How Do You Respond to Trolls? You Don’t.

Do you read the comment thread on your articles and columns? Sometimes, when a piece gets lots of social media attention, it’s hard not to. It’s even been suggested that depending on the tone of a comment thread, readers opinions can change. Comments are content, too. I’m don’t belong to any commenter community on any site, but I do read the threads on some of my favorite news sites. Sometimes they can be useful or just funny, and sometimes, they make me lose my faith in humanity.

In a recent essay, Jeff Jarvis sets out to define the troll. By using Aaron James’ Assholes:  A Theory as a jumping point, Jarvis defines the troll as a specific, if not just web-based, animal. The troll is out for blood. Your blood. And responding to them only makes them happy.

A month ago, Slate Double X editor and author of the book The End of Men, Hanna Rosin, did a Reddit AMA. It was pretty much ruined by trolls, not to be confused with mere assholes. These guys were out to sabotage her and the fight continued onto Twitter. Rosin couldn’t contain herself.


I was sort of glad she responded to them at first tweet, but then quickly realized how useless and harmful it actually is. For the digital journalist and writer, dealing with trolls is two-fold.

First, you have the official comment section for your organization. This means that there are algorithms to block certain kinds of offensiveness. There are also, probably, official protocol for responding. Some organizations, like Gawker, force their writers to take part in the conversations– and their faithful commenting community takes care in shutting down trolls. Their system has a “dismiss” button users can use to block a negative or ridiculous thread.

Secondly, a journalist has to face trolls alone, like Rosin did, on their own social media accounts. This is where things can get ugly and complicated. You run the risk of looking foolish by engaging with them. And I don’t think anything good can come from it.

Responding to comments on the official thread may still be discouraged in most newspapers, but it’s the safer bet, if only because some organizations have noticed that the tone changes when it’s clear that someone from the paper is watching. 

If comments are content, too, then it makes sense for journalists to make themselves known in the comment section. I think we should do it more. Jarvis posits that responding to trolls helps us create the web we want:

The next time you see a troll rubbing claws and cackling at his attack on someone you know and respect and you do not call him on it, then you must ask yourself what kind of net you are fostering. I’ve tried to come to the defense of the trolled a few times recently. When I’ve seen cries of “fight! fight!” I’ve sent the criers links to that paragraph above. When I saw someone I know attack someone else I know over daring to criticize Apple—red meat wrapped in a red cape for many a troll—I asked: “Did you have to launch off with an insult? Is that really the kind of conversation we want to have?”

It can also help your organization foster its brand online. By asking reporters to engage now and again, and not just a handful of designated spokespeople in the newsroom, it means your organization is being a better digital citizen.

It’s useful for a few reasons:

  • To help dispel rumors or speculation about a piece. I think it’s good practice to jump in if people are questioning your methods or sources in a reasonable way. You should do this on the official comment thread, or by a blanket tweet or post on whatever social media site you use for work.
  • To show you care. I know, this sounds silly, but if a conversation is flourishing under your article, and there’s something you can add to it, why not? This is known as the Nick Denton approach. Of course, you don’t have time to hang out under your articles every day, unless you are a Gawker writer, but why not respond to interesting comments? Not every commenter is a troll, many, in fact, have useful feedback and perspectives.