When dealing with internet antagonists, conventional wisdom advises "don't feed the trolls." But letting the trolls starve, I've found, is not always the best approach.
"Cyber-trolling," one 2014 study found, is "an internet manifestation of everyday sadism." Trolls usually harass others online "for the lulz," and so, the logic goes, it's wise to deprive them of further opportunity to achieve the mean-spirited fun that they seek. But failing to engage offers its own kind of encouragement by letting the troll control the game.
"Instead of agreeing not to feed the trolls, thereby accepting the terms of the antagonist’s game, the target should be encouraged to respond with his or her own game," troll scholar and Mercer University professor Whitney Phillips wrote back in 2013, "a game called Ruining This Asshole’s Day."
Phillips told me that the many variations of trolling make it impossible to advise just one approach to dealing with them.
"The correct response in any case is the response that feels comfortable to the target," she told me. "Not responding is valid. Naming and shaming is valid. Any choice is valid, and any choice has the potential to work, or not work. There are simply no guarantees, although there are a lot of options."
Instead of just turning off Twitter or logging out of Facebook when being trolled, I've found that it's better to fight back. Here are the strategies that have worked best for me in shutting down different kinds of trolls:
The angry troll is not really your prototypical troll. Unlike most trolls, this subspecies does not devote a large chunk of their time on the internet to trying to get a rise out of others. They are usually genuinely upset about whatever it is that you said or did and chose to convey it in a less-than-polite way.
I have encountered this troll in the social media wilds when writing about controversial topics. In my experience, the best way to handle this kind of troll is to give them a chance to explain their thoughts and feelings.
When writing about abortion or Gamergate, I've found that some people were truly distressed by what they felt was a mischaracterization of facts and wanted to know that the writer (me) had considered their perspective. Asking them to explain their point of view usually de-escalates the situation, and I have actually come away from these encounters with an appreciation for the perspective of someone who sees the world differently from me.
Troll researcher Jonathan Bishop told me that this kind of troll "resents success, especially from people they identify with in terms of age, social class, or other measure of status."
I like to try and move the conversation off of social media—civil debate rarely happens somewhere like Twitter. Bishop agreed that this is the right move. Offering to talk can make this troll go silent but when they do take me up on the offer, it can result in an interesting, thoughtful conversation. If you respond politely and hear the angry troll out, they will eventually cool down and leave you alone. All the Angry Troll wants is to be heard.
Not all trolls are nasty. The Joker Troll is the internet's court jester—this old-school prankster is in it to make everyone chuckle. A classic example of this subspecies' trolling is “delete your account,” an oft-employed response to tone-deaf tweets, especially those made by politicians.
If you find yourself the butt of the Joker Troll's jest, best to graciously accept that you've been had and join in on making fun of yourself.
The Just-Plain-Mean troll is trolling because he or she (but usually he) finds it fun. If you scroll back through his or her other social media postings, you will find them to be generally disagreeable. The best tack here is to troll back.
Bishop refers to this kind of troll as the Iconoclast. "The Iconoclasts are out to prove people wrong," he said. "They don't attack you on a personal level, they might even agree with you in reality, but they just like arguing, especially if you don't want to hear what they have to say. Engaging in a argument is what they want and what they will appreciate."
I encountered these trolls on Facebook, Twitter and e-mail after writing about my experience with abortion. Many of them had read a conservative blog's aggregation of my story rather than the story itself and thus had a skewed version of the facts in terms of how I had gotten pregnant and why and how I chose to abort. Others were misogynistic and seemed to find thrill in the opportunity to tell a woman what to do with her body.
Trolling back can work with this troll because they are interested in a fair fight. In dealing with this subspecies, I like to employ sarcasm. Firing back with a zinger shows the troll their ammo didn't hurt you.
If that doesn't shut them down, I move on to pointing out exactly why their point of view is silly. Sometimes it seems like trolls forget there is an actual human on the end of whatever message they're sending. Just reminding them that there is can sometimes shut down a situation. It's like how you probably wouldn't yell obscenities at your computer every time it froze if your computer could talk back.
The Scary Violent troll is the worst subspecies of troll on the internet. This is the troll that digs up a person's name and phone number and spreads them across the internet, that threatens to murder and rape them and in general goes out of his way to make life horrible for whomever is on the receiving end of the trolling.
It is important to respond to this troll in order to maintain agency over the situation, though even the pithiest response probably won't stop this troll from trolling. Bishop calls this subspecies of troll an "E-venger."
"The E-Vengers are out to get others back," he said. "You should have contact with these trolls so they feel heard."
Immediately report this troll to Twitter, Facebook or whatever social network the trolling is taking place on, because they are definitely violating the network's terms of service. If they are making direct violent threats, they are also breaking the law and you may want to contact the police. The Scary Violent troll could be a real life sociopath.
And that my friends is my personal guide to trolling. I hope it serves you well, and if you don't agree with it, feel free to send me your thoughts, preferably in a kindly-worded email.