The Troll-Whisperer

by Kieran Healy on May 15, 2007

Cory Doctorow coins a phrase about Teresa Nielsen Hayden.



bi 05.15.07 at 8:44 pm

Then again, I think ultimately the really powerful troll detection techniques will have to remain secret, lest the would-be trolls of the world learn about them and devise techniques to subvert them…

Also, I don’t know about trolls vs. non-trolls, but I think in the process of getting feedback on my Pax Neo-TeX site, I’ve developed some sort of ear for telling apart genuine debaters from company shills claiming to be such. Of course, in the light of what I said above, I’m presently not going to divulge any of my secret techniques for doing so. :)


nick s 05.15.07 at 9:39 pm

Teresa’s deceptively-titled Virtual panel participation should be a must-read for anyone running a forum or blog-with-comments.

Rule 10, I think, is critical: a carefully-moderated forum can survive with one troll, but not with two competing to one-up themselves.

And all the talk about the supposed demerits of pseudonymity from big media types neglects another touchstone: “Maintaining a conversation is a task for human beings.”


Michael B Sullivan 05.15.07 at 9:41 pm

I feel that Doctorow ignores the most common scenario that I’ve seen: attempts to ward off trolls do not cause a community to cease discussion, but lower the tone of that discussion into inanity. Ever-strengthening moderation standards make regulars who value their reputation and their accounts shy away from contentious (read: interesting) topics while true trolls either game the system or just burn out and move on, or create a series of new accounts to persist in their trolling.

I sometimes feel like the greatest danger to an internet community is not trolls, but trollbait: sincere, non-trollish users who are thin-skinned and who demand that Something Be Done, which gratifies the troll and also tends to be to the detriment of non-trollish users.

On the other hand, I have never seen something degenerate into the kind of situation where those vile attacks on Ms. Sierra were made. Perhaps I’m only seeing half the story.


Randolph Fritz 05.15.07 at 11:27 pm

Mr. Sullivan, you haven’t been involved in a public discussion of feminism on the ‘net, or you would know that the trolls and worse can be a problem in and of themselves.


Michael B Sullivan 05.16.07 at 12:07 am

I’m certainly not suggesting that trolls can’t be a problem in and of themselves. Rather, I am saying that in my experience, the cure is often worse than the disease.

I acknowledge that this may be inaccurate in some cases, and particularly in the case of topics that draw particularly passionate and dogmatic people on one or both sides, such as feminism, religion, etc.


roy belmont 05.16.07 at 12:14 am

Walt and Mearsheimer would have gotten “disemvowelled” if the real world was the internet.
If the same “we’re normal ’cause we’re articulate and our values are shared by a sizable demographic that submits to our breezy authority” dynamic was running. In the real world.
Which it kind of is and they kind of did.
Viewed through a lens of bourgeois complacency “trolls” are like the homeless of the internet – obnoxious angry time-wasting assholes most of them toxified into filthy indecipherability but mingled in there some veterans and victims whose causes and circumstances are worth more than knee-jerk smug disdain.


aa 05.16.07 at 1:13 am

“human-geek synergy”

Wasn’t that outlawed recently?


bob mcmanus 05.16.07 at 1:21 am

I can relate to 6. But I am not sure if my rage at bourgeois complacency is partially justified or a horrible character flaw, perhaps even a mortal sin. So asked to leave, I leave. And I crash less of the wine-and-cheese parties than I used to.


Dan Simon 05.16.07 at 3:19 am

To put it simply, “online communities” get the trolls they deserve. Where people congregate for thoughtful, civil discussion, rude provocateurs rarely show up, and are calmly and politely ignored when they do. Where people congregate to one-up each other, demonstrate their cleverness or erudition or taste, disparage or ridicule some group of outsiders, prove their fealty to some cause, or engage in other generally aggressive interaction…they get trolls.

In the case of blogs, the tone is inevitably set at the top. Commenters respond first to the blogger, and take their cue as to what’s appropriate from the reaction they get. A blogger who never descends to the troll’s level sends a clear message to other commenters to follow that model, and to the troll that trolling at that blog is ineffective. The troll will inevitably respond either by rising to the blog’s level or leaving.

I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to identify which Crooked Timber bloggers set a troll-unfriendly tone…


Donald Johnson 05.16.07 at 4:03 am

That’s not entirely true, dan simon. Some troll attacks are unprovoked and sometimes can only be handled by banning them.

But OTOH I do have some sympathy with roy belmont’s point, in this case. The reason the blogging phenomenon has taken off is because a lot of us felt like we (or people whose opinions we’d like to read) are treated as trolls by the MSM.


Anarch 05.16.07 at 4:43 am

Where people congregate for thoughtful, civil discussion, rude provocateurs rarely show up, and are calmly and politely ignored when they do.

Speaking as someone who’s frequented far too many forums in his life, IME this is almost completely untrue.


Dan Simon 05.16.07 at 5:06 am

Some troll attacks are unprovoked and sometimes can only be handled by banning them.

In a lecture hall, perhaps, a loud, obnoxious intruder can only be handled by banning. But in an online community, an out-of-place comment of any kind is as quickly and easily passed over as a bit of stray comment spam, and the originating troll, remaining unfed, is certain to move on to more fertile pastures.

What many such communities have trouble appreciating, I think, is that the “trolls” they somehow can’t resist feeding over and over again are finding sustenance because they’re among (perhaps a slightly different variety of) their own species.


abb1 05.16.07 at 6:18 am

I’m a reputed troll; you can research me.

To begin with, doctors say my brain is sans anomalie notable, according to the MRI (or IRM, as, of course, they must call it here).


abb1 05.16.07 at 9:28 am

Incidentally, just to demonstrate typical trollish behavior, in support of my argument in this long-gone thread, I’d like to post a link to today’s WaPo piece by Nir Rosen. This is in regards to the common misconception about pre-war Sunni-Shia relations in Iraq.



Sophia 05.16.07 at 1:11 pm

I wrote this piece about the fragility of online communities and the nature of trolls with specific reference to Usenet, but it’s relevant to other forms of online community too.

Online communities are destroyed when the community that created them is dispersed and ceases to renew itself. This happens when the majority of the members no longer think contributing to or reading the group is a
worthwhile use of their time and potential new members think likewise, hence no new blood. The community dies from lack of interest and joins the ranks of the dead groups or cesspits (cf most of Usenet these days, though there are other reasons for that too).

How does this happen? I have seen it happen to several formerly excellent communities that I have been a member of and I think there are three primary ways:

i. Feud

The group is taken over by feuds between several members or several factions who fight. Content is driven out by fighting about the feud as all the posters either post about the feud, or turn any content thread into an iteration of the feud. Those who are not interested in the feud go elsewhere and so it’s only the feuders left. The feud then continues or the victorious party is left there, but with only the ruins to play in. No new people are interested in joining, seeing that the group is a flame fest. It doesn’t take very long for this to happen.

ii. Internal trolls

A certain troll (or group of trolls) on a group keeps posting stuff which is OT, personal attacks, political nonsense etc. Instead of ignoring the troll(s), the members post replies to the troll(s), feud with the troll, discuss the troll(s), poke the troll(s) etc. Even worse,
because the troll(s) is posting OT, other formerly good members decide it’s alright for them to post OT stuff too, which is then debated, discussed, flamed etc and thus the problem expands. On Usenet the trolls often cross post to spread the fight. Content is forced out and members leave or do not appear as in (i). Generally this happens with political trolls or cut ‘n’ paste commandos and they are the most dangerous for this. This situation also often leads to (iii), especially if the group has become a political flame fest and free for all.

iii Invasions

Once a group has been recognised as showing lack of self restraint by its members, out of the blue trolls will add it to their target list. They’ll crosspost and do all the other stuff that out of the blue trolls do in order to cause flame fests. The more members respond to them, the more encouraged they are. Out of the blue trolls will also simply appear on a group and try to cause mayhem. Once again, if the members respond, the trolls win. A combination of (ii) and (iii) are certain death. It is quite possible for a single dedicated troll with a couple of enablers to destroy an online community remarkably quickly.

The defining facet of a troll is that it is an energy creature. It gets energy through seeking and getting attention. There are several kinds of trolls though.

Obsessive trolls: they troll about their demons – they wish to tell the members of their group all about them.

Provoking trolls: These are the classic trolls, who are actually rarer than the other kinds. They try to provoke a response from the members of their group by saying ‘outrageous’ things. They often think they are witty.

Political trolls (also includes religious trolls, ideological trolls, nationaist trolls etc): come in obsessive and provoking varieties, plus cut ‘n’ paste commandos and crossposting trolls. Some are internal trolls, some just appear out of the blue.

Crossposting trolls (usenet): some use crossposting to cause a bigger fight on their own group (usually for political reasons or to aid their battle with someone they don’t like). The other kind appear out of the blue. They have no interest in any of the groups they post to, they just want to start a big cluster f*ck fight.

Cut ‘n’ paste commandos: are a subtype of political/ideological troll. These creatures post by posting whole articles on controversial topics lifted usually from the comment pages of right wing US publications and almost always completely irrelevant to the subject matter of the community. They attempt to stir up political controversy by this means and usually flood the group with such content. Their posts are usually crossposted over a number of communities, often chosen for their likely opposing viewpoints on a topic so any responses are likely to cause a big fight. Some of them seem to choose their targets ranmomly, or pick groups that are vulnerable to trolls due to lack of discipline among the members. For some reason they mostly seem to be American.

Out of the blue trolls: they appear on a group and attempt to cause mayhem, which they do until the populace gets wise to them and stops responding. Then they move on.

The way to deal with each kind of troll varies, and one needs to work out what kind it is first.



des von bladet 05.16.07 at 2:28 pm

One of the many things about blogging and blogforums is that the ancient and sacred art of killfiles is useless there. (Maybe when they have a working implementation of threading or hiding previously seen comments and all that stuff they’ll get back to it.)

(I expect someone to angrily point me to an assortment of greasemonkey implementations; thanks in advance, someone!)


Barry 05.16.07 at 2:36 pm

des, it’s interesting that Salon’s TableTalk had a very nice system in place, several years ago. The first step, awe-inspiring in simplicity, was to have the poster’s name at the *top* of the post. This allowed quick skipping, with a simple page down. The other was to have a feature called ‘evade noisy user’, which would skip over posts from users on the list. The post would still be there, but the contents were replaced by ‘(contents already read)’.

It wasn’t foolproof by a long shot, but it was simple and worked pretty well.


Henry 05.16.07 at 2:59 pm

Shorter Dan Simon: I’m only a troll because Society made me do it!


Walt 05.16.07 at 3:10 pm

Dan, since you are actually, you know, a troll yourself, somehow I’m not inclined to take your word on how to solve the troll problem.


Glorious Godfrey 05.16.07 at 6:24 pm

Sophia at #16:

So “provoking trolls” that want to rile people up are relatively rare? That’s what I thought: to be deemed a troll, all you need is to be regarded as stupid… and persistent. In some cases, the persistence may be the result of having been called stupid, of course.

The catalogues of troll subspecies are both too unwieldy and incomplete. It would be an amusing –if idle and daft– exercise to attach to all purveyors of not only abuse, but also rank ideology, bullshit and disinformation –especially from the mainstream media– a name from fantasy bestiaries or medieval encyclopaedias. Marxist revenants that refuse to lie down; libertarian monopods that only need markets to stand on; the cynocephali of Decency, tame towards their masters but ferocious when angered.

Since this thread appears to be a venue for indulging in self-justification, I’d characterize my online behaviour as that of an occasional orc or goblin, in recognition of these races’ role as archetypal cannon fodder in fantasy literature. You jam your antlered helmet on your noggin, jut your chin forward, walk a crooked-legged gait and growl. Everybody sees you coming from a mile away, thinks you’re an idiot. It’s OK.

A slapstick performance before an unwelcoming audience, basically.


Dan Simon 05.17.07 at 2:27 am

Shorter Dan Simon: I’m only a troll because Society made me do it!

Thank you, Henry, for proving my point.

Think about it: if you were a serious, well-intentioned commenter offering a novel hypothesis about the topic at hand, and I were the one tossing in a completely incoherent, off-point snark, then any self-professedly serious, well-intentioned member of this community would simply note my irrelevance, ignore me completely, and proceed with the discussion at hand. And if I were merely a troll, I’d get frustrated at being ignored, and stop commenting.

What compels so many folks here (including, apparently, you–even after banning me!) to respond to my comments with spewings of empty hostility is not any rudeness, stupidity or digression on my part, but rather that despite my heterodox opinions, I adhere to the lofty ideals of this community far better than most of the folks here do–too well, it seems, simply to be ignored.


roy belmont 05.17.07 at 7:31 am

Donald Johnson – In most cases there would likely be a lot of agreement between us I believe about the more pressing issues of the day. It was a sense of urgency which sadly is fading now that caused I think whatever boundaries of difference you feel called upon to acknowledge with that qualifying phrase.
Dan Simon – though I’ve violently disagreed with many of your other comments on this site I second everything you said above.


Donald Johnson 05.17.07 at 9:43 pm

Sophia, that was a brilliant taxonomy.

Roy–yeah, we agree on a lot, I think.

Abb1–Thanks for the trollish behavior. Seriously. That was a very interesting Nir Rosen piece. I trollishly introduced a reference to a different article by him in last Sunday’s NYT magazine, but it didn’t spark off any off-topic discussion.


Donald Johnson 05.17.07 at 9:43 pm

Introduced his article at a different blog, that is.


Henry 05.17.07 at 10:32 pm

Dan – I have no intention of getting into a lengthy discussion on something that doesn’t merit same; the reason that you were banned from my and other CT authors’ threads, as you know damn well, was your persistent habit of making nasty insinuations about us. These included, but were not limited to, the insinuation that various of us were anti-Semitic. I don’t know how you justify this to yourself in your parched little mind as being an example of civilty; nor, to be perfectly honest am I expecially interested in knowing.


Dan Simon 05.18.07 at 1:36 am

the reason that you were banned from my and other CT authors’ threads, as you know damn well, was your persistent habit of making nasty insinuations about us. These included, but were not limited to, the insinuation that various of us were anti-Semitic.

Nonsense–I don’t recall ever insinuating that any of the CT authors are anti-Semitic. Quite honestly, I don’t believe any of you to be anti-Semitic, and therefore would never make any such insinuation.

Nor, as far as I know, have I ever been banned from CT for imputing anti-Semitism–or anything else–to the authors, as you claim. Your ban, for example, Henry, came after I called you out on a ludicrously inapt historical analogy, jokingly emphasizing my point by adding, “Well, like Henry, neo-Nazis also routinely cherry-pick their historical analogies…”. You apparently took that little bit of self-referentiality as an actual accusation of Nazi sympathies, and promptly banned me. Even Orin Kerr of the Volokh Conspiracy had trouble believing you didn’t get the joke, and said so.

John Quiggin banned me, so far as I can tell, because I persisted in vigorously defending Israel. Chris Bertram banned me because he didn’t like a comment I made about Guantanamo inmates flinging feces at their guards possibly constituting a breach of the Geneva conventions against torture. And I still don’t know why Daniel Davies banned me–so far as I know, he never gave an explanation.

The simple fact of the matter is that as Crooked Timber commenters go, I’m pretty well-behaved. If I sometimes drive folks around here to distraction, it’s not by breaching anyone’s standards of decorum. Perhaps it might be worthwhile to consider the reasons more deeply…


bi 05.18.07 at 5:22 am

Dan Simon:

“…disparage or ridicule some group of outsiders…”

Oh no, God forbid that any group of bloggers there disparage any group of outsiders! (Unless they’re Islamic fundamentalists, in which case they must be disparaged and ridiculed at all times.)

“I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to identify which Crooked Timber bloggers set a troll-unfriendly tone…”

“If I sometimes drive folks around here to distraction, it’s not by breaching anyone’s standards of decorum.”

To summarize: Dan Simon’s saying that he’s a troll, and he’s not a troll. Please wait while I figure out that Zen koan.


roy belmont 05.18.07 at 5:22 pm

A larger and possibly more fit point would be that teh accusatory “troll” is being used to protect something that may not always deserve it. What Doctorow and the Nielsen-Hyphens are protecting goes unstated but it’s themselves in aggregate really though the tacit assumption’s some kind of common decency. It’s the old “white people are more hygienic and smarter and therefore more deserving of all this stuff” trope without the “white” part. That they got that stuff mainly from skullduggery and hypocritical violence’s not supposed to be mentioned.
What’s at risk from troll infection’s claimed to be some amorphous higher good and it is in theory but the claimants are often central to it not peripheral. The idea’s some goal of truth or progress through dialogue but it’s mostly the same-old us v.them. A happy participant in one setting becomes a squawking goon in another.
Dan Simon- #22 emphasis on “above”.


bi 05.18.07 at 7:02 pm

roy belmont:

Well, if Doctorow or the Nielsen Haydens — or, for that matter, anyone who gets lots of net.attention and lots of trolls — attained their net.fame through nefarious means, I want to know about it.

“but it’s mostly the same-old us v.them.”

As in, Facts vs. Just-So Abstract Fact-Free Opinionation? OK, I think I can tolerate different interpretations of the same facts, but when people ignore facts, or make up their own “facts”, or just start to sling feces, then any further discussions along these can only go downhill.

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