Inventive Ways to Control Trolls

To keep the peace on the ever-expand­ing Stack Exchange Net­work of online com­munit­ies, own­ers Joel Spol­sky and Jeff Atwood intro­duced the timed sus­pen­sion of dis­rupt­ive users’ accounts. Over time the trans­par­ency of the timed sus­pen­sion pro­cess proved to be occa­sion­ally inef­fi­cient when dis­cus­sions arose regard­ing the mer­its of cer­tain sus­pen­sions. This led the admin­is­trat­ors of the com­munit­ies to invest­ig­ate oth­er ways of mod­er­at­ing prob­lem­at­ic users.

What they found were three fant­ast­ic­ally devi­ous secret ways to effect­ively con­trol trolls and oth­er abus­ive users on online com­munit­ies: the hell­ban, slow­ban, and errorb­an:

A hell­banned user is invis­ible to all oth­er users, but cru­cially, not him­self. From their per­spect­ive, they are par­ti­cip­at­ing nor­mally in the com­munity but nobody ever responds to them. They can no longer dis­rupt the com­munity because they are effect­ively a ghost. It’s a clev­er way of enfor­cing the “don’t feed the troll” rule in the com­munity. When noth­ing they post ever gets a response, a hell­banned user is likely to get bored or frus­trated and leave. I believe it, too; if I learned any­thing from read­ing The Great Brain as a child, it’s that the silent treat­ment is the cruelest pun­ish­ment of them all. […]

(There is one addi­tion­al form of hell­ban­ning that I feel com­pelled to men­tion because it is par­tic­u­larly cruel – when hell­banned users can see only them­selves and oth­er hell­banned users. Brrr. I’m pretty sure Dante wrote a chapter about that, some­where.)

A slow­banned user has delays for­cibly intro­duced into every page they vis­it. From their per­spect­ive, your site has just got­ten ter­ribly, hor­ribly slow. And stays that way. They can hardly dis­rupt the com­munity when they’re strug­gling to get web pages to load. There’s also sci­ence behind this one, because per research from Google and Amazon, every page load delay dir­ectly reduces par­ti­cip­a­tion. Get slow enough, for long enough, and a slow­banned user is likely to seek out green­er and speedi­er pas­tures else­where on the inter­net.

An errorb­anned user has errors inser­ted at ran­dom into pages they vis­it. You might con­sider this a more severe exten­sion of slow­ban­ning – instead of pages load­ing slowly, they might not load at all, return cryptic HTTP errors, return the wrong page alto­geth­er, fail to load key depend­en­cies like JavaS­cript and images and CSS, and so forth. I’m sure your devi­ous little brains can ima­gine dozens of ways things could go “wrong” for an errorb­anned user. This one is a bit more eso­ter­ic, but it isn’t the­or­et­ic­al; an exist­ing imple­ment­a­tion exists in the form of the Drupal Misery mod­ule.

6 thoughts on “Inventive Ways to Control Trolls

  1. James

    These are *bril­liant* – my mind is racing to think of oth­er ideas. I won­der if you could do any­thing to do with remov­ing anonym­ity some­how, since that seems to be one of the reas­ons that many trolls get com­fort­able.

  2. Lloyd Morgan Post author

    I think these meth­ods are great for man­aging trolls without overtly cen­sor­ing their comments/activities.

    Clive Thompson dis­cussed some oth­er meth­ods to reduce their impact, but I find his solu­tions not as eleg­ant as this.

    Your idea of remov­ing anonym­ity also goes to the heart of one solu­tion sug­ges­ted in the New York Times a while ago: per­sis­tent pseu­do­nymity.

    How­ever I do prefer your idea of remov­ing the anonym­ity of trolls, rather than keep­ing an iden­tity per­sist­ent across the Inter­net. I can ima­ging using IP geo­loca­tion in some way here, for example by mak­ing the dis­played name change from “Anonytroll” to “Troll in the UK” to “Troll in Great­er Lon­don” to “Troll in North Lon­don” to, finally, “Troll in Cam­den, Lon­don”.


  3. james

    Oh nice.. dis­emvow­el­ling! I like the idea of the com­ment remain­ing but changed some­how, so that the rest of the com­munity gets a sense of what’s okay and what’s not.

    It’s inter­est­ing to think about how you can enforce non-anonym­ity, in increas­ing meas­ures.. the geo IP def­in­itely works, but you could in the­ory require people to give away more and more details about them­selves, or to prove some­how that it’s true (e.g. this is a recent photo of me here’s a news­pa­per) or to have to use a face­book login that has over 20 friends, etc. You could require that they make a veri­fied email pub­licly avail­able, or to dis­close where they work. Not sure if there are any leg­al con­straints to this but I don’t see why not. Amaz­ing to think about the huff­ing­ton post need­ing 25 f-t staff to comb through 35,000 com­ments a day.. no reas­on why they couldn’t be involved with enfor­cing and val­id­at­ing the anonym­ity-dis­clos­ure too.

  4. james

    Hey Lloyd one oth­er thing – was read­ing last night about the #MyTramEx­per­i­ence video and read­ing some of the com­ments on The Peri­scope Post art­icle about it.

    Until a moment ago I would have said that using Face­book com­ments – and so remov­ing some anonym­ity – is a great way to stop hate­ful com­ments.

    But some of these com­ments prove me wrong! I for­got about the people who are *proud* of their extreme views. I guess that’s less about trolling and more about what kind of free speech you’re will­ing to allow on your plat­form.

  5. Lloyd Morgan Post author

    Ah, thanks for that, Daniel. I should have guessed that Green­spun had done some­thing sim­il­ar in his time…

    If you’re inter­ested in read­ing more on the his­tory of these meth­ods of con­trolling trolls, I also sug­gest hav­ing a look at this Meta­Fil­ter dis­cus­sion on the top­ic.

    It looks like at least one of these meth­ods ori­gin­ated on the Cit­adel BBS sys­tem in the mid-1980s. Amaz­ing, really.

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