Don’t Feed the Trolls: How to Encourage Good Behaviour Online

• Written by Richard D. Bartlett

Guardian journalist Max Opray got in touch with us last week, while researching his article Could Online Democracy Lead To Governance By Trumps and Trolls?

Online interactions are notorious for being hijacked by trolls, so he wanted to hear how we handle trolls at Loomio.

Prevention is the best cure {#prevention-is-the-best-cure}

We look to sites like MetaFilter, StackOverflow, Slashdot, or Quora, who do a good job of hosting productive online discussions. They all use a combination of technical and cultural components to create an environment that’s biased towards high-quality respectful participation, and biased against trolling.

It’s partly about the tool, and partly about how you use it.

We’ve put a lot of effort into designing Loomio and hosting big public discussions, in a way that makes it much less likely that trolls will turn up.

It’s a complex topic, but here are a few facets:

Moderation {#moderation}

There’s no substitute for hosting. Never underestimate the value of having an engaged community manager to hold space, invite participation, encourage respectful dialogue, redirect off-topic contributions, and if necessary, enforce boundaries.

Boundaries are really important – at Loomio we developed our Community Moderation Policy in collaboration with our community, so our moderators have an explicit mandate to act.

Without clear boundaries, you immediately exclude everyone that doesn’t want to expose themselves to harassment. It’s like saying ‘we only want jerks here please.’

Invitation {#invitation}

Ask, What are people being invited into?

With Loomio, the invitation is explicit: we’re here to deliberate on a specific topic, usually with a known group of people, and a clear pathway to real world action.

If the invitation is unclear, like, “hey random internet users, what do you think of my cool idea?”, you’re much more likely to see trolling behaviour.

Identity + Commitment {#identity--commitment}

The more people are committed, the less you have to worry about them acting out. Most Loomio groups are composed of people who know each other, so we don’t see a lot of trolling. In more open, loosely connected groups, you have to work to create the sense of shared purpose and identity that brings out the best in people.

It’s possible to have a healthy online collaboration between anonymous participants, but this generally only happens when the participants are committed to some collective identity or shared purpose, e.g. maintaining an amazing free online encyclopedia.

How to respond when the trolls arrive {#how-to-respond-when-the-trolls-arrive}

We’ve put a huge effort into preventing trolls from ruining Loomio discussions, but how should you respond when the trolls show up?

These tips come from Cam Findlay who used Loomio to develop government policy for open source software licensing. Appropriately, these tips are shared under a CC-BY-4.0 license.

  • Don’t feed them by replying with the same emotional response they put forward… that’s what they want.
  • Make sure to respond if you think it will trigger other community members to make an emotional response… remember respond doesn’t equal resolve.
  • Learn to read between the lines of what they are saying, trolls are often frustrated idealists and do have legitimate points to raise. Pick out the facts from their comment and only reply to those, avoid getting caught up in the emotional whirlwind.
  • If you have a code of conduct (hint: you should!), point them at this and give them a friendly warning at first. Everyone has a bad day sometimes. Remember that most people are well-meaning.
  • Get them on the phone or talk in person if possible. It might be a matter of perception given that we only get 7% of communication by the actual words we use, the rest being tone, gesture, body language etc. which doesn’t come across in the online space (yet).
  • Banning is a last resort, shouldn’t be taken lightly and should be carried out in accordance with your code of conduct to ensure it’s done fairly and consistently.

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