A version of this article appeared originally in Strategies & Tactics.
Countless articles suggest that the best medicine for online trolls is to simply ignore them. Responding to their taunting only feeds their egos and encourages them to continue, while ignoring them takes away their oxygen. Deprive them of attention long enough and they will eventually throw their hands up in defeat and go searching for a more engaging audience elsewhere.
On the surface, this advice makes a lot of sense. But is it right? The answer is, not always.
The conventional wisdom not to engage with trolls is not as clear-cut as it may seem. Whether it is better to feed online antagonists or starve them depends on what they’re hungry for—and whether they’re really a troll at all.
Avoid bulk labeling
It can be tempting to dismiss anyone who posts in a persistently critical, disagreeable or negative way as a troll. But just because someone has strong, and perhaps unpopular, opinions and expresses them vigorously online doesn’t make them a troll. You’re much more likely to be dealing with an angry customer or someone who has a legitimate bone to pick with your organization. Such people hunger to be heard, to be acknowledged, to have their problem solved, to receive an apology if they feel they’ve been wronged. The troll hungers for something much more nefarious.
Trolls are a species unto themselves
Wikipedia defines an internet troll as “a person who posts inflammatory, insincere, digressive, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community with the intent of provoking readers into displaying emotional responses or manipulating others’ perception.” True trolls have no interest in constructive dialogue. They behave as they do because disrupting online conversations, sowing confusion and causing emotional pain is fun for them. Some people shop or play online games for amusement; trolls troll. The fact that their trolling harms others is not their concern; causing pain is the very point of their trolling.
It’s how they’re wired
What separates a genuine troll from a garden variety online pest is a combination of anti-social personality traits—narcissism, Machiavellianism, sadism and psychopathy—psychologists call the “dark tetrad.” Trolls feed off negative social potency. The more chaos and emotional destruction they perceive themselves to create, the more accomplished they feel.
Trolls’ high levels of cognitive empathy make them extremely adept at homing in on their adversaries’ emotional hot-buttons and knowing precisely how to push them to maximize their distress. But they lack affective empathy—the kind that lets us feel what others are feeling—enabling them to recognize and stoke the emotional pain of their victims without experiencing negative emotions themselves.
Spotting the “genuine” troll in the sea of disaffected customers, ideologues, AI-driven bots and other online pests can be tricky. Some of the more obvious warning signs include:
- Provocative language: Trolls use language that is intended to provoke a reaction from others. They may use profanity, insults and other inflammatory language to get a rise out of people.
- Personal attacks: Trolls often resort to ad hominem attacks focused on someone’s appearance, intelligence or personal life rather than addressing the topic at hand.
- Off-topic comments: Trolls will often post comments that are irrelevant or off-topic to cause confusion.
- Repeating the same comment: Trolls frequently post the same comment repeatedly, even after it has been addressed by others, to annoy and frustrate other users.
- Disrupting the conversation: Trolls may post comments that disrupt the flow of the conversation. They may change the subject or post unrelated comments to throw off the discussion.
- Impersonating others: Trolls may create fake accounts or impersonate other users to cause chaos and avoid accountability.
- Inflammatory content: Trolls may post content such as hate speech, graphic images or links to inappropriate websites to deliberately offend others.
Starving trolls can feed their fever
Not sure if a sudden surge in provocative posts is the work of a troll? Sit back, monitor the situation and, above all, do not engage. Cutting off interaction with a genuine troll once it starts often provokes what psychologists call an “extinction burst” in which the troll continues to escalate their bad behavior in hopes of eliciting a response. Giving in to the extinction burst will only embolden the troll and prolong the pain. Stay silent and privately urge others who might be inclined to give in to do the same. Once it becomes clear that the game is over, the troll will look for a greener pasture to set afire.
Keep an open mind
Labeling someone a troll implies that they are motivated by malice rather than a desire to engage in constructive dialogue. So, reserve the scarlet “T” for posters whose trolling behaviors truly justify it—and the silent treatment it deserves. Listen and respond with empathy and respect to the rest. They’re giving you the opportunity to enhance your organization’s reputation and build trust. Don’t let it go to waste.