ON FEEDING THE TROLLS

Today’s blog is about blogging.

If you blog on religious topics, you know that there are a couple of issues that are guaranteed to set at least some commenters off into paroxysms of rage. On a site like this, Islam and Mormonism are two prime detonators. I’m open to very wide ranging discussions on anything I write. But what do you do about comments that are so far beyond the pale that you can only see them on a clear day?

In the past few months, I have had several such waves of responses. I wrote some posts that referred to the Qur’an in what I hope were sober and scholarly terms, only to evoke responses that sounded as if I was praising the 9/11 attacks. And here’s the point. What do you do with comments that are utterly over the edge?

A specific case in point. I recently dealt with a comment that condemned me for referring to Islam as a “religion” (The horror! The horror!) rather than a fanatical cult of Satanic violence dedicated to global conquest. Do understand, the reference was not to some particular parts of Islam, or to some adherents, but the whole religion and all its supposedly mindless followers. Even worse, for this commenter, Islam was at its heart a cult devoted to ritual human sacrifice. Why did I feel the need to defend such an evil faith? Was I a dupe, or an active conspirator? Pick one.

So what do you do with something like this? How do you argue with dingbat assertions? (“Well, Dwayne, firstly, I can’t agree that there is any evidence that Muslims commit human sacrifice…” or similarly, “Um, I really don’t know of evidence that Mormons keep virgins imprisoned beneath their temples.”) Detailing objections to these rants takes a vast deal of time, and it is futile because it just provokes more and worse. Unless your available time is unlimited, at some point you have to give up, leaving the commenter with the last triumphant word.

So do you leave the comment in place and unanswered? Or what else can you do?

Put another way, what would you do if a commenter started claiming that Jews committed the ritual murder of children, or presented some of the classic hideous stereotypes of African-Americans?  You certainly can’t argue against these despicable positions point by point. So do you just leave the comments out there?

My own position is that, at some point, some comments go beyond the realm of controversy and become outright hate speech. At that point, I will simply delete them, and mark the commenter so that s/he can no longer post on the site. Call it censorship if you wish.

When I have done this in past years, commenters have protested that my actions are “cowardly”: this from people who never give their real names in posts, and hide behind the mask of anonymity. No, I am not going to debate people who believe that the Jews caused 9/11, or that Muslims are a human sacrifice cult. Nor am I going to leave their nonsense in place on any website with which I am associated.

I actually have quite a bit of experience studying internet subcultures, and spent a fair amount of time in the 1990s exploring the wilds of internet discussion boards. Even then, one of the persistent nightmares of the Internet was the troll, the commenter who repeatedly makes absurd and outrageous statements in order to disrupt an ongoing conversation. Usually, their goal is to invite and inspire angry ripostes, to generate furious exchanges. The more you respond, the more extreme and often obscene the conversation becomes. Arguably, such exchanges contribute to the malice and even instability of the rogue posters. Such behavior is only made possible because trolls operate anonymously, usually deploying multiple pseudonyms and web accounts. They would never have the nerve to publish such garbage under their own identifiable names.

The only possible and acceptable response to such provocations is simple: “Please Do Not Feed the Trolls.” Do not answer them, do not engage with them, and if their comments pass beyond the bounds of sanity, do not permit those remarks to remain in place. And those are the principles by which I propose to operate. Civility has to mean something.

One other question: just why, apart from force of habit, do we allow pseudonymous comments about blog posts? If we were setting up the system afresh today, we certainly would not initiate such a practice. Anonymous/pseudonymous postings may well be necessary in repressive societies like Iran. But in the West? Why? Many newspaper sites have already made the decision to end anonymous comments and posts.

I’d particularly be interested in hearing from my fellow bloggers about this proposition.

By the way, do feel free to comment on this post, but you must include your full real name in the body of your comment. I am done dealing with anonymity.

In my opinion, so should all Patheos sites.

 

  • Amanda B.

    When it is feasible, I am a fan of iron-fisted comment moderation. I understand some blogs are so huge that this is impossible, but it is, in my opinion, the best way to keep the conversation both active and healthy, particularly if the blog is frequently controversial. Obviously, hate speech is immediately deleted. But sometimes comments are less directly rabid, but just as unhelpful/derailing, and those entries won’t make the light of day, either. Any sort of trolling and rudeness brings the conversation down so powerfully so quickly, it seems like it’s worthwhile to err on the side of deleting a little too much. The downside, obviously, is that this creates an awful lot of work for someone along the way.

    I will say, though, that I don’t think anonymity is itself the problem. I’ve seen some truly horrid conversations on my friends’ Facebook walls, with easy access to the personal information of everyone involved.

    While it’s true that in the West, we don’t generally need to fear reprisal from governments or terrorist groups, certain kinds of trolls can be downright malicious towards people they disagree with. Even if they feel unable to cuss the person out in the comment thread, they might look them up on social media, spam their work email, find out where they live, begin rumors/slander about them, etc., etc., etc. If I myself am commenting on a controversial subject, I like to maintain a degree of anonymity. This is not so that I can refuse all consequence for my position, but so hateful bullies don’t come after me like they have certain prominent female bloggers. While I think I’m realistically too low-profile to draw much attention, I can’t shake that nagging worry about what’s possible if I draw the ire of the wrong group of people.

    In short: I think forbidding anonymity is not ultimately effective at stopping trolling, and may in fact expose innocent people to the worst forms of online harassment.

    I recently ran across a blog which forbade anonymous commenting, but allowed pseudonymous commenting. So you can use a false name, but you have to use the same one on every comment you make (which, I’m assuming, the mods verify with IP checks). What do you think of a system like that?

    - Amanda Beattie

    • philipjenkins

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments, and you are exactly right about trolls as stalkers. Let me ask though: how do you ensure that those pseudonyms remain the same? It’s very easy to set up bogus email accounts, and thus new pseudonyms.

      • Amanda B.

        I’ve never moderated a blog that received high incidents of trolling–the occasional lone goofball, sure, but never concentrated attacks.

        I do know that there are blogs with explicit policies against “sockpuppeting”, which is exactly the behavior you describe above. The mods of these blogs say they have ways to find out if that’s happening, but they do not explain how–presumably, I’m sure, because explaining any safeguards necessarily gives trolls the information they need to evade them.

        I have, though, moderated a chat room with the a similar problem. We never had trouble with people sockpuppeting (two accounts interacting with each other simultaneously), but sometimes a banned member would try to evade their ban by creating new accounts. The way we caught them was by recognizing familiar speech patterns, argument points, etc., and then checking their IP address against the person we had just banned. If the address matched, we would ban the new account, and often also ban the IP itself. If I had to guess, I would imagine that’s how these blogs handle it–but again, I don’t have the official inside knowledge to be sure.

        For that to be effective, it requires moderators to be actively involved with the discussion, so they can be alert for those red flags and cross-check the IP address. But again, that’s a lot of work, and becomes impossible if the slew of comments is simply too large to keep track of.

        Even so, it seems to me that well-behaved commenters will abide by the policy (seeing as they are well-behaved), especially if the value of fruitful, consistent, productive discussion is being trumpeted along with it. So then, the only people creating lots of accounts are troublemakers anyway, who will expose themselves through uncivil behavior in time.

        • philipjenkins

          Hmm, lots of wise words here.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

    Anonymity is a tough issue, but requiring a full name doesn’t always work. I write for the atheist channel and many of my commenters don’t want to “out” themselves out of fear of losing their jobs or family members. They contribute to the discussion, but I don’t know their real identities, and I don’t think it matters. The best solution for me has been to just delete/ban comments I perceive as obvious trolls and move on.

    • philipjenkins

      Alarming if you’re right about the consequences of such “outing”.

      It’s my observations of exchanges on newspaper sites that lead me to believe that ending anonymity does in fact make a serious difference.

      • http://outshine-the-sun.blogspot.com/ Andrew G.

        Requiring real names discriminates against people with rare names; John Smith can say what he likes anywhere, because nobody will know which of the millions of John Smiths he is (or whether any two John Smiths are the same person). My name on the other hand is probably unique in the world…

        Requiring real names discriminates against honest people; it would be trivial for me to comment pretty much anywhere as “John Smith” if I chose to…

      • Buckley

        I see your point, and I have seen the civility return to the Chicago Tribune pages because it that, however, as an atheist I cannot reveal my true identity because of my job and family needs. My atheism does not reveal it elf at work and only to my family and friends. I comment quite on Hemant Mehta’s blog and we all have to deal with the tolls (Christian and Atheist alike). Without my ability to be Buckley, I would have no outlet. Once Atheists are accepted as human beings and not discriminated against, then and only then, I will come out.

        • philipjenkins

          Yes, I’ve seen that civility effect on quite a few media outlets, which is partly what made me think about writing this piece.

  • Thomas Kidd

    Thanks for this, Philip. Not engaging with trolls is always the best idea, whatever other policies we adopt.

  • EricT

    Free Pussy Riot! {This comment will be deleted in 5 seconds…4…3…2…}

  • EricT

    Your appeal for reasonableness in the comments section would be more compelling if you didn’t *also* delete posts that directly disagreed with something you wrote. I can understand banning racist nutjobs. I can’t understand removing posts just because they are critical of your views or politics.

  • Susan_G1

    I agree that trollish comments should be deleted or ignored. I don’t think, though, that ignoring such comments reflect poorly on the blogger. If they hang there in the air, with no one engaging them, it’s both an answer and a message to other trolls.

    I used to comment with my full name, but disqus messed it up. In re-registering, I had doubts about using my full name (I couldn’t anyway) because I feared the possibility of an employer putting my opinions (pro-choice, for example) to my name (I live in a religious, decidedly pro-life environment). I’m not sure that’s realistic, but that was my concern. The relative anonymity it afforded me allowed me to engage honestly without fear of reprisal, and I found the strength finally to “come out” in real life.

  • http://michaelaltman.wordpress.com Michael J. Altman

    I completely agree with you here. A colleague and I are launching a new web magazine on religion and culture and we have chosen to turn off comments site wide. Instead we will be asking for letters to the editors and will post quality responses from our readers. Our goal is to slow down the conversation in hopes of improving the quality of the exchanges.

    • David McConeghy

      This is a great way to go. Of course, your readers have to be willing to send those emails in. That’s the only concern I have with that system. It encourages serious discussion, but at the cost of easier participation. Given the climate on many comment threads, however, it appears an easy trade to make.

      • http://outshine-the-sun.blogspot.com/ Andrew G.

        It’s a recipe for an echo chamber; people who reasonably disagree are less likely to invest the extra effort in a response, knowing that it may be wasted. (People who are less reasonable about their disagreement may, paradoxically, be more likely to jump the hoop thanks to greater emotional investment.)

  • Ralph Jones

    How about using the same level of decorum, that you expect in your classroom, as your criteria?

    • philipjenkins

      For me that’s not such a problem because most people will never say face to face what they write anonymously. When people are involved in classroom conversation, exchanges can be forceful, intense and even confrontational, but virtually always remain within reasonable limits. That’s why I come back to the subject of anonymity.

  • philipjenkins

    An update. While looking for another article from WIRED, I came across a recent piece entitled “Comment Sections Are Wastelands Ruled by Trolls. Here Are Alternatives,” at
    http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2013/08/gl_honan-conversation/

    It begins, “A decade or more ago, Internet publishers entered into what now seems like a collective delusion: That a comments section is a necessary component of a web page. Granted, that notion is a relic of an era predating social media, when there was no effective way to talk publicly about what we read online. But it persists with zombie determination. We’ve bought into the fallacy of comments so completely that they remain nearly universal—and universally terrible.”

  • http://Www.theirishatheist.wordpress.com/ The Irish Atheist

    Good article, but your last demand is not one I will acquiesce to. As the Friendly Atheist pointed out below, many atheists such as myself feel it necessary to write under a pseudonym because the discovery of our atheism would lead to serious consequences with our family, friends, and even workplace.

    There are certain people whom I am not ready to let know I’m an atheist. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to participate in the conversation. If that gets this comment deleted, so be it, but at least it will be seen.

    • philipjenkins

      I ask this out of curiosity, if you might be prepared to share the information: are you based in the US or does the “Irish Atheist” indicate your present location? I am wondering which of the two countries might be likely to produce such grim consequences.

      • http://Www.theirishatheist.wordpress.com/ The Irish Atheist

        I am currently based out of Chicago in the US. However, I was born and raised in Ireland, and the majority of my family is still there.

        I blog about my experiences as an atheist in both nations in my own blog (shameless plug).

        http://theirishatheist.wordpress.com/

  • http://www.guardiancommunications.com/ Mark McNeil

    I think you should explore why folks are willing to post outrageously when they should be aware their IP address is always captured with their comment. Our government (NSA) and God certainly knows where to find you.

  • Steven Odom

    Well, you’re exactly right. I don’t see there’s any need for further argument. Anonymity is for whistleblowers and the witness protection program. Run your blog the way you see fit.

  • $16977560

    Some while back, I chose to eschew the use of pseudonyms. I figured that if my comments were worth making, they were worth attaching my real name to them. The only problem I’ve had is with one person who “followed” my disqus account in order to post an egregious remark (amusingly about my “cowardice”) in a forum completely unrelated to the original challenge (to his screed). When I informed him (presuming it was a “he”, but then, I don’t think a “she” would have said those things… others, perhaps) that a complaint would be filed if he pursued his attack, he disappeared. In general, when Light appears, the Darkness — and things which thrive in the dark — flee.

    • philipjenkins

      Yes, the “cowardice” rants are especially rich

  • Charles Cruikshank

    Well said, keep the fight against anonymous stupidity, Trolls, gotta love ‘em but don’t have to listen too intently.

  • Batilshikan

    About time some one touched this topic.

  • Acton Rand Shaffer

    Name Is Richard Brown. It is not just the quality but quality. I gave commenting at fox news before they stopped taking comments. I tried to leave one sensible comment just to see my comment burred by 500 of topic and troll post in a hour. AS for my humble blog I just moderate each comment.

  • lakewood

    I am puzzled. I am a pastor. My son is an atheist. I don’t see where this has ever caused him any real grief with friends or at his workplace at all. I suppose there may be places where atheism is persecuted, but it is news to me. And a bit hard to imagine in our evermore pluralistic society.


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