The Internet has become one of the core communications media of our time. Its growth has brought many positives: we are able to share and discuss ideas with people from vastly diverse cultures and walks of life; it's made our one-to-one communication almost instant, and made one-to-many and many-to-many communication much simpler.
Unfortunately, these same properties have given rise to Internet denizens who want to see meaningful discussions deteriorate into a morass of ad hominem attacks and meaningless "commentary" – be it for entertainment or to attack and derail discussion of issues they disagree with. Presenting: The Internet Troll.
A Troll's usual modus operandi is to post content that will create emotional reactions in other people. The type of content, and the reaction they seek, varies according to the type of Troll - but whatever response they may be looking for, eliciting responses is almost always the aim of the game. Trolls may be specifically seeking to derail a discussion, or purely "for the lolz". They may present as someone in antagonistic disagreement with the issue at hand, but are not actually interested in productive debate and are seeking only to sow discord.
While the antagonistic Troll may be easier to spot, a far more insidious variety is the Concern Troll. Concern Trolls claim to share your stance, but express their "concerns" they demand be addressed, or attack the tone of an argument.
Trolls can move in packs, or even create multiple "sockpuppet" accounts for support. Discussions can be targeted and come under concerted attack with more than one Troll trolling. A Concern Troll and an "antag" can work well together by "debating" both sides of the argument.
From personal experience I've seen women disproportionately targeted by Trolls of all stripes, and feminism and social justice content seems to suffer particularly toxic trolling. It's no wonder that dealing with Trolls, and the burnout that so often comes with the task, is of such concern to Feminists online.
Trolling derails discussion, disrupting what is often the purpose of comment threads. Their posts contribute to a negative and often hostile atmosphere, dissuading people who might otherwise participate. Extensive trolling can even create an environment where new users are distrusted and drive the discussion further into the ground.
Additionally, Trolling can be actively harmful to the people exposed to it. Trolls habitually use triggering subject matter in order to get an emotional reaction, which they can then dismiss. Particularly toxic Trolls are not shy of telling people to "go kill themselves,” and other statements that can create real risk for those suffering from suicidal ideation.
The burnout that can be experienced from dealing with Trolls can be deeply impacting on psychological health. It's important, when faced with the ubiquity of Internet Trolls, to be armed with tools to deal with them in a way that is safe and effective for yourself and others.
First, remember: you are under no obligation to deal with Trolls in any particular way, despite their shrill cries of "Free speech!", "Hysterics!", or "If you won't teach me, how will I learn?!".
Secondly, no matter what you do or don't do: Trolls can escalate their behavior in response, seeking to further provoke.
As the Troll is attempting to get a response, don't give them one. Don't respond to their posts, once you have identified them as a Troll. Don't respond in any way. Ignore them completely. This tends to result in them either leaving or cursing ineffectually at a silent forum. At this point, consider Method Four.
Such silence can be difficult to achieve without the co-operation of everyone in the discussion.
There's at least one good reason to engage with Trolls, even if briefly. However, strong consideration should go into the decision. You should be aware of the toll it may take for you to keep your cool while dealing with the Troll and the possible effects on mental health and stability. Replying to a Troll can ensure that the toxic opinions put forward do not go unopposed. Even a single reasoned response can serve this purpose. Engaging further can also lead to good results, if you feel you have the stamina to do so.
The technique to apply here is of un-emotive and reasoned response. Continue to deny them their food; reasoned and dogged argument is their poison. A Troll, when faced with this tactic, is likely to escalate in order to seek a response from you. The continued lack of it tends to drive them to the same reaction as denying them response by silence, while providing your thread with ample counter-arguments for future readers.
It can be fun to Troll a Troll; however this is not recommended as a sustainable way of dealing with them. It has a very real risk of descending into a flame war, especially if it attracts other Trolls, or otherwise blameless users, looking for "fun."
While not available to most users, as a moderator choosing to delete a Troll's posts is an entirely legitimate decision and one you should never feel you do not have the right to make. As is choosing to ban a Troll should your judgement call for it. There is no need to feel bad about dealing harshly with Trolls, no matter how many cries of "freeze peaches" may go up. Always remember that your blog, your forum, your Facebook page is your space on the Internet - do what you need to in order to be safe.
Removing Trolls and Trolling posts can help deny them sustenance, as it minimizes the amount of response the troll can receive.
A strongly enforced moderation policy can have flow-on benefits, beyond the individual Troll: it helps to keep discussions on track, it minimises the exposure of actively harmful content, and can even deter future Trolling by sending a clear message.
The main thing to remember, when dealing with Trolls, is to stay safe. If that means disengaging, seeking moderator intervention, or swinging the banhammer mercilessly: the Internet is your space, too.