Avoid Flame Wars and Internet Trolls

You’ve seen it before. Perhaps you’ve jumped on the bandwagon. An innocent, intelligent online conversation is hijacked, waylaid, or just plain interrupted by some evil little interloper’s rude, inflammatory remarks, and everybody involved turns on each other like a pack of raving cannibals. Long-forged web friendships are destroyed, bridges are burned, names are called, and sites are abandoned, all for the entertainment of some sniveling little weasel crowing in delight over the destruction he or she has wrought.

Such is the nature of the infamous Internet flame war. Arguments are inevitable within a virtually boundless community of differing people with differing opinions, but flame wars go above and beyond rationality and are typically started intentionally by a single entity who sets out to start the war. While you may not be able to head off a flame war before it gets out of control, you can at least protect your own online reputation and save a few buddies by not stooping to the same level as the troll who has invaded your Internet haven. Here are a few tips for identifying and avoiding trolls and for keeping your cool if you wind up the unlucky target.

1. Identify the Enemy

Trolls behave in sadly similar fashions. They are those who pop up randomly in the midst of normal online conversation simply to drop inflammatory, disruptive, often off-topic messages meant to draw other community members into a violent verbal confrontation. The more attention and anger they draw from others, the nastier they get. Trolls are distinguishable from those who simply have a strong opinion due to their tendency to resort to name-calling, profanity, and childish arguments in order to continue spurring on the negative onslaught from other members.

2. Don’t Feed the Trolls

The easiest, most practical, most effective method of dealing with Internet trolls is also the one very few people seem able to apply. Trolls attack online communities for attention and the amusement of watching the community fall apart over pointless flame wars. Trolls who are systematically ignored will post a few comments here and there, but when they receive no response, they will move on and leave your happy little community alone. Simply acknowledging a troll’s presence – i.e., “Looks like we’ve got a troll” – is enough to encourage him or her. Therefore, no matter how badly that comment rubs you the wrong way, no matter how badly your fingertips itch to rattle out a vicious response, the best response is to simply move on to the next message and ignore the troll entirely. Chances are someone else will bait the troll and the flaming will commence nonetheless, but you do not need to get involved.

3. I Repeat … You Do Not Need to Get Involved

Once the flaming nonsense has begun, sides will be drawn almost instantaneously. Your Internet friends will sling mud back and forth. Tempers will boil over. Very, very nasty things will be said. You’ll be sorely tempted to defend this person or denounce that person. You’ll feel it’s absolutely essential that your viewpoint is expressed in its entirety, preferably along with a lot of swear words to emphasize your points. In all truth, your involvement will not be helpful in ending the ugliness. In fact, the more people who feel it’s essential to get their two cents in, the longer and uglier the discourse will become. Your best bet in protecting your online reputation and integrity is to just stay out of the whole mess. This way, even if it all ends in hurt feelings and lost friendships, no one can point at you for stirring up the trouble. And if everybody just sat back and ignored the nonsense, there’d be no nonsense to speak of.

4. Diffuse When Possible

No matter how good your intentions may be, you might eventually become the target of a troll simply because he or she happened upon your post and was bored at the moment. If you recognize potential trollish behavior in respondents to your comments, do your community a favor and do not bait him or her. Anger or retaliatory, sarcastic comments toward a troll will only make things worse. Don’t attempt to explain your position or give your troll a reality check. If you can’t take the comments in stride and simply ignore them – if you feel a response is absolutely, pertinently necessary, in other words – keep it light and humorous. Something neutral and anti-inflammatory such as “That’s an interesting way to look at it” won’t be any fun for a troll. But if you let the slightest bit of sarcasm or defensiveness into your message, you’re troll bait.

5. Take a Vacation

If things get too ugly, and you’ve been drawn into the flame war against your better judgment, an infallible method of extracting yourself from the antagonism is to simply refrain from visiting the scene of the crime for a while. Flame wars generally hit their peak and trail away within a matter of days. If you’re really bothered by the negativity in your online community, take a few days off. Don’t check for new posts. Don’t make any new posts. Just stay away for a little while. You can read up later, once it’s all said and done, to see who said what. Trolls can’t draw you into an ugly confrontation if you’re not there.

The bottom line: Trolls are unhappy people. They strive to make other people into unhappy people. If your online community is a generally happy one, don’t take part in bringing trash into the house.

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