Notes From a Hired Pen

How to handle anonymous internet trolls

On of my duties as editor of a local magazine was to open the mail. We were a very small operation, and I liked looking at what came in each day.

One morning, we got a white envelope addressed by a typewriter with no return address. Inside was a hate filled letter addressed to my boss about a column he wrote defending the rights of the GLBT community.

Of course there was no name, no signature. I asked my boss what to do with it.

“Trash it. That’s all it’s good for.”

This was in 2003. Now, of course, those letter writers don’t need typewriters. They can hide behind the shield of gibberish handles and anonymous twitter accounts to share their hate.

How do you handle these anonymous internet trolls, especially when their “opinions” are misinformed diatribes filled with rage? A few ways.

1. Ask your editor. If the comments come through a site you’re writing for, ask your editor what he or she would like you to do. The publication probably has a policy for such things. One of my clients encourages me to respond to any questions asked, but says to not engage with trolls looking for a fight. Another client doesn’t want his writers to comment at all, but he’ll let me know if someone writes anything he’d like me to look at. The last thing you want to do is to engage a troll in a fight – and NEVER create a fake name to defend yourself. If the comments make you that mad, take a walk. Email your editor. And wait for his or her instructions.

With twitter, same thing. Ask your editor what he or she would like you to do before responding to someone.

2. Ignore. This is my usual stance because it’s not worth my time or energy to process the words of people who are such cowards that they need create behind shield of anonymity for the sole purpose of trying to tear another person down. Maybe he or she is angry about not having the same kind of platform from which to express opinions. Or they treat “the writer” as someone who is less of a person and more of a target. Either way, you are never going to get through to this person. So whether it’s someone writing screeds relating my non-married status to the fact that I run (true story), or someone who creates an anonymous twitter account to curse at me, the best way to stop these people from getting to you is to ignore.

3. Moderate. On my blogs, I moderate comments and don’t approve out any outrageous stuff written by people who will not share their names. Every few months, my original Jersey Shore blog would get “anonymous” curse-filled rants about the poor quality of writing. I knew they were from a chef I’d pissed off by predicting that his restaurant wouldn’t make it a year (it didn’t), so I didn’t approve those comments. I don’t cut out comments that disagree with me, but I’m not going to allow that kind of anonymous vile to stand. That’s my right as the “editor” of the blogs.

4. Report. Things change if those barbs become threatening. In college, I reported someone to the dean of students for making vaguely threatening “promises” through anonymous letters to the editor about what he was going to do to me for cutting him from the newspaper staff (not everyone made it, but I knew who it was). Another reporter I know has been stalked by someone who created a fake twitter account to mock him. When the comments turn from written hate to something that you feels threatens you, or you believe are indications that things could escalate to a physical level, you must do something. If this happens through someone else’s site, contact your editor (who most likely knows about it already). If it’s your site, call the police. Yes, they have dealt with such things before.

4. Remember that it’s probably not you. To most trolls, I’m not Jen A. Miller, daughter/sister/friend, but a name on a website with the power to share her voice in a place where people pay attention. Throwing an asterisk on the bottom of the story might be empowering to a troll, but I think it’s more an attempt to make up for something that’s lacking in their lives, or that they’re too cowardly to stand by their opinions. I have a lot more respect for the person who will say to my face that they hate my work than the masked person who throws barbs from the sidelines.

My friend Amy Z. Quinn told me that you’re nobody until someone on the internet hates you. So if you’re dealing with trolls, congrats. You’ve arrived.

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5 Responses to “How to handle anonymous internet trolls”

  1. Chris says:

    Sadly, there will always be haters. What I don’t get about facebook hate or twitter hate or tumblr hate, though, is that it’s so easy to just unfollow someone. If someone doesn’t dig what somebody else is posting to any of these sites, why not just click unfollow instead of turning it into a major hater commotion? If you don’t dig the topics of someone’s blog, why even bother to visit the blog? Maybe these people need a nice trip down the shore to relax.

  2. Erin Graves says:

    Great post! I find it appalling that the anonymity of the web allows for such nasty rants and vitriol, especially since people would never own up to if it was face to face. Why that makes it acceptable online (in their eyes), I’ll never know.

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