Community moderation: when trolls cannot be ignored

Every so often there’s some sort of awful bullying campaign online that makes me wince at the honking great downside to all this instant, often anonymous communication. I could no longer get by happily without the Internet: it’s the hub of my friendships, the focus of my livelihood, a massive convenience that I mostly love. But there is this horrible pit of nastiness that rears its head every so often, and gets me thinking about how we should deal with it.

It’s often said ‘don’t feed the trolls’. And as a community manager, I do believe in that. But there’s a context to it, and a limit.

A troll is generally someone who invades another’s space in order to post inflammatory comments. I’ve had it once or twice on dog-related fora, where someone’s come along to say something indisputably outrageous like ‘all dogs should be put down’ and is promptly dealt with. Communities are getting pretty smart and most people will just ignore them and report them to the moderators, who can remove or shut down the posts as necessary; I think this is one of the few areas where no-one really argues with deletion, as it’s not shutting down a debate, it’s getting rid of something which is there just to upset and annoy. But what about those cases where Facebook groups are set up to bully some poor kid, or someone creates a thread on their own website ripping someone they disagree with to shreds? What about when it goes beyond a few needles in the haystack and becomes a big, scary juggernaut of threats, insults and intimidation? Should you just brush it off as a hazard of the Internet, maybe report it to the mods / hosts / site owners and keep quiet in case the bullies realise they’re getting to you? But that provides the bullies an outlet without also giving the victim a voice. It doesn’t seem fair.

Because the thing about ‘don’t feed the trolls’ that gets my goat is that it demands that you take responsibility for someone else’s poor behaviour. If you respond to someone else’s inflammatory drivel, it  somehow becomes your fault for encouraging them, even though the decision to behave appallingly was theirs in the first place. There are times when it is just easier – perhaps even sensible – to say ‘fine, I’ll ignore them, block them, and they’ll go away and everyone will forget about it’. In the case of the one-off troll who comes in to stir up trouble, it’s the most straightforward moderation route and I would encourage members of a community I was moderating not to engage and to report it immediately so it doesn’t escalate and the troll doesn’t get the oxygen of attention. And it also works away from group discussion spaces; if I was, for example, to get unpleasant comments on this because of the nature of it, I would probably not publish them, because this is my space and I’m under no obligation to give them air time.  But to end up feeling like complaining about a dreadful act of bullying then makes further bullying your own fault is simply unspeakable.

I feel there does come a point where so-called trolling needs to be spoken out against, condemned and perhaps even reported to the police. Too often I see people writing posts about how they’ve felt victimised with comments going ‘but it’s not personal to you’, ‘they’re just social inadequates’ and ‘you know by writing this you’re giving them what they want’. And all that might be true, but surely it feels deeply personal to the subject. When someone is being bullied away from the online spaces, we don’t accept the old advice to ignore it anymore; we say tell the teacher, tell your parents, tell, tell, tell. Say it out loud, and they lose their power. Why so different online? What about when it’s adults involved? Just because we’re over eighteen, do we have the capacity to switch off feelings when real nastiness is focussed right at us?

Not feeding the trolls is just another way of saying ‘suck it up’. Sometimes you have to because it’s the best way to remain professional and just make the damn thing go away. But no-one should have to just suck up systematic abuse. Sometimes we need to speak up, and I’m admiring of anyone who has the guts to do that.

If you’re a young person reading this and need impartial advice on dealing with bullying, know that there are organisations out there that can help you. Like this one.