rehabilitate” themselves to get unbanned.

  26. Unfortunatly, not all trolls don’t come with neon signs, which can make over entheuastic use of a ban hammer or bozo-ificaiton turn the blog into an echo chamber.

    While ‘Caps Lock Troll’, ‘Bot-troll’, ‘Abuse Troll’, etc are obvious, a ‘concern troll’ could actually be someone who thinks the contents of a given blog post could be bad for “the cause”, or they could be a genuine troll. A ‘Manners Troll’ could be either a troll or someone who objects to excessive profanity. A ‘Gibberish Troll’ often is revealed to someone who doesn’t have English as a first language and doesn’t realise how atrocious they type.

    And what if one of the admin/webmaster posts something which resembles grade ‘A’ troll bait but is a serious post (Skepchick has had two of these IMHO)? I just ignored it, but if I had replied, would I have been a troll or just someone who was pissed off enough to reply?

    One has to be careful in distinguishing between a troll and someone who is disagreeing with you. It may be ‘their house’, but if all they want are “yes-men” then it rather defeats the point.

  27. @Dago Red: Gotcha. Well, I’m not sure if it’s the atmosphere created by the trolls or perhaps the atmosphere created by asking opinion questions rather than fact-based ones on the AIs — people tend to be much more defensive of their “opinions” than positions held on facts. Although, maybe it’s just me and my perception has changed rather than the atmosphere itself. In any case, the air has seemed rather defensive here lately and on occasion “in crowd” folk have successfully bullied away other commenters. To anything that can help that, part of me is saying “yay!” but at the same time I cringe at stifling dissent. I think Lyc hit the nail on the head about the dangers of banning.

  28. @Kimbo Jones:
    It is awfully tempting and sometimes too hard to resist when in need of chronic boredom-relief or if they say something especially flat out wrong that cries “fix me!”

    Yes, often this is just a troll trying to bait you, but on the other hand, if something is so wrong it has you posting on a completely different blog to set the record straight, the last thing you can do is just leave it sitting there unanswered as if it’s the truth and you have no response for it.

    You could delete it, but I always feel that even if the troll doesn’t genuinly believe the crap he writes, there are other people out on the web who do, and perhaps they could use a dose of the response.

    I remember one creationist commenter about a year ago who kept rehashing the same old crap after a certain time, but replying to it again in different words also helped me in clearing up my own thoughts on the subject. And what’s more, nothing says “you’re dead wrong” quite like being able to refute the exact same argument in three or four completely different ways. Sort of an “independent sources concurring” kind of thing.

  29. I may be able to bring some light onto this, as I myself have been a troll in my younger days, when the internet was a untamed wilderness. As a troll, the idea is to get amusement in getting reactions from others as a result of something you have said. The amusement comes out of seeing how sensitive and seriously some people take things on the internet, when I myself would have no attachment to whether an argument is right or wrong. Its like giving a small animal a little electric shock and seeing it run around squeeling at the “supposed” predator, whilst sitting back with a smug smile on your face. I should probabaly add, that I was younger, and less mature, and really don’t have time for that sort of thing at all these days.

    The key is to target areas where people have a high level of emotional attachment. I would comment on Led Zeppelin videos and talk about how they suck and that Hip Hop is better. You can accuse people of being racist, when they are not being racist. You purposefully misinterpret what people say. Throw all the basic logical fallacies in there. Its atually a good way to learn them all…by using them yourself, and knowing them intimately.

    Basically, in order to stop a troll the key is to stop caring so much. Don’t be overly sensitive to “being right”, because its not whether you are right or not that matters, its the amusement that comes form the reaction itself. The more emotional the better. Its basically the twin virtues of ignoring them, and making sure you don’t care what they say…because they don’t care what you think.

    Its like the way Freddy Kruger gets more powerful the more people fear him. The more you react to a troll, the better for them. That is if it is a legitmate troll, and not just a deluded idiot.

  30. @ekimbrough: I love it! Once again, intelligence triumphs!

    @bug_girl, kimbo_jones: I agree. Please don’t go. Paging Rebecca!

    Well, they claim that Christianity repels trolls. That makes a certain kind of sense, considering this is an skeptic/agnostic/atheist board. Not much here to discourage their presence other than banning, etc. Perhaps ekimbrough’s idea would be helpful here? I also think Kimbo is onto something important when she comments about opinion vs. fact based AI’s.

    Would a gravel crusher take care of a troll? A sledgehammer?

  31. It’s just such a fuzzy line. I am not sure even if mynym is a troll or just infuriatingly douchebaggerific. Initially I am pretty quick to label someone as a troll, but then I try to give them the benefit of the doubt (I am a concern troll at heart). And if it fosters more conversation, I actually enjoy it. Nothing is as entertaining as having some of the very well versed people on this and other sites (Pharyngula is an excellent example) lay a good intellectual smack-down. I learn a great deal more in those instances.

    Ironically, I was just thinking how rather boring this blog had become without some random trolls – then cloudsoup and mynym popped up. Not that they are trolls, but they certainly fostered some discussion, and that (to me) is what this whole thing is all about.

  32. Fat_Anarchy​: a response to a troll may be interpreted by them as the responder’s need to be right, but it may be that the response is for the sake of providing correct information to others who are following along in order to avoid what someone (sorry, I’m on my phone and its to hard to look back and forth) said above about giving the impression that the information is irrefutable. But is responding to the troll effective even in that purpose?

  33. Being a fellow “free speecher” and someone that values process, I prefer to determine on a case-by-case basis which posts to ignore and which to read.

    I am anti-labelism – just tagging some person or idea with a label (troll, cult, etc.) without having a good definition in mind seems to be anti-critical thinking. For example, there are many different ideas of identifying a troll – I suspect no size fits all.

    Ultimately a banning decision should be a collective one by the community, enforcing the community values. One way to do this is to have commenters with enough seniority or other community credibility, to tag suspected troll postings and when #_Tags exceeds a threshold, various disciplinary measures may be implemented.

    The discipline, the threshold, etc. are those that are appropriatte for the specific community. I would recommend that the tags be discernable by everyone (and preferably a note provided by the taggers as to what they found objectionable). Perhaps tag-enabled commenters could also have negative tags to balance out tags they do not support.

    In this way, newcomers to a blog who have a genuine interest in contributing can learn-by-lurking and understand the real policies of the blog. Those who want to reform may learn or ask questions, and those who the community does not want will be gone.

    Not because of a moderator, but because the community itself has rejected that poster.

    I have never seen this implemented anywhere, but pieces have been.

    (All Rights Reserved)

    ;)

    Y_S_G

  34. @russellsugden:

    I know this is late, but I was going crazy waiting for the answer, so I looked. Just google “rystefn” and you will see what a total douche he was/what he did. I don’t know if he was banned from here, but my guess is that he won’t show his face due to his complete fucktarded asshattery.

  35. Even before his sadistic stunt, I had the feeling that Rystefn was not interested in legitimate discourse. I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt because I am not a very good communicator but it became evident to me that he did not want true discourse. In some ways he reminded me of a type of guy that I first encountered back in high school that tried to pretend they were intellectual and rebellious. Those guys would say anything to girls to impress them but behind their back in the locker room you would hear them saying all kinds of vile crap about the girls . This type of person had no true compassion or empathy for other people and only cared about themselves. I could never understand why the girls could not see through them. Why people feel the desire to aggravate, annoy, or upset others for some perverse pleasure is beyond my comprehension.
    Anyway I think trolls should be banned if the moderator determines that is the persons only intent for posting.

  36. And just flat out brilliant. @Steve: That is possibly the most elegant solution I have ever heard to this problem.

    @ekimbrough: Brilliant.

    @hotphysicsboy: Meow?

    @Kimbo Jones: I’m with bug_girl on this one. If things are starting to move in a direction that is driving off respected, responsible members, then there is a need for some attention.

    @slxpluvs: I can’t speak for anyone else, but you don’t look like a troll in this thread. :)

    @exarch: This is exactly why I engage trolls sometime. Their sheer, persistent, unyielding, scatter-shot, logically fallacious approach to ‘making a point’ forces me to really be clear in what I’m trying to communicate. The number of times I’ve walked away from a dealing with a Troll with my thoughts much clearer than when I went in.. Well, I don’t think I have ever failed to benefit from it.

    The risk, though, is that good for me or not, I don’t want my engagements with them, (Trolls), to contribute to a hijacking or derailing of the thread.

    @QuestionAuthority: “…That makes a certain kind of sense, considering this is an skeptic/agnostic/atheist board.”

    Sorry, need to provide a possible correction for you. I would have expected that to read, “This is a skeptics board.”

    I wasn’t aware of any other requisites for… ‘membership’.

  37. I forgot to tell my own “troll” story. I’ve only had 2 and they were possibly the same person.

    My “troll” was a moon hoax truther. He simply got bored of being a dick after a while and I left his comments as an example of how not to have a discussion.

    The other one was someone posting the word “viola” under pseudonyms (myself and the author of a different blog). I simply deleted the impostor posts with a comment noting the deletion so that the poster knew that his being annoying would simply be deleted and ignored on all future attempts. Since they were posing as other people, I felt it wouldn’t be right to leave the posts there and not address the “fraud”.

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