How to Beat Internet Trolls

In Order To Beat ‘Em, You Have to Know Their Game …

In order to beat Internet trolls, you have to know their strategies.

Below are 17 common games played by trolls to disrupt our power to learn, inform, and organize on the web …

1.  Threaten those who speak out, to try to intimidate them and their readers into silence.

2. Misquote the Bible to pretend that God commands us to be obedient slaves to authority … even if the powers-that-be are downright tyrants.

3. Start a partisan divide-and-conquer fight or otherwise push emotional buttons to sow discord and ensure that cooperation is thwarted. Get people fighting against each other instead of the corrupt powers-that-be. Use baseless caricatures to rile everyone up. For example, start a religious war whenever possible using stereotypes like “all Jews are selfish”, “all Christians are crazy” or “all Muslims are terrorists”. Accuse the author of being a gay, pro-abortion limp-wristed wimp or being a fundamentalist pro-war hick when the discussion has nothing to do with abortion, sexuality, religion, war or region. Appeal to people’s basest prejudices and biases. And (as explained by H. Michael Sweeney’s 25 Rules of Disinformation) push the author into a defensive posture:

Sidetrack opponents with name calling and ridicule … Associate opponents with unpopular titles such as “kooks”, “right-wing”, “liberal”, “left-wing”, “terrorists”, “conspiracy buffs”, “radicals”, “militia”, “racists”, “religious fanatics”, “sexual deviates”, and so forth. This makes others shrink from support out of fear of gaining the same label, and you avoid dealing with issues.

(The person trying to smear reputation may not be a random knucklehead … he may, in fact, be a government agent, or a member of the group he’s smearing.)

4. Question motives. Twist or amplify any fact which could so taken to imply that the opponent operates out of a hidden personal agenda or other bias. This avoids discussing issues and forces the accuser on the defensive. Or accuse the author of being a narcissist.

5. Pretend it’s hopeless because we’ll be squashed if we try. For example, every time a whistleblower leaks information, say “he’s going to be bumped off”. If people talk about protesting, organizing, boycotting, shareholder activism, spreading the real facts, moving our money or taking other constructive action, write things to scare and discourage people, say something like “we don’t have any chance because they have drones and they’ll just kill us if we try”, or “Americans are too stupid, lazy and greedy, so they’ll never help out.” Encourage people to be apathetic instead of trying to change things.

6. Demand complete, fool-proof and guaranteed solutions to the problems being discussed. For example, if a reporter breaks the story that the big banks conspired to rig a market, ask “given that people are selfish and that no regulation can close all possible loopholes … how are you going to change human nature?”, and pretend that it’s not worth talking about the details of the market manipulation. This discourages people from reporting on and publicizing the corruption, fraud and other real problems. And it ensures that not enough people will spread the facts so that the majority know what’s really going on.

7. Suggest extreme, over-the-top, counter-productive solutions which will hurt more than help, or which are wholly disproportionate to what is being discussed. For example, if the discussion is whether or not to break up the big banks or to go back on the gold standard, say that everyone over 30 should be killed because they are sell-outs and irredeemable, or that all of the banks should be bombed. This discredits the attempt to spread the facts and to organize, and is simply the web method of the provocateur.

8. Pretend that alternative media – such as blogs written by the top experts in their fields, without any middleman – are untrustworthy or are motivated solely by money (for example, use the derogatory term “blogspam” for any blog posting, pretending that there is no original or insightful reporting, but that the person is simply doing it for ad revenue).

9. Coordinate with a couple of others to “shout down” reasonable comments. This is especially effective when the posters launch an avalanche of comments in quick succession … the original, reasonable comment gets lost or attacked so much that it is largely lost.  Use “forum sliding” and “topic dilution” to so dilute and distract the conversation that people forget the original point.

10. Use technology and numbers to gain leverage.  You can either hire low-wage workers in India or other developing countries to “astroturf” (see this and this) or – if you work for the government – you can use military personnel or subcontractors to monitor social media and “correct” information which you don’t like (and see this). You can pay students to post pro-government comments online.  You can even use software which allows you to quickly create and alternate between numerous false identities, each with their own internet address.  Or program software to write the comments itself.

11. Become incredulous and indignant. Avoid discussing key issues and instead focus on side issues which can be used show the topic as being critical of some otherwise sacrosanct group or theme. This is also known as the “How dare you!” gambit.

12. Use a straw man. Find or create a seeming element of your opponent’s argument which you can easily knock down to make yourself look good and the opponent to look bad. Either make up an issue you may safely imply exists based on your interpretation of the opponent/opponent arguments/situation, or select the weakest aspect of the weakest charges. Amplify their significance and destroy them in a way which appears to debunk all the charges, real and fabricated alike, while actually avoiding discussion of the real issues.

13. Associate opponent charges with old news. A derivative of the straw man usually, in any large-scale matter of high visibility, someone will make charges early on which can be or were already easily dealt with. Where it can be foreseen, have your own side raise a straw man issue and have it dealt with early on as part of the initial contingency plans. Subsequent charges, regardless of validity or new ground uncovered, can usually them be associated with the original charge and dismissed as simply being a rehash without need to address current issues — so much the better where the opponent is or was involved with the original source.

14. Censor social media, so that the hardest-hitting information is buried. If you can’t censor it, set up “free speech zones” to push dissent into dank, dark corners where no one will see it.

15. When the powers-that-be cut corners and take criminally reckless gambles with our lives and our livelihoods, protect them by pretending that the inevitable result – nuclear accidents, financial crises, terrorist attacks or other disasters – were “unforeseeable” and that “no could have known”.

16. Protect the rich and powerful by labeling any allegations of criminal activity as being a “conspiracy theory”. After all, it was the CIA itself which created the perjorative term “conspiracy theorist” and gave advice on how to attack people on that basis. For example, when Goldman gets caught rigging markets, label the accusations as mere conspiracies. Throw in the tired out cliches “tinfoil hat” and “live in your mom’s basement.”

17. Hit and Run. In any public forum, make a brief attack of your opponent or the opponent position and then scamper off before an answer can be fielded, or simply ignore any answer. This works extremely well in Internet and letters-to-the-editor environments where a steady stream of new identities can be called upon without having to explain the criticism — simply make an accusation or other attack, never discussing issues, and never answering any subsequent response, for that would dignify the opponent’s viewpoint.

Postscript: Over a number of years, we’ve found that the most effective way to fight disruption and disinformation is to link to a post such as this one which rounds up disruption techniques, and then to cite the disinfo technique you think is being used.

Specifically, we’ve found the following format to be highly effective in educating people in a non-confrontational manner about which game the troll is playing:

Good Number 1!

Or simply:


(include the link so people can see what you’re referring to.)

The reason this is effective is that other readers will learn about the specific disruption tactic being used … in context, like seeing wildlife while holding a wildlife guide, so that one learns what it looks like “in the field”. At the same time, you come across as humorous and light-hearted instead of heavy-handed or overly-intense.

Try it … It works.

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  • Big Bear

    I recognize all these ploys but want to add a more basic one, employed not only by trolls but by people who are intent on ‘winning’ an argument rather than pursuing a reasoned discussion: the ad hominem attack or smear — name-calling: “communist!” “fascist!” “witch!” “infidel” “anti-semite!” “queer!” “red-neck!” It comes in all flavors. It never advances reasoned discussion. On the contrary, it intends to derail it. Common as all these 17 ploys are, this one is pervasive.

    • Dr Smileyface

      Exactly – the terms that you identify are qualities or perspectives a person may have.

      So someone isn’t a feminist (for example) they are a human being that employs the critical theories of feminist thought to gain insights into themselves and society. The same pretty much goes for all the other terms – and they’re positive or negative depending on our own perspectives.

      As you point out, labels like these are used to ‘other’ people, to dehumanize – because then it doesn’t matter how they are treated – they are less than human.

      • Big Bear

        Even more than their “dehumanizing” effect, smear attacks serve the more immediate purpose of diverting a discussion from reasonable exploration of the terms and facts of the discussion to vituperation and acrimony. This has the effect of stopping the discussion of facts and the drawing of reasonable conclusions, and this is often their intent. Their purpose is not to advance discussion but to stop it. Sometimes they are used to render an entire topic “beyond discussion.” This is a fundamental attack on reason, on discussion, and on the basis of a politics based on something besides violence. They are, in fact, a form of intellectual violence — bullying.

    • RGlenCheek

      It is not ad hominem if it is true. Just because I may call someone a racist does not meant that I am lying and that they are not racist. And sometimes applying labels can snap people out of a foggy mindedness where they are unaware that their thinking is wandering into bad territory.

      • kimyo

        it’s far more effective to expose the racism in their words than to label them as racist.

        an ad hominem accusation, even if true, is the lazy man’s way out, and it plays right into their disinformation campaign.

        your approach will take us to a place where no rational discussion can take place.

        • Big Bear

          Yes, exactly. And often it’s employed for that reason.

      • Big Bear

        “Bad territory” can be exposed as “bad” on the basis of facts. The truth doesn’t need laws or taboos prohibiting its discussion, and neither do lies. Open, reasoned discussion of evidence is the basis of science and the basis of non-violent politics. Any idea that needs to be “protected” by laws prohibiting its further discussion is flagrantly suspect on the face of it. Bigots come in all flavors, and lies come in all flavors. Namecalling doesn’t address the problem, it compounds it. Open, reason- and evidence-based discussion of facts does not need name-calling and is hindered by it — often deliberately. If you want to challenge someone’s “foggy mindedness” show them reasons and evidence. To treat them like a patient who needs to be “snapped out of” something by your superior wisdom is demeaning and usually counterproductive. People who won’t engage in reasonable discussion won’t. Name-calling is just a way of getting down on their level, and making matters worse. This is true no matter how righteous the name-caller believes his cause is. And history shows that many of the worst atrocities are committed by the self-righteous (of all flavors).

  • Dr Smileyface

    Great article – thanks.

    For me, the third game identified – divide and conquer – is the most prevalent and effective method of disrupting creative discussion. Although I’ve often risen to the bait of a bigoted comment, on reflection I’ve realized the ammunition for these spoiler arguments is supplied by various informational streams.

    We’re all aware of the crude lies and omissions of the mainstream mass media, and we take it for granted that governments and the military/corporate/intelligence complex will oppose positive societal change, but I’m becoming increasingly skeptical about much of the alternative version, especially recent pronouncements by self-proclaimed gurus.

  • Know this and be empowered by their weapon of choice!

    Saul Alinsky’s 12 Rules for Radicals

    Here is the complete list from Alinsky.

    * RULE 1: “Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.” Power is derived from 2 main sources – money and people. “Have-Nots” must build power from flesh and blood. (These are two things of which there is a plentiful supply. Government and corporations always have a difficult time appealing to people, and usually do so almost exclusively with economic arguments.)

  • Tom Czerniawski

    I’ve seen this list somewhere before… hmm… where have I seen it… oh yes.

    Except, it’s not from an instruction on how to “beat internet trolls.” It’s from an instruction on how to counter government propaganda!

    • kimyo

      and what exactly is the difference? an internet troll arguing that fukushima is ‘contained’? or the nytimes arguing same? the poster named ‘farmer jones’ or ‘super iq scientist’ telling us that gmo’s are safe to feed to our children? or the exact word for word arguments repeated endlessly on cnn?

      UK Launches Massive Propaganda Campaign

      The British army is creating a special force of Facebook warriors, skilled in psychological operations and use of social media to engage in unconventional warfare in the information age.

      …and the British army will be doing just that with 1,500-person (or more) troop using Twitter and Facebook as a means to spread disinformation

  • margaret Bartley

    Here’s another way to beat the trolls, to add to your list:

    Use their posting as an opportunity to provide links to reliable sources with more details.

    It helps to briefly summarize the link’s content, so that people will know get the gist of
    the info, and can follow the links if they want details.

    Back in the early days of the internet, the Comments sections were my favorites, because so many people used to use them to post links to other, relevant material. It was a great way to get more info.

    Not so much any more. Too bad – we are the weaker for it.

    Other than that, I try to see how far down the list the innanities go, and decide whether to continue to read, or not.

    Another trick I learned is that once the conversation gets derailed, it rarely gets back on track. Time to switch to another thread.

    • MartinTimothy

      I sometimes wonder if the same ones who deluged comments sections with 911 Truth in the early yrs, were done away with.

      The sudden cessation of posts by a welder in Colorado, who used to update his 911 blog on a now defunct part of Pravda Forum, after work when new material had arisen .. always appeared suspicious.

      His last post was when news had been confirmed that the so called “smoking gun,” the hundred thousand dollar$ that had been wired to alleged hijacker Mohammed Attar, had come from the Head of Pakistan Military Intelligence who had received it from the CIA!

    • Flower

      What makes you believe that the “Trolls” care one bit about your “truth”? You can cover the screen with links until there is nothing on the screen but blue text, you can have all your statements counter-signed by the God Himself, so what? The Troll’s purpose is NOT to find any “truth” the Trolls job is to make noise. That’s all. Most likely, the Troll is being paid by the hour (or comment) so your links are useless. If he can sucker you into a 4 hour, comment by comment, “discussion”, he/she will get more money, while you get frustration. Sounds like a fair trade, huh?

      Stop worrying about the “Trolls”. Look at it this way, the more Trolls you got on any particular article, the more important that article is to the Troll controllers. If you want to get an understanding of how Trolls operate, the logic they use, and so on, a good place to go is the Washington Post, as that is the training ground for Troll greenhorns.

      This article is pretty much useless. This article was written by a Troll as a measuring device to see just how abysmally stupid the people who read it really are, and to help them attain even more stupidity.

      Never kid a kidder.

      • margaret Bartley

        The article is about how to beat an internet troll. The purpose of the troll is to get the discussion off-line. The way to beat the troll is to bring the discussion back on line. I don’t GAS about the troll, I just want the discussion to be useful to readers, and using the troll’s post as a springboard to more info is the point of the post.

        It’s about helping the readers. Screw the troll.

        • Flower

          Your innocence is attractive, in a childish sort of way, but, like the cute 4 year-old who likes to play with his ball in the middle of the street, deadly.

          “The way to beat the troll is to bring the discussion back on line.” – what makes you think the Troll cares a twit about the “discussion”? You just don’t get it, do you? That Troll is most likely being paid by the comment. (You ever wonder what those “Earn bazillions of bucks on your home computer and on your own time” are pushing?) Therefore, it behooves the Troll to never get into a discussion. You ever see those single sentence rejoinders in the WaPo, “Well, if you hate America so much why don’t you leave?” that was all the rage for about 6 months with the DoD trolls. Trolls liked it because they could type it fast and be on to the next publication in their list, while you are spending the next 20 minutes trying to “bring the discussion back on line”.

          As far as the discussion being “useful” to the readers, that is kind of up to the individual reader, wouldn’t you say? I have read many comments on the net, and I know many people who also have done so, and, to date, I haven’t known of anybody who was sent to tears, or given to fits of epilepsy over a Troll – but then, maybe I’m not trying hard enough.

          • kimyo

            the point, it’s that thing flying over your head.

            this has nothing to do with ‘feelings’ or ‘being sent to tears’, which are just another form of distraction. it’s not about the commenter’s state of mind, or their personality, or it they’re tall or short or brown or green.

            it’s about the article at the top of the page. is the information accurate? are the quotes sourced?

            returning the conversation to the matter at hand, as margaret bartley has stated more than once above, is the simple, clear way to minimize the effect the trolls have on the discussion.

            there are plenty of readers who don’t comment. it DOES benefit them if the thread is kept relatively free of junk and ‘being sent to tears’ garbage.

  • Warren Gacsi

    I have found that the best method is to know the terms of debate logic and understand how to recognize them. There is mention of the ”straw man” which is also akin to a red herring so to take the discussion off track. There is also the tactic of amphiboy, which is to subvert the meaning of something so to try to gain an automatic win (logical fallacy). And of course, the slippery slope, where the unskilled will let the aggressor build on false conclusion upon the next. And of course, then comes the ” you are a poopy head” cop-out, also known as ”attacking the person”. Watch out for those NON SEQUITUR infills where the liberal child will toss garbage or nonsense bombs into the ring that has nothing to do with the discussion.

  • MCB

    Great post GW. Here is the most comprehensive, useful and “free” guide to propaganda and debating that I’ve ever run across.

  • farang

    Another way to eliminate paid disinformation trolls is the feature that Yahoo! used to have on their message boards w/every article (they got rid of that message board feature as Americans awoke to the False Flag attack of 9/11/01): The “Ignore” button.

    It is a very wonderful tool, and it does not impinge on the right of anyone to make any comment, regardless of how asinine. What it does is allow any reader to “Ignore” any troll/commenter, while still allowing that troll/commenter to spread their lies to all willing or ignorant enough to listen.

    Try it webmasters: you’ll like it. Place right next to the “vote up or down” feature.

    • kimyo

      even better than ignore would be multiple, curated views of threads. if i find that i respect a commenter’s words, i can choose to view only the comments he or she finds most apt. similarly, a commenter who is always resorting to flawed arguments, AND those comments he / she upvotes, could be easily ignored.

  • Tosheba

    The alternative is to embrace the lies told by those that accuse all others of being ‘trolls’.

  • Flower

    What’s funny is how upset everyone is with “Trolls”, yet they never stop to count the SITES that are owned, operated, and controlled by the DoD, CIA, FBI, NSA, DEA, DHS, etc. Rather than whining about the trolls, you should handle this on an individual basis, with that individual being you. Educate yourself on the truth, after which point, the Troll just becomes background noise, like the fan in your computer’s power supply. The “problem” is that you will actually have to put some effort into this gaining of knowledge, but it works out well in the end.

  • AtomicMetroid

    I don’t understand why people think it’s so complicated. Beat a troll over the head with truth and facts.

  • Kevin777

    The best way to beat them is to not engage them, if it’s obvious they’re trolling don’t take the bait.

    It’s not always that simple or easy I understand.