What Putin Teaches Us About Handling Internet Trolls

    by Steve Roy
    January 15, 2015
    Russian President Vladimir Putin holding a meeting of G8 heads of parliament in 2006. Photo by the office of the President of the Russian Federation and used here with Creative Commons license.

    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.

    "How we understand Putin and how the world has responded to his recent trolling gives us insight we can take to the commenting battlefield."

    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

    Photo by Flickr user Babbletrish and reused here with Creative Commons license.

    Photo by Flickr user Babbletrish and reused here with Creative Commons license.

    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.)

    The rules of Reddit show that it is a fairly open platform, but there are some hard and fast rules. Screenshot courtesy of Reddit.

    The rules of Reddit show that it is a fairly open platform, but there are some hard and fast rules. Screenshot courtesy of Reddit.

    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.

    Tagged: internet trolls online harassment propaganda putin trolling vladimir putin

    17 responses to “What Putin Teaches Us About Handling Internet Trolls”

    1. Stranger says:

      I think you’re the perfect example that shows that propaganda works perfectly. You repeat what the mainstream media conveys to you!

    2. Ivan says:

      It’s very hard to spread propaganda and pretend to be free and open society with Free Speech as inherent right. Any lies you spread will be challenged and no social control will stop free expression.

    3. Pamela Cohen says:

      Did someone want to share their troll art as an excuse to write an article, or vice versa? Very disturbing to see the author is the VP of Disqus marketing, as the obvious lack of critical thinking in this piece shows such immaturity. You’d have to be drugged or juvenile to believe all the media lies and contribute towards even more disrespect towards Putin.
      Is it really acceptable to compare a country’s leader to a troll, call Obama a monkey, or show terrible taste in the name of ‘free speech’ by making comedy out of assassinating the North Korean Leader? Not IMO.

      • Dušan Radosavljević says:

        you, with your own personal attacks seem to embody the troll he was referring. Way to make his point.

        • Pamela Cohen says:

          I stand by my opinion in yet another ‘bash Putin’ piece. American media has been relentless, to cover up US manipulation, oppression and intervention where we don’t belong. The author lost credibility by his juvenile drawing immediately, me thinks.

    4. Bret Zeller says:

      The best way to deal with someone you disagree with is to ignore them, or respond. Cutting people out of a discussion automatically legitimizes them, because it means their opponents have too weak of arguments to defend their own position.

      I’ve used cites that use Disqus, and they regularly ban anyone who disagrees with their political views. Those sites lose their legitimacy immediately.

    5. Nikita says:

      Wow, the author is clearly delusional. Someone paid you to write this?

    6. Nathaniel Talcott says:

      Ukraine Constitution says that a President can only be removed from office by a 3/4 vote in the Rada. They fell 10 votes short of that requirement but removed the President anyway. They also skipped past filing charges, getting certification form the Supreme Court of Ukraine, and trial as required by the Ukrainian Constitution. So the democratically elected President of Ukraine was removed from office through a coup in violation of the Ukrainian Constitution and in defiance of the Ukrainian Supreme court. And for pointing out these easily verified facts… I am a called a troll and accused of getting paid to write propaganda. Go figure.

      • Ivan says:

        It is irrelevant what the sheep thinks. Majority of population is ignorant and will think whatever the propaganda wish them to think. Truth and independent thinking is more important.
        It is a generally accepted fact that propaganda use emotional triggers as a means of perpetuating lies and misinformation. What is interesting is how propaganda function within established foundation of Free speech. Since it would be counter-productive to brutally oppress the population and would nullify the entire ideology of a ‘democracy’, psychological tools are used instead. Social engineering is a perfect method to force conformity, control and self-censorship. Coupled with tight control of information, population is forced to follow injected social narratives. Essentially you get slaves that whip themselves. It is ingenious.

      • Jess says:

        Great points, Nathaniel. I respect that, and I understand your rights.

    7. RoyTyrell says:

      This entire opinion piece could be labeled “trolling”” by those who disagree with the author.

      Its all in the eye of the beholder….

      Thus, the First Amendment….

    8. walkergw says:

      The russian troll is a different species than the common internet troll. This is because the common internet troll is an individual usually amoungst a large group of normal people. Ignoring the common troll is the correct thing to do. The russian troll is different. They are never alone and they seek to dominate the board by over publishing using multiple accounts as has been confirmed on multiple occassions. Their goal is create the impression that many people outside Russia agrees with Putin and his inventionist history. This comment section is a great example of this. While the russian troll is really not that numerous, they have been able to cause sites to close down comment sections all together as they make meaningul expression of opinion impossible.

    9. From a PR perspective, you should respond to state your position. If there needs to be clarity brought to your first response, then respond a second time and make it obvious that you want to reach an agreeable point. After this, don’t take the bait. Your company will end up looking ridiculous.

      Joshua Farley
      Blue Phoenix Creative

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