Don’t feed the trolls

Now that we’re all “getting social” we should talk about one of the legendary creatures of the Internet:

Trolls – “their agenda is to take delight in causing trouble”

Trolls are attracted to an audience. If you have an audience, you will attract trolls…

William & Mary’s social communities are most exceptional and courteous. For this reason, we can be caught off guard when one of our (seemingly innocuous) posts becomes the target of trolling.

Community vs. trolls

First, let’s be clear: a legitimate member of your community is not a troll. A person is not a troll because he or she leaves a negative comment or disagrees with a post. In an academic environment, we should be open to (and expect) disenting opinions and constructive criticism. Likewise, a comment presenting false or misleading information is not necessarily from a troll. These comments offer us the opportunity to learn from our community, improve our communication, correct misconceptions and lay some rumors to rest. A community desires transparency, and responds positively to clear communications “from the horse’s mouth”.

Set a high standard for your community

Take a peek at the About page on the William & Mary Facebook site and you’ll see a link to our  “Social Media Comment Policy“. You are welcome to copy, or simply link to, this policy on your own social media About pages. A clear standard with consistent enforcement raises the bar and reduces the community’s feeling of arbitrary governance.

What distinguishes a troll?

Recall what attracts a troll. A troll doesn’t want transparency, truth or improved communication. A troll comes for an audience—your community! As often as not, the telltale sign that you are addressing a troll is a pugnacious tone (picking a fight). The troll wants you defensive, reactionary and argumentative to continue the “conversation” (and keep the audience) as long as possible.

How should you deal with a troll?

Remember that the troll is not your community, but sees your community as an audience. Never react to a troll. Instead, communicate with your community.  Here are some specific suggestions:

  • Ignore the troll, particularly if a comment is outlandish and not likely to confuse your audience.
  • Do not respond immediately. Your community may respond for you (it’s often self-correcting). If not, at least you’ve taken a moment to calm down and remember to respond for the benefit of your community, not the troll.
  • Only respond once. If you cannot directly answer or correct a comment, get a response “from the horse’s mouth” in order for one response to be authoritative. (Better yet, have the office or department in question respond directly to your community.)

Let go of it!

In most social media outlets, a post will drop further and further down your page/timeline if you leave it alone. Yes, it’s still there and that might annoy you. But your community has moved on. You should, too.

What if a troll won’t let go?

It’s not about the troll—it’s about your community! Is there a specific (new) question, the answer to which would benefit the community? If so, respond as suggested above. If not and the troll persists in annoying your community (or resurfacing old posts), here are some further options:

  • Consistently enforce your community standards by removing comments—but only if there is a clear violation! Be prepared for a cry of “censorship”. Clear standards and consistent enforcement work to your advantage.
  • Persistent trolls within a community may necessitate limiting which users can comment. Many social media outlets provide a means to moderate comments. Others can restrict comments based on group membership or similar device.
  • If a single post continues to attract trolls long after the community has moved to other things, it may be possible to disable further comments for that single post. For instance, WordPress allows commenting to be closed on a per-article basis. In Facebook you could “hide” an old post from your timeline without deleting it. Options such as this aren’t always available on every platform 🙁

That’s it. Let’s roll.

Hey. Let’s be careful out there.


~ Andrew Bauserman




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