Blog Post

Instructions on how to transform a comment troll into a human being

If you write anything on the internet — or for that matter, read anything on the internet — you’ve undoubtedly experienced comment trolls, flame-wars and plenty of other bad behavior. Some blogs and news sites have tried either handing over their comments to Facebook or not having comments altogether as a way of preventing this kind of activity, but one site called Climate Desk took a different approach: they tracked down and interviewed their most persistent troll, and in the process revealed him to be a fairly normal human being.

As the Columbia Journalism Review describes in a post on the project, Climate Desk not only found and interviewed their comment troll — a 57-year-old insurance executive named Hoyt Connell — as part of a video series called “The Secret Life of Trolls,” but also profiled a scientist who spends much of her time engaging with trolls on the topic of climate change. In the final instalment, the scientist and the troll met each other via Google Hangout.

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The CJR post criticizes the Climate Desk series because “it doesn’t shine as much light under the bridge as it could have,” since it doesn’t go into detail about why Connell latched onto climate change as a topic, or what drives him to comment so aggressively (fittingly enough, Connell comments on the CJR post himself to try and clear some of this up). But what impressed me was how normal this mega-troll seemed once he was interviewed.

Comment trolls are people too

I found the same thing — and I think others did too — when Gawker Media outed a notorious Reddit troll named Violentacrez last year, after attention was drawn to several offensive sub-Reddits he created. Although clearly much of his behavior on the site crossed a line, the interview showed him to be a more-or-less normal, and in some ways even sympathetic (or possibly just pathetic) character. Not that this justified his conduct, but it helped to explain some of it.

We’ve written before about how the value of comments transcends the occasional troll, and how the best way to maintain a civil dialogue is to engage with readers directly, a point blogging pioneer Anil Dash also made in a post a couple of years ago. And writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic have shown that commenters can be much more than just a noisy distraction — in some cases, they can actually become collaborators. The Climate Desk series is a good reminder that trolls are people too.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr / Jeremy King

5 Responses to “Instructions on how to transform a comment troll into a human being”

  1. Scott

    Both Bob and David Thomas make valid points. In addition, particularly in the political and economic arenas, trollish behavior may, like road rage, be a venting of massive frustration about things the troll feels no control over. Conservative, liberal, republican, democrat, communist, whig, tory, whatever – there is growing sense of powerlessness and disenfranchisement – segue to the emergence of the new moniker “political class”. Our country was not supposed to be like that.

  2. Many of them were always human beings. I’ve been called a troll just for having an opinion that someone didn’t want to hear. People love to just dismiss opposition by demonizing it and dehumanize it.

  3. David Thomas

    A CT being normal in a P2P isn’t at all surprising. Dropping comments online is comparable to road rage. The second self has less cultural mitigation than in P2P encounters. Speaking without conscience is misconstrued as candor. Mr. Connell flat out prefers that as discourse in the video. Qualitatively, the crank has equal stature in the comments compilation — a higher percentage than in the P2P world. There must be a good quantitative study available — if anyone knows one please post up.