THE BLOG
09/08/2014 10:52 am ET Updated Nov 08, 2014

Why Feeding Online Trolls Only Feeds Online Trolling

When a child comes home from school to report bullying to a parent, a common refrain is that the child should ignore the bully - that ignoring a bully takes away their power, and that if you fail to give the bully attention, he/she will direct their abuse toward someone who will give them more notice.

Sometimes, the advice works; sometimes, the bullying gets worse.

One of the biggest challenges in our 24-hour, online culture is that it has leveled the playing field. A policy expert of several decades may get published; but so too can a college freshman with no grasp of an issue's broader context. Pulitzer prize-winning journalists may provide insightful analysis of a major speech by an elected official, but Google, Bing and other search engines might place the commentary next to that of a far-left or right activist with accusations about the official that have no basis in fact.

On the Internet, a guy in his boxer shorts shouting at the computer in his mother's basement can get as much attention as a senior executive logging in from her Wall Street office.

In addition to leveling the ability to gain access to large audiences, the rise of social media has also created an environment for internet bullies - sometimes called trolls. Many of us have come to think of trolls as that guy in his mother's basement. These trolls harass individuals on Twitter and other social media sites where any member of the public can engage, and/or pollute comment sections of news stories or blog posts with accusations, outlandish comments, and inappropriate and sometimes offensive imagery and remarks.

Writers at Jezebel.com recently took to the internet with a story outlining the violent rape images and comments they have endured in connection with published stories, and the complaints to parent company Gawker Media that had gone unaddressed. After the public disclosure, Gawker began considering changes to its policies, but was then criticized for allowing trolls to win by forcing new procedures.

So where do organizations - and individuals - draw the line? When is a troll, just a troll; and when is he/she a valid advocate sharing an alternative view? When the responses use vulgar language or imagery? When someone's person/family/employer is criticized in a way that is irrelevant to the article?

And more importantly, when and how does one respond to a troll?

There are advocates and commentators who thrive on troll wars on the Internet. They spend hours of time retweeting, posting and responding to men and women they have never met whose posts range from criticism of their opinions to personal attacks based on gender, race or any number of other characteristics.

Though some applaud this strategy, the risk becomes that feeding an individual internet troll in fact feeds internet trolling.

The Internet has given all of us the opportunity to engage in discourse with individuals across the globe, with different and often interesting perspectives. But it has also allowed people we would not invite into our home the chance to verbally assault, publicly combat, and actively derail our conversations. People who do not deserve our time and attention are given the opportunity to get under our skin, to scare and harass, and to influence.

Instead of swearing off all public posts or engagement online, those of us who engage publicly must make personal decisions about how to interact with unwanted visitors. Many choose to ignore trolls. We turn our backs to would-be bullies who may seek attention elsewhere. News organizations like Gawker have chosen to moderate comment boards; others require that a reader sign-in with personally identifiable information so they can be tracked.

And while movements are afoot around the globe to better track internet harassers - particularly those that cross the line into threatening or stalking-like behavior - those reforms will likely be met with significant resistance from First Amendment and privacy advocates who hasten to silence anyone's speech.

Ultimately, each of us has the power to address trolls. Before responding to online banter, individuals (in personal or professional capacities) should consider whether or not the engagement is worth it. Whether being drawn into a discussion with a troll will help further develop and explore the conversation, or whether it's giving a would-be bully ammunition to keep assaulting. Is it strategic and positive, or adding fuel to the fire?

Is the guy in his mother's basement worth your time?