Comments, Trolls and Communicating in the Internet Age

By on June 12, 2014 in Current Events with 38 Comments

The ability to leave a comment on an article is a popular feature on FedSmith.com. It’s a quick and easy way for the vast audience of people connected to the federal community who read our site to ask questions and share information. In this regard, it’s a positive thing and a service we are pleased to provide.

Unfortunately, there is a downside to the user commenting feature as well. We started this feature about 10 years ago as a “wide open” forum. We quickly discovered that, while federal employees are generally well educated, thoughtful and respectful of others, there are exceptions. We quickly added filters to the commenting software to automatically eliminate some particularly nasty words and phrases that had started routinely popping up, and unfortunately, we find it necessary to constantly expand the list of insults and other derogatory words.

Why Comments are Filtered

We respect our audience and generally allow comments regardless of the point of view as long as a comment is, for the most part, respectful of others.

Readers will sometimes flag comments as inappropriate (sometimes because they disagree with the point of view expressed in the comment) and other times one or more individuals can get carried away with sparring verbally, using the various articles on our site as a forum for spewing insults at each other. Other users will post comments that are “spam” (i.e. here’s a great deal on a used car) or use the comments as an outlet for trying to get free advertising for another web site or service. These sorts of activities can result in monitoring of comments for a period of time or monitoring comments of any individuals who appear to be posting inflammatory or disrespectful comments.

Spoiling the Whole Bunch

Sometimes we are forced to cut off all comments on an article and some who have been vigorously participating in the discussion take personal offense to this without realizing that there are a number of nasty comments that never made public appearance that were the cause for closing the forum. In other words, a few bad apples spoil the whole bunch, as the old adage goes, often unbeknownst to the people using the site in the way it was intended.

Case in point: one author recently asked us why the comments were closed on his article because he wanted to respond to questions from readers. We explained that a small number of people had hijacked the thread with name calling and making nasty remarks to others. While the comments were opened back up after the verbal squall dissipated, readers who had legitimate questions may not have seen the answers they were seeking.

Banning Users

Occasionally, we will ban a commenter whom we conclude has become purposefully disruptive, disrespectful or is spamming the system in some way. There is a subjective aspect to this and often the person whose comments have been deleted or who has been banned from commenting promptly complains the action is unfair or that he is being singled out based on FedSmith’s social or political preferences. While the comments that appear each day cover a wide range of opinions on issues and would appear to immediately demonstrate this is not the case, the reaction to removing a person from posting is usually the same.

Some of the comments to the company assume our editors like policing comments and making commenters’ lives less fruitful by deleting their comments. The reality though is that we would rather spend time writing articles, developing new features and providing timely news for the federal community rather than spending hours reading hundreds of comments during a day. Regrettably, it is necessary to review comments as the internet culture is a fertile breeding ground for encouraging verbal warfare. It’s a thankless job to be sure, and there are days when we have considered not having any comments on the site, at least for a time, as a few people start taking over the comments section and driving out others with their verbal assaults directed to others with an interest in the federal community.

Don’t Shoot the Messenger!

To the consternation of some, we do post articles that are not always favorable regarding the federal workforce and we allow comments from the left and right side of the political spectrum. When someone suggests the site should only feature favorable articles or articles that are designed to enhance the economic betterment of our readers, we politely decline to do so.

Also, suggestions that we ban a reader who makes comments that are not popular are usually ignored as we do not ban a person or delete comments because of their political perspective or any other opinions. On the other hand, we have found that that those with views that are more extreme or just generally unpopular sometimes resort to name calling or engaging in disrespectful verbal warfare and we take action when that occurs.

We have posted our terms of use to try and prevent this problem from becoming dominant as it has on some partisan websites which seem particularly prone to this problem.

What is a Troll?

Some words will pop up on the FedSmith.com site, seemingly from out of nowhere. Recently, a common word has been “troll.”

A troll is a supernatural being from Scandinavian folk tales. The English noun troll used to describe an ugly dwarf or giant has been around since about 1610 and comes from an Old Norse word troll meaning giant or demon. I had nightmares about them as a small child from a picture and a story in a book with many pictures that I liked to read. Something about the trolls was fascinating–ugly, scary, but somehow powerful creatures that I would sometimes think were hiding in the closet or under the bed. Fortunately, they stayed hidden but the threat seemed real.

More recently, the term “troll” is applied to some internet users, particularly those who make comments on websites or even when sending out tweets on twitter. In modern slang usage, a troll is a person who starts arguments or tries to upset people by posting inflammatory messages in an online community.

Calling another reader’s comment as being from a troll is subjective. Some readers may characterize a post as trolling. Others may regard the same post as a valid contribution, even if it is controversial or unpopular with readers who do not share the same opinion. Like any pejorative term, calling another person a troll can be used as an ad hominem attack designed primarily to denigrate or make fun of another person much as was done in grade school on the playground where many will gang up on one other kid for some reason. (See “Play Nice)

Identifying a Troll

What one person sees as an insightful comment may be seen by another as an insult to their point of view. Some readers believe we should not allow comments that do not show the federal workforce in a favorable light or enhance the economic interests of the workforce. Others will see the federal workforce as having too many privileges or economic advantages at taxpayer expense. We do not ban or delete comments reflecting either point of view. We do prefer and insist on refraining from becoming disrespectful of others who are expressing an opinion. Of course, everybody will have a different opinion of what is considered to be disrespectful. (See How to Stop Caring About Trolls and Get On With Your Life)

Dealing with a Troll

You have probably heard the phrase “Don’t Feed the Trolls” before. If a person is a troll, or you think the person is one, ignore him. Trolls seek attention. Responding with insults or calling attention to these comments feeds the desire for attention. Creating a longer thread to respond to a person with whom you disagree by throwing out insults usually leads to problems, more attention for the person seeking attention by making inflammatory comments, and satisfies their desire to generate an emotional response.

If there is not any value in a person’s comment, do not dignify it by adding to the apparent importance of the comment. A person making hateful comments is probably bored and lashing out out of boredom. Moreover, a person making hateful comments will likely have most comments deleted or ultimately be banned from the site, so don’t fall into this trap yourself. Some people, who must be retired or just not doing any work, will make many comments on numerous articles throughout the day that fit these criteria. Many of their comments have probably been deleted, but it may not seem like it if their moniker still appears on articles.

If your comments are receiving a response from someone or others you consider to be a troll, it may be because that person sees you as being in a position with some authority or respect and requires a response. In other words, you may be doing something right to get the person’s attention.

Some readers have been very effective in their responses in defusing a verbal confrontation after having been drawn in. For example:

Ask what the person means with his comment: “Why do you think the federal workers are paid too much? How much do you think is excessive?”

Or, agree (in part) with the comment: “Some federal workers do make too much for the jobs that they do. Others are substantially underpaid. Making a broad statement is unfair to many hard working employees.”

Someone who is seeking a passionate, emotional response will often be unhappy with a substantive, calm response. And, of course, just ignoring them is still a good option.

To Sum It All Up…

We encourage everyone in the federal community to read the many articles we post each day and to take the time to make thoughtful observations and respond to others in a way that recognizes the right of others to have different opinions. In the final analysis, FedSmith will reserve the right to delete or bar comments and users or cut off a thread that has become particularly vitriolic or nettlesome for the reasons outlined above.

© 2016 Ralph R. Smith. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Ralph R. Smith.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources.

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  1. 2327 says:

    Why not use the CSRS for those that would like to annuitize all or a portion of their TSP account balance?

  2. 2327 says:

    May I suggest you use the word “returns” rather than “rates” in the box that reads: “Daily TSP Rates”

  3. Bueford says:

    The most effective use of the comment section is to see if anyone is listening. I appreciate the thoughtful and honest comments, not so much the trolls. I don’t now that I have ever seen evidence of anyone changing their opinion due to a comment. I wish I could do that. The real value of the blog seems to be increasing internet traffic and the value of the site and an occasional laugh. Well done!

  4. RETVET03 says:

    It does not take much time to moderate a board. The number one defense against trolls is to aggressively delete their posts (and replies to their posts). The dirty little secret is that trolls are good for business; they drum up traffic. So I don’t see the above response happening any time soon. Who knows what the troll’s motivations are? Could be using reverse psychology to get people worked up to take action. Or an employee drumming up traffic. Or, just what we assume, someone just trying to be a pain.

    • Rambo1957 says:

      I’m not big on deleting posts. If one finds a member offensive, ignore that person. Censuring I find as not an answer.

      • retired worker fed says:

        I agree.

      • RETVET03 says:

        I’m all for censure as long as there’s some integrity in the decision. For instance, if an employee can be fired for exercising their free speech right at work, then certainly a moderator can delete posts that violate terms of use. On the other hand, if I have a rather spirited discussion with a website associate, one who throws baseless accusations at me, I think I have a right to respond in kind, vigorously if required, without being placed on some blacklist or requiring all my posts to be moderator approved when we have a well know troll that frequents not only this board, but others.

        • Rambo1957 says:

          Workplace and a public commentary board are very different. I strongly believe in the 1st Amendment. No matter how ignorant, stupid or offensive, the right of free speech makes our nation unique. Let’s keep it that way. Leave censure to those fearing opposition.

          • RETVET03 says:

            “No shirts, no shoes, no service”. “We reserve the right to refuse service”. Certainly common sense applies. If people can’t abide by a few simple rules on a message board, delete ’em, repeatedly, without mercy. They’ll go somewhere else. Fortunately, Fedsmith has such a small cadre that the boards stay relatively clear and on point. Go to CNN or Foxnews and try and follow the threads. Not worth the time. It’s not about censorship. It’s sweeping the floors in the restaurant because normal people don’t like to eat in filth and yet there are people, in much smaller numbers, who will; who revel in it.

  5. h8 ynerz says:

    Do all my posts get put on hold for a moderator?

    • retired worker fed says:

      Mine do. I just lost a mess of posts as the posting was closed in the middle of my comments.

  6. h8 ynerz says:

    Is the t-word a word that is flagged for a moderator’s review?

  7. h8 ynerz says:

    Is t-r-o-l-l a word that is flagged for a moderator’s review?

  8. h8 ynerz says:

    Is troll a word that get’s flagged for moderation?

  9. h8 ynerz says:

    Some people call me a troll soley because I look like one (see avatar). I’m feeling discriminated against! Does the internet have an EO complaint department?

  10. AnotherGuessed says:

    It is clear to me that, like any other on-line “news” source, Fedsmith relies on advertising revenue to stay in business. In the same manner that “paper” magazines publish circulation data so advertisers know how many “eyes” see their ads, on-line sources rely on the “hit-count”.

    Have you ever tracked the life-span of a Fedsmith article? The ones that generate a lot of comments stay on “Page 1” for days, those that don’t are quickly gone.

    Is this why they choose to “Publish the Rubbish”? If so, this is unfortunate. The majority of Fedsmith articles are insightful and well-written, and the appearance of the comments from some of the malicious posters only serves to cheapen the Fedsmith website. Federal News Radio, Govexec, and Federal Times don’t seem to have this problem. They don’t suppress free expression of opinion, they simply require a modicum of integrity from their commenters.

  11. steve5656546346 says:

    Good article and approach.

  12. Mentallect says:

    Some posters troll do to boredom, some do to a need for drama, some have psychological disorders, some need to share extreme views, some like the negative attention.

    To me, its a waste of time reading and replying to troll posts because it encourages them more, but I admit to replying to known trolls as a counter to their venom.

    See Mandinka.

  13. wombat1951 says:

    Frankly, in comparison to most other sites, this one is pretty much free of trolls. Discussions actually take place, and personal abuse and ad hominem shots don’t occur much at all.

    Stroll over to POLITICO or THEHILL or similar sometime…..the infestation of trolls can be, at times, numbing.

    • dbstultz says:

      I’d have to agree, Comments on this site are relatively tame compared to other blogs I have seen.
      Thanks for addressing the Issue Mr. Smith.

      • BillxT says:

        Just as long as people continue to be reasonable and do things my way, the world will be all right.

        Seriously, you’re correct, even the trolls are tame compared to many sites, and I believe it’s fine for people to call them on their baloney. Well, what looks like baloney to me.

  14. retired worker fed says:

    Just a few observations after reading the article:
    (1) If you think that the blogger’s comments are out of line. please read what the blogger is responding to.
    If the blogger is responding to a nasty comment about him (her) in particular, then you can expect the response to be nasty. For example, I have been called a troll because the blogger disagrees with me with strong feelings. In that case, you should expect a very strong response. In that case, either both comments should be allowed or neither comment should be allowed. Mr. Smith, I am asking for a direct response on this issue as it is important.
    (2) My second comment refers to Mandinka’s comments. He does not insult me directly. However, he insults federal workers as a whole. An example is his comment that full time feds work 20 hours per week or less. He does not substantiate this position, but has repeated it. This is an insult to federal workers. It is also a violation of the rules that could get feds fired. That type of comment should also be censored or preferably, the nasty responses should be allowed. I am soliciting your comments on this specific issue as well.

    • wombat1951 says:

      You are not a troll. You discuss and defend issues and topics….with enthusiasm at times, but nevertheless you stay on point to the subject of the article at issue.

      A troll will ignore the article; make personal [and sometimes vulgar] comments about the author’s article and/or other posters; and generally act like a 5 year old who knows it can get away with it on the anonymous internet.

      Mandinka is, in my opinion, a troll — but a single issue one. He has, for some reason, great animosity toward Federal workers. Thus, he comes to this Federal issues site to harass and harangue. That’s being a troll, in my opinion. However — he does not get vulgar, and he does do his thing regarding whatever the topic of the article is — that is, if the article is about, say, Fed pay raises, he won’t generally launch into a diatribe about how Feds shouldn’t hire anyone but college grads or something unrelated.

      Just don’t feed him.

      • retired worker fed says:

        Thanks for your response. some bloggers did label me a troll and that is why I responded the way I did.. I think I agree with you about not feeding him and will do my best not to do so.

    • Rambo1957 says:

      I find Mandinka purposely disruptive. He knows he can push buttons and does so regularly. Sadly, many fall for it to the point of only responding to him and, as I saw just yesterday, opening a thread by inviting his comments. My main problem with you is your failure to provide any evidence of your assertions. Case in point: we were in a depression during the Bush term. I fully admit I go overboard. But the same nonsense coming from the same folks is like nails on a chalkboard. Do I think you are an awful person? Not at all. I have no doubt you are a terrific person. Our take on politics are polar opposites. I look for personal responsibility and less government. You have a problem with Mandinka not substantiating his comments but you fail to realize you do the same thing. Also, if your comments get scrubbed, next time, don’t blame me. If my comments are deleted, that’s on me.

      • retired worker fed says:

        First, I do not blame you for comments being deleted.
        Second, of course we disagree. That is okay. As I wrote before, if everyone agrees, then it would be boring. My mind is stimulated by disagreement not agreement. That is important to me.
        The depression issue is going to fall to opinion. I think the employment and the time for recovery, if done yet, makes it a depression (not a 1929 depression). Additionally, housing prices went down very sharply in the area I live in (not like some of the others, but still sharply) I also think the economy went down very sharply.
        My real complaint against you was when you challenged my integrity when I worked for the IRS. That was wrong for me and wrong for everyone I came in contact with. There were and are some bad people in the IRS, but none of it had to do with politics (such as Democratic or Republican). I will accept the comment that you can go overboard, just like I am sure I do. So let’s forget the argument and just challenge each other politically.
        Please do not compare my comments to Mandinka. He makes statements with no substantiation. I do have substantiation even with the Depression. You may not agree with it, but Mandinka’s comments do not compare with mine.
        I will not label Mandinka a troll. I do not like his comments, but I believe he has the right to express them, even without substantiation. Someone said to ignore him. I think that is a good idea and will do my best to do so. The reason why I reacted to the troll comment is that bloggers did label me like that without rational comments.
        Thanks for your response and we will argue again later.

        • Rambo1957 says:

          Then post your “substantiation” for that depression. I’ve asked numerous times. You called out Mandinka, I’m calling you out. Post your evidence. Really at this point no different then his silly comments about federal employees making an average of 130k per year. Which I called him out for and he similarily refused to provide. Your problem seems to be your ego to refuse to admit when wrong.

          • retired worker fed says:

            The depression issue is going to fall to opinion. I think the employment and the time for recovery, if done yet, makes it a depression (not a 1929 depression). Additionally, housing prices went down very sharply in the area I live in (not like some of the others, but still sharply) I also think the economy went down very sharply. Quote from above.

          • Rambo1957 says:

            No. You made references to “the Great Depression” during the Bush years. You made this statement numerous times. A depression is an event, not an opinion. But since you called out someone else for doing the same thing (and got caught) you are not man enough to own up.

          • retired worker fed says:

            Wrong. I never wrote that Bush had a Great Depression. If you said I did, please show me that comment. I did make reference to the Great Depression of 1929. Bush;s depression was not a great depression. That is your error.
            A depression is an event. The “Great Recession” is an event. Tell us the difference between a mild depression and the great recession, which never existed before.

          • Rambo1957 says:

            You can then show proof of a depression during the Bush years? Back it up or admit you were wrong.

  15. Burgerwars says:

    There’s one troll here that we’re all familiar with.

    • retired worker fed says:

      The one who calls someone a troll is really the troll.

    • retired worker fed says:

      I think I took your comment in the wrong way as some bloggers labelled me a troll. Sorry if I insulted you. We disagree but none of us are trolls.

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