Troll story: Dodging online troublemakers

People disrupting online forums by posting negative or abusive comments might be in the pay of foreign agencies.

Source: Shutterstock / Legion Media

They lurk anonymously in the dark alleyways of cyberspace. Emerging from their hideouts, they post deliberately provocative or off-topic comments on online forums. Their intention is to sow discord by disrupting normal discussions. Their affiliations are a mystery. These shadowy figures are known as trolls, and lately they have been appearing in droves at Russia & India Report.

To be sure, it is a measure of RIR’s growing impact that the trolls have swooped down on the website and are now a regular presence at discussion forums here. Considering the dedication and perseverance with which they operate, by posting lengthy – and sometimes disjointed – rants, it makes you wonder whether they are on the payroll of agencies that are working to curtail Russian influence.

These tireless online troublemakers were conspicuous by their absence when I started writing for RIR in 2011. Among the few those days was a troll named ‘Simon’. From his posts you could make out he was British. And predictably, he would be peeved by my stories because he felt Britain got a raw deal in some of them. He would kick off his comments with the standard opener: “Okay, so the anti-British tirade is back on at RIR.”

Perhaps Simon was too dense to understand the Anglosphere gets the most flak because it is the biggest geopolitical bully. And that it was not just my blog that was pointing out the Anglosphere’s wrongdoings and blunders; a number of leading writers based in the West were churning out much stronger condemnations.

Honestly, I didn’t mind Simon at all. In fact, I liked to see him squirm. The end came when some genius created a profile named ‘Simon Killer’ – which I find amusing to his day – and went after him like real aggro. This character chased Simon out of the RIR discussion forums.

Simon was clearly an amateur for otherwise he wouldn’t have quit. Lately, a bunch of hardcore professionals seem to be trolling RIR stories with much manic obsession. Whether in responding to stories posted or to comments by regular readers, these trolls are reacting lightning quick – almost in real time. You wonder if they get any sleep.

For hire

For all you know, these trolls may be paid hacks. CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed how there is blanket coverage of the internet by the Anglosphere countries. Consider that the annual budget of these intelligence agencies is larger than the economies of some of the smaller European countries. In this backdrop, setting aside a few dozen million dollars for paying people to be “concern trolls” is like spending cash from the back pocket.

So what’s a concern troll? This subtle beast attempts to sway a group’s actions or opinions while claiming to share their goals, but with professed "concerns". The goal is to sow uncertainty and doubt within the group.

In my last story, on the Anglosphere, the troll claims to have lived in Eastern Ukraine and also that he is married to a Russian woman. This is clearly an amateurish ploy to get the readers’ stamp of approval. You know, being married to a Russian woman somehow makes him an insider rather than the outsider. He then makes all sorts of pro-Anglosphere comments while insulting Russia.

It is not farfetched to imagine western intelligence agencies would hire concern trolls. A study published in February 2013 by The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication suggests that abusive and negative comments below a story can make some readers look at the story in a negative light.

Nuisance value

Timothy Campbell of Trollwatch says when trolls are ignored they step up their attacks, desperately seeking the attention they crave. “Their messages become more and more foul, and they post ever more of them,” he says. “Alternatively, they may protest that their right to free speech is being curtailed.”

“The moderator of a message board may not be able to delete a troll's messages right away, but their job is made much harder if they also have to read numerous replies to trolls. They are also forced to decide whether or not to delete posts from well-meaning folks which have the unintended effect of encouraging the troll.”

Trolls can be so off putting that the 142 year old Popular Science magazine decided it was curtains for comments. “Comments can be bad for science,” it editorialised last year. “That's why, here at, we're shutting them off.”

The magazine’s editors could no longer bear to see people debate scientific certainty. “And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.”

But media organisations cannot afford to adopt Popular Science’s policy for the simple reason that globally the media is going interactive in a bid to be more reader friendly. In fact, the next step in the online media’s evolution is readers being allowed to make corrections and even add information to already uploaded stories.

So what can be done about trolls? “Do not feed the troll” is a simple formula. Attention is oxygen for trolls so if they fail to provoke you, they’ll give up and ply their trade elsewhere. Of course, there is no guarantee that’ll happen. In my last story on the Anglosphere, the troll jumps in and responds to every single comment. Months ago, a troll named Avatar habitually posted dozens of comments without eliciting a single response from anyone. The RIR website team tracked him to Dunedin, which – very reassuringly – is on a different island from where I live.

Things could have gotten ugly if Avatar had changed from a troll to a stalker. A Canadian study reveals that trolls are more likely to have narcissistic (egocentrism and preoccupation with prestige), Machiavellian (tendency to deceive and manipulate), psychopathic (lack of empathy and inhibition) and sadistic (pleasure of inflicting pain or humiliation on others) personality traits.

The best way to deal with such denizens of cyberspace is to resist the temptation to respond to their arguments. As readers get more about netiquette they will learn to ignore trolls – just like tourists learn to ignore hawkers peddling useless trinkets.

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