Communities Online: Trolling and Harassment

Types of Trolls

Before we begin, it's worth noting that the term "troll" is one of the most frequently cited insults in the online environment. It is often used to brand, silence or scapegoat a member with a dissenting or unpopular opinion. The purpose of this article is to assist those in online communities in determining what a true troll is and what actions can be taken to prevent their creation, welcome, and ability to inflict any harm.

In our experience with online communities, there are four types of trolls...
1) Mischievous: Such trolls have a humorous intent. Often, they are a "regular" who has temporarily adopted a new identity in order to play a good-natured prank. They are not abusive to members and rarely create trouble within a community. Generally there is no harm in responding to them. Some members may find mischievous trolls to be annoying, particularly if their presence leads to lengthy threads that distract the community from its true intent; other members inevitably find that the troll's humor and light-hearted antics provide the community with an opportunity to laugh together, thereby enhancing and strengthening community bonds.

2) Mindless: Mindless trolls have a tendency to post lengthy stories of questionable belief thus promoting good facial tone in members due to excessive eye-rolling. They are generally harmless. On rare occasion, the ficticious posts of a mindless troll may lead to insightful debate and discussion. Aside from encouraging them, there is generally no harm in responding.

3) Malicious: A malicious troll arrives with the intent of being blatantly abusive to the group and/or specific individuals within the group. One of their characteristics is that within a very short time of gaining access they begin targeting and harassing members using both low-end and high-end tactics. In some cases, the troll has a prior history with the group or someone within the group. In other scenarios, the troll is simply looking for a fresh meat market.

4.) Destructive: Around 1999 a new form of troll began to appear on the net in mail groups and online communities. The primary purpose of this type of troll is to completely destroy the group it has infiltrated. Destructive trolls may work on their own, or possibly in teams or gangs.
Trolls have two ways of gaining access to a community: from the outside or from the inside. Outside trolls are newbies or visitors who are new to the community, or only sporadic visitors and guests. They are less likely to target specific members and will be content with "hooking" anyone. Inside trolls are comprised of mischevious, bored, disgruntled, angry, scapegoated or wounded regulars who may have turned to trolling as a result of actions that occurred within the community. They frequently have a bone to pick with a specific member or a select group of members.

Unmoderated or poorly moderated environments are not only more susceptible to malicious or damaging trolls, they are also more likely to create the conditions that invite them. This is because the members themselves have very little in the way of actual power. With few other options at their disposal they will often resort to intimidation tactics and personal attack with the hope of verbally overpowering the offender. If the offender is a true troll, this will only reinforce the troll's sense of purpose, inflames his/her ire, and let him or her know who the willing targets are. Informal community leaders, those who are empathic to others or those sensitive to the slights of injustice are more likely to step forward in cases of troll attack and thus, become their target.

Roles of Community Members:

It is the bonds of familiarity that establish relationships. It is the complex network of relationships that build community. Wherever a group of people are gathered on the net with a shared history of established interaction, therein, you'll find community. Regardless of the platform or purpose, you'll find most of the same basic social roles being played out by members of online communities all around the net...

Newbies are newcomers who may require assistance in learning the ropes. They regularly rejuventate community life by offering fresh perspectives and renewing the interest of the regulars.

Visitors/Guests are newbie or long-term members who do not have a persistent identity in the community. Both newbies and visitors are outside the range of the community's inner heart life. They have few or no established relationships with others. They may be "trying on" the community to see if it fits them, time constraints may limit the extent of their online involvement, or they may not share the common values and purpose of your specific community to the same degree as the following...

Regulars are members who comfortably and actively participate in community life. They have established relationships with numerous others and as a result, are your true community builders. Regulars are the mainstay of online communities; via their active involvement they help shape core community standards, practices, and values. They comprise the largest portion of membership and include leaders, elders and often, officials.

Leaders are regulars who have the time, energy, and skill to take on more formal and active roles in the community. They know many of the regulars and are respected for their skills by others. They assist newbies with settling in, provide advice related to the inner workings of the community life to the regulars, and may serve the larger community in volunteer positions such as techie, moderator, or administrator.

Elders are long-term regulars or leaders who have grown weary of the day-to-day demands of their position and stepped away from the center to the periphery of the community. Still active in community life, they are respected for their cultural knowledge and insider lore. Along with the other long-time residents, they're the teachers and storytellers of the community, the people who give the place a sense of history, depth and soul. They may serve the community by assisting newbies, regulars and leaders, and acting as informal archivists and historians.

Officials are the founders, hosts, techies, moderators and administrators. Typically they hold true power in the community by establishing the community's purpose, determining the form of presiding government, developing protocols of policy, and having the power to remove users who do not comply with the established standards.

[The excerpt above was adapted from Chapter 4 - Roles: From Newcomer to Oldtimer from the book and online website of Community Building on the Net by Amy Jo Kim.]

Personality Clashes and Conflicts:

Personality clashes tend to be one-time events between community members that often result in building familiarity. They are more common among members who have no relationship history with one another such as two newbies, or a newbie and a long-term community resident. We refer to such relationships as non-established -- neither party is familiar with the posting style or online identity of the other.

Personality clashes can re-open wounds between community members who have a history of conflict between them if the issues being raised are similar to issues of the past, or the naive newbie is clashing with someone else's long-term nemesis. Newbies may find themselves treading a virtual minefield as they attempt to establish self-identity and relationships with others without offending any warring parties.

Following a personality clash, two members may feel they know and understand the other far better than they did before -- the disagreement may even pave the way to a friendship forming. In other instances, hard feelings may develop. These can fuel later misunderstandings and conflicts between members.

Personality conflicts on the other hand, involve a period of sustained animosity between two members who have a history of interaction between them. We refer to such relationships as established -- the members are thoroughly familiar with the other's posting style and online persona.

Although each member in a personality conflict may be well-known and admired by other community members they do not get along with one another. There is a strong component of dislike, disrespect or disapproval. Low-end harassment is often exhibited to various degrees by both parties. The conflict may simmer privately for weeks or months and then explode into public community spaces. Personality conflicts have the potential to divide the community as friends and admirers line up behind their favored member (or favored ideology), glare offensively at those on the 'other' side, and trade verbal barbs or other forms of mudslinging.

Personality clashes and conflicts may lead to one or more members adopting troll-like identities in order to flame or harass others without having to be accountable for their actions in their known (possibly respected) identity. This may be especially true in instances where community standards are not explicitly understood or where one party is or has been unfairly targeted by another individual or group of individuals. Group attacks such as the latter are also known as sharking or gang-banging. They occur when a group pulls together in an act of solidarity and loyalty to "attack" the perceived offender. They are more common in communities with absent or ineffective administrative involvement. Such actions are often a desperate attempt to maintain control. It can create community dischord, long-standing resentments, and may scatter the seeds of troll development.

If you find yourself involved in an online conflict, the following links may prove helpful:
  • Resolving Conflict Online:
  • Let Me Tell You What You're Doing Wrong
  • :

    Online Harassment:

    Harassment is not an isolated event. It is not a solitary outburst. Harassment is a pattern of ongoing behavior directed at a specific target. The legal definition of harassment, according to Black's Law Dictionary, is:
    A course of conduct directed at a specific person that causes substantial emotional distress in such person and serves no legitimate purpose" or "Words, gestures, and actions which tend to annoy, alarm and abuse (verbally) another person."
    We recognize two levels of harassment: low-end and high-end.

    Low-End Harassment is comprised of posturing, implication, insults, taunting and forms of baiting. Projection and transference may be involved. The harassment may take place on the boards, in chatrooms, or in private mail. It is a frequent component of volatile discussion, personality clashes and unresolved or unacknowledged personality conflicts. It may include following a member from post to post, thread to thread, or board to board, and responding to them with a rapid-fire of low-level tactics; taken to an extreme this approach in particular can be so aggressive it may well become a form of high-end harassment.

    In some cases, low-end harassment is unintentional. It may be teasing gone too far or a misunderstanding in regard to personal boundaries. Taunting, on the other hand, is a form of low-end harassment. Consider the differences...
  • Allows the teaser and the person teased to swap roles
  • Isn't intended to hurt the other person
  • Maintains the basic dignity of everyone involved.
  • Pokes fun in a lighthearted, clever and benign way.
  • Is meant to get both parties to laugh.
  • Is only a small part of the activities shared by those who have something in common.
  • Is innocent in motive.
  • Is discontinued when the person teased becomes upset or objects to the teasing.

  • Is one-sided and based on an imbalance of power
  • Is intended to harm.
  • Involves humiliating, cruel, demeaning or bigoted comments thinly disguised as jokes.
  • Includes laughter directed at the target, not with the target.
  • Is meant to diminish the self-worth of the target.
  • Induces fear of further taunting.
  • Is sinister in motive.
  • Continues especially when the target becomes distressed or objects to the taunt.
  • [The above excerpt is adapted from the online handout: The Bully, The Bullied and the Bystander by Barbara Colorosa. PDF FORMAT]

    While precise definitions of low-end harassment can be subjective according to a member's personal boundaries, high-end harassment tends to be widely recognized as a clear crossing of boundaries and an invasion of privacy. It is common in troll attacks, volatile personality conflicts, and may be a component of online stalking.

    High-end Harassment may include:
  • Publicly posting private and personal information about a user (pictures, address, phone number, name).
  • Impersonating (or attempting to impersonate) a member.
  • Knowingly spreading false rumors about another community member.
  • Publicly revealing a sexual liason with a member without their consent.
  • Publishing private correspondence.
  • Spamming a member's private mailbox.
  • Sending viruses or trojan horses to a member's private mailbox.
  • Signing the targeted member up for subscription or free services.
  • Unprovoked personal attack or sexual overture.
  • Public or private disclosures of affection that are innappropriate to the circumstance.
  • Attempting to solicit information about a target from other members.
  • Repeated interactions with a member after they have firmly requested that you stop.
  • Public attempts to turn other members against the target.
  • Explicit or implied threats of harm to the target or their loved ones.
  • It should be noted that high-end harassment may be considered the equivalent of cyber-harassment or cyber-stalking in your jurisdiction. Every reader is encouraged to review the following information:
  • Staying Safe Online
  • What To Do if You're Being Harassed Online
  • Wired Safety
  • List of Cyberstalking Laws
  • The Psycho-Pathology of Cyberstalkers

  • Dealing With Clashes, Conflict and Harassment
    Any degree of harassment between members may be an indication there is a troll present, a personality clash or conflict has broken through to the surface, or those in power (typically hosts, administrators and moderators) are not doing their jobs.
    In an unmoderated community environment (or one with ineffective administrative involvement), users may feel they have no recourse but to protect themselves using the only tools they have: words and the sway of community opinion. In a moderated environment however, hosts, administrators and moderators are available to help protect the community by setting standards of behavior and implementing administrative actions as required.

    Before taking action we suggest that officials and onlookers resist the urge to respond immediately and instead, ask themselves the following questions:
  • What are the roles of the involved community members?
  • Is the relationship established or non-established?
  • Is this a clash or a conflict?
  • Is low-end or high-end harassment taking place?
  • Am I dealing with a true troll or a disguised community member?
  • Is there an ongoing pattern of behavior?
  • What is the backstory? What else is going on that may have fueled the conflict?
  • Individual Response: Carefully assess the situation. Note that when online discussions escalate out of control it is seldom because two members disagree on a point -- more often, they have begun to use personal attack as a form of debate. Individual members should carefully consider their options, including the option to agree to disagree. If you must respond, stick to the stated facts, maintain your cool, and do not resort to insults or other forms of mud-slinging. If the discussion is disturbing the community, consider moving any remaining discussion to private e-mail or another private location. (Officials might want to consider creating private spaces where members can seek to resolve their differences away from the intrusion and dramatical support of the community at large with or without the assistance of a mediator.) If high-end harassment is taking place, we highly recommend that you make copies of all correspondence between yourself and the other party at the earliest opportunity -- this is especially vital if other members will be in a position to edit or erase those posts. Should legal recourse ever be required you will need to demonstrate that you did not contribute to the situation, that you asked the other party to cease in their treatment of you, and that malicious actions were clearly taking place. Please reference the articles above related to online safety for more information.

    Community Response: If a personality clash is occurring in a non-established relationship, other members of the community can help defuse the impact by offering gentle guidance regarding community standards or perhaps, by sharing common history that would not be known to the newcomer.
    Sample: I see you're new here and might not be familiar with posting guidelines. You can review our policy here...

    Sample: Don't let Bob_5103 scare you away. He can come across as strong-minded, but he's a teddy bear at heart.
    In cases of personality clashes or conflict in established relationships community members can be most helpful by staying out of the discussion -- their relationship does not belong to you. If loyalty compells you to defend another member, do so by reinforcing valid points they have made in their argument or by praising their individual skills and contributions. In no case should you attack the other party. When a community demonstrates through their actions that personal attack and harassment is an acceptable form of behavior they put out a welcome mat for trolls and should rightly bear partial responsibility for their creation and presence.

    Administrative Response: It is beyond the scope of administrators to resolve conflicts between members. A relationship belongs to the people within it -- if they wish to resolve their differences it must be by mutual and willing consent. Insisting that members "kiss and make-up... or else" is an administrative posture designed to demonstrate the power of officials. It seldom addresses the underlying currents that fuel the conflict and may further inflame the situation. We recommend that administrators resist the urge to insist that members like or respect other members, nor judge them for their failure to do so. If someone is angry with Stacey _4086, maybe they feel there is a good reason for that anger. Likewise, if someone believes Stacey_4086 rocks, they may have a different kind of relationship with her. It is quite possible to be both someone's best friend and another's worst enemy. Members' relationships do not belong to administrators. You can no more fix a broken one than you can fix someone else's broken marriage.

    Administrators best help defuse situations of conflict by allowing established relationships to belong to the people who are in them, by developing and posting community guidelines of behavior, by remaining impartial in situations of conflict in established relationships, and by fairly imposing consequences when absolutely necessary such as editing of posts, removal of posts, temporarily removing the member from the community, or permanently removing them from the community.

    As a general rule we recommend that administrators always involve themselves in situations of high-end harassment, involve themselves in situations of low-end harassment if absolutely necessary, and involve themselves in situations wherein one member has a well-established pattern of conflict with numerous other members.

    Dealing With Trolls

    As you can see, dealing with trolls is not as simple as labelling the least popular or most offensive with the word "troll" and then waiting for officials to boot them or the community to ostracize them into silence. Trolls may be insiders or outsiders. Their behavior may consist of low-end or high-end harassment. What is considered trolling behavior in a non-established relationship may be considered tolerable or acceptable in an established relationship. What's more, the individual labelled "troll" may in fact be the targeted scapegoat.

    In our experience, the best means of preventing troll behavior is...
  • To develop standard guidelines governing acceptable community behavior.
  • To elicit the input of the entire community in developing those standards.
  • To act on those guidelines in a fair and equitable manner for all.
  • To educate members in recognizing their own role in clashes and conflicts, and in recognizing different forms of harassment, including the kinds they engage in.
  • To encourage members to be responsible for themselves, including their own online safety.
  • To empower officials to take action where absolutely necessary.
  • Remember the golden rule: In all cases, the best response to a malicious or destructive troll is absolutely NO RESPONSE. Trolls will only stay where they are well fed. In a community where sharking or personal attack is not permitted, where members have been educated and further, taken prudent precautions to protect themselves from the worst forms of harassment, where the community-at-large has been trained to not feed conflict, and where officials are empowered to act in the community's best interest, TROLLS CANNOT FLOURISH.

    If the community is moderated, inform the administrator(s) of the troll's presence at your earliest opportunity--preferably privately. Those who use public channels of communication may become a target of the troll.

    No response means just that. That means no responses to his/her every post to inform the community it is a troll post; no sly innuendo, no veiled implications or threats - ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. If members wish to discuss the troll, they should do so in a private venue such as e-mail. At the very most, an administrator or member can initiate a new thread directing members to the community's stated policy on trolls, or a link to this page, or any other page on the net dedicated to dealing with trolls within the community setting.

    If an individual member comes under attack, the community can help deflate that attack using tactics of praise for the one attacked but NEVER attacking, commenting on, or mentioning the troll in any capacity. Remember, individuals within communities empower trolls whenever they resort to personal attacks on any users, or when they stand by and remain silent while others are attacked. If an individual has become a target, it may be necessary for them to adopt a new identity within the community, to temporarily withdraw from the community, or even to permanently leave the community. If the member was a community leader or their contributions were highly valued, the entire community may feel the impact of their loss. Individual members may also become concerned for their own safety and well being.

    If the community is moderated, administrators or moderators should remove the troll posts and any responses to same at their earliest opportunity. We recommend keeping a copy of any troll posts and responses for future identification purposes along with the troll's user name, e-mail address and IP address if known. It is not unusual for some trolls to have several identities within a community. They may even post to themselves, making disparaging comments or insults in an effort to degrade the overall tone of the community. Administrators should remove any known trolls from the site by whatever means necessary, withdrawing password privileges for example, or implementing an IP block. Be aware that trolls may make use of numerous IP or ISP and it may be necessary to remove an especially vigilant troll many times over. Innocent members can also be unfairly locked out in the event of an IP block. Administrators must make their own best decisions as guided by the interests of the larger community. Seek input from your membership and develop standards that will work for all of you.

    Effectively informed, you too can help to build and create online communities that are safe spaces for all participants.

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    What is a troll?

    The traditional definition of a troll refers to a member of a community or usenet group who makes posts deliberately designed to attract responses of outrage or indignation.  It is the troll's intent to "hook" unsuspecting members into responding, (hence the term "trolling"), thus providing him/her self with the satisfaction of knowing they have impact on others.
    A distinction must be made between true trolls, newbies who are undergoing growing pains as they attempt to adjust to community standards, and regular community members who simply have strong but otherwise harmless, dissenting opinions.  Trolls should be removed, newcomers assisted, and contributing community members given at least a modicum of respectful distance.