Why you need to ignore internet haters

Lately, I’ve been coming across bloggers and vloggers talking about hateful comments they get, and how painful it is, and how to deal with them. Since this is something I have years experience with – as a “user”, a site mod and eventually a webmaster – I eventually learned a few things about this the hard way. Many of you who deal with online haters may have some misconceptions about them.

Who haters target

If you feel alone when haters target you, don’t. They target anyone who offers progressive ideas, creative thoughts or empathy.

Who haters are

Haters are pretty consistently against anything progressive or creative, or just people succeeding or having fun. They align themselves closely with traditional ideas, because they aren’t comfortable with change. And sometimes they’re just envious of you.

But what they most want is your attention, because if you’re paying attention to them, you can’t be out there changing their world. That’s right – they are the ultimate derailers. They just want to stop you in case you might get around to putting some of your ideas into action.

This isn’t just true of activists, either, which is why this is not an Activism 101 post. The internet is a big social equalizer. You’re never sure who you’re talking to, and the fact that women and minorities can find a place to voice their opinions – whether it’s about last night’s reality TV lineup or radical social change – really bothers some people.

It would follow from that assessment that most trolls are white men, and in my experience, that is absolutely true. But don’t fall for the myth that they’re all young white guys with a lot of time on their hands. When a Usenet group I belonged to in the 90s got trolled, the group tracked them down. Turned out they were a bunch of middle-aged white guys trolling from their office computers in Texas. The group let their employers know how these guys were spending their time, and terminations followed.

Why you need to ignore them

Your first instinct is probably to counter their hateful comments, or at least call attention to the low quality of their thoughts. You’re afraid others will agree with them. But get over that fear. Other haters certainly will agree with them, and nothing you can say to or about them will change that. Your best strategy is to continue talking to non-haters in the group, as if the haters don’t even exist. They cannot stand this, and they usually respond by amping up the harassment for a bit, and then moving on when they realize they can’t get the attention they were seeking.

Giving them any attention at all makes them the winners, in their minds. Simply ignoring them makes them feel like losers, and they cannot stand feeling like losers.

Something that may help you ignore these people is to remember who they might be. The next time you run into a troll, consider the possibility that they are:

  • Prisoners. Yes, many prisoners have internet access, and a lot of time on their hands. Odds are at least some of the net trolls you have met or will meet in your lifetime will be prisoners enjoying internet access and free time on your tax dollars. Why reward them by making that free time more fun for them?
  • Children. I used to assume it would be obvious when I was talking to a child, but it’s surprisingly not. And adolescents in particular can explore a lot of viewpoints and presentations before they mature. It’s not that easy to tell a hardened middle-aged misogynist troll from a twelve-year-old who’s just trying on society’s misogyny for size. Since I for one do not want to find myself saying to any twelve-year-old ever the sort of thing I’ll cheerfully say to a middle-aged misogynist, I find it better to just ignore them. Kids lose interest very quickly when they’re not getting the attention they wanted.
  • Extremely entitled people. Now, it might sound like these are exactly the people we want to be tangling with, but we are the last people on earth they will ever listen to. It’s just not worth it. That’s why I created this site.

In short, engaging with haters is like fighting with a pig: you get muddy and bruised, and the pig has a good time. Actually, maybe that one line should have been the whole of this article, because I don’t think I can put it better than that. You are just indulging them by acknowledging their existence, so why acknowledge it?

To this day, I struggle to take my own advice. We get comments to which I want to email the person something very foul or even threatening, and the Hathor staff has had to sit me down on more than one occasion. But the more we follow the “What troll? I didn’t see a troll” policy, the fewer trolls we have to deal with. It really does work.

Got questions? Post them, and we’ll try to answer.

Comments

  1. Casey says

    “What troll? I didn’t see a troll”

    I’ve been trying to keep up that mentality, it gets a little difficult sometimes though since I usually get trolled in semi-anonymous public forums (and Deviantart).

    I think I’d have more fun mud-wrasslin’ with a pig then dealing with any more people like that guy I e-mailed you about. :D

  2. Nymeria says

    I don’t know. “Ignore it and it will go away” has always seemed like bad advice in regards to bullying. There are probably some drive by trolls this works against, but the more persistent ones don’t really care one way or another what you do.

  3. says

    Nymeria,

    Can you provide specifics to back up your argument? My article was based on personal experience and observation since 1994. I’ve seen the ignoring tactic work many times, and the worst cases of bullying and harassment are consistently ones in which the trolls got some acknowledgement by their target. And here are numerous YouTubers agreeing that non-response is the primary weapon: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=how+to+deal+with+haters&oq=how+to+deal+with+&aq=0&aqi=g3g-z1g6&aql=&gs_sm=e&gs_upl=50l4205l0l5423l28l19l3l5l6l0l529l1819l6.3.5-2l11l0

  4. jose says

    Killfiles exist for a reason: They spare people from a lot of stupidness. I’ll always be glad I took that one optional subject where they taught me javascript. That way I can write my own kill fille for every website I visit frequently. It really improves your experience.

    You can’t ignore majorities away (ie, you can’t go to men’s rights subreddit and have a pleasant experience just by ignoring the assholes since those are legion there), but it works nicely to deal with the troll that pops in ocassionally in your favorite blog.

  5. sbg says

    Nymeria,

    In real time, perhaps. Online? Do Not Engage has consistently been the only tack that works with trolls. You utter one word to them, and it’s like handing them the equivalent of a hit of a highly addictive drug.

  6. Clay Mechanic says

    There’s a nice article on the tools website owners use to moderate their most troublesome users – and the ethics of doing so – over here:
    http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2011/06/suspension-ban-or-hellban.html

    I’m not quite sure how I feel about these sorts of reality-altering tricks that are impossible in the world of atoms. On some level, they feel disingenuous to me.

    [...]

    That said, every community is different. I’ve personally talked to people in charge of large online communities – ones you probably participate in every day – and part of the reason those communities haven’t broken down into utter chaos by now is because they secretly hellban and slowban their most problematic users. These solutions do neatly solve the problem of getting troublesome users to “voluntarily” decide to leave a community with a minimum of drama. It’s hard to argue with techniques that are proven to work.

    I give them a lot of credibility, because the Stack Exchange sites they run are staggeringly effective at filtering accurate answers (and the people who provide them) out of blather.

  7. says

    Nymeria,
    Jennifer Kesler,
    I could imagine there is a difference between “cyber bullying” coming from a single person or a group of people who just want to annoy you (i.e. they do not try to find out, let alone publish, personal information) or severe stalking online. In the first case, I’d go with ignoring, the second one is usually more high stakes and your reputation online could be ruined (via Google) or your personal safety threatened.

    I also remember that Gavin de Becker recommended in his slightly victim blamy book that you shouldn’t even engage with real-life stalkers and they will go away. I think, the difference to real life bullying is that the bullying is more upfront and maybe coming from more people. In this case, if you have to “ignore” it because no one helps you, it maybe won’t get better (but I’m not talking from a lot of experience here).

  8. says

    Clay Mechanic: I give them a lot of credibility, because the Stack Exchange sites they run are staggeringly effective at filtering accurate answers (and the people who provide them) out of blather.

    We definitely do that here. And of course, the haters say it’s all “banning anyone who disagrees with you”, which is baloney. There are disagreements around here all the time, but most people manage to leave the “c” word out. ;)

    Zweisatz,

    I didn’t get into serious cyber stalking because I haven’t dealt with it and don’t feel I can offer much on it from my experience. I do remember Kathy Sierra was able to get law enforcement involved – ironically, I think it generally IS easier to get law enforcement in on cyber-stalking (if credible threats have been made, or personal info exposed to identity theft) than it is to convince them your ex-bf in real life is really a threat. So that’s something beyond what I was talking about in this article.

    As for offline bullying, ignoring never helped much in my experience, but I think offline bullying is SO varied, with so many factors. Online bullies have anonymity, so they can just walk away if they don’t like how it’s going, without losing face. Offline, that’s not always true, and the need to save face before witnesses can escalate situations. And that’s just one difference among many.

    This post was definitely not intended to include cyber stalking or offline bullying. Had I anticipated that’s where people’s minds would go, I would’ve stated so. No one went there with the comments on the YouTube videos or other blogs where people have talked about this, so it just didn’t occur to me anyone would expand it that far. Of course, people always expand Hathor articles infinitely beyond their base, so it’s getting to the point where I just can’t be bothered to deal with that, you know? Makes it very frustrating to write here.

  9. MaggieCat says

    Zweisatz:
    I also remember that Gavin de Becker recommended in his slightly victim blamy book that you shouldn’t even engage with real-life stalkers and they will go away.

    I have to disagree about The Gift of Fear being “victim blamey”. The point is made repeatedly that the people who commit crimes often have next to no contact or no real contact at all with the victims they target, and the point isn’t “don’t do these things and bad things won’t happen” but ways to identify how to identify and why you should listen to the signals your own instincts are trying to send to you. Using a real-life example and saying that if you find yourself in a similar situation you *may* be able to affect the outcome is not the same thing as saying the person from the example deserved anything that happened to them. Especially when one of the repeated concepts is that any choice you make in a dangerous situation that keeps you alive was the right choice.

    It doesn’t claim that ignoring someone will stop them (although it mentions there are some specific cases where it might help) but says that engaging with a stalker/abuser will prolong or escalate the situation by providing reinforcement to their behavior — i.e. responding after X number of messages/phone calls/letters to tell them to leave them you alone doesn’t prove that you don’t want to talk to them, it just teaches them that X number of contacts is what it takes to get your attention (even if the attention is negative, it’s still attention). Basically exactly the same point Jennifer is making here.

  10. says

    Zweisatz,

    I’m sorry – that was a general frustration and I put it in a comment addressed to you without even thinking. The only excuse I can offer is that I was working on the Narcissistic Personality Disorder article series, and I think that topic triggers me and then every bad thing seems so magnified. In future, I won’t mod comments while working on that topic! :D

  11. says

    This article on Pandagon seems relevant. Amanda Marcotte discusses an example of a 15yo girl posting a picture of herself on Reddit and being flooded with rape jokes and rape threats. It’s not the same as the scenario you discuss, Jennifer, which is (correct me if I’m wrong) about a community that’s generally good and how to keep it that way. Marcotte’s example is of a community that’s already gone to the dogs and why it matters. She says silence is acceptance of the status quo, and I think that’s true in both scenarios; but what the status quo is beforehand makes a difference in the appropriate response.

  12. says

    Clay Mechanic,

    I really like the idea of hellbanning and slowbanning. I can see how it would be problematic as far as transparency goes, but I’ve seen too many good communities ruined because the mods went overboard with “freedom of speech” and “everyone’s entitled to their opinion”. Including one instance where the mod said people shouldn’t jump to conclusions about the use of a racial slur. No, just no. Trolls running wild just drive away the valuable members. In the end I think hellbanning would solve more problems than it creates. :)

  13. says

    Sylvia Sybil: Marcotte’s example is of a community that’s already gone to the dogs and why it matters. She says silence is acceptance of the status quo, and I think that’s true in both scenarios; but what the status quo is beforehand makes a difference in the appropriate response.

    Sorry if I sound completely dense, but which points are you responding to in my article? My overall point is that ignoring is the best thing you can do, but in the article you linked, there’s no discussion of how the girl responded, or whether it worked. So I assume you’re talking about my advice that engaging with hardcore bigots isn’t worthwhile.

    If so, I would point out that that’s why I started this site. Engaging with them did NOT help. But, like Rebecca Watson and Amanda Marcotte, I discovered the writing ABOUT them in a safe space did help. Remember Team Liquid changed their mod policies after posturing a lot about how silly our criticism of their mod policies was. So, if you can’t leave it alone (not everyone’s up to being an activist), then I would advise finding a safe space where you can be assured trolls/haters will be silenced. Does that make sense/address your point at all? (Been working hard on those NPD articles, brain is pasta atm.)

    Clay Mechanic,

    Somehow I overlooked your link before and just responded to the quote. Lord, I wish I knew how to do hellbanning on a WordPress site. There may be a plugin. That is a beautiful idea!

  14. Casey says

    Sylvia Sybil,

    EW! That sounds like the mods I have to deal with on the various message boards/online communities I dabble in. It doesn’t help that most of them are privilege-denying white dudes who always employ the “both sides are just as bad” argument when someone says a CLEARLY bigoted statement and people call them out on it OR somebody calls out a fucked up statement and they get dog-piled on for “starting trouble”.

  15. says

    I definitely agree about your point regarding writing about the trolling in a safe space. In my case, it was one that I controlled (my blog). It’s something that I found useful and cathartic when I wanted to call out sexist, heterosexist, and racist online behaviour, because I believed it was important for such things to be criticised. Not engaging with the haters in their own space prevented the issue turning into a massive back and forth with those folks, and engaging with people who were also progressive was more productive. More than a year after the incident, one of the original haters actually contacted me to apologise for his behaviour, and he let me know that he respected me for the way I handled it.

  16. says

    Jennifer Kesler: So I assume you’re talking about my advice that engaging with hardcore bigots isn’t worthwhile.

    If so, I would point out that that’s why I started this site. Engaging with them did NOT help. But, like Rebecca Watson and Amanda Marcotte, I discovered the writing ABOUT them in a safe space did help.

    That’s what I meant to do, discuss the difference between engaging and addressing. :)

    Obviously trolls are a problem on the internet. Nobody’s winning any awards for that observation. However, I think too many people (not suggesting you did this) take “don’t feed the trolls” and run too far with it. In the comment thread I linked to, several people were saying “just grow a thicker skin” and “not revealing your gender will fix the problem”.

    I think the advice in the OP works well for the specifics and when you have control. If Hathor fed the trolls, I suspect every thread would immediately devolve into babble and verbal violence. For the generals, when you don’t have control or you have communities giving rape threats thousands of upvotes, a different approach is required. Engaging with the bigots rarely benefits the bigots, but occasionally helps the sideliners and lurkers. Leaving the site entirely and discussing it in a safe place helps even more, in my experience.

    I hope I’m making sense. Basically I’m trying to clarify the situations when I think the OP’s advice will work.

  17. says

    Brinstar,

    That sounds very rewarding!

    Sylvia Sybil: However, I think too many people (not suggesting you did this) take “don’t feed the trolls” and run too far with it. In the comment thread I linked to, several people were saying “just grow a thicker skin” and “not revealing your gender will fix the problem”.

    Well, that’s distorting “don’t feed the trolls” into “don’t get yourself trolled”, which puts the onus on the non-trolls. And of course, end users cannot put the onus on the trolls by demanding they act like they’re civilized. So site owners really need to do better… but I feel like that’s another topic we’ve discussed in articles about why our mod policy is fairly draconian, and we’re okay with that.

    A lot of YouTube vloggers have been talking about this lately. When you have a channel, you CAN mod comments, block users, etc. So that plus blogs was the context of the “ignore” advice.

    But I was also thinking of Casey’s experiences at forums where the mods don’t get it and let the trolls run wild. One of them has told her in the past to just use her “ignore” feature so they don’t have to mod, but she rejected that option because she felt she needed to know what they were saying. I used to really struggle with that kind of thing, too, and the article was basically telling people: look, not only do you have permission to ignore them, but you’ll make it less fun for them if you do, and that’s the best way to silence them.

  18. Clay Mechanic says

    To see some trolls being treated as they deserve, pay this site a visit:
    http://whywasibanned.com/

    It contains extracts from the forum where people ask why their XBox Live accounts have been suspended. It’s good for several reasons:
    (1) Microsoft could just passively wait for users to file complaints, but instead they’re actively seeking out and banning hate speech. Do they do this out of a sense of morality, or because their marketing department says letting the trolls take over is bad for profits? It’s probably the latter, but even that means they consider demographics other than white male teenagers to be relevant to their business. It’s not perfect – see the recent discussion about gender-specific items for XBox Live avatars.

    (2) Video games really matter to these misogynistic, homophobic, racists. Banning their accounts pains them more than being banned from a regular forum could, and they don’t like it. Am I a bad person for enjoying their ineffectual spluttering? Yes. Will a tiny fraction of them one day develop the insight to realise they were in the wrong? Maybe.

    (3) Even the trolls who are smart enough to issue a cringingly servile apology cannot hide their sense of privilege.

    The ability of the moderators to respond with patience and dry humor without giving an inch is also a joy to behold. Some highlights (be warned, these quote the cause of the ban):
    http://whywasibanned.com/tag/freedom-of-speech/
    http://whywasibanned.com/2012/01/03/knee/
    http://whywasibanned.com/2011/11/25/it-hates-you-too/
    http://whywasibanned.com/2011/05/04/with-your-child/
    http://whywasibanned.com/2011/01/19/naggers/

  19. says

    Clay Mechanic,
    LOL, thanks for the amusement! Some great stuff in there!

    It feels so weird to say this, but I’m starting to heart MSN lately. It’s not just this, but it’s an overall corporate trend toward the idea that you can profit BY doing the right thing, not just in spite of it.

    I’m actually totally okay with the idea of enforcing anti-bigotry for profit, because I’ve always believed it would be more profitable than catering to prejudice. Unfortunately, most businesses define profit pretty narrowly and don’t actually chase the dollar as hard as people assume. I.E., it’s no coincidence that young white men were the main audience of movies made by young white men back when it was hard for anyone but young white men to work in Hollywood (not that it’s easy now, but slightly improved). Therefore, OF COURSE you have lots of data indicating white men are a great audience. You’ve never really made any effort to court any other.

    It’ll be interesting to see if the gaming community ends up leading the way in redefining their target demographic as “vast majority of non-assholes who like to game” rather than by race, gender, etc.

    The whole concept of demographics is bigoted, but that’s a rant for another post.

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