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When Trolls Attack: 6 Things You Can Do to Protect Yourself

As anyone who’s ever participated in an online discussion knows, it’s getting really ugly out there. Web trolls — Golem-like creatures whose sole aim in life is to obliterate civil conversation as we know it — are taking over the Internet. 

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The Seattle Troll (Photo: Roshan Vyas/Flickr)

In February 2014, researchers at the University of Manitoba published the results of a study of roughly 400 U.S. adults who are active online. Nearly 6 percent identified themselves as trolls. (Other surveys have put the number as high as 28 percent.) The researchers also found a high correlation between online trolls and people who exhibit signs of sadism. Anyone surprised by that?

Read: 8 Sure Signs You’re an Internet Troll

If the low percentage is accurate, it still puts the number of trolls in the U.S. at more than 10 million. Little wonder then that some large Web sites, like Popular Science, have abandoned their commenting systems, and celebrities like Lena Dunham, Iggy Azalea, and Louis C.K. have recently left Twitter.

I recently got a taste of this myself when I posted a story about a crowdfunding campaign for Memories Pizza, the Indiana restaurant at the center of a fight over gay rights and religious freedom laws. Before my story even appeared, I was bombarded with nasty tweets, egged on by the conservative talk-show hosts who had created the campaign. It quickly mushroomed into a conspiracy theory that I was trying to root out the personal information of anonymous donors to that campaign.

Read: The $800,000 Windfall for Memories Pizza: It Started as a Joke

For the record: I was not. Why would I care?

I got off easy. All I had to do was endure about a week of taunting, insults, and veiled threats on Twitter and Facebook. Others have had it far worse. A reporter for a local TV news station in Virginia questioned the legitimacy of the campaign on Twitter and was bombarded with more than 35,000 angry and sometimes violent tweets, many of them calling for the station to fire her. The women targeted by the Gamergate trolls on Twitter last fall had to vacate their homes due to physical threats. Then there are the tragic stories of teenagers who committed suicide after being cyberbullied.

But being in the crosshairs for a brief time was illuminating, to say the least. And it posed a difficult question: What exactly are you supposed to do when total strangers attack you online?

When the Twits hit the fan

Being the target of a Twitstorm or a comments war is like fighting a swarm of gnats the size of an aircraft carrier. Swatting at one just sends the rest of them into a frenzy. The normal rules of polite discourse won’t get you anywhere, but neither will lashing out. There’s no easy solution, but there are ways to deal with it.

1. Issue a mea culpa. Let’s say you did or said something stupid online and it went viral. Own it, apologize quickly, and move on. This won’t stop the trolls from attacking you — it will just give them something else to attack you about — but it will earn credibility with anyone reasonable who might be watching, like your employer, co-workers, or customers.

2. Correct the record. If your attackers are spreading falsehoods about you — and it’s almost certain they will, given enough time — you need to point out the facts of the matter as clearly and coolly as possible. Post it to your blog, Facebook page, or Twitter account, and point people to the corrected record. Again, you’re doing this for the reasonable people in the audience, who (hopefully) are the ones who can impact your life in a meaningful way.

3. Don’t argue, even if you’re right. Trolls live to fight. The thing they want most of all is for you to fight back on their terms. One of my favorite sayings comes in handy here. “Never pick a fight with a drunk, an imbecile, or a lunatic — after two minutes nobody else will be able to tell you apart.” Don’t let strangers mistake you for a drunk, an idiot, or a crazy person.

4. Gather your allies. You don’t have to go it alone. Unless you did or said something so stupid even your friends are hiding, ask your supporters to weigh in on your behalf. Just make sure they apply the same rules: Patiently explain the facts, like you’re talking to a 4-year-old, and be prepared to get angry, semiliterate responses on social media.

5. Report the jerks. There’s reasonable disagreement, and then there’s harassment, abuse, and threats. If someone crosses the line into the latter, or exposes your personal information in the hope that others will, don’t ignore it — report them to the abuse department at the site where they did it. If they threaten violence, contact local law enforcement. (For more on how to report abusive people on Twitter and Facebook, see below.)

6. Deploy the rope-a-dope. Once you’ve apologized and/or corrected the record, sometimes the only option you have left is to sit there and take it until your opponents punch themselves out. Fortunately, they also tend to have the attention spans of gnats and will eventually move on to another target.  

Fighting abuse on Facebook and Twitter

In response to the alarming spike in online trolling, Twitter and Facebook have improved their abuse reporting tools … slightly. They’re far from satisfying, but they’re better than no tools at all.

If someone sends you a nasty message via Facebook, you can click the settings icon in the top right corner of the message (it looks like a gear) and select “Report spam or abuse” from the drop-down menu.

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(Facebook)

In the next dialog, select “Report conversation participants for harassing or threatening me” and click OK. Click “Close” in the next window. Presumably, Facebook will then investigate the user for possible violations of its terms of service.  

Facebook has more instructions on how to report nasty posts to your timeline, comments, photos, and the like here.

On Twitter, you click the three dots on the bottom right-hand side of the offensive tweet and decide whether you want to mute that account (so you never again see what they post), block them (so they can’t see your tweets either), or report them so Twitter can investigate further.

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If you select “Report,” Twitter takes you through a series of dialogs where you identify why you’ve flagged the tweet, how it’s abusive or harmful, whether it’s targeting you or someone else, whether they’re merely being offensive or threatening physical harm, and what you want to do about it. (Twitter offers more info on how to report violations here.)

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I reported around a dozen Twits who were insulting and harassing me and two who threatened me. Twitter support determined that one of those two had not violated its terms; it briefly “locked” the other account, pending corrective actions. Here’s the email Twitter sent me:

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Later that day, that account was back online and spewing vitriol again. It appears the only corrective action required by Twitter was to make him/her/it delete the offensive tweet directed at me. It did, however, permanently block that account from ever seeing what I post to Twitter, and vice versa.

Since then, Twitter has updated its policies about how it responds to abusive tweeters. So hopefully future reports will result in stronger measures and maybe a few banishments.

The good news is that blocking this person means I never have to see that hateful stuff again. One troll down, 10 million more to go.

Send email and your advice on how to deal with trolls to Dan Tynan: ModFamily1@yahoo.com.