By Erin Stewart
Only a couple of weeks ago, Sydney newspaper The Daily Telegraph launched a ‘War Against Trolls’. They said that ending online trolling is ‘a battle society must fight’. Australia’s Next Top Model judge, Charlotte Dawson was admitted to hospital after rampant trolling caused her to attempt to take her own life. Trolls have also attacked other public figures such as rugby players and reality TV contestants, as well as everyday people.
Trolls can attack the comments section of online publications, blogs, and social media. Some writers have had hate-blogs and other online campaigns set to attack or take them down. Writers who have been trolled include: Marieke Hardy, Clem Bastow, Clementine Ford, Damon Young, Lena Chen, Sady Doyle, Mia Freedman, Catherine Deveny, Laurie Penny, and many others.
It’s a mean world out there.
What is trolling?
It’s worth noting that The Daily Telegraph and other media coverage of recent trolling incidents actually use the word ‘troll’ incorrectly. Traditionally (or at least, traditionally in internet terms) a troll is someone who participates in an online debate and says things to deliberately inflame the situation, changes the subject, or attacks others in the debate. They might deliberately start an argument that they know will be provocative and they enjoy seeing the anger of other users. Basically, a troll pretends to hold controversial views and likes seeing others get pointlessly emotional in reaction to them.
The term is being used quite differently now in the media. Newspapers are referring to someone who makes personal attacks on others and enjoys seeing them hurt or angered by their comment. The kind of attacks Charlotte Dawson was exposed to is more aptly described by the word ‘bullying’, but alas, language evolves.
It’s important to recognise the difference between bullying/trolling and other kinds of feedback of you and your writing. I’ve created this continuum to demonstrate what I mean.
Negative feedback (whether constructive or not) may hurt, but it’s of a different order to bullying and harassment. Putting your work out there in the world for other people to look at isn’t always going to bring about pleasant praise. Even if it does, the praise won’t necessarily be useful to you as a writer (a comment like ‘great work, keep it up!’ may be motivating, but far too vague to be useful). If someone gives you negative comments, it also doesn’t mean that they are harassing you.
You shouldn’t defend yourself against constructive comments, or even straight out negative feedback, unless you have a special reason to do so. For instance, self-published authors have been known to respond to bad Amazon reviews of their book (one even sued a reviewer! Unsuccessfully). Don’t do it. People are entitled to their opinions.
When comments get personal, that’s they cross the line into trolling/bullying/harassment.
How to deal?
The Australian Communications and Media Authority suggests a simple three-step process for dealing with trolls. First, you ignore the comments – don’t respond. Responses ‘feed the troll’ and can validate their message. Second, block the troll. This is fairly easy on most social media platforms and means that the user can no longer communicate with you. Finally, report the troll by getting in contact with Twitter, Facebook, or whatever platform you’re using and dob them in. If they still persist (perhaps under a different username that you haven’t blocked), you report them to police.
Some people choose to use alternative methods of dealing with trolls. Charlotte Dawson re-tweeted some of the worst comments she received. Sometimes bloggers also post vitriolic comments they have received and respond to them. Sometimes the idea is just to give your audience a taste of the criticism thrown your way. This is your choice, however it can be encouraging for a troll to have their comment re-tweeted or re-posted to all of your followers and it’s certainly an unlikely method to make the abuse go away. However, this is also your right if that’s how you want to deal with it. If you’re particularly good with your one-line comebacks and it’s appropriate, why not?
Charlotte Dawson was also responsible for unmasking a troll. She figured out who was sending horrible messages on Twitter and gave her a phone call. The idea of unmasking a troll can be appealing.
It’s difficult, but important, to rise above the online abuse. If people say nasty things to you, it doesn’t make you a bad person. You might have written something that touched a nerve with them, or they might be jealous, or may just enjoy upsetting people. In any case, it’s not your fault. Sometimes the best thing is to remember that ‘haters gonna hate’, there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
Some people feel that they are forced to shut down social media accounts because the sheer amount of abuse is too much to bear. This is an unfortunate option because it means that the trolls have successfully silenced you, but your state of mind comes first.
Aside from dealing with trolls in particular, you also get some amount of control over whether you want to expose yourself to others’ scrutiny on a number of platforms.
If you write a piece that is published on a news website, you can decide whether or not you want to read the comments. If the website regularly features vitriolic comments, it’s probably best not to bother. If you’re keen on feedback though, another option is to get a friend to look at the comments and send you a cross-section of constructive comments, both positive and negative.
If you have a blog, it’s worth reading the comments if for no other reason than you’re responsible for maintaining all areas of your site. To some extent, you set the tone. If you brutally attack other people in your blog posts, you are likely to attract comments which have a similar tone.
You also have final say on what comments are filtered through on your blog. You may not wish to moderate comments at all. Some blogs will only post a very small number of comments they receive. At the extreme end, some blogs simply do not allow comments, figuring that if readers want to get in touch or have a conversation, they can always use social media. If you get a lot of comments, you may want to have a think about writing a comments policy. If you get a lot of nasty comments, you may want to get a friend to moderate them for you.
You can also choose how you want to respond to comments. Some bloggers continue the conversation by responding to every comment; others don’t or respond only rarely.
How do you, as a writer, want to interact with your audience? It’s worth thinking about that question and establishing what role your audience plays. Perhaps you only blog to keep up with writing regularly, in which case, maybe you don’t need to activate the commenting function. On the other end, maybe you draw on your audience to inspire posts and inform your writing, in which case, commenting and other channels of contact are going to be vital.
Ultimately, you get to decide how much you’re going to read what other people are saying about you on the internet and how much you’re going to respond to those comments. Decide what you want to do and know the ramifications.
Erin Stewart is a freelance writer and student. Her work has appeared in publications such as The Age, Daily Life, The Drum, Voiceworks, and Time Out: Sydney. She’s an internet addict and can usually be found buried under a pile of books with a cup of tea in hand. Twitter: @xerinstewart