Trolls are in the news with a vengeance. We are hearing about anonymous tweet threats of rape, threats of bombing, and imagined details of a certain academic’s lady garden. Many of the commentators are new to being on the receiving end of trolling. Many haven’t even had their first proper troll experience, they are Troll Virgins. So I thought the time was right for me to go public with some of our experiences here at wilmott.com, and my own views on the subject. For we have been there, done that, and got the slime-stained T-shirt!
The first time wilmott.com experienced trolling was around 2003/4. I was so naive that I didn’t even know such a creature existed. From asking around, it seemed no one else knew either. Perhaps the trolls themselves didn’t then know there was a name for them!
Trolls in those days didn’t just join an online discussion forum and start abusing people. No, that’s a more recent phenomenon made easy by Twitter. In those days that would have led to immediate banning on most forums. So they tended to play a longer game. They would start off by being a helpful member of their chosen community and then gradually start picking fights with people. It had to be done cleverly. The initial arguments would have a small element of justification about them, just enough to suck the innocent bystander into the argument…and it didn’t matter on which side. Other trolls would then crawl out from under their stones and join in. Then they would ramp things up. The helpful side was discarded. Full-scale abuse took its place. It left a residue of confusion…why has this member started getting so upset? Have we done something wrong?
I was disturbed, how had a hitherto friendly forum turned nasty and so quickly?
On wilmott.com we value freedom of speech very highly. Certainly more highly than on any other forum in our field. Trolling will not usually get people banned from wilmott.com. (Nor, for the record, will requests for banning from other members!) But then things started to get more serious than verbal nonsense. The website started receiving Denial of Service attacks. The physical address of our webmaster was posted online and threats of violence made against him.
What were we to do? Some people advised going to the police, some said start a civil suit, some suggested a clamp down on discussions and heavy moderation. The best advice I got was to treat this as a personality problem, and not a legal one.
We didn’t contact the police. We didn’t name and shame. We didn’t start heavy moderation.
All we ever did was to ban the worst of the trolls and some of those who were egging them on. And we stopped accepting new members with anonymous email addresses. It harmed business, but we stood by the principle of maintaining freedom of speech.
Years later I discussed our experience with Jimmy Wales. His experience with Wikipedia was exactly the same, starting with the friendly enthusiasm of the site, followed by the influx of the trolls, and then how to deal with them without destroying the site and without limiting freedom of speech. We both came independently to the same conclusions.
Since 2004 the site has been much less aggressive. I believe our policy has worked, and I hope it has been appreciated.
We get emails from people who have experienced trolling on other forums, and my advice is usually to simply ignore it. Our worst trolls are still active elsewhere and I get emails specifically about them. Some of the stories I hear are very disturbing. Do their investors (for some are hedge fund managers) know who they have invested their millions in? I think the trolls are naive. Anything you do on the internet is hard to erase. I know they usually think they can remain hidden, but that very arrogance is going to be their downfall.
Trolling is similar, in my view, to keying cars, to any vandalism. I think that Twitter has shown us the real nature of many people, and just how disgusting that nature is. Without Twitter they would still be sick people, but we would have less information about their nature and their numbers. There are a lot of them.
I do not believe that the correct way to deal with trolls is through the police or through limiting free speech. The police have far more important things to deal with. And god knows I’ve been on the receiving end of more than my share of free speech! But I take it as a compliment, that my success has stirred up so much envy!
There is a caveat here: The bullying of vulnerable people (children, the recently bereaved, for example) most definitely should be pursued with the full weight of the law.
My recommendation for dealing with trolls is that employment contracts for people in positions of responsibility should automatically ask for all of a person’s usernames. Employers (and indirectly customers) have the ability then to fire the worst offenders. Not declaring usernames would be treated as a sackable offence. In our field this means that Due Diligence questionnaires should ask for all usernames of partners, risk managers, almost everyone, as one of the standard questions.
And let’s start with the politicians, the MPs. All MPs are to declare all their usernames, just like they declare their financial interests. There are plenty of opportunistic MPs jumping on the faux-outraged bandwagon/trolley(?) so this should be easy to arrange!
Talking of faux outrage, this brings me on to other players in the Game of Trolls. Although I obviously have no time for trolls I also am not keen on the Troll Hunters, those, again I will use the word ‘opportunistic,’ who make a great fuss of the often Lesser Troll, and go out of their way to interfere and often to name the troll. I think of trolls, like most people do, as sad loners, but I do hope for their redemption and therefore do not want to see lives ruined by their premature exposure.
And then there’s the Troll Groupie. I have seen nothing much written about this species. They hang around trolls, encourage them, without doing the dirty work themselves. We have a few on wilmott.com. I do find such sycophants very creepy. But again, freedom of speech and all that.
1. Ignoring the trolls should be the default.
2. The law should be reserved for dealing with proper cases of possible physical or mental harm. Protect the vulnerable. But journalists, politicians, etc. should just take it on the chin.
3. Usernames should be declared by politicians, hedge fund managers, teachers, doctors, and anyone in a position of responsibility.