THE BLOG

50 Shades of Trolls

07/02/2015 03:50 pm ET | Updated Jul 01, 2016

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You may have heard of a little hashtag that went awry this week on Twitter regarding E.L. James: #AskELJames, where the author and her PR team planned a Q&A to coincide with the release of her latest novel Grey: Fifty Shades of Grey as Told by Christian. The reaction on Twitter was swift and brutal. Depending on your beliefs, either her PR team should be fired, or they can now all afford to drive Porsches (I vote for the latter).

Or maybe you heard about oh, SCOTUS passing the legalization of gay marriage, or the Obamacare ruling that infuriated the right, or maybe the Confederate flag's historic hold on the South coming down? Big week, yea?

Big news week, one filled with massive change. With change comes protest and discussion, and with protest and discussion comes trolls, the focus of today's article.

As an author, blogger, and marketer, I often hear writers lament about trolls, particularly on social media. This week has been bloated with anywhere from inappropriate comments to downright threats of bodily harm from trolls who cannot accept the decisions that came down, who feel James should be burned at the stake for writing her fictional series, or who are baiting people for sharing their own thoughts and feelings on the controversial topics of healthcare, gay marriage, and racism -- people like you and me who expressed our feeling on our own blogs, streams, and walls.

WHAT IS A TROLL EXACTLY?

What exactly is an Internet troll? According to Psychology Today, "an Internet troll is someone who comes into a discussion and posts comments designed to upset or disrupt the conversation. Often, in fact, it seems like there is no real purpose behind their comments except to upset everyone else involved. Trolls will lie, exaggerate, and offend to get a response."

Canadian researchers decided to find out more. They conducted two online studies with over 1,200 people, giving personality tests to each subject along with a survey about their Internet commenting behavior, looking for evidence that linked trolling with the "Dark Tetrad" of personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism. Researchers found the Dark Tetrad scores highest among people who said trolling was their favorite Internet activity.

"Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others. Sadists just want to have fun ... and the Internet is their playground!" In other words, the more upset you become, the happier they are (Source: Science Direct).

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PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

As the author of four nonfiction books, active marketer for dozens of other authors, and the director of an imprint for a hybrid publisher, I often receive comments from trolls on my own blogs, publications I write for (here is no exception), and on social media. I typically ignore them completely. If their points are valid, I have a one-response rule: I thank them for their input. "Kill them with kindness," my dad taught me back when I worked retail in high school, and that advice still works today.

Here's what helps me:

--First, determine if the person is disagreeing, attacking, or simply baiting. We often go to defensive first, but their argument may have merit and could be a chance for you to learn. Step back and think before you react. You never know who is watching, and it's better to be diplomatic. "Use your inside voice," as we tell our kids.

--Second, if it's clear this person has an agenda completely different than your own, decide whether to respond or ignore. This is where my 'one-response' rule comes into play: if I respond, I respond once (if the person is being rude or aggressive, but still makes a good point). If totally inappropriate, I delete their comment (i.e., if sexually explicit) and block.

--Third, take action: either move on, ignore (still an action), or block if this person continues on, particularly if they are baiting. Did you learn something? Can you write a new post about it? I find social media great fodder and inspiration for my writing.

Social media is a terrific forum for expressing ideas and opinions, forming and building relationships, and networking, particularly for authors. I'm a HUGE fan. However, there is no denying the dark side. It can be difficult not to take it personally when someone attacks you, and that's the key right there: what these people say is clearly more about them than you. Remember that.

But what do others think? In discussing the James situation, Mark Fidelman, CEO of Evolve! and I both agreed that while it was an interesting marketing/PR situation, it's also a microcosm of trolling behavior (albeit, some of it quite hilarious).

Whether you feel the James situation justified, I ask you to look at the bigger picture. This isn't about James and her books, or gay marriage, or healthcare -- there are plenty of articles regarding those topics specifically. Instead, I ask you to put yourself in the shoes of someone who is the target of trolls, bullies, and haters, as many of you may have been this week.

What would you do if that kind of behavior were directed at you? Have you been the target of trolling behavior? What is the best way to deal with trolls?

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PROFESSIONAL ADVICE FROM THE BEST

In order to give you the best possible advice, I polled some the top influencers in social media and marketing today. Here are their recommendations (in no particular order):

I do one of 3 things: 1. I ignore and block them 2. If they become a problem (continued abuse), I get my community of friends to let the troll know that their behavior is out of line. 3. I'll reach out to the social network with proof of the trolls behavior and have them kicked off network.
- Mark Fidelman, @markfidelman

In this world there will always be people who hurt you, trolls, and all around unpleasant people. When I start to get upset about the actions of others I remind myself: the time and energy I am spending being upset can instead be used to make sure I am not like that person (troll) and I don't want to live a life where I let other people decide what I feel. As soon as we accept that others' opinions are just that, opinions, we become immune to unnecessary suffering at the hands of others.
- Kate Tilton, @K8Tilton

Ignore them. In most cases they're just bent on harassing and no amount of reason or explanation will satisfy them. If they didn't to get a rise out of you, they would ask their questions or make their statements in a more respectful manner. Ignore them.
- Deb Ng, @debng

Don't feed the trolls. Don't talk to them, don't engage them, don't feed them.
- Sheryl Camp, @sherylcamp

Tend to ignore them. Supplying facts and empirical evidence usually is quite lost on them. I like being politely condescending, but subtlety such as that is usually lost on the internet. Anyway, a true troll doesn't care what you say, they hide behind the mask of anonymity...they are in for the kicks...which includes hurtful and insulting comments.
- Oliver Ontiveros

I have gotten quite a few emails or unpleasant messages. I think my Facebook messenger is the worst, I don't even read my "other folder" where messages go from people you don't know. Sometimes I get amused with things I didn't know about myself haha.
- Zlata, @iamsexyfit

I have been lucky so far to not have to deal with them. I think social media networks need to be more responsive to the things these people do & make it easier for people to get them out of their lives.
- Bill B., @timberwolf123

In most cases, simply ignore them. The aim of their comments is to upset and anger the recipient, and get a reaction. Don't reply; that's what they want. You're never going to have a logical conversation with them or change their opinion.
- Karen Soutar, @KMSDriving

Ocassional trolls can and should be ignored or reported if they are abusive. However, a structured attack should be dealt with in a different manner. First, be active in your community, not just when hosting an online event; this will help establish you as an engaged participant and will help build a good reputation. Second, use humor if and when it makes sense. Third, if the trolls are bullying you and/or guests, report them or block them. Finally, do NOT get negative. Ever. In other words, don't sink to their level.
- John Lusher, @JohnLusher

The only way I have found of dealing with trolls and not losing my sanity is to disregard their attacks and seek to maintain a positive mental outlook while surrounding myself with intelligent and positive people. Also, I really try not to read the comments.
- Kate Palermin, @KRexCreates

Mute, Block, or disengage. It's important to realize that it's not always about you. Sometimes people are mean for the sake of being mean. That says more about them than it does about you. The only thing you have to do is take care of your mental well-being. If that means walking away, do so. Find someone you trust to monitor your social network and report any serious threats and let you know when it might be safe to come back.
- Katie Doyle, @KatieDoyle_IN

Social media trolls? My recommendation: Negativity that is used solely to provoke a reaction should be diffused with silence or humor. Negativity used to present a contrarian view should be met with humor, grace or fact.
- Sandra Zoratti, @sandraz

Ef em. If you don't like what I do, you're not my audience. Block. Move on.
- Loren Kleinman, @LorenKleinman

Never feed a troll. They are not interested in a discussion, only in making someone feel bad, so nothing you offer, aside from that, matters.
- Katherine Sears, @ksearsbooks

I think the best thing, if you have the time and capability is to respond as humorously as possible to each troll. Respectfully of course ;)
- Benjamin Harris

Don't engage if at all possible, but do discuss things with other friends that may need to back you up if things become out of hand - legally, interpersonally or otherwise. Don't accept or ignore threats - even if you know they're not serious, nip it in the bud. Block them if you can, but be aware that means they can be venomous without you seeing it, so if that sort of thing bothers you, have a trusted friend move on. Blogs - block their IP as soon as they do it. Whether it's a temp block or permanent one, the chances of your troll(s) and freinds sharing an ip is very small - and if people can't see your blog, you can address that by going to http://whatismyip.com and unblock the IP they give you. If you can't disengage from them (for example, they're attacking you on groups you have no control in) enlist friends to point this out to admins. If the admins are bullying, the only thing you can do is report them to Facebook or other platforms.
Block, block block is my main advice though!
- Kai, @Kaiberie

If they are genuine trolls and not just someone disagreeing with what was said, ignore them. If they have a genuine tough question try to find common ground.
- CC Ryburn, @CCRyburn

This is a tough one. In many instances, the best thing you can do is to simply ignore them. Feeding trolls with attention seems to fuel them. However, when it comes to Twitter specifically, the beauty of the platform, since the very beginning, is the ability to engage in witty conversation in 140 characters or less. The quick quip wins, and the site is filled with people who are masters of that. Any time you do a celebrity chat, and certainly one on a topic and with an author about whom people have so many opinions, you have to go into it expecting that kind of conversation to occur. There should have been nothing said during that chat that surprised James or her team. Those same conversations--about the book, about her writing ability (or lack thereof), about abuse, etc., have been happening since the book was published. So, in this instance, based on what I saw, I'm not sure these folks were trolls so much as people who had very definite opinions (many times already publicly expressed) about this author and this book series. If I were a PR rep, I would've made sure my client (and my team) came to the chat fully prepared to deal with that. Probably with some kind of humor in exchange.
- Shelly Kramer, @shellykramer

1. Live a life that doesn't give trolls any credibility.
2. Do not create places that are platforms for trolls to gain visibility.
3. Respond honestly to honest criticism. Ignore actual trollery. Know the difference.
- Josh Bernoff, @jbernoff

Don't stoop to their level, but do acknowledge them. They are a fact of life so you have to deal with them, so deal with them wisely or be prepared to suffer the wrath. Educated readers understand their role in this conversation, which, sometimes (as in this case) is effective.
- Malia, @your6thman

"Don't feed the trolls." Call them out and don't engage with them. Usually this shuts them down as well.
- Crystal R. Martin, @CrystalMartin

Besides simply ignoring them, another effective approach is to expose trolls for what they are -- bullies that can't spell. Strong online communities will see it for what it is and quickly bury the aggressively ignorant. The troll can then be blocked, never to be heard from again, and go back under the bridge from which it crawled.
- Paul Biedermann, @PaulBiedermann

The most important thing is to not take anything they say personally. It really isn't about you, it's all about them, so don't given them one iota of emotional energy, because that's all they really want. You can ignore them or debate them, or even hate on them (if they are truly trolls and not professionals just saying stupid things). I'd normally say to respond with kindness and love, and indeed that would be best all around for you and everyone, but regardless of what you say to a troll, they are just going to continue to troll you. You can't reason with them or win them, so either have fun playing with them or don't do anything at all.
- Chris Heuer, @chrisheuer

I think trolls mean nothing, but HATERS scare everyone away (that's what I experienced when all my supporters were too afraid to support me publicly)...sad!
- Bruce Sallan, @BruceSallan

The best way to handle trolls is simply not to handle them at all. Trolls fall into several categories: The miserable ones who want you to join them in their drudgery, the megalomaniacs who know their opinions and superior intellect dictate the masses fall to their knees in awe of their insurmountable greatness, the average teen/tween who love chaos and embrace anarchy who troll for fun, and then the truly frightening sociopath/psychopath types. Troll categories abound, but those seem most prevalent. Ultimately trolls want recognition, and utterly ignoring them enrages or hurts them far more than engaging them. The reward is you won't exhaust yourself fighting inconsequential battles, losing the precious commodity of your valued time. Trolls hunger, and even throwing them a morsel makes them rabid. Starve them and live a great life.
- Amberr Meadows, @amberrisme

It depends on whether they're "friendly trolls" or simply mean spirited provocateurs. In the later case just "block" them.
- Bill Cleary

I pay no attention to them. First, my blog requires your first post to be approved before you can comment freely in the future. And I only approve real people, real names. Secondly, the delete key works great on Facebook. I have bi one or energy beyond a single click for mean or informant people. Click. Done. Third, my general rule of Twitter is: if you have less than 100 followers, follow less than 100 people or have less than 300 tweets, you don't get a response from me. Just because you overhear every voice in a bar or airplane doesn't mean you need to pay attention, let alone respond to them. I use the same approach to digital networks.
- Matthew Ferrara, @mfcompany

Don't feed the trolls. They long for your attention. Starve them.
- Pam Moore, @pammktgnut

If you can see any reason or rationale, then by all means address it. If you can make a joke out of it, then that might work too. The problem with blocking someone is that you risk them launching some crazed multi-platform attack on you. I look at it on a case-by-case basis. If it is so overwhelming that available resources can't handle it, then the problem is considerably larger than just a "troll" or "trolls". The first step, I think is to drop the ego and see if there's anything to their statement(s). If so, then be prepared to comment back; brush it off lightly. Then see if your fans, advocates, etc. will rally to try and disarm the troll. This happens quite often. And I'd suggest that if you have any fans at arms length to make sure they are present and accounted for to aid with your defense.
- J.S. Gilbert, @gilbertism

I used to get upset with them, nowadays I avoid them--they just want headspace and attention.
- Bennet Pomerantz, @AUDIOWORLD007

Act like a bouncer to your own club. Bounce them, let them hang behind the ropes.
- Troy Kirby, @SportsTao

Embrace the trolls, let your voice be heard by acknowledging them, not by ignoring them.
- Thomas Soerenes, @tsoerenes

Trolls are attention starved & thrive on emotional reactions. Blocking, banning or a votedown system is their kryptonite.
- Mark B.

There is no offense when there is no defense. By responding in a desperate attempt to defend your position you are giving them something to push back against. Instead, give them a big virtual hug. Or instead of pushing back, add some humor to it. What if you responded "I never really thought of it that way. Maybe you're right. Maybe I really am a no talent ass clown!" and see what they say. It's really hard to fight back against that. It diminishes their point, shows your community that you don't take yourself so seriously and gives your community a chance to come to your rescue and bounce them out of there.
- Marc Ensign, @MarcEnsign

WHEN IT GOES BEYOND TROLLING

It's easy to say 'just ignore and block' because in most cases, that's enough...but what happens when it goes beyond the net? Like many women, I have been the target of stalkers, attempted embezzlement, and physical threats (to myself and my children). Reporting to the local police (I'm in California) was useless, as the threats were hardly taken seriously. They referred me to the FBI Internet Crime site, where my report went into The Matrix.

Maybe I needed to have Curt Schilling (the former MLB player who went after his daughter's Twitter trolls) in my corner. Maybe we all need Curt Schilling in our corner!

Fortunately, Twitter and Facebook have taken serious steps this past year to help remedy these abusive situations and make it far easier to report them (click here to find out more about Twitter's new abuse report).

I hope this article helps you deal with trolls and remember, you can always walk away, take deep breaths, drink some water, or go play with your dog/cat/kids. Anything but let those sadists get under your skin.

Thank you to everyone who so generously contributed their experiences and advice. I can't thank you enough!