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Is Your Comments Section Troll Infested?

Posted on Thursday, October 31, 2013 at 1:04 AM

5 problematic situations and tips on how to handle them.

By Margaret Looney

[Internet troll n (slang): a person who sows discord in your comments section by starting arguments or upsetting people]

Combing through antagonizing remarks in your comments section can be an exhausting task. Worse, an online community can become a seedy breeding ground for Internet trolls.

But there are ways to lighten the load. At a recent panel at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference, Ro Gupta offered advice. He's vice president of business development at Disqus and has battled his share of under-the-bridge dwellers. Gupta listed the top five "prime trolling conditions" and offered a few ways community managers can avoid them:

#1 -- Lack of Clear Guidelines and Norms

"You'd be surprised by how many sites, especially professional news organizations', don't have clear communication of what their guidelines and norms are," Gupta said.

By clearly outlining the kind of discourse you intend to feature on your site, as NPR does, you can thwart the trolls in their tracks. Cite the guidelines if people get upset that their unruly comments are removed. "If you can point to something that you've always stated upfront, that will also sometimes appease the situation," he said.

2 -- Lack of Community Manager Presence

Gupta isn't just referring to someone moderating, approving, or deleting comments. Rather he includes the feedback of the author, guest contributor, or company mentioned in the article.

"Having that presence on a consistent ... and visual basis we see correlates pretty highly with successful communities." Gupta recognized this step as a challenge. He cited journalists' aversion to "what's down there in the comments," as well as workflow issues and the time-consuming nature of staying truly engaged. But if the community manager doesn't seem to care, then online aggressors won't hesitate to attack.

3 -- No Sense of Community Empowerment

Get a few engaged, sincere commentators on your side. They'll do a lot of the battling for you, like "helping to enforce the norms, telling people when they're out of line or when the contributions aren't welcome."

"Once the audience sees that you care enough to be consistently in the conversation, a constant voice of authority, you'll start to see a sort of citizen empowerment thing happening," he said. "They can often do a lot of work for you in terms of fighting off trolls, and on a more positive point, making [the comments section] a more welcoming environment."

Gupta notes that community managers have sometimes given moderation rights to regular contributors. That involves those who have proved they are passionate, responsible, and in tune with the type of conversation the site wants to encourage.

4 -- Reverse Chronological Order Sorting

If you always keep the most recent comment at the top of the thread, you're offering trolls a guaranteed 15 minutes of fame even for a low-quality comment. Taking a bit of inspiration from Reddit, Disqus monitors voting signals to see which comments should float to the top. By allowing well-received comments to be presented first, you're "incentivizing a really well-thought-out contribution that's pertinent to the topic."

5 -- A Snarky Tone in the Content

Snark breeds snark. "If [a publication] is written in a really provocative or controversial way, then naturally people are going to react."

Gupta said he doesn't think a writer's controversial tone is a good excuse for a troll attack. But it does mean the site should expect and prepare for matching feedback. When a reporter at Gawker, a site known for its quippy style, complained to Gupta that cruel comments had brought some Gawker reporters to tears, Gupta retorted, "Well, the natural question is 'how many of your writers have caused people to cry over the years?'"

"Sometimes you have to embrace that in a way, or at least accept what your tone or voice is going to yield in terms of people who [respond]," he said.

Margaret Looney is a member of the editorial staff of IJNet (www.ijnet.org), published by the International Center for Journalists, Washington, DC, an organization dedicated to advancing quality journalism worldwide.

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