I belong to a group of mom bloggers and it is not uncommon for one of us to Facebook the rest of us and ask for “nice comments” on a post to offset the vitriol being vomited upon the comment section by trolls.
Not sure what trolls are? They’re those shadowy internet lurkers who visit blogs seemingly with the sole intention of shredding the blogger. They take issue with the content, the POV, the writing style, sometimes even the gender of the writer. From a mere 1000 words or so, they assign twisted personality traits to the blogger and use the anonymity of the commenting forum to eviscerate a stranger.
They especially love to attack bloggers for expressing strong opinions on, God forbid, their own blogs! Here’s a love note Elizabeth Aquino received on her blog, a moon, worn as if it had been a shell:
“Elizabeth, I’m not in a position to judge your ‘niceness.’ But from your articles I can discern very clearly that you are a self-obsessed, self-absorbed, self-interested, narrow minded person. That is, if the case doesn’t assist Elizabeth in some way or improve Elizabeth’s lot in some fashion, Elizabeth isn’t interested in it. “
It’s worth mentioning that, despite her self-absorption and narrow-mindedness, Elizabeth raises three kids, one of whom has a severe seizure disorder.
An example from my own blogging life: in response to my essay that ran in Salon in March 2011, various trolls diagnosed me with an “Axis II personality disorder,” accused me of being a “divorced vaginate” and a “horrible mother” and urged me to get “non-supportive, challenging therapy.”
I’m confident about my writing, and I know, after a few cyber-public floggings, to brace myself before I scan the comment thread, but still. Watching people who don’t even know you stomp all over your integrity can leave you feeling like a frail kid cornered by schoolyard bullies.
What is it about cyberspace that makes some commenters feel they have the right to rip a blogger into teeny-tiny pieces? I’m not talking about those engaging in critical thinking, or respectfully disagreeing, or inviting civil dialogue. I’m all for that.
I’m talking about rabid, mad-dog commenters who hurl vicious, sadistic barbs at bloggers. Or trolls who stand atop their high, sanctimonious horses issuing judgments — judgments like these, received by my friend Jenny Heitz on her hilariously spot-on Beyond the Brochure post “Perfect Mommy Syndrome.”
“Sounds to me like you’re feeling guilty about your choices after seeing parents who might be making better ones. Maybe if you were confident in the way you’re parenting your children, you wouldn’t even notice what everyone else is doing…. A little soul-searching might be in order to figure out what the REAL issue is.”
Now, even if you did have some “soul-searching” to do, would snide spitballs spur your motivation?
The Psychology of Cyberspace
John Suler, a psychology professor at Rider University, has written extensively about the psychology of cyberspace in his online book called just that: Psychology of Cyberspace. Drawing from psychoanalytic theory and other psychological orientations, Suler breaks down the reasons why cyberspace invites conflict and what kinds of people and circumstances stir the maelstrom.
Suler believes that cyberspace is a “psychological extension” of a person’s internal landscape. Hours spent online trigger unfinished business and subconscious processes “that can alter sensory experience and can even create a dream-like state of mind.”
Suler has some interesting theories linking certain personality types with certain online behaviors. For instance:
– Do antisocial personalities exploit the wild west quality of the internet in order to hack?
– Do narcissists use the internet to gather throngs of admirers?
– Do dissociative people use the internet to create multiple online personalities?
– Do compulsives use the internet as a means to gain control over their lives?
– Do histrionic people see the internet as a forum for theatrical displays in order to get attention?
I’m a PhD or two short of being able to to grasp fully the more nuanced concepts of Suler’s theories — stuff about transferring unfinished business with parents on to the computer itself, which is then exacerbated by transferring unfinished business onto blog posts — but I think I can adequately convey a few of his basic ideas.
The Disinhibition Effect
Online, people feel less inhibited and more able to express themselves. This can lead to “benign disinhibition,” in which people display acts of generosity, for example, sending prayers or even donations to those afflicted by terminal illnesses.
But the kind of disinhibition I’m exploring in this post is the toxic kind, what Suler refers to as “simply a blind catharsis, an acting out of unsavory needs and wishes without any personal growth at all.”
My blogging friend Lori Day, perhaps one of the most genteel and refined voices in the blogosphere, shares two of the particularly egregious comments she has received: “Lori, you c**nt,” and “wake up from your gynocentric stupor.”
I ask you: does calling a woman a c**t invite conversation or shut it down?
How Does Calling a Blogger a C**nt Happen?
The “you don’t know me” quality of the internet allows people to dissociate, to separate their words from who they are. “When acting out hostile feelings,” writes Suler, “the person doesn’t have to take responsibility for those actions. In fact, people might even convince themselves that those behaviors ‘aren’t me at all.'”
I Can’t Tell My Boss To Go F**k himself, So I’ll Tell You
Suler explains that the internet levels the playing field. Regardless of social status, race, and gender, everyone has a voice. It’s not easy standing up to an authority figure, and if you want to keep your job, you’d better mince your words. But online, says Suler, authority is “minimized. People are much more willing to speak out or misbehave.” Combine this with someone who grew up silenced by an oppressive or abusive parent, and the potential for unbridled trolliness soars.
Of course, if you want your insults to be taken seriously, be sure to check your spelling. My blogger friend William Quincey Belle devoted a post to the troll who responded to one of his posts with “Your an idiot.”
Suler states that certain personality types vary in their tendencies towards inhibition or expression. “People with histrionic styles tend to be very open and emotional. Compulsive people are more restrained.” Suler explains that the disinhibition effect interacts with personality variables, creating an online behavior pattern that is more exaggerated than one’s offline behavior.
The type well known to all of us who hang out on blog comment threads is the “oppositional personality.” These are the people who take issue with virtually anything that is written. “They struggle with underlying feelings of hostility that can be expressed passively or indirectly, via the act of disagreeing,” writes Suler. “They may also need to oppose others as a way to firm up their somewhat fragile identity or to boost self-esteem by proving themselves right and others mistaken.”
May I give you an example? From a Beyond the Brochure mommy troll to another commenter (when trolls are not sated after chomping on the writer, they go after their fellow commenters):
“How much did you research your CHOICE to inject toxins in your child’s blood veins? Trust me I know WAY MORE on the topic than you do! So yeah, I am a better parent if I took the time to research fully and not just take doctors (who are human and failable — um, that would be fallible, Madam Troll— and many are just as ignorant and ill informed as many parents they are leading on) on their word seeing as they have the pharmaceutical reps in their back pocket! ?And what do you know about homeschool? Except that you would be a terrible homeschooling parent.??Get a life lady, you have no clue about the world around you!”
Oh, what fun to be on the Hot Lunch Committee with her!
Suler states that oppositional types are drawn to the “intellectually contentious atmosphere” of online discussion. And in a chaotic, unmonitored environment where it’s impossible to read facial expressions or hear tone-of-voice, oppositional tendencies may ramp up.
While insult-hurlers are merely obnoxious, trolls who threaten may actually be sociopathic. I was stunned to read an article in The Guardian reporting on women writers who routinely receive rape and death threats from commenters. Several female journalists have gone public with the outrageous threats they have received in an attempt to get online discussion moderators to establish stricter commenting policies and boot those who are being abusive.
So How Do We All Just Get Along?
Psychotherapist Kali Munro offers tips to resolve conflict online. Here are some of them:
Don’t respond right away
Squelch that urge to fire back a response setting the troll straight. Wait 24 hours before responding.
Read the post again later
Sometimes your first reaction is colored by how you’re feeling at the time. Read it later and see if it could have been written with a different tone from the one you originally heard.
Choose whether or not you want to respond
If the post is inflammatory and the person appears to be a bully, the best strategy is to ignore him/her.
Use “I statements”
Anyone who’s been in couples therapy knows how to do this one: “I feel vs. “You did blahblah…”
Choose your words carefully
Because the person can’t see you and must rely entirely on what you’ve written, choose your words carefully. Imagine how the other person might “hear” what you say.
Start and end your post with validating statements
This one doesn’t need explaining.
My New Commenting Policy
While I cannot control the comment threads on other sites that run my pieces, I can control them on this site, and writing this post has spurred me to do just that. So here are my guidelines:
1. This blog contains subject matter related to divorce and custody issues, two hot-button topics that may trigger some people. If you feel that divorce is just plain wrong, and that all divorced people are low-life vermin, you are kindly invited to go elsewhere.
2. Please keep your comments civil. Respectful disagreement and intelligent debate are fine, but remarks that are abusive and accusatory are not, and will be deleted.
3. Spelling and punctuation corrections are welcome.
One thing about my Perils of Divorced Pauline commenters: they are a smart, articulate, and well-mannered lot. I value all of you, my wonderful blogging and commenting community, more than I can say. I don’t think I’ve had to deep-six a comment yet.
But you never know who may be lying in wait…
Funny, and all too true. (Is there a personality type for “obsessed with shoes?”)
Great piece, Pauline, Really.
Shoe troll — that’s one I hadn’t heard of! They’re a varied lot, aren’t they?
William Belle says
Good lord, I remain shocked by the anger and hate expressed by some individuals. Their comments are not about the blogger; their comments are about themselves. People who are in a good place say nice things; people who are troubled say bad things. We’re all trying figure things out; we’re all trying to figure life out. Sometimes it’s good; sometimes it’s bad. However we’re all in this together so why can’t we get along and help one another instead of fighting one another? As corny or dumb as this sounds, I would like to see everyone happy, successful and at peace with themselves and the rest of the world.
This is awesome Pauline!
(there, I’m starting and ending my post with a validating statement. Thanks!)
HA! Excellent job, Lisa.
We can always dream, right?
phoebes-in-santa fe says
“Pauline”, do you censor your comments? That’s the best way to control your own blog. But, as you rightly point out, the two topics you discuss most often are inclined to stir up a hornet’s nest. I don’t think anyone who’s been through divorce or custody issues wouldn’t have strong opinions. It’s the nature of the beast.
Couple of weeks I was reading a blog written by an other-wise smart seeming divorced mother. She had at least one child and is believer that no-fault divorce is terrible. She wrote that her husband wanted a divorce and had already moved on to another woman and that she – the wife – held up the divorce for three years because she didn’t believe in divorce (let alone no-fault divorce).
I read this blog with mounting incredulity and all I wanted to do was to write in and say,
“Lady, get a clue. Your marriage was dead! He’d moved on already. You weren’t going to ‘win him back’ – he’s gone. What does your pathetic hanging on to a dead marriage say to your daughter? You should have mourned your dead marriage and moved on yourself. That’s not exactly rocket science. The absence of no-fault divorce wouldn’t have saved your marriage. It was gone!!”
I restrained myself and didn’t write on the blog, but if I had written the above statement, would I have been considered a “troll”? I was truly struck by the stupidity of the blogger, who, as I said before, seemed to be bright in every other way. I saw by that very blog entry and my visceral response to it just WHY the subject of divorce and custody is so volatile. For the record, I’m divorced – happily – with no custodial issues. My ex and I were able to work everything out and have co-parented two wonderful young men, now aged 32 and 30. But I was lucky.
Christina Simon says
Fabulous piece! I recently had a MAN troll angrily attacking me on a
Your rules for handling trolls are excellent. I’ll be referring writers back here when they throw up their hands over what to do with them. I err heavily on the side of not responding and deleting. Your blog is your space; you can be the benevolent dictator, as you are in your own home.
Two words of wisdom that have salvaged my sanity: comment moderation!
My blog, my rules… Lord knows I’m not overrun w/trolls; at best I have a handful of dedicated readers but I’ve suffered a few scattered attacks – easier to just delete that crap.
(The most memorable was a vitriolic demand that I REMOVE a post that was YEARS old, discovered by someone who had just unearthed the Power of Google, I suppose… I deleted identifying factors but respectfully declined to delete anything I’d written.)
[email protected] from a Peaceful Divorce says
I am glad that you have dissected the troll personality. They are unfortunate, and can be very hurtful. Yet, as you have noticed, most of our commenters are supportive and thoughtful. Yay for that!
Andrea @SoOverDebt says
Funny that you posted this today – I woke up this morning to a troll comment ranting about the “epidemic” of single mothers and how I should “KEEP YOUR LEGS CLOSED, IDIOT!” I used to try to respond to them (calmly) but it just seemed to encourage them. So now comments that attack me as a person are deleted, and if the commenter persists, I block their IP from commenting on my site.
I wish there was a magic way NOT to feel hurt by the things trolls post. People always tell me not to take it personally, that they’re just jerks, etc. but it doesn’t take away the sting of their words. It’s hard to believe that the price I pay for writing from the heart and admitting my failures is being a punching bag for everyone on the internet.
I wish my blog was stalked by someone! Only kidding. We are too new and noncontroversial to attract trolls. But I feel for those who have to deal with their hurtful, angry comments. Thanks for taking the time to break down the real reasons this sort of thing happens and what bloggers can do to prevent (or reduce) its occurrence. It’s similar to the road rage that so many of us experience on LA freeways. There is a sense of anonymity that comes from being hidden in an automobile, as there is in being hidden behind a computer.
Elizabeth Aquino says
What a great post — so carefully and thoughtfully researched and written. I am going to spread the word!
Thank you! And thanks for sharing your troll experience.
In the next life I’d love to be a non-controversial blogger…maybe flower arranging or something, although I suppose even that could stir someone’s ire. Great point about trolling being similar to road rage…the anonymity lets so many people act out.
“Keep your legs closed, idiot” — that’s a colorful one! And so “helpful” considering you’ve already had kids with your ex. Yes, it is hard not to feel traumatized by the trolliness but at least comments on your own blog can be deleted.
My blog, my rules — love it! Great policy.
Sound policy, Justin.
I often read posts where I shake my head because I so disagree with the writer. I understand why you had the reaction you had to the blogger you refer to, but everyone has their own process and time frame for grieving. Despite the fact that I initiated my divorce, and am now remarried, I’m not sure I’ll ever totally “get over it” because I feel so much guilt and regret over what my kids have gone through. I have to work
Gabi Coatsworth says
I was once caled a C**T on one of my posts. Me! The ever charming Gabi Coatsworth. After the initial shock, I decided the guy was deluded and crazy himself. And I had it erased. But thanks to you I know why these people do this. Onward!
I agree with the idea of comment moderation. I figure that your site is your own damn soapbox, and it’s fully your right to delete any comments you don’t like.
Fabulous and very thoughtful post! I agree with Missy, it is the anonymity that makes it easier to be rude. Few people actually want their friends to know how nasty they are, I think. I think of troll comments on blogs as being kind of comparable to the comments on op-eds in the newspaper. I also agree that your blog is your own, so treat it that way and delete any comments that you don’t like or that are offensive. I actually chose to leave the sexist comments on my Raising Boys Not to be Total Jerks post as I thought it emphasized my point. Brava, Pauline!
Thankfully I have somehow managed to not attract the attention of Trolls. I have no idea how really especially considering I write a single mom blog. Only thing I can think of is I do make an effort to avoid controversial topics and a controversial writing style. I know so many bloggers who automatically adopt a really confrontational tone that is just begging to be attacked. And even though they bemoan it, they thrive on the page views. Go figure. I like my small calm corner in the blogosphere. I also try and behave that way elsewhere. Very rarely have I made negative comments. I have tried on rare occasion to offer constructive criticism but most of the times, it didn’t go well so now I don’t even waste time. Or if I have to get it off my chest, I write the whole thing out and then delete.
Katie - OCMomActivities says
Great post! I too thank goodness have been able to avoid crazy trolls. I’ve seen my friends deal with them though and it is frustrating. I equate trolls to the trashy magazines.. You know you’re becoming important when they pay attention to you? LOL. Guess I’m just not important enough yet.
And if they aren’t willing to link to their own website when they leave their comment? Yep, we can click delete comment
Lori Day says
I envy everyone with a successful blog who can manage their own trolls. If I were in that position, I’d have the same rules that awesome guy at The Atlantic has and consider my blog my home. No one comes into my home and cusses me out or ruins the environment for everyone else. Out they go! Same rules on the blog. But, unfortunately, I do not have a blog that gets traffic–I get a lot of traffic writing for other blogs, where I am to follow their rules even when I take great issue with them. I could always quit…but then what? Most major blogs out there are looking to rack up comments and page views for Google analytics, and to avoid censorship of any kind, so it’s pretty much a free for all. Name calling is generally out, but a lot of bad behavior is tolerated. It’s a shame.
That’s such a good point, Lori, and I hadn’t thought of it before, that the vitriolic comments do rack up page views.
phoebes-in-santa fe says
“Pauline”, you say you feel guilt about your divorce because of what it did to your kids? Did you ever figure what life had been for your kids if you had stayed married? What would the kids have seen and gone through on a daily basis when watching their parents interact? It probably would have been worse. Do you think your son wouldn’t have had the problems he has if you had stayed married? I bet he would have; it’s the way he’s “wired” and whether his parents are married or not, that’s his personality.
So, I don’t think you should feel the guilt you do but I know from agonising personal experience why/how you do. I think it will disappear as the years pass. At least, I hope it does!
Thanks for saying that. I’m sure you’re right. I think I’ve just spent too much time hanging out on HuffPo Divorce (and fending off trolls on other sites), where there seems to be a pervasive belief that staying in a hellish marriage is better for the kids and they won’t notice how bad things are. Plus, I think I’m just “wired” to feel guilty! I appreciate your input, though — thanks for stopping back.
gingermoran (@gingermoran) says
Great, really informative post about internet trolls.
This is when I am glad my blog is so tiny—the few trolls I have had make me lose sleep! I need thicker skin
The disagreeing troll made me laugh. They are EVERYWHERE and it doesn’t matter what it is. They will disagree.
I think this also extends to those popular sites that have a survey question of the day. I always click to see the results, and I usually blurt out a childish 2-year-old “NO!” just before I click results. Almost invariably, the majority answer is “no” or otherwise the most negative reaction answer. Try it sometime! One such place is Yahoo, which is renowned for its nastiness and trolling. Go to the main page every day for a week and click results. Be sure to blurt out your toddler voice “No!” just before you click. Voila!
I think I have a tendency to be oppositional, but usually only on matters that I have strong feelings about. My mom says that even as a kid I had to always have the last word. I used to be in Speech & Debate and I do get a sort of adrenaline rush from arguing a point. What I think distinguishes me from a troll is that I don’t do it with ill intent, I don’t do it to inflame, hurt, anger, or cause undue stress to other people. Cursing is a big no-no for me, unless you’re the scourge of humanity, ie child predators. There was a story last week on CNN about a child predator sting nabbing a few teachers. A lot of the comments seemed to be posted by predators arguing their right to not only be attracted to but engage in acts with pubescent children. I nearly had a coronary! I couldn’t type fast enough and I more than once wished for the ability to reach through the internet.