Comments, Trolls and Communicating in the Internet Age

The Internet era has fostered new methods of communication in our daily lives. While these carry many advantages, there can be downsides as well. And with new ways to communicate come new terms, such as “troll.” What is a troll? How do you respond to a person you think might be one? And how does all of this come into play with how FedSmith monitors the comments left by users on its website?

The ability to leave a comment on an article is a popular feature on 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 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.

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. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47