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Can trolling be prevented?

Houseman

The Actual Hero
Sanctuary legend
Messages
610
The Escapist seems to define trolling as "baiting [other users] to respond aggressively"

The old Gamefaqs ToU defines trolling as "Messages intended solely to annoy and/or offend other users by going against the clear nature of a board, topic or chat room are not allowed. This includes, but is not limited to: provoking other users to respond with flames; provoking fans of a particular system or game, especially on boards or topics dedicated to that system or game; making misleading topic titles; asking obviously useless questions; and posting false information as fact."

Urban dictionary defines it as "the deliberate act of making random unsolicited and/or controversial comments on various internet forums with the intent to provoke an emotional knee jerk reaction from unsuspecting readers to engage in a fight or argument"

Wikipedia says: "a troll is a person who starts flame wars or intentionally upsets people on the Internet."

All of these definitions share a common thread: intent. A troll is someone who purposefully and maliciously intends to annoy, upset, or provoke other users.

Put yourself in the shoes of a moderator, community manager, or administrator. You are tasked with enforcing the "no trolling" rule. How do you go about doing that? How do you go about even detecting the act of trolling?


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Urban dictionary's definition explicitly mentions "controversial comments". What is a controversial comment?

If I go over on The_Donald.win, a Trump fanclub reddit-lookalike, and say "Donald Trump is the greatest President America has ever had", is that a controversial comment? No, I'd probably make it to the front page and get a thousand upvotes.

If I went over on /r/libertarian and said the same thing, it would probably be viewed as worse than controversial: universally hated, objectively wrong, and I would get downvoted and banned immediately.

So we can see that whether or not a subject is controversial depends on the user demographics for any site. Whether or not your are "trolling" depends on what opinions the users have. If a userbase is "extreme" or "fringe" in their opinions, simply expressing an opinion that would be considered "normal" in some circles could be considered "controversial", and therefore "trolling" in others.

This holds some similarities to the "heckler's veto", where you can be kicked out, or otherwise made to stop speaking, because people don't like what you have to say, and the authorities capitulate to the will of the mob.

For an example of this, what if I went on a forum and, every day, posted a news article about something bad a black person has done. Every day, I post something about a black person holding up a store, or murdering someone, or beating his wife, or kidnapping someone.

What would you think about that? Would I be banned?

What if I didn't post about black people, but about cops? What if, every day, I posted some article about cops abusing their power and doing something illegal?

How about now?

Is one of those things acceptable, but the other isn't?
I'd say that this depends on the demographics of the site. With more left-leaning userbase, you can criticize the police all you want, as they're an "acceptable target", but continually criticizing black criminals is not allowed.

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Let's say someone posts something saying "Nintendo sucks and they make bad games". Is that trolling?
What if this user posts that on the "Nintendo fan club" board, meant for people to gush about positive things that Nintendo is doing. Here we have a user coming into a clearly defined area full of a certain demographic, and expressing a negative opinion about something that this demographic loves. In this context, is it trolling?

What if that same user posts the same message in the "general gaming" board, or even the "Nintendo hate club" board? Is it possible that the same message can be seen as both trolling and acceptable depending on where it is posted?

You might say that these are easy questions and the answers are obvious. Yes, of course, it's trolling to go and talk smack in the Nintendo fan club board, and no, it wouldn't be trolling to post this elsewhere. You might say that this clearly falls under the Gamefaq's definition of "provoking fans of a particular system or game, especially on boards or topics dedicated to that system or game..."

If so, think about what sort of precedent you're setting. Think about how people can abuse this for their own goals.

For example, let's say that I create a topic saying "Playstation 2 was the greatest console ever", and someone enters my topic and disagrees with me.
Does this fail the the "going against the clear nature of a ...topic", and "provoking fans of a particular system" tests? Is this a "deliberate act of making a controversial comment" and trying to "provoke a fight or argument"? Have you just set the precedent that nobody can ever disagree with anybody ever again, because to do so is trolling?

You might say "no, that's going way too far, people can still disagree with each-other"

How, then? How can people disagree with each-other without it being seen as "trolling"? Where do you draw the line between simple disagreement and "provoking an argument" or "annoying" someone?

It seems like for most systems of moderation, the key to distinguishing one or the other is "intent", the common thread all those definitions share.
A moderator has to try to discern whether or not a person is purposefully trying to upset the other person, or if it's just a genuine disagreement.

So how would you do that? Since nobody can read minds, how do you know for sure what the other person's intent is?

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I think the obvious answer is that nobody can ever know for sure what another person's intent is.

A Nintendo fan can express dissatisfaction with Nintendo products because he truly cares, and knows that they can be better. He may not be intending to annoy people. Being a fan of something doesn't mean that you can't ever criticize it.

Just because you want to defend your viewpoint from criticism, or because you want to criticize another viewpoint, it doesn't mean that you're trying to start a "flame war". That's just debate, something that high schools and colleges have clubs for.

I've been accused of trolling for having opinions that people think I shouldn't have, because to the color of my skin. I'm black, and therefore, I should support BLM, and hate Trump and the police. I don't hate Trump, I don't hate the police, and I don't support BLM. People think these beliefs aren't sincerely held, and that I only hold these beliefs to annoy others, or to provoke them into reacting emotionally. Or perhaps the sincerity of my beliefs aren't even a factor in their determination. Perhaps they consider it trolling merely because these beliefs are controversial. They consider their forums to be the political equivalent of a Nintendo fan club, and any opinion that doesn't amount to gushing praise is seen as a malicious provocation. Just like they can't read my mind, I can't read their minds to know for certain.

But I think that trying to gauge intent, in the context of online debate, is an impossible task.
So my suggestion is just "don't do it". Don't try to outlaw "trolling", because since you can't read minds, you can't detect it.
You don't know whether or not the person intends to start a flame war, or otherwise has malicious intent.

Instead, consider doing what StackExchange used to do in its code of conduct: Assume good intent

If you want fewer flame wars, start by encouraging people to not react badly. Start by making it a requirement that people should assume good intentions and act as if each person is a potential friend, not a potential enemy. Assume that the person criticizing Nintendo is doing it because they care, not because they're a Playstation fanboy. If someone says that they think the Holocaust numbers are greatly exaggerated, don't assume that he's a racist Nazi, assume that they have knowledge of facts that you've never heard of before and ask to see them. You'll have fewer fights if you make it a violation to escalate things into a fight in the first place.

Or just forbid discussion of controversial topics altogether, like the Escapist tried to do after it shut down the Religion and Philosophy boards, and like it still does by forbidding discussion of Gamergate. Nobody can ever get mad about a thing if you don't let them talk about it.

Or just ban everybody on one side of an issue. Ban all conservatives, then you'll have far fewer political disagreements.

But you wouldn't do that, right? Because you want to be fair and allow for civil disagreement, right? So don't allow the heckler's veto. Don't try and read minds. Stop trying to prevent trolling. Be fair.


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I asked a lot of rhetorical questions, but I am interested in hearing your views:

Do you think detecting trolling depends the impossible and subjective task of gauging intent?
Do you think trolling can be prevented? If so, how?
Do you think there are any alternate rules that would solve the problem?
Is "trolling" a valid problem to even solve?
 

Houseman

The Actual Hero
Sanctuary legend
Messages
610
The clarify, this is mainly directed at forums that claim to allow open discussion and civil disagreements.

Fan-clubs should and do exist, and I'm not saying that they shouldn't. There should be spaces that only allow for positive, or negative, discussion about certain topics, and that's okay.

Just don't be inconsistent and claim to allow for disagreement, when you also arbitrarily punish people for holding "controversial" opinions.
If you're going to be a fan-club, be up-front about it.
 

gaijinkaiju

Disciple
Sanctuary legend
Sanctuary contributor
Messages
402
The easiest way to avoid it, is to just not fall for it.
Using your Nintendo analogy as an example, if someone just started saying Nintendo sucks, without a genuine reason (i.e bad consumer practices) obviously they're just trying to provoke an argument.
Another example could be when people call a game woke, and when you ask why they resort to calling you an sjw.
 

bluegate

Disciple
Sanctuary legend
Messages
294
Easy way to prevent trolling is to ban the people who troll and hope that they do the necessary self reflection to better themselves.
 

bluegate

Disciple
Sanctuary legend
Messages
294
Bluegate, meanwhile, is over here playing 4D chess in the thread.
Hardly.

Most people who troll are well aware of their behaviour*, timing them out for a set period of time wouldn't be an absurd measure to take.

I'm pretty sure that even mister Houseman here knows fully well what behaviour of his lead to his getting banned on The Escapist, his whining and bitching about "unfair moderation" is just the natural, and very much expected-by-him endgame of his sjpiel.

* And yes, that also applies to me. I'm well aware that some posts of mine on here are overly antagonistic and that I actually shouldn't post them, but 🤷‍♂️
 

Arnox

Veteran
Staff member
Founder
Messages
3,983
Hardly.

Most people who troll are well aware of their behaviour*, timing them out for a set period of time wouldn't be an absurd measure to take.

I'm pretty sure that even mister Houseman here knows fully well what behaviour of his lead to his getting banned on The Escapist, his whining and bitching about "unfair moderation" is just the natural, and very much expected-by-him endgame of his sjpiel.

* And yes, that also applies to me. I'm well aware that some posts of mine on here are overly antagonistic and that I actually shouldn't post them, but 🤷‍♂️
But just because you know what you're doing doesn't mean others can read your mind. Sometimes people really are that antagonistic and/or dumb. This isn't as "common sense" as you'd think.

And we're not even talking yet about how trolls can sometimes, despite their intentions, actually stimulate genuine conversation and interaction anyway.
 

Arnox

Veteran
Staff member
Founder
Messages
3,983
i remember the days when trolling just meant playing pranks on the internet.
Well, there were dumbass kids then too who tried to troll, but yeah, most people nowadays just think it means acting like an asshole. A really good troll will actually make everyone laugh. Ken M is usually my go-to example for this.
 
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