Dealing With Trolls and Bullies Online

In my time at the Discovery Channel, I dealt with a lot of difficult online personalities. And when I say a lot, I’m referring to hundreds of thousands of passionate people who don’t always see eye to eye. More often than not, it required a little hand holding to keep the pot from boiling over into complete chaos. So basically it was a daily affair of rage management.  

I’ve handled celebrity PR scandals, bullying, stalking, and threats of all kinds. In fact, during one incident, I had my own life threatened to the point where the Discovery legal department had to get involved. The one thing scarier than an insane online troll is a pack of Discovery corporate lawyers. 

Over almost three years I saw people from all political spectrums call each other every conceivable name to the point where terms like “nazi,” “fascist,” “socialist,” “commie,” and the like became meaningless and comical.

Good times.

Suffice to say I’ve learned how to handle everything from the horribly vile to the insanely annoying while keeping not only my cool but my own sanity. I’ve thought about writing a short book on this subject, but in the meantime, why not share just a few things 

Online, There Is No Such Thing As Shame

I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest that one of the best things about the Internet is also the worst thing about the Internet, which is the perception and sometime reality of anonymity. Since people typically don’t have to actually post their real identities online, there’s a tendency to feel a sense of unfiltered freedom which allows them to basically express their deepest hidden feelings. These are things that in polite company, a person would never admit to. Online it comes out as an expression of deep seeded inner rage. Most of the time you’ll see this manifest itself as some form of prejudice. 

Difficult People

The problem with difficult people is that they disrupt and derail conversations. This also causes good standing members of a community to leave. In the beginning I would try to reason with difficult people, yet it becomes apparent that their disruptions were part of a psychosis that was beyond something you could simply rationalize with them. What ends up happening is that initially you think you can turn them around, talk them back to sanity, and bring a calming zen to your community. You realize over time, this is impossible, and if you are smart you recognize disruptive behavior and simply ban it immediately. 

There are many types of difficult personalities one encounters online, but here’s an example of one of the worst. 

The Self Hater

This person has some deep seeded hatred of themselves that manifests online into some nihilistic hatred of everyone and everything. They always take a contrary position. They can’t have any honest discussion because all they want to do is tear everything down through name calling, vile comments, intimidation, and derision. They look for the weakest members of any community, latch on, and destroy whatever they care about because they derive pleasure from the pain of others.

You simply have to ban this type of personality immediately. You cannot rationalize with them because they don’t want to participate in any discussion, they want to ruin it for everyone. However, if you are a member of the community, and not a moderator, there are several ways to handle this type of person. Here’s three:

1. Ignore them – easier said that done, but if everyone simply ignores them, they lose interest quickly and go away. If you are well vested in the community, you can generally get others you know to follow your lead. 

2. Do not show you are upset. The moment you show emotion, is the moment you lose. Typically what happens is that you’ll get caught up in some long argument hoping that there will be some middle ground or consensus between parties. This never happens. You waste a lot of precious time, while on the other end of the conversation, the self hater is simply looking at your arguments and analyzing them for way’s to turn it all upside down and get you to react on an emotional level. Once that happens, they’ve got you. Keep your emotions in check.

3. Sticks and Stones – one of my favorite ways to handle self haters is to give a little bit back to them, like a credit card rewards program. Remember their goal is to get your goat. Once you show anger or frustration they win, and they’ll keep going. I recently had an exchange with a Reddit commenter who came into my discussion with the following (referring to an upcoming book I’m releasing):

“I guess if people would waste their money reading homo erotic shit like “The hunger games” or “the Holy Bible” they might pay for this crap too.”

Now if you research this gentlemen you’ll find he regularly posts inflammatory comments because he gets a lot of fun out of it. Now I could flag him (which might get his comment removed – in time), or I could ignore him (in which case someone else might egg him on), or I could engage him on his level. Self hater’s cannot handle being fed their own garbage.

I engaged him and here’s how the conversation went down. 

Him: “I guess if people would waste their money reading homo erotic shit like “The hunger games” or “the Holy Bible” they might pay for this crap too.”

Me: “I guess you’d know.”

Him: “Is this supposed to be funny? I bet your a mormon”

Me: “It’s totally cool whatever you are into…Mormons, Hunger Games, Biblical Erotica, Furries. I’m not judging. If you are looking for more homo erotic reading, you might try leaving your parent’s basement, hop on the bus, and head over to an adult bookstore.”

Him: “Are you asking me to join you in the Big Black Gay cock section? Try not to be so pushy, it makes you seem desperate and kind of creepy”

Me: “Funny…that’s the same thing I said to your Dad.”

And he’s done, not to mention it entertained some of the other commenters who were also tired of his bs. Is this the mature way to have a discussion? Not at all, but then this type of person has no desire to participate on any level of maturity. He wants to derail the discussion and start a war. Simply mirror his behavior and he’ll typically leave because there is no fun in having your ass handed to you. 

Everything in Moderation 

Probably the biggest problem I find in any online community, where bullies or trolling is common, is poor moderation. You need to have a no tolerance system in place. I had a team of moderators that would bring difficult people to my attention. I'd look at the offending posts and decide if this was immediate banning or would it be worth having a private discussion. Most private discussions prove quickly to be a waste of time and you eventually end up banning the person, but I never liked being accused of censorship just because I didn't like someone's point of view. However, at the end of the day, the safety and wellbeing of the community was my responsibility and if you violated those guidelines, you were gone. 

I don't see enough of that in today's online communities. There either aren't enough quality moderators or the moderators are more concerned in protecting the trolls than the rest of the community. Whatever the case may be, no one deserves to be treated without respect...well no one except perhaps the bullies.