Preparing for the Trolls

Interesting. The problems discussed here have been primarily an irritant at BMG during our eight years of existence and millions of readers, but one can always improve and many of the suggested coping mechanisms are intriguing. Personally, however, I think the term "troll" is a misleading distraction: the issue in the broadest sense is primarily procedural rather than personal. - promoted by Bob_Neer

Roughly adapted from lectures at Blogtalk 2 (Vienna, 2004) and Blogtalk Downunder (Sydney, 2005).

Progressives enjoy an important technological advantage. To some extent, that advantage is inherent: progress is about the future. But in the US, that structural advantage is augmented by the Republican war on science. Evolution, vaccination, fluoridation, conservation: all are despised by the Right. Our last Senate campaign featured an attempt to smear Elizabeth Warren by connecting her to >*gasp*< Harvard, a place that used to be a Republican stronghold.

Senator Cruz has a list of a dozen Harvard Law professors who are Communist advocates of the violent overthrow of the US government. If we’re very nice to him, he might show us that list someday.

It’s no surprise, then, that progressive campaigns have an easier time finding talent to build web sites and forums and to exploit all sorts of new media. We have a deeper bench.

But our world is imperfect, and so is technology. We have our immediate woes from Waltham, and we will have others. We ought to think ahead and prepare for the evil day when it comes.

Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.

Trolls

A recurring problem with open forums is the troll: a colorful creature who enjoys disrupting web communities. Trolls are powerful and plentiful. Given time, trolls will destroy any community on the Web. People don’t want to believe that their wonderful community would attract trolls, but sooner or laters trolls always appear. Trolls thrive on attention and will go to great lengths to get it.

Political sites are particularly vulnerable because they attract varieties of trolls who may leave other sites behind. Often, trolls are after attention: they thrive at stirring things up, at seeing lots of people arguing with them. This is usually simple neurosis, but naturally Republicans and other opponents would like nothing better than to see progressives spend their timing shouting at hecklers instead of…making progress. A very successful troll can blow up a Web community; naturally, opposing campaigns would like that.

Blue Mass is administered with wisdom and skill, but experience suggests that it’s best to prepare for trolls before they arrive. We won’t have time to think things through when the trolls arrive a week before the April 30 primary or the June 25 special election. By definition, trolls leap up at the worst possible moment.

Asymmetry

The fundamental difficulty in managing trolls is asymmetry. The troll is an outsider. You, a member of a community (perhaps a founder or supporter or stakeholder) live there. The troll doesn’t really care what people think: they’re stoopid liberals and hippies. You, on the other hand, do care what the community thinks. Trolls can lie, cheat, and make stuff up; you can’t. Trolls can call you things your mother wouldn’t like; your mother reads this site, but the troll’s mother doesn’t.

Trolling is not new: in the early days of the left, trolling was an existential problem. You’d get a crowd together, and then some wingnut would sneak into the margins and start yelling and pretty soon the wingnut was the story. Hello, Haymarket. (The Bread and Roses strike is a textbook of effective trolling.)

A lot of the time, alas, the Right didn’t need to supply the wingnuts. We grow plenty of our own. But it’s good to remember that damaging sites like Blue Mass Group would be a good day’s work for the other side, and there are plenty of white- and gray-hat techniques they can use. (Remember that it’s only been a few years since GOP operatives disrupted a NH GOTV effort by systematically crashing the Dem’s phone system.)

How might we prepare for trolls when they arrive?

Solutions

A simple approach to trolls is moderation. Set rules, publicize them, and let authorized readers decide whether or not a submission should be published. Moderation isn’t open and it isn’t democratic, and it can make it harder for new talent to find a role in the community. For large communities, moderation can become very expensive.

The Blue Mass Group standard for moderation is that:

The purpose of Blue Mass. Group is to develop ideas that will invigorate progressive leadership in Massachusetts and the nation.

to which end the site encourages “commentary typical of thoughtful discussion between acquaintances who may hold differing views on important issues.” These are good, but a troll could drive a pickup truck through them by insisting that he is progressive (though he disagrees with everyone else) and that he is thoughtful (because everyone else is an idiot). If isolated, the troll need only point to some isolated supporters. Incompetent trolls rely on sock puppets, but any political operative should be able to recruit a supporting voice or two.

Instead of full-bore moderation, syndication lets everyone post but give prominence to some featured posts selected by moderators. This works well for DailyKOS, and it’s clearly been working pretty well for Blue Mass Group. Ideologically, syndication is nearly as problematic as moderation.

One way to complicate the troll’s task is to remove their anonymity, either systematically (by preferring or requiring people to use real names) or selectively (by identifying specific trolls). Some of the most disruptive trolls may be deterred if their ill manners can be brought home to their friends and neighbors; identifying a troll removes some of the asymmetric advantage the troll enjoys. Political anonymity has a long and respectable tradition in the U.S. and we might not sacrifice it easily, but perhaps we should sacrifice it here.

Schemes that broadly distribute the power to upvote and feature good contributions (reddit) or downvote and hide bad ones (slashdot) appear to address the ideological objections to moderation and syndication. In small and new communities, this can work; in large communities, it appears prone to gamification and random outcomes. Frequently, these outcomes feature pictures of cats.

A very old approach to the troll is ostracism or reading a member out of meeting. At need, the community simply ejects the disruptive contributor. This often is cast as a punishment, but need not necessarily be one. Wikipedia has shown that quite modest bans — 24 or 36 hours — and a permanent record visible to the community can sometimes prove sufficient sanction to discourage disruptive behavior.

Finally, several recent approachs simply increase the friction that the troll experiences when being disruptive. Egullet, a culinary community, requires a modest membership fee; you can be anonymous to other members but the home office knows who you are because you paid them. StackOverflow, a programming forum, grants posting and moderation privileges in exchange for work on the site. Either way, a troll who wants a bunch of alternative personalities or sock puppets (or a crowd of pliable supporters) will have to spend time and effort to do so. At any rate, the community benefits from the cleanup work and the membership fees.

The Path Across The River

One clear lesson from the Obama campaign’s tech effort is the importance of preparing for trouble. That trouble might be external — someone might be trying cause mischief. That trouble might be internal — a disagreement flares into a flame war. The trouble might be arbitrary and inexplicable. When trolls do appear, it would be good to know how to help.

 



Discuss

28 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. Comment throttling

    A variant on the “ostracism” paragraph is “throttling”. The idea is to apply limits to comment and post frequency for specific accounts, as opposed to full-fledged bans. It should be noted that full-fledged bans can be difficult to enforce, and can lead to a cyber “arms race” where a dedicated troll rises to the perceived challenge of circumventing the attempted ban.

    An approach that worked reasonably successfully at Ward Cunningham’s original C2 wiki was a “progressive” throttle. Once an account was throttled, then additional misbehavior in the limited participation that was allowed caused even more restrictive throttling. At C2, this approach proved to work more effectively than outright bans.

    Another concept is to require each newcomer to be sponsored by an existing member. The directionality of this approach allows a directed graph to be drawn from newer parties towards older parties. In the event of an attempted takeover (these happen as well, sadly) by newcomers led by a party (or by sockpuppets operated by that party), this directed graph allows the moderators to more readily identify the disruptive account. The early (beta) period of GMail and LinkedIn operated like this.

    Please note that I use terms like “account” and “party” in this comment. A common practice of organizations that seek to disrupt sites like ours is to have a team “run” one or more accounts. This practice is particularly widespread among disruptors of sites pertaining to global warming/climate change — in the absence of throttling, a particular handle might make hundreds of posts per day, around the clock.

    At least we don’t seem to get too many bots yet.

    • Ward’s Wiki

      Ward Cunningham’s original C2 wiki

      One of the monuments of the modern age, this site pioneered lots of things — including the throttling strategy you describe. The eGullet/StackOverflow approach is essentially similar, but new users start out throttled and gain greater privileges in exchange for contributing to the community. Contributions might include writing recommended posts, fixing formatting problems, helping to index and classify posts, or moderating posts from new users.

      It pays to remember, though, that despite great effort by one of the most talented and thoughtful developers of his generation, Ward’s Wiki did blow up in the great WikiWipe brouhaha. That’s been my usual mantra: sites like this one can make important contributions but they probably cannot last indefinitely. Early prevention might prolong their active life.

      • Our moderators are more interventionist

        Ward was extraordinarily reluctant to intervene in the evolution of C2, much more so than our editors here at BMG. He viewed C2 as an experiment, and he was as fascinated by the “disasters” (like the one you reference) as the successes. For what it’s worth, C2 continues today even after the WikiWipe. Surely Mr. Abitbol was a canonical troll.

        Much has changed between the C2 heyday and now. In particular, this community has a very clear purpose unrelated to its own technology, and our editors have a much richer toolkit to draw on in addressing our challenges.

        In any case, I’m glad you wrote this and I’m glad it was front-paged — the more we can do to be prepared now, the better we will fare as the year unfolds.

  2. What are the "immediate woes from Waltham?"

    Jeebus knows there are plenty of them, but to which ones do you refer, specifically?

  3. I learn from trolls

    Not all trolls, but consider:

    Troll makes post questioning a claim, making a counterclaim, or otherwise plays [or actually is] ignorant.
    BMG Poster with cred takes 30 minutes and drafts a quality response. Citations, details, explanations, all to respond to a glib 12 word post by Troll.

    I read the BMG Poster’s post. It’s about education or unions or law or any number of things for which I’m interested and supportive, but not particularly knowledgeable. Now I know more than I did before. Hell, were it not for trolls, I’d have not yet heard of the 1912 Lawrence textile strike.

    All of which is to say that reputation matters, and that trolls *sometimes* result in a net-positive outcome.

    • Exactly: competition and diversity is educational

      Within limits. What those limits are is a social determination, as yet only ineffectively modeled by machines. Wikipedia also uses throttling (locking pages: the effect is similar as a restriction on debate) to good effect. Obviously, as the scale increases more automation is required. To date, BMG has been small enough for humans to manage. Completely dissent free sites, however, like DailyKos and other extremely intolerant places, appeal only to a fringe — albeit, a large group of people in absolute terms, given the reach of the Internet. An interesting question is: what is the best activist model to effect change: less dissent, or even none, or more.

      • If it were up to me

        I wouldn’t make agreeing with the poster be a requirement.

        In my opinion there needs to be hard rules and a process for restricting/banishing a user. Process like government.

        If conservatives overwhelm the site with polite, thought out responses that are backed up by facts, they should be encouraged not banished as it makes the site better.

        We are looking for truth, for progress. We think that involves progressiveness, but I hope that if tomorrow there’s overwhelming and irrefutable evidence showing another path, we’ll all go there.

        Or am I at the wrong site?

    • My hobby horse

      As there is no way to reward intelligent disagreement on this site, the site’s structure systematically selects for conservatives you’d never invite over for dinner, i.e., people who are immune to disapproval and who enjoy being offensive.

  4. my cents

    As someone who reads BMG much more than I contribute…

    I have lately been avoiding more threads than usual. I do so either because I know it is a troll-authored thread or after a first read of a non-troll thread, I see that it has been taken over. Very often I later see the number of comments has grown exponentially and, in the few cases where I’ve gone in and looked, there has been little to no value added, at least as far as I can extract value (others’ mileages may vary).

    Like many people, I only have so much time and therefore I apply mental filters to just about everything I access online. Those filters have kicked in for BMG more than usual lately.

    The downside is that other BMG activity which might interest me may and does gets pushed off the front page faster than it would otherwise.

    Bottom line: the trolling has been effective, in the sense that it has reduced the usefulness of BMG for me.

  5. It may be true that progressives have a technological head start...

    …but I’m not seeing the connection the diarist suggests. The other side often denies evolution and climate change, but I don’t see people denying technological advances with the possible exception of the Unabomber. In fact I recall Newt Gingrich being very enthusiastic about what in his day we called the information superhighway.

    • The Blue Advantage

      I’ll discuss this advantage — which is a rule of thumb or a tendency, not a hard-and-fast natural law — in a future post. But the phenomenon is quite clear.

      * If you gather a dozen of the top web designers in the world around a table, you can be confident that most of them will lean blue.

      * if you gather the creators of the major software categories we use today — the guy who invented spreadsheets, the guy who invented web servers, the guy who invented paint programs, the guy who invented wikis — you can be confident that most of them will lean blue.

      * In my corner of research — the study of hypertext — I know of *one* scientist whom I know to be Republican. One or two might be moderately conservative. A couple are technolibertarians who consider themselves blue but whom you might think are not. The rest lean blue.

      We’ve tended to internalize this so much that it’s easy to forget how remarkable it is. Before WW2, if I told you about a physician, a rocket scientist, or a math professor who had come to our suburban town, the odds were good that they were Republicans. Nowadays, if you bet they’re blue you’re going to make a lot of money.

      Now, this isn’t to say there are no Republican computer scientists or developers, and I’m not saying that specific people might switch sides on specific issues or candidates. And I’m mapping “red” and “blue” to broad US standards, which means that even my conservative colleagues from Scandinavia, for example, are going to be pretty deep blue.

      It’s a tendency, but it’s very real.

    • The Blue Advantage

      is very eloquently described by the post on RedMassGroup:

      http://www.redmassgroup.com/diary/16445/obama-romney-and-gop-technology-a-chilling-analysis

  6. I've been called a troll here, also a sock puppet.

    I don’t come here to aggravate people. I come here to get a word in edgewise, and to remind Democrats that there are plenty of voices out there that aren’t heard. The Democratic Party becomes a better party when the debate is vast and inclusive. The benefit that I get from Blue Mass Group is awareness of current affairs within the party and awareness of how all of us within the party sometimes work against each other and may not even realize it. Blue Mass Group helps to make the Democrats the party of inclusion, not exclusion. Allowing dissent makes this site far more informative and interesting. If you only allow contributions that support one vision or ideal, Blue Mass Group would lose it’s relevancy as a place that brings the wings of the party together. (Unless that’s not what you want.) I have been rather grateful for the opportunity to express my take on the issues, even though it is often contrary to the majority here. Thank you for that.

  7. As much as I'm annoyed,

    and ultimately disappointed by our Walthamic hallucinogen, I don’t see him spoiling BMG. If their were ten of him, we might would have an issue. It’s like I’d bend down to pick up a dollar, but I’d give up on it if I had to dig through the garbage for 10 minutes. I believe in the free market of ideas, but no market is truly free. If you want to buy something, and have to wade through piles of rotten vegetables to do it, you tend to reconsider the value of your intended purchase.

    There have been times when our conservatives, such as JohnD, posted when no one else was. And in spite of his stupid post on Ed Markey’s domiciles, and his support for Steve Lynch because he’s for workers and Scott Brown, well, just because, Dan did get me to do some reading on NAFTA.

    We don’t really have too many trolls on here. Bugbears, maybe, gnolls, and the occasional gelatinous cube, but not trolls.

  8. So Mark (Bernstein not Bail)...

    I am a troll and proud of it. But of course I do my trolling at redmassgroup. Among the reasons why I do it is very much in line with your critique…but it would be counterproductive of me to articulate them. So should I stop hanging out at redmassgroup?

    As a slight digression, among the reasons I do hang there is that ultimately forums like blogs generate disagreements and the impersonal nature of these forums, the disagreements become pointed and sometimes emotional. WHEN that happens, I’d much rather get all hot and bothered debating the big issues of the day and not the minutia with people who, at the end of the day, share my world view. Plus, in the real world, I’m more apt to bump into you at a political event and I’d like to greet you with a handshake and a smile. Just this weekend I got completely turned off by a BMGer debating the Dred Scott v Citizen United BS. A wasted of time and a great deal of frustration. If I’m going to feel that way, I’d rather be debating the validity of corporate personhood and money in politics and not Dred Scott.

    And frankly it gets boring discussing subtle differences with people on BMG on things we generally agree on. Sure Dan is a pain and enjoys throwing bombs, but as many in this thread point out, he does offer some value (as some people grudgingly point out that I do at RMG.)

    Finally, I suspect that Dan is loving the attention of this post…on a few levels and all this is doing is encouraging him. I say that from a unique perspective.

    • Pogo

      But you’re actually not a troll — at least not in my book. You want to argue the big issues of the day with Republicans. OK — it’s a big world. Some people like all sorts of things. Some people like WRKO!

      But there are other things that people want to do, and those will be crowded out if we spend all our time rehashing and refuting Republican talking points. Lots of politically engaged people feel that way.

      But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao
      You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow.

      Further, a really dedicated troll can blow up just about any group. I’ve seen it happen in cooking forums. I’ve seen it happen in mailing lists about birdwatching!

      This post isn’t about dan, or not chiefly about dan. I sat in it for more than a week, in part in the hope that it wouldn’t feed the troll. The post is about dealing with a team of trolls — trolls whose job it will be to stop discussion of interesting things and drive thoughtful people away. I don’t think that’s what you’re doing at red mass.

      • Regarding your last point...

        …I will not comment. But part of it is being the 5th column behind enemy lines.

      • Also...

        …one person’s desire to debate the big issues is a another person’s troll. Just ask some of the folks at RMG.

        • But

          Do you argue for points of view that you don’t actually believe, or are you honestly disagreeing with people? Trolls like the ones we get are not honest in their professed opinions; they present arguments designed to get the maximum response, and their positions shift to suit that goal.

          • Yes, I argued by points...

            …nor am I a paper cut-out liberal, which some respected. If fact they even front paged me yesterday (of course they have virtually no new content and sued it by default.)

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Sat 26 Jul 1:11 PM