Q&A Friday #83: What About Trolls?

by John Hawkins | January 25, 2008 4:12 am

Question: “This is more of a request than a question.

It’s become clear that the troll problem at RWN is starting to get out of control. Sock puppets and stalker trolls keep showing up and the moderators seem either unwilling or unable to get rid of them. Often their posts are left up for days at a time, and by the time they are finally deleted the thread is already hijacked beyond all repair. I emailed you about this previously and you replied that the trolls are adept at using various software tricks to get around a banning. I’m only marginally tech savvy so I’ll have to take your word for it that this is true, but several people (myself included) have raised suggestions of ways to help get this problem back under control.

My question is this: Would consider implementing one or more of the following suggestions?

1. Creating a more concrete (yet still flexible) system of rules for RWN forums. At the moment we have an extremely vague list of rules (don’t “flame excessively”, don’t “use an exceptional amount of vulgar language”, don’t “be a jerk”) which I believe is insufficient. It leaves the question of whether to delete or ban a poster almost entirely up to the subjective judgement of your moderators. I feel that if we had a more precise rules system (a clear definition of what “trolling” entails would be a good example) this would remove the subjective element and improve the atmosphere considerably.

2. A “report” button attached to every post that would allow us to flag posts we believe are in violation of the rules. I believe that part of the reason why your moderators take so long to spot and delete troll posts is because they are forced to scan through upwards of 60 to 100 posts or more in order to find and delete them. If they were able to jump immediately to repeatedly flagged posts this problem would be essentially solved.

3. Hiring more moderators or hiring better moderators. I don’t know if it’s because the current mods aren’t doing their job or that there simply aren’t enough of them, but something needs to be done.

4. Requiring email confirmation in order for people to register on RWN. I’m told that this could permanently end the problem of the recurring trolls.

(That’s all I can think of at the moment so I encourage other posters on this thread to suggest more ideas.)

I realize that these may not all be feasible but I would appreciate if you would at least consider them.” — mightysamurai

Answer: Let’s take them one at a time.

1) Create a “more concrete (yet still flexible) system of rules for RWN forums.”

This is a Catch-22. You keep the rules a little vague and people complain that you’re not being specific enough. If you make the rules very specific, you’ll have people who try to be as irritating as humanly possible while staying within the letter of the law so that you can’t ban them.

Since those are the options, I prefer to keep it a little vague.

2) A report button would be a good idea, but I would have to pay someone to do a lot of coding to make it work. It’s not a bad idea; it’s just something that would be difficult to implement.

3) As far as the moderators go, I’m very happy with the people we’ve got. They’re doing a great job. That being said, I might add another moderator or two. However, that can be a double edged sword. The more people you have moderating, the more problems you tend to have with people being too quick on the trigger finger. Yes, you have less trolls, but you also have more legitimate posts that tend to get deleted for one reason or another. In some forums, I’ve even seen it get out of hand to the point where you have moderators deleting every post certain people make just because they don’t like them.

4) Email confirmation doesn’t help much with re-occurring trolls because it’s very easy to get a valid email address. You can head over to Hotmail and have one in 5 minutes.

Here are two other things to keep in mind.

A) There are really 3 approaches you can take with a comments section or a forum.

The first is to do very little moderating and banning and just let things evolve on their own. If you do this, you end up with a sewer.

On the other hand, you can go in the opposite direction, have a lot of rules, a lot of moderators, and run an extremely tight ship. This approach ends up producing an enormous workload and incessant complaining.

The third approach, which is sort of a middle way, is how I’ve tried to go about it and I think it has worked out not perfectly, but pretty well over time. Since early 2007, RWN has added 1,781 comment posters. Of course, some of them are spam accounts, trolls, duplicates, etc., but if there are that many people signing up, something has to be working out pretty well.

B) Last but not least, I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “Don’t feed the troll.” Well, that’s good advice that people too seldom take.

You have to understand persistent trolls (as opposed to the people who just make a jackass of themselves, get banned, and leave) are people who have difficulty engaging in normal interactions with other human beings. So, they settle for getting any kind of attention, even if it’s a “Go to Hell” or a “Screw you.” In other words, trolling is just another way for them to say, “Please, please notice me!” That’s why, when I do a deletion on a troll, I delete the troll and the responses to him.

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