Trolls in your comments section and how to fight them

An old fashioned troll, preferring to hide under bridges rather than causing trouble online. Photo: Holly Victoria Norval, hollystar47/flickr.com/CC BY 2.0

According to Scandinavian folk stories of my childhood, the surefire way to rid yourself of a troll problem is to lure them into sunlight where they turn into stone. The heroes in these stories tend to come up with ingenious and often quite gruesome solutions to trick the trolls into going out during daytime, or incapacitating them so they can’t run away when dawn inevitably comes to finish them off.

Dealing with Internet trolls requires no less skill or cunning than in the folk tales, but sunlight alone isn’t going to cut it. So come friends, gather round this blogpost to hear a captivating tale of modern day troll slaying.

Who are the trolls?

The term has become muddied; it’s not unusual to hear the term “troll” used about any kind of unsavoury characters online, and more often if the person is saying something particularly hateful or terrible. Words change meaning fast, especially online, but being say, a racist, homophobe or just a bit of a horrible person does not make you a troll by definition. It just makes you a racist, homophobe and/or a bit of a horrible person.

A “true” troll is someone looking to elicit an emotional response by disrupting normal conversation. Rarely is there any point to this beyond it being very amusing for the troll themselves. Online trolls rarely hunt in packs the way politically or ideologically motivated groups, for instance the #gamgergate campaign or the alt-right, do when they target people to harrass. Depending on their own level of nastiness the trolls can still cause a lot of harm.

The following conversation is a personal favourite to use as an example of mild trolling:

Source: https://twitter.com/pknocker40/status/489467177956048896
Source: https://twitter.com/pknocker40/status/489467177956048896

Click here to read the exchange on Twitter.

Twitteruser pknocker40 sets out to get a reaction from author and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. They succeed and probably get a kick out of being noticed by a famous person. Richard Dawkins is most likely annoyed for a bit, blocks them again and then moves on with his life. Trolling complete.

This interaction is harmless and, depending on your sense of humour, funny. It’s when the line is crossed from silly and mildly annoying to intentionally false and harmful though, that trolls of both textbook and looser definition becomes an enormous problem for your news organization’s social media platforms.

Where are the trolls?

Trolls love unguarded spaces. The key to building a constructive comments section on any social platform is to be present. Not as a debater, but as a journalist and moderator. Active presence by a skilled social media journalist will prevent discussion from derailing into personal attacks, lies and bigoted statements, while also assuring that the comments section stays valuable to the audience as well as providing you and your news organization with new ideas and perspectives. Social media platforms are a goldmine for great journalism and stories that have an immediate impact on the audiences’ lives. For that to happen it’s important that a news organization invests time and care on their platforms.

Swedish Radio journalist Cecilia Djurberg (whose podcasts and articles can be found at Medieormen, for those of you who understand Swedish), has likened comments sections on social media to a youth centre. Without a mindful adult the unsupervised children will run amok. This accurately describes the sort of chaos trolls will thrive in, if you let it develop on your own platforms. Using your knowledge as a journalist and power as administrator on your social platforms, however, will create a culture of respect. The time and effort you put into making the comments section a good place to be will be rewarded with a healthy and intelligent social media community. No troll likes to hang out in those.

How does trolling work?

Except for a couple of trolls turned into stone after this blogpost, maybe, there’s nothing new under the sun. The rhetorical tools of the troll have been around for longer than the Internet itself. The prominence of social media in modern life has made it all the more important to be aware of these rhetorical tricks, and of the common logical fallacies that tend to derail an online debate.

Here are three common occurrences that destroy a comments section, and how to counteract them:

Godwin’s law

Let’s start with an Internet classic, coined by attorney and author Mike Godwin in the 90’s. It goes as follows:

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

Godwin’s law is a good example of how any discussion, no matter how objective or dry from the outset, runs the risk of derailment. This is not a troll-specific problem, but can (and if the “law” is to be believed, unavoidably will) occur on all social forums on the Internet.

The key to preventing it is the same as described above: through an active presence where the journalist uses their knowledge of the subject and skills as moderator to ask the questions needed to get back to the topic at hand.

Straw men

A straw man is an ugly method of debate, where you create an imaginary projection of your opponent’s views and attack those, rather than engage with what your opponent is actually saying. A very common rhetoric in online spaces where people of different demographies, interests, views and experiences intermingle.

Knowing which words mean what in the jargon and context of the discussion is the key and purpose of communication. If the context of the discussion is unclear you run the risk of misunderstanding (deliberately or not) your opponent’s argument based on your dissimilar views of the connotations of a topic or a word. An example of discussions where these misunderstandings lead to straw man arguments is for instance the word “race”; a debater writing about issues connected to race, referring to the social and anthropological concept, might receive criticism from someone interpreting the word in a strictly biological sense.

Misunderstandings like this happen all the time, but a troll will deliberately look for opportunities like it to use straw man arguments to disrupt the discussion.

Photo: Nathalie Maynor/flickr.com/CC BY 2.0

So how do you defeat a straw man as a journalist? Assuming you read your comments section daily you probably already know what sort of straw men arguments you’re going to run into during a typical day. The key to combatting them are to make sure to moderate according to your page’s comment section rules. Great moderating is achieved by the journalist having a spirit of fairness, transparency, consistency and curiosity. Providing the audience with the actual facts will shine a bright light on straw man arguments, and asking your audience to debate in an objective manner you will discourage trolls to get involved on your platforms. It’s also a sign of respect and appreciation towards the people in your audience who are looking for a constructive debate.

Ad hominem

Ad hominem attacks are perhaps the most common problem of the comments section, but also the one that’s easiest to handle with a good set of comments rules. By showing your presence in the comments section this benefits you in two different ways: the straightforward one, getting rid of the offensive comments, and the demonstrative one where your actions as a journalistic moderator show your audience that you care about them having a good experience interaction with you, and the others in your comments sections.

Most people who wield personal attacks as a tool in any debate are discouraged with a “Hello everybody, remember our rules!” from the editorial staff. Make sure that your audience knows you are listening.

How to make your comments section a healthy workplace

My own interest in social media dialogue stems from my past working as a comments section moderator. How best to communicate with our audience across the platforms is also an integral part of my current job as a Social Media Development Editor at Swedish Radio, which is why I’d like to end this blogpost with my team’s top three tips for managing a successful and productive comments section:

  1. A journalistic idea

What’s the purpose of posting your article on social media? Is the goal virality, a heated debate in the comments section or new journalistic ideas? Once you formulate what you want to achieve with your post the subsequent moderating will go more smoothly and easily, since you’ve got a clear idea and an obvious topic for the comments section. This will help you in step two:

2. A clear angle for comments

While your purpose doesn’t have to be obvious to your audience — no harm done if it is, it’s just generally not very interesting for them to know— the topic of discussion, the angle, should be. The easiest way to do this is by including a question in your post. For instance, “Do you have any experience with this?”, “Is it like this where you live?”, “Do you think X or Y will happen now?” are all good alternatives, but a succinctly written post and/or article will do the trick as well.

3. Editorial presence

I’ve touched upon this many times in this blogpost already, so my final notes on the topic will be short: let your audience know you read their comments and respect them. Ask follow-up questions, refute lies and fallacies, and delete comments that don’t comply with your platform’s rules for comments. Be honest, transparent and curious, and remember to thank your audience for their time and effort when providing you with new ideas and opinions.

If you’d like to read more about the strategies we apply to our social media platforms at Swedish Radio, you can find the first edition (2013) of our social media handbook translated into English here.

The idea for this post came in part from a Twitter interaction I had during News Xchange, regarding the keynote speaker Nigel Farage:
Source: https://twitter.com/EVagnen/status/803899238849642496

Click here to read the exchange on Twitter.

This Twitter user, whom I don’t know and haven’t spoken to since, made me think of the way journalists view online debates. I’m of the opinion that at least part of the blame for the poor discussion climate on social media is due to the fact that news organizations don’t put enough effort in being part of the conversation their comments sections: missing the “social” part of social media. In doing so we’re complicit in creating spaces where harmful discourse, lies and misinformation can thrive (the trolls love an unguarded space, remember?).
Part of my job as a Social Media Development Editor at Swedish Radio is to help my colleagues be more present in the discussions on their Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages. It isn’t unusual for me to help answer comments that contain variations on “if you’re not upset after reading this comment I’ve failed” directed at either our journalists or our programmes in general. I’ve found that there is an anxiety connected to engaging in online debates and discussions that for some reason makes statements hard to deal with when they show up in your comments section. As in, harder than when they’re said by a prominent political figure. It’s fascinating how simple rhetoric can become more difficult to handle when it’s written in a Facebook comment by someone with an egg for an avatar. That’s what inspired me to write this blog post.
I was lucky to get invited to News Xchange 30 November — 1 December 2016 as part of the excellent SkillsXchange programme; and also got to participate in a very interesting panel on how to manage millennials in the newsroom, which you can watch a snippet of on the News Xchange Facebook Page:
I’d like to give a very warm thank you to Madiana Asseraf, Jean Philip De Tender and Peter Vickers for inviting me, and for their support as mentors during my Skillsxchange experience. With their help I hope to be able to use my knowledge to live up to the theme and goal of News Xchange 2016: to redefine journalism and make sure journalists know how to use social media in a way that allows us stay in touch with our audiences.