The usual advice is “don’t feed the trolls” – but it is wrong

A comment moderation screen - how should you deal with the trolls who come up on this screen?

“Don’t feed the trolls”

Warnings such as “do not feed the trolls” are is probably the longest lived and most widely quoted piece of advice when it comes to online discussions. It is advice that is presented as sure and true. And after all, given how long-standing and popular the advice is, isn’t that a sign of its quality?

Well, that it was I used to think. Now I not only doubt it, but I think it is often the exact opposite of what you should do.

My doubts started with an over-the-top personal insult posted in a comment thread I was moderating. However, this was not an anonymous comment or even one from a stranger. It was a comment from someone I had known for years and had never had reason to object to his behaviour either online or offline before. So rather than just hitting delete and move on, I still hit delete but dropped them an email and sure enough – subsequent comments from them were fine, making a welcome contribution to discussions.

It got me thinking: how many other comments had I moderated from people I do not know where perhaps – as in this case – a little bit of interaction might either show the trolling to have been a one-off aberration, or even if it had been more than that sill steer them in the right direction?

Experimenting with feeding the trolls

So since then I have experimented – sometimes with public replies, sometimes with private replies and yes, still sometimes hitting delete and moving on – because when it comes to a choice of what to spend my time on, being nice to trolls does not have a permanent place at the top of the list.

The responses are fascinating. Sometimes they are abusive. Sometimes they are eccentric. Sometimes they are so eccentric you have to laugh, as with the person who sent me an extremely long email arguing that calling someone “odious scum” was not abuse but factually accurate. And sometimes they are plain baffling, as with the person who called someone else “vile” and then spent ages telling others that they have never posted a word of personal insult.

Often however there is silence, yet when the person next comments they are no longer trolling. Often too there is a response, saying with varying degrees of tetchiness or thanks, “ok, I won’t do that again”. Subsequent actions do not always live up to those words, but overall I would say that more times than not responding, rather than ignoring, produces a beneficial result.

Plus, just occasionally, someone does have a fair point to raise in response because, after all, no moderator is perfect. And you do get the occasional thanks from someone who on reflection regrets what they wrote and is glad it is not up on the site.

I don’t take the lesson quite as far as Dom Joly, who positively relishes public dust-ups with trolls:

I often take on the trolls as, in my view they are keyboard warriors, cyber-bullies who need to be confronted. I have even established a “troll of the day” ritual on my Twitter page.

But I do agree that the idea trolling equals attention seeking equals always best ignored is a train of thought that is often misapplied.

Of course, you may argue over the definition of “trolling” in that sentence. It is true that on a narrow, historical definition of “trolling” it is arguable that what I am talking about is not really trolling. However, as with the word “hacking”, “trolling” too has changed and broaden in its meaning over the years.

What many people now call hacking would in the past more accurately have been phreaking and most certainly not hacking. But that is the way of the English language. Words and their meanings evolve over time. If you want a language where definitions remain unchanged, English is not the one for you.

Moreover, having too narrow a definition of trolling not only swims helplessly against the tide of modern usage, it reduces the advice “do not feed the trolls” to simply “do not feed those who should not be fed”. Whilst true, that offers little in the way of guidance.

Feeding the trolls works – once

The lesson from all this? Do feed a troll once – and only then make up your mind. If they try to convince you there is no insult in “odious scum”, leave it at that. But you will often be pleasantly surprised.

7 responses to “The usual advice is “don’t feed the trolls” – but it is wrong”

  1. Sorry for stating the obvious, but this is mainly aimed at forum/blog owners? Not contributors.

    I rarely have this problem, as what I write must be incredibly obvious as to be totally uncontroversial "motherhood and apple pie" philosophy. Or perhaps because I'm not productive enough to get a following.

    As a commenter you rely on the list owner/forum moderator/blogger agreeing with you that the behaviour is trolling or bullying and not just part of the normal cut-and-thrust of debate. Not least because false accusations of bad behaviour can be used maliciously as a bad faith debating tool, so users engaging in good faith can muddy the waters.

    I learned the hard way that standing up to trolling (in any sense) and cyber-bullying is not easy or simple. But as you say, simply ignoring it may not be the answer either.

  2. There's all of the research around sentiment analysis showing how people aren't *that* good at working out what is hostility and what isn't – machines are thought to be as good at it – they just get different things wrong.

    I've often had initial spats with people where one or the other of us haven't detected sarcasm/irony or other misunderstandings – and ended up knowing them well enough to go for a drink and have a generally like-mind ongoing conversation.

    Chris Dillow's extremist/fanatic division is useful here. I like extremists – anyone with a different view is always good to talk to. When people state things in absolutely certain terms, it becomes unconversational.

  3. I wouldn't necessarily use Dom Joly as even an indication of how to manage trolls; his interpretation of who is a troll is somewhat broad, too often anyone who just disagrees (reasonably) with him or a celeb he knows/likes, is branded a troll, which is obviously nonsense. Indeed some of his anti-trolling is trolling itself, and why I un-followed him.

  4. Sounds like you call anyone you disagree with a troll. Forgive me if mistaken. Once upon a time, trolls really were just about provoking a reaction, and any hint of awareness or impact would fuel that. Your advice is sound for generally negative commenters, but a proper troll? Yeah, don't feed them.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment Tom.

      I've tried to cover this in the 4th paragraph from the end. You're right that 'troll' can be defined more narrowly than I've used it in much of the rest of the piece. In practice, though, the word is used more widely now – hence my parallel with hacking and its changing meaning.

      Anyway, I'm not sure that even on some of the previously widely used more narrow definitions the 'don't feed the trolls' advice is automatically true – unless the definition of 'troll' is taken so narrowly that it becomes a tautology of 'don't feed the people who shouldn't be fed'. In which case that's certainly wise advice to follow 🙂

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