At the back end of last year I had a couple of trolls stop by one of my blog and start posting rather rude and unhelpful comments. It seemed like they were feeding off of each other and gaining courage from the actions of the other.
Of course, such exchanges are probably familiar to many of you, and are almost a feature of online communities. This shouldn’t come as a great surprise as online discussions lack most of the things that enrich communication when done face to face.
Whether it’s the facial expression or the body language or even the tone of voice, we can gauge all manner of things from things that are not directly said.
With web based discussions, not only are we usually deprived of such methods, but we are also often engaging with people we don’t know, and indeed whose identity is hidden from us.
A recent study suggests that the best way to tackle a troll should one appear on your blog is to engage directly with them.
The researchers teamed up with a local television news station and used their Facebook community of 40,000 or so fans as their live petri dish.
Over a six month period around 70 political posts were made to the Page on a randomized schedule. Each post was assigned one of three random conditions:
- a well known reporter would actively engage in the comments
- the web team for the station would engage (under the brand name)
- no engagement would occur at all
The researchers analyzed the content of all 70 of the posts made, together with the 2,403 comments made on these posts. They were looking specifically for the tone of the comments. Were they civil for instance or relevant to the topic at hand?
The results showed that when a well known journalist from the station engaged with the community, the comments were generally much more civil. Rudeness dropped by 17%, whilst people were 15% more likely to use evidence to back up their views.
“Given that many news organizations have comment sections and recent surveys suggest that they are likely to stay around, we wanted to identify strategies that could affect the types of comments left by site visitors,” the researchers say. “Drawing from theoretical work about norms, our research suggests that journalist involvement is a helpful strategy.”
The topic is particularly important, as an MIT study from a few years ago highlighted the social proof that often goes on with online comments. If comments are generally abusive, then it tends to encourage others to join in the abuse.
Of course, previous studies have also shown that having no comments at all can make content appear much more persuasive, so the matter is far from conclusive. Nevertheless, the study does suggest a practical strategy you can use to try and head off trolls at the pass.