How to Handle a Troll Infestation

A good blog needs healthy critics and dissenters to thrive.
A little peer pressure will do.

I try hard not to ban commenters.

I know all the arguments in favor of aggressive banning. Comment threads are often virtual sewers, filled with trolls nurturing a semi-tragic conviction that they are finally, finally on the verge of winning eighth grade. Only a strong moderator, the prophets say, can lift the mighty ban-hammer and smite the dark forces of the delayed-adolescent id. It's tempting to embrace this heroic vision, but mostly, I resist.

I think it's true, as Alan Jacobs argues, that aggressively moderated comments sections are the only ones that can be kept entirely free of trolls. And there are moderated comments that I greatly admire, such as Rod Dreher's, which are clearly the result of his tireless hard work. But while many of the other moderated comments sections are blissfully troll free, they're also kind of ... monolithic. Strenuous disagreement has disappeared. In fact, in many cases any sort of serious disagreement at all has disappeared; what's left is a chorus of folks telling one another how awesome they are, and how extra-awesome the writer is, and how stupid and awful all those people who disagree must be.

Which is ultimately the reason I don't ban. It's not the work of moderating -- longtime readers know that I put a lot of work into my comments section, even if I don't always read every single comment. It's that ultimately, I don't trust myself not to start banning people who disagree with me too vigorously.

Some sorts of disagreement certainly shouldn't be countenanced: Anyone who starts their dissent with "You d*** f***" should expect to have it immediately deleted. Nor am I patient with people who launch into diatribes about how everyone they disagree with is evil and stupid, or use words like "Dimocrats" or "Rethuglicans."

But it's very easy to let your distaste for name-calling shade over into your distaste for anyone who thinks that you are seriously, badly, morally wrong. Wouldn't the comment section be much nicer without that sort of invective? Wouldn't it be nicer still without that fellow who's telling you -- and worse, your adoring readers -- that you don't have the faintest idea what you're talking about? Once an author starts down this road, I often find that everyone who doesn't "get it" becomes a target for banning, with "getting it" defined as sharing the basic world view of the author.

I like to think that we have a pretty good comment section here, and although Bloomberg does have a pretty aggressive spam filter, I haven't had to take much recourse to banning, here or at my prior employers. Instead, I rely on a combination of gentle chiding, and self-policing by the comment community. Most of the time, it's a pretty civil and enjoyable place, which nonetheless has robust disagreement from left and right. Oh, over the years, we've had some permatrolls -- old hands in the comment section will chuckle at the memory of classics like Tstev and Obamaisnotmypresident -- and every time an article goes viral, we can expect a new infestation. But they don't stay long, because the comment section has figured out how to deal with them: not with argument, but by poking gentle fun at the offender, and joining together in a collective laugh. They don't seem to like that much. Characters who in earlier years might have stuck around to throw bombs now fade away pretty quickly.

I write this because we often forget just how powerful communities, and their unwritten norms, can be. People don't stand quietly in line because it's against the law, and we've jailed all the people who won't obey; they stand in line because that's the group norm, and if they disobey it, people around them will express their disapproval. These forces are weakened online, but they are not absent. People don't like to be shamed, even anonymously.

As I say, this method is not perfect. Still, I'd rather have the occasional troll than a chorus where everyone's singing the exact same tune.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.