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Don’t Feed the Trolls: Safeguarding Your Community from Problematic Behavior

The internet can be a thrilling place, where people from all walks of life converge to seek information, conduct trade, and communicate with one another. Yet there’s a danger lurking on message boards, in social media threads, and in community forums. We call these predatory people trolls.

If your first thought upon hearing that word is of toys, candy, or cartoon characters, consider yourself lucky. For those who moderate digital environments, trolls are terribly irritating (and occasionally dangerous) people looking to bring discord to your online spaces. Not only do they attack more docile users but they can even cause damage to the community itself. The longer you let a troll thrive, the more that person will degrade your community and drive away members. The best advice is for your community manager and/or moderator to nip things in the bud. Your audience will thank you for your efforts.

To begin, let’s distinguish what a troll is and how to identify one. With luck, trolls in your community will be rare, with most of your forum population comprised of productive community members. Most participants are there for pleasant discussions, to offer productive contributions to the community, and to interact positively with other members. A good community member can help your forum grow and thrive, so keep an eye on them and make sure they’re cared for because, unfortunately, they’re often prey for the trolls. When trolls arrive, your community member population will take a hit, so keep your guard up.

Somewhere between the level of a regular community member and a troll is the deliberate instigator. They’re worth mentioning because, like trolls, these instigators can be trouble as well. Simple moderation tools like a good hide posts function or a simple warning are often sufficient to keep these members in line. Over time, some might shape up and mature into productive community members themselves. You can distinguish an instigator from a troll because an instigator is still a part of the community, in that they contribute to discussions and have their own niche. They just need to be watched with a bit more care because of their tendency to cause trouble.

Unfortunately, the troll requires a lot more attention and time. They’re not hard to identify, as they use inappropriate language, graphic images, and abusive behavior. For older trolls, those on well-monitored sites, you often see signs of previous encounters with moderators. A troll may have quite a few warnings attached to his or her account. 

Trolls can be stubborn; they don’t respond to warnings, as an instigator might. Trolls don’t join communities to build relationships; in fact, they feed on tearing them down. The goal of a troll is attention — the more the better, especially if it’s negative. He or she feeds on attention and will find every way to press the buttons of your community members and make them leave. The troll wants inhospitality and toxicity; he or she thrives in negative spaces.

Since trolls live for attention, the hardest part of a troll infestation is not giving them what they want. The more you feed a troll that attention, the more emboldened he or she gets. The way to get rid of trolls is to ignore them until their behavior is actionable. You may start by hiding their posts and privately directing community members to ignore the troll, but eventually it will likely become necessary to remove the troll with bans. It might take a few removals, but the troll will eventually get tired and leave.

As a community manager or moderator, one way to protect your community is to address and remove toxic outside influences like trolls. By removing these nuisances using suspensions and bans, you help to protect those that call the forum home and make your community a healthier and more prosperous place. Remember, trollish behavior should never be tolerated in your community, so don’t be afraid to put them in their place.

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