Trolls, Sockpuppets, and Cyberbullies—How to Blog Part IV: Dealing with Difficult Blog Visitors

by Anne R. Allen

Blogging is fun, and a wonderful way to network and build your author platform. But it’s not always rainbows and unicorns. Sometimes a visitor may disagree with you or be confrontational in some way. Nothing wrong with that. If it’s done in a friendly manner, disagreement can be an excellent way to stimulate conversation and learn to see things from another point of view. I’ve learned a lot from people who have pointed out my mistakes and blogging faux-pas.

But the occasional commenter crosses the line from polite disagreement to a verbal attack or full-on temper tantrum.

Starting a blog is like opening a shop. Anybody out there on the street can drop in. Most people who come by will be great. But some might be substance abusers or suffer from mental illness. Some might be looking for a fight. Others can be just plain mean.

Do remember it’s your blog, and it’s your responsibility to make it a safe place for your commenters, so if one of your followers is attacked, speak up. 

Problems can be compounded by the fact that online we can’t see the dangerous ones coming. When you meet somebody in person, you get a lot of clues about how to interact with them. A woman wearing a tinfoil hat and muttering about the invaders from Betelgeuse probably won’t be the one you choose to chat up as a new friend, and most of us aren’t going to worry much whether some guy sporting racist tattoos and an Aryan Nation baldscape likes us or not.

Age is a major clue, too. When you meet somebody in her seventies, you won’t expect her to have the same world view as somebody of seventeen.

But when people comment on blogs, we treat them all as peers. This can be good or bad, depending on the type of interaction.

Here’s an example. This week I used the word “Luddite” in a short, friendly blog comment. Another commenter found the word highly offensive and went into a three paragraph rant against me.

(Actual Luddites were an early 19th cent. group in the English Midlands who resisted the Industrial Revolution and revered a mythical Robin-Hood type figure called King Ludd.)

When a Boomer like me uses the word, we usually mean somebody who thinks the Internet is a fad and still takes photos with the Instamatic he got in 1976. To the young woman who had the melt-down, apparently it means somebody who doesn’t have the latest Kindle Fire. If she’d seen my matronly, aging self, she might not have assumed I was attacking her lack of geek-chic.

Although you can’t be sure. She also might have been one of those people who surf the ’Net looking for ways to feel insulted. Insults generate self-righteous rage, which produces endorphins that some people find addictive. They will ferret out anything that can set off their anger triggers, so they’ll feel justified in beating others to an emotional pulp.

Insult-Ferrets are just one of the disruptive types who might wander into your blog. I’ve listed some others here.

Your first instinct will be to delete an out-of-line comment, but that’s not always the best solution, especially if you’re dealing with Cyber-Taliban types. They may feel you haven’t properly submitted to their will, so they might launch a crusade against you on other blogs and forums and the problem will escalate.

I’ve made suggestions on when to delete comments. Do immediately delete anything that is bigoted, libelous, or deliberately hurtful to any of your readers.

It helps to remember you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Humor is subjective, and some people will feel offended by any kind of joke. There are common brain conditions that leave people unable to understand whimsy, hyperbole for comic effect, or irony of any kind, so a lot of humor is a mystery to them.

Remember people tend to judge other people by themselves. Happy, friendly people assume others are happy and friendly until proved otherwise. Angry, nasty people assume everybody else is angry and nasty, too. When they accuse you of bizarre things, they aren't saying anything about you; they're telling you what is in their own heads.

And the truth is—no matter how nice you are, some folks are just not going to like you. You have to ignore them and concentrate on the people who do.

Here are some of the disruptive people to watch out for.

1) Trolls. “Troll” is an all-encompassing term that means pretty much anybody who’s looking to cause trouble and might be lurking under a cyberbridge. Trolls thrive on creating conflict for its own sake. If they happen on a Christian blog, they’ll post an atheist manifesto. Then they’ll go to an atheist site and tell them they’re all going to Hell. Their posts are often obscene or bigoted. They’re probably living in their mom’s basement and haven’t had work since they lost the dishwashing job at Krusty Burger in 2008. These are people who feel pretty helpless in the world, and this is how they make themselves feel powerful.

Solution: Don’t feed trolls! Any engagement at all will be perceived as encouragement. They crave attention and don’t care if it’s negative or positive. Delete the post and try to laugh about it with offline friends. No matter how nasty the remark, remember it’s not aimed at you. It’s the whole world these people hate. And even if you feel sorry for them, if you're not a mental health professional hired to treat them, your best bet is to give them a wide berth.

Tip: Trolls usually post as “anonymous” so if you’re hearing from them regularly, you can change your settings to require a name in order to comment.

2) Sockpuppets. On the Interwebz, “sockpuppet” means somebody using a false identity to praise himself or attack his competitors, posing as an independent third party. The term first originated in Internet communities and spread when customer reviews started gaining importance on shopping sites. Somebody using a false name might post comments praising his own product or knocking competitors. Sockpuppet reviews are sometimes offered for sale. I saw a site recently that offered positive one-line reviews on Amazon for $5, or negative ones for a competitor’s book for $10. That explains why you sometimes see Amazon pages with 25 or 30 nearly identical, generic reviews. (I don’t think they fool very many readers.) People also use sockpuppets for blog comments that promote their own agendas. Bogus, fee-charging agents, for instance, sometimes pose as clients to talk up their agency on writing blogs.

Solution: Use your judgment and delete as necessary. If you know the puppet’s true identity, you can respond with the person’s real name, and that may deflate them. If you see an obvious sock puppet review on a writer’s Amazon page, report abuse.

Tip: If you have a tech-savvy friend, they can usually find the identity of a puppet visiting your blog through their IP address.

3) Insult Ferrets. These people are rage addicts looking for a fix. They’re surfing the ’Net looking for things that make them feel insulted, so they can justify going on the attack. If the young woman I mentioned above is one of them, she’ll have a whole list of trigger words besides “Luddite.” She might go off on a blogger for using the word “Heffalump,” because that’s what her cheating ex-husband called her when she was in her third trimester. Or the word “blue” will send her into a wild temper tantrum because everybody says her eyes are blue, but they’re really blue-green, kind of, when she wears that green blouse. Insult Ferrets tend to be narcissistic and think everything is about them.

Solution: Try to soothe ruffled feathers, but realize you’ve done nothing wrong. If a Ferret attacks one of your commenters, call her on it in a friendly but firm way. If you’re attacked on your own blog, apologize, even if you’re clearly not in the wrong, but only respond once. Don’t engage in conversation. Don’t delete unless the comment is seriously over the top, because that will anger the Ferret further and anger is what they feed on. They’ll come back for more.

Tip: You can block addresses by reporting them as spam.

4) The Politically Correctibot. This is a version of the Insult Ferret—people who browse blogs looking for perceived insults—not to themselves, but some downtrodden demographic. They often have the linguistic sense of Spellcheck software. They might attack a blogger for using the word “fatuous,” calling it an insult to fat people. Or they’ll attack anybody who talks about Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi” as being unsympathetic to the Holocaust. I once got attacked for being “ageist” on this blog because I suggested that some of us Boomers have trouble learning the latest ways of the Interwebz. I can guarantee the attackers weren’t Boomers, because we KNOW how hard it is to keep up with this stuff.

Solution: If they’re berating you, it’s probably best to simply ignore them, but if it’s one of your commenters being dissed, speak up. Often you can leave an idiotic comment in place, because it doesn’t harm anybody but the person who wrote it.

5) The Cyber-Taliban. These are Ferrets and Correctibots who operate as a tribe. They see themselves as the righteousness police—often enforcing a set of rules unknown outside their own niche demographic. I knew an author who had in some mysterious way stepped on the cybertoes of a fanatical online group. The day his next book came out, he got ten one-star Amazon reviews. I sent him a sympathetic tweet and immediately got flooded with DM’s warning me not to associate with the “evil” author.

Solution: Report abuse. Then run. Disengage from these people in any way you can. Delete if the comment is over-the-top, but otherwise, it may be wiser to let it stand so they think they've "won." But then unfollow, block, and unfriend. There’s no way to have a rational encounter with mass hysteria.

6) Cyberbullies. The fanatics above were being cyberbullies. But bullies don’t need to be motivated by righteousness. Some are just mean. Destroying innocent lives and reputations is fun for them. You’ve seen the headlines. They often work in packs and can, in some cases, actually cause death by making vulnerable people commit suicide. Teens are especially susceptible to this, both as victims and perpetrators, but adults can be victimized too. I have personally received death threats from some Cyber-Taliban bullies. Scary stuff.

Solution. Report them and get help on the National Crime Prevention Website if you're in the US. They are breaking the laws of most countries. There is no reason to put up with criminal behavior, even if it’s “only on the Internet.” Delete seriously offensive comments, but you might want to leave some up if you can stand it. A self-incriminating post will catch up to the perpetrator eventually and will get you lots of support and sympathy from sane people.

If you see somebody being bullied on a blog, try to reach out to them through their own blog or other social media. They may be newbies who could end up seriously hurt.

Some bloggers are cyberbullies themselves and can cause real pain to unsuspecting people who think they’re in friendly territory. Victims may think they’ve somehow done something to deserve the snark or personal attacks.

NOTE: If you feel you’re in real, physical danger from a cyberbully who shows knowledge of where you live and work, contact local law enforcement immediately.

The most important thing to keep in mind when dealing with blog meanies is: DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY. Remember it has nothing to do with you. You’re just a random victim. How you should deal with them individually depends on the severity of the attack and how strongly it affects your blog and your followers. 

NOTE: That word verification ‘CAPTCHA’ thing does nothing to keep the meanies out. It only keeps out spam robots—the ones trying to sell Ukrainian porn and knock-off handbags. Your spam filter also works on bots, and it’s usually just as good as the CAPTCHA. The rest you can delete yourself.

But CAPTCHA will keep out commenters. I highly recommend turning it off.

Monitoring your comments will keep the nasty comments from appearing on your blog, but it also prevents any type of conversation in the thread, and comes across as amateurish and paranoid, so I don’t suggest monitoring comments on your newest posts unless you’re under a severe meanie attack.

What about you, scriveners? Have you had any encounters with these people? How did you handle it? Do you have any disrupters to add to the list?

Next week, on February 15th, I’ll be visiting Romance University, where I’ll be talking about introducing your protagonist. On Sunday February 26th, Ruth Harris will be at the helm here, talking about how to write fiction based on factual events. 

VALENTINE BLOG HOP: Click the pink box on the right for our Val Hop page. You have two more days to enter for some pretty amazing prizes.

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