Sunday, June 24, 2012

How to defeat trolls: a guide

You’re engaged in a deep conversation with others online about something important, when BAM!

You’ve just been targeted by a troll, that scaly, lecherous upsetter of do-gooder netizens that just wants to see the world burn.

Is there anything that you can do to counter trolls? Yes, but it all begins with an understanding of human psychology, not social media tools. 

What I’m about to share with you is valuable information that I learned at Northwestern University. This advice works with real world businesses, as well as online.

Not every troll should be treated the same way. Some trolls seek to upset conversations because they are frustrated because of some related negative past experience. There are trolls just looking to derail a conversation for the purpose of inflating their own egos. Other trolls are seeking to embarrass or disrupt online discourse for political or business reasons. And some trolls are just jerks. Sad but true.

Whether you are an individual or a business, dealing with the four types of trolls mentioned above requires patience and a tactically-sound approach. I’ll show how it’s done, but first, if you want a good overview of trolling, watch this:

Unhappy trolls

Unhappy trolls bitter about the past are usually upset because of a vicariously negative experience; they are angry because they feel they have been burned.

For example, the individual who excitedly buys a new car, only to find it breaks down repeatedly in front of friends and family. This person is never going to buy from that car manufacturer again, and he or she is going to make sure that everyone continuously shows sympathy. You know tat this person is a troll and not just an unhappy customer with reasonable concerns by the lengths they go to whine, whinge and make sure everyone nearby feels equally outraged.

The unhappy troll is a disgruntled type that is usually just having a bad day or week, not trying to be especially malicious or a pain in you know what. Usually unhappy trolls simply need to have their bad experience recognized. Regardless of their demeanor, the upset troll needs to be addressed as a respected individual. After they have been calmly addressed, which sets the tone for the conversation, the troll’s negative experience should be heard out. Finally, the individual should be smoothly offered an option that they will probably reject. When the option is rejected, that should be followed quickly by a counter option that is more palatable to both sides.

Luckily, people are more like to be accepting of negotiation if they feel that the other side is willing to do the same. However, this process needs to be handled very carefully so that the first offer does not appear as a rip-off. Community managers should stockpile offers and counter-offers for different situations. If trolls still continue to whine,

Egotistical trolls

Some trolls are just looking to inflate their egos. The best example that I can think of is the argumentative person who has no good reason for what they say, except that they are saying it. Such trolls are often loud and rude, or use forceful language not backed by facts. The whole intent behind this approach is to paint themselves as intelligent while the opposition as flawed. If they were simply attention-seeking and not trolls, they would not try to tear others down.

There are two approaches to this type of troll. The approach that you choose depends on how intelligent the troll’s argument appears to onlookers.

In the first approach, the troll’s argument is not very intelligent. All that you have to do to poke holes in the argument is to make clear that you are more skilled/knowledgeable/cooler than the troll, and that you have a different opinion than the troll. A classic example of this approach is Senator Lloyd Bentson shooting down Senator Dan Quayle’s assertion of being as skilled as John F. Kennedy. 

Quayle wasn't exactly being a troll here, but you get the point:

In the second approach, the troll might appear a good deal more intelligent or qualified, usually more because of their position than because they offer a strong argument. In this case, the troll’s argument should be addressed directly. The troll should not be attacked on a personal level, but rather his or her points must be dismantled and/or shown as insulting to listeners. We must expose the troll’s knowledge as inferior to our understanding.

This week, Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, debated ESPN’s Skip Bayless on whether or not LeBron James of the Miami Heat deserved to be criticized for how he played Dallas. Skip has been criticized by his co-host Stephen A. Smith for being over the top in how he characterizes LeBron.

I'm not a LeBron James fan, but by most accounts I’ve seen online Mark completely demolished Skip. I have to agree. Here’s the video:

Political trolls

Trolls that are motivated by political or business reasons can be very dangerous and difficult to deal with. The reason for this is that they are driven by their intellects more so than their egos. They can be calculating, conniving, and extremely motivated. Understanding their thinking and exposing it as incorrect can very often draw them out into confrontational positions that are far easier to debunk.

Dealing with such individuals requires a very nuanced and careful approach to first re-frame the conversation and then prove the troll wrong. One of the best ways to defeat a political troll is to expose their bias. We do this by showing that the troll has different standards depending on whether it supports their point of view. By the time this is done, the debate is usually over regardless of what the troll tries to say or do, and the debate is over.

Jesse Lange, a high school student, debated Bill O’Reilley, the abrasive conservative commentator on FOX, showing how it’s done. The same tactics used by Jesse can be used by conservatives against liberals as well:

Trolls that are sociopathic jerks

Trolls that are jerks are some of the hardest people to deal with. They want attention and have strong sociopathic tendencies and just want to hurt others. At times their behavior goes beyond simply mean to outright illegal.

Wonder what such a troll looks like? The BBC tracked one down and asked him his motivations:

Not a very pleasant guy, is he.

Short of getting the police involved, there are only a few different approaches to dealing with trolls that are jerks. Deleting posts and banning trolls should be strongly considered. If posts that are offensive are allowed to stay up, they can poison the whole atmosphere of the forum. This is why many forums either ban posts that violate user rules, or allow other users to vote down offensive comments so that they are hidden.

If trolls cannot be banned for some reason, then they should be ignored. Since they are not getting the attention they crave, they often give up and go away.

Trolls fear humor

Finally, if you’re up to it, humor can humiliate trolls or at least make them look ridiculous. As a last resort, use humor to defuse tension. Take the trolls views and adopt them as your own!

Al Franken owns Ann Coulter during a debate on which person they would most like to be:

Stephen Colbert takes humor to an even higher level by appearing to agree with Bill O’Reilley. Stephen’s reason for doing this was to show how unreasonable Bill is:

You know that when you get a troll to laugh that you’ve done a good job. Aside from The Joker anyways.

What experiences have you had with trolls? How have you defeated them? Do you think there is anything missing from this guide or anything that could be improved? I'm looking forward to your comments!

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