The following opinion piece is a guest post. Read more about MediaShift guest posts here.
“I almost wanted to vomit.” “I was insulted.” These statements could well be reactions to any of the sleazy comments we regularly see online. But instead, they are reactions from members of Congress to last year’s New York Times op-ed from Vladimir Putin about U.S. policy in Syria.
Internet trolls and Vladimir Putin share several traits, but none more fundamental than the fact that to the communities they confront, they are a vexing enigma. Who is this person? Where do they get their information? Are they crazy or do they really believe in what they’re doing? How we understand Putin and how the world has responded to his trolling gives us insight we can take to the online commenting battlefield.
The Hows and Whys of the Troll
First, trolls seem to come out of nowhere. It’s almost never a voice or user you know that lobs a verbal bomb at you online. So in 2000, when Putin became Acting President of Russia, after the unexpected resignation of Boris Yeltsin, the world collectively asked “Who is this guy?” His unremarkable stint in the KGB is core to his legend for the simple fact that so little is known about what he actually did during that time. This lack of personal history makes it much easier to cast attacks, because there’s little for the other side to dig into.
Trolls attempt to rewrite history. They apply their own facts to the issue of the day and get creative from there. In making his case for Russia’s rightful claims to Crimea and Ukraine, Putin recently made repeated use of the term “Novorossiya,” or New Russia. His argument is simple: There’s nothing to see here; this is just Russia reclaiming lost territory. Applying this logic, the Dutch could declare New Amsterdam over New York City, and we’d see Dutch troops at JFK tomorrow. We should debate opinions and ideas, but not facts.
Trolls want it to be about them. Whatever the point of your article, your comment, your G8 meeting was, they’re against that. They’re there to get noticed. And no world leader seems to enjoy the spotlight more than Putin. Google Images has subcategories of Putin images, and the first three of those categories are “Badass,” “Riding a Bear” and “Horse.” Beyond the ego though, what vexes many world watchers is not knowing what Putin truly believes in. And like an unknowable troll, giving them the attention they want by attempting to reason with them only keeps them coming back.
How to Fight Back Against the Troll
Which brings us to what to do when facing a troll online. First, you need to enforce existing rules for the place you’re in. In Putin’s case, we’re talking international rule of law, national borders and NATO. In social networks and online comment sections, it starts with the guidelines the site operator or network has established. Good discussion guidelines simply state where the boundaries are. (If there are no guidelines, it’s open season on everyone. You may want to bring your reading business elsewhere.)
As Putin himself has shown though, sometimes rules and borders are not honored. So ultimately, the best way to deal with a troll is to cut them off from the community. Through a series of measures including targeted economic sanctions and suspension of Russia’s G8 membership, Putin has been isolated from the world community. These measures have cut Putin off from the supply of attention he so clearly loves.
Do the same with a troll. Call them out and tell other readers to ignore them. Doing so cuts them off from the gratification they seek from getting people angry. And it sends a message to future potential trolls that people who care about this space are watching out for it. Trolling is a learned behavior. But we can unteach it by making it less rewarding.
It’s been reported that Russia has been employing their own actual trolling as part of a propaganda campaign connected to events in Ukraine. Propaganda has long been part of our society. Comics, leaflets, television and radio were all previously used to sway opinions. Trolling is simply one of propaganda’s newer agents, available to anyone with an Internet connection and keyboard. The more we understand it, the more likely we are to spot it and do the best and easiest thing possible — ignore it.
Steve Roy is the VP of Marketing for Disqus, the web’s most popular discussion platform. Prior to joining Disqus, Steve spent five years in the New York office of Edelman where he co-led the firm’s master narrative practice. He is a graduate of Boston College.