Dealing with sadistic internet trolls

Trolls are cyberbullies who often use sophisticated tech skills to slander your character.

Troll psychology 101

If you’re online and haven’t been trolled yet, you will – especially if you have a business and/or social media presence.

Definition of internet troll

“An Internet troll is someone who intrudes into a discussion and posts comments deliberately designed to upset or disrupt it. Oftentimes, there is no apparent purpose behind their comments except to upset everyone else involved, sometimes a very specific, emotionally vulnerable person. They lie, offend and wildly exaggerate for the sole purpose of offending” (and getting responses confirming they’ve done damage).

Trolls are dedicated cyberbullies who often use sophisticated tech skills to distort information about you to slander your character and behavior. It’s difficult not to take it personally, but that’s exactly what they want. Ultimately, they are determined to destroy as many people and companies as they can with their calculated vitriol. One of their favorite activities is triggering fights between friends and strangers. Again, understand that you are simply another convenient target for their cruelty.

Not everyone posting ugly comments is a troll

When especially stressed, many of us have reactively posted online comments or written emails that we later regret. A quick apology can often fix the situation, but not always.

If you are a business target, the best initial strategy is to either ignore or make light of the situation. If it’s a social media-based customer hostile comment (often not from a real troll) you can both apologize and use humor to diffuse the situation.

If you are dealing with a genuine troll, you’ll know soon enough. Best not to argue with or counteract anyone who attacks you online because that’s just going to fuel the fire. Trolls may be disgruntled, cruel teenagers fueled by high hormones and deficient prefrontal lobe development looking for a ‘good time.’ Most often, however, they’re adults using the Internet to unleash their underlying vicious nature, probably nothing you’d suspect if you were to meet them face-to-face.

Zoo specimen troll behavior

Two recent online personality profile studies with over a thousand subjects found that Internet trolls exhibit off-the-charts levels of narcissism, sadism and psychopathy (low empathy and disregard for others). One of the articles concludes with the following- “Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others. Trolls are sadists who just want to have fun … and the Internet is their playground!”

Where trolls hide out

Trolls can be found online on blog sites, social networking sites, multiplayer games, discussion forums, news sites, company sites and forums. In other words, anywhere… They especially love to exploit kid/teenager sites.

Impossible to overlook and, in my opinion, calling for strong legal sanctions are trolls who target those with serious illnesses and people who have recently lost loved ones (often slandering the deceased). Also in their own special category of vicious, are the kids, often in collusion with their ‘friends’, sometimes even their parents, who attack socially marginal schoolchildren–taunting them to commit suicide, too often with success.

Ignoring or making light humor of troll posts may not be enough. Next, I’ll outline additional steps you can take to defend yourself.

How can you tell if you’re dealing with a real troll?

Earlier, I cited definitive studies supporting the conclusion that Internet trolls are, indeed, horrible people. More specifically, they score high on the “Dark Triad” of narcissism, sadism and psychopathology (that latter, a profound lack of empathy for others).

Portrait of a sophisticated troll

How can you tell if you’re dealing with a troll–as opposed to a legitimately disgruntled customer or other individual just wanting to be heard?

Sophisticated trolls will often try to engage you with flattering feedback and bogus personal information designed to win your sympathy and establish trust. At first, they may ask innocent sounding questions. Then, when your guard is down, they’ll hit you with provocative, even libelous comments.

They won’t respond directly to any questions you may ask them. Instead, they talk around an issue, making it impossible to pin them down. In addition, trolls often use fake web addresses and fictitious online identities that lead nowhere.

Three essential troll containment guidelines

  • Surveys indicate that sixty percent of people ignore the attacker. If the attack is via email, with no social media audience witnessing it, that’s usually the best strategy, as the troll will then often move on to another target. In that situation, just document their posts and move on.
  • However, when there is an audience witnessing the situation, it’s better to deal with the attack in a matter of fact way: calling out their behavior by posting a comment something like: “Hey, folks, looks like we’re getting posts from a troll.” –If you have a unified online community, they’ll usually support you in dealing with the attacker.
  • Finally, never respond in a manner that engages the troll at their gutter level. This only gives the troll what they want–to engage them in an irrational, unwinnable argument. Much worse, your audience may then see you as just another troll, rather than the aggrieved party.

Lastly, I’ll discuss additional troll containment strategies, including the increasingly popular alternatives of censoring or entirely blocking online posts.

Three situations

When you’re criticized or ‘trolled’ on your own digital platforms
  • When it’s legitimate criticism – Apologize on social media in response to legitimate criticism of your products or services. Provide information about how you’ll fix the problem. This will underscore your accountability and integrity. Among comments from multiple sources that relate to the same (legitimate) issue, delete only those that are incendiary.
  • Establish a policy – Begin by establishing rules for what kinds of comments are allowed on your website and social media accounts. Examples of effective comments policies can be found on the Content Marketing Institute and Huffington Post sites.
  • Delete offensive comments and ban repeat offenders – Unless your website and social media are absolutely troll-free, you need to monitor and delete offensive comments. You can also ban members from participating in online groups. This can be costly and time-consuming, so…
  • Use moderators and online tools when possible. If you are a larger organization and have the resources, consider hiring a team of moderators to monitor activity on your site, blog or forum to remove inappropriate comments.
  • Ask edgy commentators to identify themselves – Genuine commentators who have a legitimate concern will have a locatable online identity with a traceable IP address. If the ‘legitimate commentator’ morphs into a troll, you can block their IP address.
When you’re attacked on other sites
  • Notify the site moderator or webmaster. If none is available, use the “report abuse” feature, often found on the discussion page or via a help link. Then file a bullying report.
What major internet media sites are doing
  • Many major sites no longer accept comments. Reuters, Popular Science and the Chicago Sun-Times are among those who have taken the radical step of nixing comments on their sites. Many other major organizations are opting to direct commenters away from their main site to their social media forums, many of which are carefully monitored.
  • Some employ teams to carefully monitor/censor comments. CNN disabled most comments as of August 2016 and carefully monitors messages in their remaining categories before posting. The same approach has been adopted by Gawker Media family of sites, which includes Jezebel, Lifehacker, Deadspin and Gizmodo, after their Jezebel site was flooded with violent pornographic images.