Handling Hero Trolls is not easy, both because of their manipulative behaviour and because our own resistance against pointing out anyone as one (it is a huge insult after all). The accusation is in general returned as soon as it’s uttered, and the conflict is further heated by a labyrinth of pointing fingers. Since every conflict is unique it’s impossible to give an complete lesson on how to handle it in one blog post, but I’ll give a few handy pointers.
Handling when a conflict is raging
When a shitstorm errupts everyone has responsibility to put it out, mostly because it decentralised and it’s hard to find someone who can, on its own, put out the fire. Regardless of power or position in the conflict the participant needs to adjust their acts to ease an solution. This may sound strange if you’re the target of the storm, but what it means is that you are allowed to fight for your rights.
Identify the troll
This has to be done as fast as possible, and it’s important to remember that Hero Trolls can be found on all sides in a conflict. Some times you have to handle them on your side, and sometimes you may realise that you are the troll. Based on my last post we can build a handy checklist. The Hero Troll is
- Positioned close to the drama
- Pouring gazoline instead of water on the fire
- Making a mountain out of a molehill
- Having a co-acting squad of admirers/helpers
If a person checks off most of the points above but none of the points below we’re talking about a temporary Hero Troll. This can be anyone and there’s a chance it is easier to handle than a perpetual Hero Troll. However, if the person checks off
- Serial behaviour
- Shedding (gradually moving from old toxic behaviour to new toxic behaviour)
we’re handling a person who has incorporated trolling into its behaviour. They’re more skilled and harder to convince that they should change how they’re act. In general you have to create an environement around them that don’t respond to inflamatory manipulating.
Don’t speed the trolls
I guess you’ve heard the phrase ”Don’t feed the trolls”. It’s the logical reaction to the hero trolls addiction to drama, based on the notion that the trolls will go away as soon as the drama is removed. Unfortunately this means you starve them instead, and like anyone who’s hungry they’ll get even meaner and angrier. Since trolls are able to create conflict on their own you may end up with an even worse shitstorm than the first.
The two most important points is to see if the conflict ember is a mountain or a molehill, and if someone is pouring gazoline on it. There may be a real problem that needs to be adressed, and if so you need to find out what you can do – and you need to do it calmly despite the outcry for Dramatic Action. The Hero Troll will have lesser tools to inflame the conflict if the problem is handled, yet will have some hero points for pointing it out. This way it will be kept fairly happy instead of speed off to build up the storm further.
As for the gazoline you need to check yourself; do you hand the vat to the troll? It’s easy to unintentionally serve up pieces of information that can be used to further the drama, or express admiration that fires the troll behaviour. Keep your head on.
Collect sunlight (document, document, document!)
There is truth to the saying that trolls turn to stone (or burst into pieces) as soon as they are exposed to sunlight. In a shitstorm the sunlight is exchanged for documentation.
If you’re in direct confrontation with a hero troll you need to document everything as soon as it happen. The possibility to erase messages and posts on fora on the net means that you can’t close the computer, take a breather and return to do it later. You need to document before the breather. Take screen dumps of inflamatory posts and make sure that information about the poster, the date and the time the post was made is included. If you can’t fit all of that in one dump make as many as you need untill everything is covered. A trick I learned from a network for spouses harassed by expartners is to print out the collection at the same time, write date and time on it manually, and keep for further use. In case you need it in court this is regarded as slightly more reliable proof than digital documents.
Hero Trolls tend to change their narrative to one that best suits the situation at the given moment. This means erasing content online if it doesn’t fit the bill. If you’re on the recieving end it’s easy to soon starting to question your own sanity; offensive content pops up and disappears like puppets in an evil puppetshow. The proof to yourself that you what you saw can be lifesaving, and that alone makes it worth the hassle. Furthermore it makes it possible for you to prove that the Hero Troll have contradicted itself and have made offensive postings online. This may not change the troll itself, but it’s possible to influence the squad.
But what if you haven’t been that diligent in documenting the troll dance, or if you are accused of manipulating screen caps? You can check the Internet Archive, a non-profit organisation working to collect and save internet pages for a long time.
If the shitstorm is taking to be perpetual or you suspect that it may end up that way you should keep an incident diary. Record every incident for every day to make it possible to prove a pattern in the troll behaviour. Again, this is also for your own sanity; you need it to be sure you saw what you saw. Writing it all down can make you feel vulnerable and depressed, but it is your shield you’re building. Hard, well documented facts are your best friends in this.
Check if you’re goaded along into the co-acting dance
Hero trolls are manipulative, and the general advice is to never engage in direct confrontation with them. You’ll be easily swayed into saying what they want you to say, be it something that agrees with their world view or something offensive that they can pick on. A perpetual Hero Troll have years of experience in pushing people into positions where it want them to be, it’s extremely hard to beat it in that game. (The only one who can do it is probably an older Hero Troll, but you may not want to call in that expertise.)
Even if you is participating in the conflict by debating with other parts you may be dragged into the co-acting dance. It’s just as easy to fall for the creative side of the conflict: painting parts in colourfull language, using foul language, drag out the extremes or picking the vulnerable would-be victims that everyone rushes to protect (usually animals or children). You may be doing it yourself, or by passing on memes, zingers and other content on your social networks.
Stop and ask yourself every now and then: does this add to the solution, or is it an already known heater to the debate? If it’s an heater, don’t put it online.
Evaluate Big Dramas
One of the hallmarks of a shitstorm driven by a Hero Troll is that the core problem is small. It makes and inflates conflicts so fast that there isn’t real problems enough to fuel the fire. And even when the problem is a real one the Hero Troll inflates the debate far beyond its original scope.
When you evaluate you may need to ask yourself these questions
- Is this problem as big as it’s portrayed to be?
- Is this a real problem or something manufactured as a problem?
- Is this the actual problem or a conflict around a phenomena that has other roots?
The first two points have been covered several times, but the last one may need some explanation. From time to time Hero Trolls hide a real problem by banging the drums over something else. The reasons behind are many; they may gain from the environment created by the real problem, they may gain more from the conflict they created instead of a conflict regarding the real problem, or they may themselves think that the thing they arguing over is the real problem. Nevertheless the actual problem and the smokescreen problem becomes interlocked – you can’t end the conflict unless you adress both. Note that you may need to adress the smokescreen problem in a different way than the conflict suggests.
Take time and strength to calmly ponder these questions. Most often you are part of the storm and will be tempted to scream ”YES, YES, NO!” to the three questions and rush on to Solve The Problem (this is what the Hero Troll wants you to do). But nothing in a shitstorm is so urgent you don’t have time to sit down to ponder it over a cup of tea. Look on the wider context and on the actual facts to find what you need and can do.
Be calm, collected, factual and source your facts
Write down what you want you say, in a separate document if needed, and go through it with a fine tooth comb. Remove everything that may heat the discussion, all unneccessary words and put hyperlinks to all facts. If you can’t add a hyperlink to a reliable source on a fact you have to have another reliable source; irl books, newspaper articles, magazines, movies, tv programs etc. The rule of thumb for a reliable source is that it’s a fixed product and made by someone sane and sensible. If you want to refer to an evolving source like a chat, an online forum or a microblogging site like twitter you must use screen caps combined with the date and time the screen cap was made. When you refer to these sources you need to mention title of the work, author or creator (if you can), the dates for when the source was created and when you collected it, and page or time where the desired fact pops up.
Does this sound obsessive? You need it because you’re up against an obsessive opponent. The Hero Troll is remarcably persevering when it comes to keeping a conflict going. You should wait with waving your full reference list around though, the best is to start with the bare facts and follow up with your references when called upon. Your references serves a dual purpose. The first is to prove to others that this is a reliable fact, the other one is to give you a backbone; you do know what you are talking about. Hero Trolls are good at making others doubt their reasoning due to their own random behaviour and habit of mercilessly pecking at any weakness they see.
I already said it once, but take time to remove anything that can heat the debate before you post your sayings online. Be polite and be a saint when you treat others involved. You are allowed to think individuals act stupid, but when you talk to them you have to remember that they are humans worthy of respect. If you forget that you’ve fallen into one of the Hero Troll’s traps; making others bash each other like they are worthless things is part of its goal.
If you feel like your humour is heating up while you’re writing a post it is better to leave the computer and the argument and return later. A shitstorm have enough with screaming people, it doesn’t need one more. Keeping calm is hard, but worth it in the long run.
”What do you mean with that?”
(ask in a non-offensive manner)
This is effective when you’re in direct opposition to the Hero Troll or a fervent member of the co-acting squad. The shitstorm is created to be a slinging of facts and people seldom listen to each other other than to find weaknesses to pick on. When you politely ask ”What do you mean?” and listen, the opponent needs to elaborate its own points. Often this means that the person have to expose the weak basis for the argument, or even think about what it is saying. Don’t be afraid to ask several times since there will be answers ready for the first tiers of argumentation. Remember to be polite, calm and willing to listen.
Experienced Hero Trolls knows about this technique and may either leave the shitstorm entirely, or deflect by sending the question in return. The difference between slinging this question and slinging bullet facts is that when two or more are asking ”What do you mean?” a standoff is created. It’s close to impossible to raise the heat when two or more are waiting.
Asking ”What do you mean?” several times is tedious, so take time to vary the question. The list below gives you a few pointers
- What’s your reasoning behind that?
- Can you elaborate on that?
- Tell me more / Can you tell me more?
- Could you be more precise?
I cannot stress enough that you need to ask in an non-offensive, polite and kind manner. The tone of what you are saying is just as important as its content, and if you go aggressive the Hero Troll will use it as a cue to fan the flames of the conflict.
Bring the sunlight
To bring the sunlight is to expose the Hero Trolls behaviour. You need solid proof of stalking, insults and harassment, as well as well sourced facts. Tell the true story without fidgeting and remember that the Hero Troll have worked hard to make it look badder than it is. If you objectively find something to apologize for, do apologize, but most often your story is well behind the limits of appropriate behaviour.
It may be enough to post your story online on a place where the participants in the shitstorm can access it with ease. But some Hero Trolls goes so far they take to stalking and different kinds of threats. This is the case where you really need your incident diary; take it to the police and press charges. Death threats and rape threats are illegal in most countries, as is stalking. With the help of your screen dumps, the Internet Archive and the diary you can prove the serialised behaviour of the Hero Troll, and the threats itself. (If you’re unlucky and stumble upon an unsympathetic police be persistent. Despite the obvious flaws the police do their job in most cases.) Never hesistate to report to the police – threats are never a ”joke” or something ”you have to live with online”, they are crimes.
The best way to handle the Hero Trolls is to not give them the chance to start a shitstorm. You can do this both as a moderator of an internet forum and as a single individual enjoying the internet.
Active moderation of foras
This is important, and remember that more things than the classical forum board are forums; the comments section of blogs, videos and podcasts are, as is email lists (yes, there are still some alive), google hangouts, facebook pages etc. As soon as you have the chance to do active moderation do it. Do it openly with a set of forum rules easy to learn and access.
Exemple to build upon
”To keep the discussion interesting and on point we moderate the comments. Be calm, polite and factual. Bullying, flames and trolling is not allowed. Commentors who act inappropriate will be blocked, and illegal actions will be reported.”
If you moderate a forum visit it every day even if activity is low. If you’re a forum member and notice inappropriate behaviour alert the moderators to the incidents.
Learn to identify toxic behaviour
The actual actions of toxic behaviour change since the Hero Trolls are good at adapting. In one way you need experience to see it, and then you tend to go an a ”feel” for it rather than a checklist. The good news is that a working brain and some thought is as good as experience. The rule of thumb is that toxic behaviour is, among other things, to
- belittling others
- deliberatedly hurt others
- misrepresenting the rules
- gathering value by paint others in a bad light
- picking on and inflating minor flaws
It is possible to add to the list, but this should get you a set of parameters to work from.
No-flame, no-troll policy
These behaviours should not be accepted at all. As a moderator you need to handle them firmly and swiftly. Block repeat offendeers and warn beginners as fast as possible. You will need to handle grey areas, and that’s scary but possible to do. Keep an eye on other forums how they’re handling these questions, especially those who are good at it. This way you can gather experience before you need personally.
As an individual frequenting a forum this is harder to handle. Alert the moderators to the incidents (always the incidents) and leave foras that have bad ”vibes”. If you have the possibility to personally block individuals do so with people who crosses the line.
Identify and name flames directly, say that they are not allowed
In general you have to do it discretely. ”Post removed because of inflamatory content” on the space where the offending post was is enough in many cases. Sometimes you don’t have that luxury – on an email list or a running microblog you have to point to the post and say ”This is a flame, it’s not allowed in the discussion, you’ll be blocked if you do it again.” Be quick to redirect any discussion about the definition of a flame to private messages. If you are in the position to decide which comments who are to be published you don’t publish those with flames – that’s why your moderating policy have to be easy to see.
Trolls have argued that this is a limitation to free speach. It isn’t. Your role is the same as the official monitoring a competition to make sure the rules are followed. There are rules even in political debates, where free speech is crucial, directing the behaviour of the attendees. They are there to make sure every voice is heard, not just the loudest and most offensive ones.
Respond in level to the action
Only say what’s needed and do it in a calm tone. Anything else will give the Hero Troll a starting point to blow up a shitstorm.
Learn to handle toxic behaviour
This blogpost is a starter – do take chances to learn more as soon as you get them. There are excellent articles and documentaries online that can be finished in a few minutes. If your life and your interests allows read books on bullying behaviour, sociopathy and organisational theory. Concentrate on those who gives you constructive tips in handling disruptive behaviour and creating a positive environment.
It’s important to learn to tell the difference between serious bad acts and those minor flaws we all do. Remember that the only ones who can be perfect are gods (and not even all gods are making it) and that we are human. Since Hero Trolls often inflate minor flaws and create shitstorms around them you need to know when to stay off the bandwagon.
Be the one you want to meet on the internet (calm, understanding and accomodating) without throwing your brain out (identify toxic behaviour and handle it)
The reasons to go online are as many as there are individuals with access to computers. Regardless if you want to download the latest dissertation on hieros gamos in chinese folk religion or if you want to look at funny cats you are going to meet other humans at the same time. They occupy the comments sections and chat rooms. Most of us want to meet persons who takes our interests seriously (even if they may not share them), respect our views and remembers that everyone can make blunders sometimes.
Be that person yourself.
Since toxic behaviour can be excused as blunders you need to keep your brain on. You need to be able to handle it as soon as you see it. But your most important task is to build an internet environment where troll behaviour can’t thrive. This means promoting love, understanding and compassion. Though this may sound like a remnant from the hippie era, these three are hard core components when you want to take away the Hero Troll’s chances to whip up a shitstorm.