Trolls on Usenet and other forums

Definition of a troll

"Trolls" are people (or posts) that make use of a discussion forum thesame way public bathroom walls are used by some for graffiti. These posts are sometimes malicious and inflammatory, racist, sexist, insulting -anything that can disrupt a discussion thread and turn attention to thetroll.If you are new to these forums, and you should happen on a post thatfits this description (believe me, they'll usually be quite obvious), the safest thing for you to do is to wait and see how more experiencedposters respond. Chances are good that someone will leave a little "nocontent" message saying "troll", or something like that. And that willbe the sum total of the response.The reason we don't let ourselves get baited into responding is becausethat's exactly what the troll wants. The entire purpose of these postsis to cause a maximum amount of mischief, and turn people away from theflow of normal dialog (and sometimes turn one person against another).If you don't feel compelled to respond to the scribblings you see inpublic bathrooms, then you should feel equally at ease about ignoring this type of post, too. Just ignore it, and go about your business having fun talking to everybody. :-)

An interesting site which describes several different kinds of trolls can be found here: Small Lexicon Of Usenet Trolls.

What I have with trolls

I've been a regular contributor to some newsgroups and online forums for acouple of years. On each and every one of those I've seen the damage that can be done when people rise to the bait of a troll. Some newsgroups and forums have a rather loose policy (or non at all) of how to deal with trolls, which is often the case if there hasn't been a troll visiting for a long time.

In that case, there are often many newbies or other posters who haven't learned to recognise a troll, who will go for the troll's bait, and take him (or her) seriously. That sparks a snowball effect, with the troll responding ever more agressively to each and every one of the responders,trying to lure them into responding even more. Since angry posters will often lose all reason, they can pull the entire newsgroup down with them, since because of their continued responses to the troll, the newsgroup willquickly be filled with nothing but threads and posts about the troll. In the meanwhile the troll will bask in all of the attention (s)he gets, loving the destruction done and feeling superior to all those dumbo's responding to their bait.

It's incredible to see how much damage can be done by a troll to communities that were happy and undisturbed for years. The rec.boats.paddle and rec.boats.paddle.touring newsgroups were left limping after a character called "Tim Ingram" aka the "sponson man" started attacking each and every post that he could attach his poisonous messages to. He kept attacking for about six months, and as a result, most of the regulars left that newsgroup, going to forums that were controlled by admins and moderators instead, like Eric Princen's Boatertalk.com.

The exodus left rec.boats.paddle as only a shadow of its former self.

Previous attacks by Timmy didn't leave as much damage, since he wasn't taken seriously by the regulars at the time. During his latest attack on rec.boats.paddle, he found a lot of newbies and troll-unaware posters that kept on going for his bait, creating wave after wave of sponson-related threads and thread-invasions.

Other trolls on the rec.boats.paddle newsgroup include Scott "Last word" Weiser,who tends to start up threads about paddlers not being allowed to move on riversin his U.S. state of Colorado. He's almost universally recognised as a troll by most of the regular posters, so he's getting ever less responses with his baiting posts.

He has gotten quite a bit more aggressive in his responses, personally attacking people and even threathening. At first he was a lot more dangerous, as his then wellargumented posts would lure in many an unsuspecting poster to reply to what seemed a reasonable invitation to discussion, and he caught many of the regulars that way.That has changed since then though. The wording he choses is of lesser quality, he is more eager to insult and he threathens quicker, stooping lower and lower with each consecutive post. That in itself should be a warning to those who can't resist the urge to reply to a troll: if you feed the sick puppy more, getting more rubbish to come out of him.

His urge to always get the last word in any discussion or flame war got him the nickname "Last word" by RBP regular Riviera Ratt.

Recently a new addition to the list of RBP trolls showed up, although maybe he should be regarded as a netkook instead. He's changed his screen name several times, but he could be recognised by the sheer volume of his posts. So far he's used TinkernTom, Hanta Yo-Yo and RkyMtnHootOwl. Alas, one of the people who went after him the hardest had seemingly joined him in pestering RBP. Kman aka Kieran couldn't stop responding to any post that RkyMtnHootOwl made, in effect giving the troll the attention he craved, while doubling the nuisance to RBP.

At the beginning of 2006, Kman started to notice that a lot of regulars were ignoring him as well, and he started to behave much like the troll he was complaining about the most, launching ad hominum attacks and accusing others of elitism. Kman seems to have left RBP now (April 2006), recently the TinkernTom ID showed up again.

Another example is the current situation on the uk.rec.boats.paddle newsgroup. Two trolls, by the names of "Allan Bennett" and "David Kemper", who are working together, have managed to invade many threads with their anti-BCU (British Canoeing Union) bait. When I wrote this in January 2002, they had managed to scare away most of the regulars. They still linger on uk.RBP in 2006.

Their attack was rather classical for that of the aggressive kind of troll: by first flooding the newsgroup with anti-BCU messages in such an agressive way that made any kind of discussion impossible. Then they started with personal attacks on everyone who either supported the BCU or who took them seriously in other ways. Finally they invaded threads of messages that had no relevance to the BCU, and they further disrupted the newsgroup by trying to dictate rules about what was and wasn't on-topic for the uk.rec.boats.paddle newsgroup. Intimidation and cross-posting to several other newsgroups are other tactics used by these two trolls to try to spread their poison.

As can be seen in all of the above examples, the trolls tend to post a lot of (often extremely long) messages, in which the original words that they seem to reply to are misinterpreted, pulled out of context or simply ignored. Since they only use a serious subject to hide their true intent, trolling, they tend to be impervious to reason. Naively replying to their posts and taking them seriously only gives them new fuel to add to their fire, and sooner or later you find yourself under a barrage of personal attacks and flames.

Flamers and their effects

Another thing that can kill a forum is flaming. A discussion goes out of hand,sometimes because a troll cross posts a message to two different newsgroups,like a message on how to cook a cat on a newsgroup for cat haters and another one for cat-owners. As a result, people attack each other, becoming ever more aggressive, and finally flooding one or more forums with so many posts that itbecomes vitually impossible to find the few serious and on topic posts between the flood of flame-posts.

An interesting site which describes many character types of flamers can be found here: Flamers

Spam and the effect on newsgroups

Commercial posts (aka "Spam") appear on just about every newsgroup, but they generally don't cause too much of a problem, as long as the frequency of those kinds of posts doesn't reach a certain limit. From then on, spam can have the same effect as the flaming and trolling, flooding a newsgroup with so many off-topic posts that it becomes too much trouble to try to find the few on topic posts between all the commercial garbage. What seems to work to keep the volume of spam down a bit is to immediately report all spam to free anti-spam service such as Spamcop .

Conclusion

There are a couple of steps to get rid of most of the the above pests, but you will generally need to convince the majority of the posters to also take the right action. That can be frustrating at times, since there will always be a couple of them who don't see the danger to their newsgroup or who think that "winning with arguments" over a troll or flamer will be more effective than ignoring them. Especially in thecase of a troll, they're plain wrong.

The moment you reply to a troll, whether it is with some insult, by reasoning or even by screaming at them, you give them attention, and that means the troll wins.The more attention you give to a troll, the more (s)he will try to get even more of it. Negative attention serves just the same purpose there, as these people don't respond the same as your average poster, but that's in part why they started trolling in the first place, right?

In the case of flamers and trolls, I suggest first posting a message with a short description of a troll or flamer. That might help to get this phenomena clear to thenewbies and troll/flamer-unaware posters in your newsgroup. If that doesn't help, get together in private e-mail with as many of the regulars as you can, asking them how they dealt with trolls in the past, and maybe setting up an intervention group. The people from that group can write e-mail replies to those newsbies and troll-unaware posters that still rise to the bait, explaining to them what the effect is of their naive responses and replies to trolls and flamers.

Whatever you do, don't respond directly to the troll or flamer, as you will only add fuel to their fire. Also, please don't add messages to their threads or posts, for a number of reasons:

-Without those messages, the thread will not grow longer. Quickly growing threads tend to atract more attention from people who wonder what is going on, pulling in more potential victims for the troll.

-The thread will not be kept on the newsserver longer, because no-one kept it alive. That makes it appear on servers for less time, keeping the amount of people who get exposed to it down and it also helps limit bandwidth.

-The thread will not alert other trolls to the fertile trolling ground that a newsgroup or forum can sometimes be.

-Your message won't attract more replies from newbies who think that it's normal to reply to trolling (and spam) messages.

-Replying to a message probably gives the troll new arguments to use against you or the group. That will show him new buttons to push and opens you and the newsgroup up for prolonged attacks.

-Anyone with a decent spam-filter or kill-file who filters out the normal spam and trolls will still get the replies to that original message, so the troll's words might get to live on anyway, and you have frustrated your fellow newsgroup users.

-By replying with only one or two lines in which you post your frustration (yes, sometimes my fingers itched too, but use some self-discipline!) it often happens that the complete original troll's or spammer's message is included. That only serves to get the spammer or troll's message sent to all those newsservers around the world again. Please be at least smart enough to clip all of the troll's text if you can't refrain from replying!

-Any decent troll will feed off the attention he generates with his messages. If you deprive him of that negative attention, after a while he will wither away.

I could probably come up with more reasons not to reply, but I hope that I bring the message across: Don't reply!
Use private e-mail to notify anyone who is naive enough to reply directly to a troll or spammer, instead of hanging yet another message to the replyer's original post, extending the troll's branch of the thread. Unfortunately, there are almost always people who keep responding to a troll. If the amount of responses dies down to a very low count, it can be enough to make the troll lose interest in your particular newsgroup.

For those who don't have the self control to stop reponding to a troll, a lovely invention called "message filters" or "kill files" is in existence in most of the popular news readers (FreeAgent, Netscape and Outlook for example). You can just put people,e-mail addresses and subject lines in them, so that they don't appear on your screen any more. It can be a bit of work, but it can definately make your life easier. The problem with killfiles is that most newbies don't have a clue how to use them, which means that you might still see their follow-up messages to the troll's post.

In some newsgroups there is a charter that forbids trolling, spamming and such, and besides that there is the universal netiquette that is (supposed to) count for every newsgroup. In that case, writing directly to the abuse account of the troll or spammer's ISP (Internet Service Provider) might work, especially if you can quote the paragraph that forbids the behaviour which that ISP's client shows. The downside to this is that some trolls use free ISP's or have several accounts, which might mean that they simply move to another account or free ISP.

In the case of a full-blown flame war, involving the majority of posters, it can be useful to just stay away from a newsgroup for a while, to let the embers cool down, before you check back. Hopefully by then the regulars have learned from the experience... However,when you do leave a group for a while, don't post any of the dramatic "I'm leaving" messages, as it will only make the troll think that he's winning.

Alas, some newsgroups die because there is nothing worthwhile to read or respond to any more. It helps to have a couple of regulars around that write inviting on topic posts after a flame war or troll invades the newsgroup, if just to keep the newsgroup interesting for the posters not involved in the troll or flame war.

An informative "HowTo" which is aimed at becoming a more creative troll can be found here. Just as the "Hacker's Guide" can be a great tool in understanding the hacker who attackes your computer, this "HowTo" gives some good insight into the troll's background and modus operandi. Another gooddescription of some sorts of trolls can be found at Dave's usenet abuse FAQs . Go to "6. Why do they do it?" for a couple of troll descriptions. Dave also describes some good anti-troll measures on his site, along with their pro's and cons.

A web search on "troll" and "usenet" usually brings up a long list of sites with plenty of information, here are some links that I found offered some extra info:

"Some real life examples of trolls on different forums."

"Some more real life examples of trolls on different forums."

Spam can be dealt with in part by reporting each and every incursion to Spamcop or a similar anti-spam service. Here too, it helps if there are many people sending in spam-reports, as volume often does make a difference in how the net admins deal with complaints.

Another really useful service is offered for free by Know-Spam.com and Spamhaus.orgKnow Spam is really easy to use, and basically downloads your mail for you, removing most of the spam. By giving you an update message every day, you can chose to download anything that you still want to see. The good thing is that you can allow the spam filter to let messages from certain domains or individual addresses by simply clickingon the respective e-mail address in the update messages. I've used it for a while now,and the spam in my inbox has gone down to almost nothing.

On my website I have stopped using the "mailto:" option to offer a clickable e-mail address, and instead I put a little image on it which shows my e-mail address. Perfectly safe from spambots harvesting addresses.

No matter what you try against spammers, never ever click on the "click here to remove" links that are being offered in some spam. That link only warns the spammer that youraddress is active, and that you're stupid enough to actually read their garbage. To put it differently, you're not only telling a criminal that you're the perfect target for a burglar, but you just gave them your house number as well!

The new European Union law about unsollicited e-mail should help lessen the Spam threat from within EU countries somewhat. Of course, untill the rest of the world follows that example, we'll probably be seeing a lot of Spam coming from other locations for some time to come.

I hope that this helps you to keep enjoying your forum. Don't let a few anti-social characters destroy a place that they don't have any real interest in anyway. Ignore themand keep going on about your business like you did before. I guess that most of us have responded to trolls and flamers at one point or another. I know that I have... :-)

I have learned from it, and I have acted ever since when I saw that a forum that I cared about came under fire from trolls, spammers or flamers. Often it helped, sometimes it's a lost battle. Some forums are made up of regulars who had to move from their previously lostnewsgroup, to one where there is a zero tolerance policy, or even one which is controlledby a moderator. They have their own advantages and disadvantages, you decide for yourself if that's what you're looking for.

I hope that this helped.

If there are any questions about anything I wrote above, please let me know. My e-mail address can be found on the first page of my website.

Wilko

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