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This is a less technical post than usual, I thought it was time to talk about people a bit more. Specifically, people who post abusive, hateful or sometimes just plain angry comments on public fora.
This is dangerous ground on which to play devil’s advocate, but here goes. First of all, is anyone really surprised that with so many people online — for example Facebook boasts a potential billionth user this month — we have a significant number of bigots and idiots among us? Is it really newsworthy? Perhaps when the bigotry and idiocy is directed toward a celebrity or other public figure... although more traditional forms of this sort of thing, e.g. hate mail, are quite rightly ignored.
Secondly, perhaps we’re all getting a little carried away. If someone says something hurtful online do we really need to get the poice involved? Of course the answer is, it depends. If it’s a threat that has any chance of being carried out, then yes; if someone calls you ugly, then no; but there’s a huge gap in between — where do you draw the line?
It’s important to remember that with such cases, the people posting this stuff actually believe it on some level. They may be shouting about something they’ve been brought up to believe, or they may be lashing out because they’ve temporarily lost their senses, but after they’ve said it we now know they have a problem, and even if the authorities don’t deal with it, someone should. A friend or family member should have a quiet word at least. Maybe it’s good that these people are now so easy to find. Maybe it’ll be easier to get through to them and show them that hatred is in the minority, who knows.
But then you have the trolls.
More correctly they should be called the trollers: the name derives not from the mythical creature living under a bridge but from the verb to troll, which is a method of fishing where you sit on a boat, dangle your bait in the water, and let the fish come to you. These people live to wind others up, either by flinging personal insults at random people or by espousing a controversial opinion, especially if it’s a time or place where this opinion is a sensitive subject. Extreme cases might be people pretending to be holocaust deniers in a Jewish chatroom or Satanists in a Christian forum. It’s often difficult to tell them apart from the real bigots, but one clue is this: they never want to engage in a conversation. They don’t want to challenge your opinion or debate anything, they just want to upset you.
Trolls are, in many cases, worse than the bigots and idiots who say what they mean. Trolls can cause just as much hurt and even fear, but their motive is not some misguided righteousness, confused feeling of injustice or the misfortune to have been brought up in a bigoted environment. Their only motive is to laugh at other people’s outrage and pain. In addition to this, if you respond to someone who acted out of hatred or anger, there’s a chance you’ll get through to them, make them think about what they’ve done, even apologise as in the case of the Tom Daley tweeter (see "malicious communications" link earlier). Respond to a troll, however, and you simply feed them. The reaction is what they came for. So you often just have to ignore them, which if you ask me is infuriating. Some may find it satisfying but I don’t.
There are sometimes other ways you can deal with a troll. All fora have the option for you to report a user or their posts, and if the moderators agree, that user can be banned. The effectiveness of this varies but it’s never foolproof, they can always get back in under a new identity if they try hard enough. You could perhaps take them seriously to the point where you report them to the authorities, although that would probably be a waste of public resources. I go for the third option: study their posts, look for a weakness, use it against them. If they claim to be more intelligent than you, find fault with their spelling and grammar (there is bound to be some). If they’re boasting about their nationalty, find a news article that puts that nationality in an embarassing light (again, seek and ye shall find). But at all times be calm and professional. Don’t let them think they’re eliciting any emotional response from you, except maybe scorn or pity.
Doug is MD of Exploit The Web Limited, but it still hasn’t stopped him coding