If you run a social media site, forum, membership website, or allow comments on your blog, chances are you’ve encountered trolls in some form.
Why Internet trolls exist
Although sometimes it’s easy to identify the motives behind a particular troll for causing trouble (e.g. a troll paid to wreak havoc online in a political campaign), more often it’s a pointless exercise because the troll is posting outrageous or inflammatory content for personal amusement, out of sheer boredom, or because of mental illness.
Interacting with Trolls
The phrase “do not feed the troll” exists for a reason. Trolls that are ignored often disappear. Visitors that interact with trolls are in essence feeding them so that they remain for more nourishment.
If you or one of your employees interacts with a troll, it’s like you’ve prepared a troll feast because such communication is more highly valued by the troll than simply dealing with other site visitors.
Under no circumstances should you try to troll a troll. It’s a losing proposition because even if you win a minor skirmish, you’ve encouraged a troll war on your turf. And some of the trolls may also be hackers you’ve given an axe to grind against you and your site.
Does The First Amendment Protect Trolling?
A common mistake made by website owners and trolls is to believe that trolling is constitutionally protected free speech.
However, those constitutional protections prevent the government from abridging free speech, not site owners or admins. If you own the ballpark, generally it’s your rules that govern what’s posted there (except for content that breaks the law, such as physical threats of violence, posting child porn, etc.).
Set Clear Rules
For content provided by others on your site, set clear rules as to what’s allowed and, equally important, what you’re banning. For example, if you have a membership website, your Internet lawyer can draft rules that are part of the membership agreement accepted by members. Depending upon the severity of the infraction, violations can lead to user content moderation, member suspension, or even termination.
On the other hand, it may be to your benefit to permit trolls free rein (within the confines of the law) as a means to spur debate, increase user engagement/stick rates, and boost site traffic in the process.
According to Internet Lawyer Mike Young, your visitors should know what’s permitted and what’s not so that they can make an informed decision whether to interact at your site. For instance, if a new visitor is clearly informed that free range trolling is allowed (anything goes), that visitor will rarely have a legitimate reason to complain to you, your admins, and moderators when trolls attack.
Consistently Enforce Content Rules
Perhaps the worst thing you can do when it comes to Internet trolls is to set rules but either violate or enforce them arbitrarily. Inconsistency generates user distrust while encouraging trolls to respond to hypocrisy by increasing their attacks.
If you don’t like the outcome of your current rules as they’re enforced, change the rules. However, be sure to give advance notice of the change, explain why the change is being made, and do not enforce the new rules retroactively to the past trolling that caused the change in the first place.