[linux-elitists] Request for Comments: How to Deal with Internet Trolls - the Cognitive Therapy approach

Shlomi Fish shlomif at iglu.org.il
Thu Mar 3 12:01:55 PST 2011

Hi all,

I've recently started working on a document titled "How to deal with Internet 
Trolls - the Cognitive Therapy approach", which I'm posting here for review. 
It's not published yet on my blog (though it is intended to be published on 
http://unarmed.shlomifish.org/ eventually), but can be viewed in a temporary 
location (see below) and I'm posting it for review because you people tend to 
be very critical of what I and other people write, and I can learn a lot more 
from people like that[Remix] than from fans. Here's the XHTML:


There's also a bitbucket repository here:


[Remix] - see what Lessig wrote about it in his Remix book, as I quoted here: 
http://xrl.us/biknkm .

Two notes:

1. Super-executive summary: "On the Internet, don't be right - be smart."

2. "Don't feed the troll" is also a wrong approach.

I'm including the text below in MediaWiki format as converted from the XHTML 
by http://search.cpan.org/dist/HTML-WikiConverter-MediaWiki/ (so it may be 
formatted a little off). If you're interested in sending me patches or pull 
requests, then please try to preserve the original markup formatting as much 
as possible. Hoever, giving me simple comments/corrections/etc. is also 
acceptable and I can apply them manually.

With many obligations,

	Shlomi Fish

-------------- Start Reading Here ------------------------
=Dealing with Internet Trolls - the Cognitive Therapy Approach=

You have probably heard various opinions about how to deal with people who 
write insulting or provocative remarks on various Internet forums (also known 
as [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Troll_%28Internet%29 "trolls"] or people who 
"flame"). The most common of which is "Don't Feed the Trolls", which says that 
all the people in the forum should avoid responding to the troll. However, as 
you will see below, '''"Don't feed the trolls" is also a wrong and ineffective 
approach''' for dealing with trolls.

Luckily, I discovered a much better way to handle criticism in the book 
''Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy''], which is an internationally best-
selling self-help book by Dr. David D. Burns for learning how to deal with 
[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Major_depressive_disorder periods of clinical 
depression]. The book teaches 
[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_behavioral_therapy cognitive therapy], 
which was proven to be effective in dealing with a variety of mood disorders. 
The book has helped me a lot both in learning the cause of my psychological 
conditions, and in giving me tools to overcome them.

[[Image:feeling_good.jpg|cover of Feeling Good]]]

This post will focus on a certain chapter in the book called "'''Verbal 
Judo''': learn to talk back when you're under the fire of criticism", as 
adapted by me to the world of online, Internet-based, communication. The 
super-executive summary for this post is: "On the Internet, '''don't be right 
- be smart'''."

One final note: I am not a mental health professional and this is not 
professional psychological advice. I believe anyone is allowed to give such 
insights from their knowledge and experience, just like everyone is allowed to 
give their opinion on computing or on legal matters, while stating the usual 
disclaimer. So don't blame me if this thing back-fires, and use your reason 
and judgement with what I'm saying here.

==Case Study==

Someone joins a Python IRC channel and says "Perl rocks my socks and Python 
sucks balls, LOL. Python programmers are incompetent imbecile losers, ROTFL…"

(I'm giving it about Python to avoid Perl-elitism on my part. I'm also using 
"him", "he" consistently, though the troll might be female. )

==What not to do?==

# '''Criticise his judgement''':
#* "Python does not suck, and you are being rude."
#* "WTF are you saying? Everybody knows that Perl sucks."Saying sentences like 
that will make him madder, will likely yield an even more aggressive response 
from the troll, and will only escalate the heat in the conversation.
# '''Don't feed the troll"''' - i.e: ignore him. Someone will "feed" him 
eventually and the troll may continue trolling and feeling he's right and 
superior or alternatively that the Python people on the channel are being 
"jerks" for not responding.
# '''Ban him / call for banning him''' - a great way to get another enemy, and 
can also possibly start some "was it right to ban him" converations. Will also 
negatively contribute to the channel's atomsphere among the channel 
members.The troll may also prove to be a useful resource in the future, or can 
be taught to love Python eventually.
# '''Tell him not to troll.''' - you're labelling him and insulting him and 
he's feeling like he's alienated. Some people may still respond harshly.
# '''Cancel the project, or close the channel''' - may seem very far-fetched 
but in a project I was involved in and made some suggestions which were 
perceived as annoying, I was told that they actually considered to cancel the 
project. Naturally, this is throwing the baby along with the bathwater, so you 
certainly '''must not''' do that.

==What to do instead==

So what should we do instead. It's very simple:

# '''Ask him what he means.''' ; interrogate him:
#* "Why do you feel that Python is so bad? What do you find wrong with it?"
# '''Agree with him''' (but use a softer language):
#* "Yes, Perl is a nice language, and I agree that Python has its downsides 
and/or trade-offs in comparison to Perl."
#* "It's OK to prefer Perl, we'll still accept you here."This will make the 
troll lose steam and help you find a common ground.
# And eventually '''negotiate a common ground:''' "Would you agree that some 
people like Perl better and some like Python better? (And some may like both 
equally.). Maybe you can still write Python code and be productive in it while 
still not in love with it. Who knows, maybe you'll even grow to like it. Feel 
free to stick around and ask questions."

(After I originally read that in Feeling Good, I immediately thought that it 
made immediate sense, and that it will likely work in most cases. However, 
later I thought that I probably would not have thought about it myself.)

Repeat that a few times and the troll will eventually calm down and will 
become more friendly and hospitable. Some people who've read a draft of this 
article claimed that such a person will probably troll further in the future, 
and so one should get rid of him as quickly as possible. While this may often 
be the case, one should understand that it is not always the case for all 
trolls, and moreover you should learn to tolerate people that have some bad 
personality traits which you don't like, instead of deciding right away that 
you hate them and don't want to have anything to do with them. I have decided 
to do that, and often found this Internet people to be of some value, whether 
in entertainment, knowledge or technical help.

On the other hand, if you dismiss every one as a "troll" for any small 
problem, your community will not grow a lot and you'll leave people with a lot 
of bad taste in the mouth.


The rest of this post is about some more useful advice for communicating with 
people who are making provocative statements, and can be read at your own 
leisure. After you've read that, you may wish to practice what was said here 
using role-playing, by one of the following scenarios:

* Someone comes on a FreeBSD channel, and claims that Linux and the GPL have 
"won" and that the BSD licence and the BSD clones have no future.
* Someone joins a channel of the [http://www.gnu.org/ GNU project] and claims 
that the GPL licence is an "evil", anti-capitalistic and anti-commercial 
licence, that does a lot of harm to the open source world.
* You are talking on a Perl channel, when someone joins and says that "Perl is 
* You are chatting on a mailing list or chatroom dedicated to development of 
open-source software when someone says "Why are you people spending so much 
time making sure your programs run on Windows? One should prohibit running 
FOSS on Windows! Everyone should avoid porting their software to Windows? By 
providing Windows users with great FOSS software, you make sure Windows 
remains popular and are working against the cause."

You can probably think of others.

==Some Advice for Communicating with Trolls Properly==

# '''Relax''': don't worry if you don't get everything exactly right.
# '''Communicate clearly:''' write in the best spelling, grammar, punctuation, 
capitalisation, idiomatic speech, etc. that you can, no matter how bad the 
troll's message were in this respect.It may be a good idea to avoid too high 
or complicated words, because many foreign speakers of English often have poor 
# Don't criticise what he says directly or the way he says it (Style over 
substance etc.)
# Avoid '''logical fallacies''': see 
[http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/ the Nizkor project about them] and 
[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fallacies the List of fallacies on the 
English wikipedia].Especially avoid [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ad_hominem 
ad hominem]: "You're under age and much younger than me and not a lawyer, so 
you're not qualified to give your opinion about open-source licences."
# Be '''polite and friendly'''.
# '''Don't be too terse.''' Write coherently, and explain what you want.Proper 
human communication has a lot of redundancy, but people prefer it this way. 
Even in Information Theory, you cannot compress an arbitrary amount of data to 
a message which is too short.[http://www.socialsignal.com/image/short-and-
sweet [[Image:2008-06-23-microblogging.gif|Short and Sweet Cartoon]]]
# On the other hand, '''don't be too verbose''', as people won't bother 
reading you. It may be better to put a claim and reiterate.
# If using E-mail, always do bottom-inline post and never top-post (unless you 
know better than that, which you probably don't). When top-posting, the one 
who responds can often reply not to the point or miss many important posts:
## Quote a selected message
## Disarm the troll using the methods above.
## Repeat. See the [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Posting_style wikipedia 
article about posting style] for more information.
# Don't selectively trim the message without leaving enough context.
# Don't mis-interpret or jump to conclusions - ask the troll what he means if 
you don't know.
# Try to avoid using aphorisms, proverbs, "famous" quotes, rhymes or verse 
etc. Instead use free-form, coherent speech and say what you want in your own 
words.The problem with aphorisms, and their ilk are that they tend to project 
authority, and usually backfire because a person intuitively knows 
that.Sometimes they may lead to an aphorism war or for "correcting" the 
aphorism or discussing its larger context and origins.All of these can 
sometimes spice up a friendly conversation and add humour to it, though, but 
your kilomterage may vary.
# Don't make fun of the troll. Respect him and try to avoid unnecessary 
humour. Be pleasant - not funny.
# Don't be rude; use soft words such as "I think", "I believe", "In my 
opinion", "I find that", etc.
# Don't label: "open-source and creative commosn are Socilism" (So what if 
they are? They are still something beneficial.)
# Always start the conversation with a "Hi [name-or-nick]," and possibly thank 
him for what he says or otherwise start with a compliment. This will better 
allow disarming him.

==Further Reading==

# [http://www.amazon.com/Feeling-Good-Therapy-Revised-Updated/dp/0380810336 
"Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy Revised and Updated"] by David D. Burns.
# [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZSFDm3UYkeE "How to Protect Your Open Source 
Project From Poisonous People"] - by Ben Collins-Sussman and Brian Fitzpatrick 
of Subversion fame. A Google Tech Talk - not sure if there are subtitles or a 
# [http://producingoss.com/ The Book "Producing Open Source Software"] - by 
Karl Fogel (of CVS/Subversion fame).

----------- End of Document ---------------------

Shlomi Fish       http://www.shlomifish.org/
Optimising Code for Speed - http://shlom.in/optimise

Every successful open-source project will eventually spawn a sub-project.

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