Troll Tactics and Responses

Working as the Community Manager of not one but two very popular open source projects, I get to deal with trolls on a semi-regular basis. I’ve been asked by my coworkers to share more of my thoughts, strategies and tactics around dealing with these kinds of people, so I’ve been doing write-ups of incidents that happen. One of these write-ups has been particularly popular among my colleagues and I’ve been asked to share the high-level parts publicly to benefit others who are community managers or moderators of online forums. I don’t see why not :grinning: It can only make the Internet a better place.

Is It Possible That They Aren’t Trolls?

It is possible, yes. But when guiding and protecting a community, what is important to keep in mind are people’s actions and the effect that those actions have. Much less important are the motivations behind those actions, especially because attempting to discern someone’s true motivations online is sketchy at best without body language, access to information on someone’s true identity and other unrelated activities. For better or worse, all we have to go on is the personality the person projects online. If the person or people in question are acting like trolls, they should be treated like trolls.

Troll Tactics

Encounters with trolls often follow this pattern:

  1. Do something that adheres to the letter of the law, while violating the spirit of the law to provoke a reaction
  2. When called out on their behavior, attempt to control the flow of the conversation or public perception
    • Argue semantics
    • Attempt to create public outcry
    • Claim unreasonable persecution
    • False flag
    • Feign ignorance

The overarching strategy of the troll is to expend as little of their own energy as possible, while simultaneously defeating their target through emotional or mental exhaustion.

Argue Semantics

The troll’s goal isn’t to defend any particular point of view. The troll’s goal is to frustrate, harry and tire their target by twisting their own words back at them, forcing their target to defend themselves from their own words. So they argue semantics, attempting to make their target explain themselves more and more pedantically, moving the point of the discussion away from their behavior and toward just spinning ‘round and ‘round on little bits of logic.

Attempt to Create Public Outcry

Another way trolls attempt to exhaust their target is to give their target more opponents (or at least distractions from the troll) by creating a public outcry against their target. This forces their target to deal with others and have less energy to deal with the troll or even distract them from the troll completely.

Claim Unreasonable Persecution

This tactic is actually two-fold. When used in public, it can help to create a public outcry as mentioned above. When used in private, it is an attempt to make the target feel guilty for “hurting their feelings” wagering that because the target is acting honorably, it will cause them to second-guess themselves or even backpedal.

False Flag

The false flag is a tactic that is designed to confuse and make the target spend extra effort attempting to determine the truth of the matter. It depends on the target believing themselves to be a good person, which is quite common :wink: And if the target believes themselves to be a good person, when they are confronted with the idea that they may have falsely accused someone of anything bad, there is often the need to apologize or backpedal.

Feign Ignorance

This is bait to lure the target into “proving their case”. When the target takes the bait, then the troll can simply parry every argument or point by claiming that the target hasn’t convinced them. This puts the troll in control of the situation because the target has essentially ceded the troll the ability to say whether the target has won the debate or not. Which, of course, they will never concede.

How to Deal with a Troll?

Notice how all of the above tactics are designed to redirect blame, distract the target from the matter at hand, and control the flow of the discussion. The advantage that a community manager or moderator has is that within whatever area they are working, they are the law. So, own it, be the law. Look at things objectively, make your decision and remember:


WarGames, 1983

  • Make any decisions and craft your message by yourself or amongst trusted colleagues before engaging the troll
  • Be polite - assume that the troll is going to publish the worst parts of the conversation
  • Communicate your message and only your message
  • Disengage
  • Take any punitive actions
  • Never talk about it with the troll ever again

The above should be the true meaning of “don’t feed the trolls”. Don’t give them the satisfaction of playing their game. Don’t give them the attention they crave. Don’t give them your emotional or mental effort. Simply state your business, don’t leave it open for interpretation, take any necessary actions such as suspension or banning and move on. No debate. No appeal.


Copyright © 2010-2021 by Lee Dohm