Conventional wisdom suggests the best way to deal with online trolls is to ignore them.
Don’t feed the trolls, the experts say, it’s what they want and only fuels the flames, encouraging them to continue spewing their vitriolic hatred, racist commentary and/or misogynistic babble.
Yet two recent victims of online trolling talked back to their attackers with positive results.
On Martin Luther King Day, a racist Twitter troll harassed Seattle-based Ijeoma Oluo who writes about race, feminism and the arts. Instead of ignoring him, she responded to her troll with Martin Luther King quotes. Part way through the exchange, the conversation turned abruptly when she empathized with him.
Instead of harassment, an actual dialogue developed between the two. Apparently, the troll was a 14-year old boy who recently lost his mother. His therapist advised him to release his anger on Twitter.
And she is no stranger to online trolls.
When she voiced her opinions about rape jokes (in what she calls The Great Rape Joke Kerfuffle of 2013), she became the target of “a constant barrage of abuse.” Around the same time, she encountered a particularly cruel troll from a fake Twitter account called @PawWestDonezo.
The account was named for West’s father, jazz musician Paul West, who had recently passed away from prostate cancer. In his Twitter bio, PawWestDonezo claimed he was the “Embarrassed father of an idiot. Other 2 kids are fine,” the former referring to Lindy, the latter to her 2 siblings.
While West typically ignores her trolls, this time she reacted. In a piece in Jezebel called Don’t Ignore the Trolls. Feed Them Until They Explode, she wrote about how much the troll had hurt her.
And guess what happened?
The troll sent West an email, apologized for harassing her, explained his anger towards her stemmed from unhappiness he felt with himself and donated $50 to Seattle Care Alliance where West’s father was treated.
Should we engage or ignore?
So where do these situations leave us as online communicators? Should we begin engaging our trolls or revert to the tried and true of simply ignoring them as best we can?
My tendency is to stick to the silent treatment. While Oluo and West’s stories are nothing short of amazing, they are exceptions to typical troll encounters. If you’re running a marketing department or a business, you likely have neither the opportunity to call out a troll on Jezebel … nor the time to quote Martin Luther King in a Twitter exchange.
Instead, be proactive in dealing with potential online abuse. Post a clear comment policy on your blog that outlines the kind of behaviour you won’t tolerate. If someone violates the policy, delete his or her comment and explain why.
Don’t make the mistake of labeling someone who disagrees with you as a troll. Listen to their feedback. Debate and disagreement are constructive—personal attacks are not.
There is one important lesson the average business can learn from Lindy West and Ijeoma Oluo. Their stories confirm what we suspected all along: trolls are insecure bullies desperate for attention.
Don’t let them get to you.