Dealing with trolls on Twitter: #p2, #tcot, #topprog, #bipart, and a magic search query

the freemont troll, photographed by Thom WatsonOne of the challanges with using Twitter for activism is one that’s all too familiar to anybody who’s spent time online: dealing with trolls and other disruptions.*  Twitter hashtags are completely open, so anybody can post on them, which means we frequently see tweets like:

I should also state that some sissy liberal might find me MEAN spirited and rough but they usually like it .. #p2 #rebellft # …

Thanks for sharing, dude.

Of course an occasional tweet like this isn’t a big deal; they’re easy enough to ignore.  The bigger problem is with posts that lead to heated debates that cause so much traffic everything else gets lost.  Last night, for example, one person wound up accounting for over 75% of the traffic on #p2 (counting his tweets and others responses to him).  When this happens, people start to tune out — and based on research from Susan Herring and others, women in particular are far less likely to participate.

It’s important to recognize that this isn’t generally due to bad intent.**   Twitter’s a great place for debates, and at first reaction hashtags for progressives (like #p2 and #topprog) and conservatives (#tcot) are natural places to have them.  However, that gets in the way of using these channels for communications and organizing.  It’d be much better to have the debates going on elsewhere.   For example, as described in @martinschechter’s A modest proposal on Common Mistakes last week:***

A fellow Twitterer – – and I have come up with a proposal to create a new hashtag: #bipart. To be used by #tcots, #topprogs, and completely unpolitical people of all kinds who want to discuss political issues not with true believers only, and not with the intention of offending others, but with idea of challenging people of all opinions to participate in the exchange of ideas and challenges to orthodoxies or party platforms.

Great idea!  Getting something like this started is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem: until there are enough people following it, it’s hard to get good debates going, and until there are good debates going people won’t follow it.  That’ll change over time, though.  So one way of dealing with disruption is to engage with people and suggest they continue their debate on #bipart rather than the other hashtags.

What about the people who decline?  The best thing to do is to ignore them: please don’t feed the trolls.  Trolls usually are searching for attention; if they don’t get it, they go away.

Sometimes, though, people can’t resist responding … and the discussion spirals out of control.  That’s when some Twitter search magic helps.  For example, suppose there’s somebody named TROLL who’s posting in the #p2 hashtag and causing enough of a disruption that the noise is crowding out other discussions.  Here’s the magic syntax to use for a search in Tweetdeck or Twitter search to ignore all the posts from TROLL and all the replies to TROLL

#p2 -from:TROLL -@TROLL

Last night, even when the arguments were flooding the “unfiltered” #p2 channel, this search reduced the noise to virtually zero.  How cool is that?

Especially when combined with the #bipart hashtag, it can make a big difference.  In the future, I can imagine clients like Tweetdeck making this even easier, perhaps using some of the ideas from Usenet killfiles.  So give it a try!


PS: we’ll be discussing this along with other topics related to progressives on Twitter in Monday night’s #p2 Twitterchat.  Please consider joining us!

Photo: The Fremont Troll, Seattle Washington
from Thom Watson’s flickr page
licensed under Creative Commons

* Dealing with hate speech, flaming, and trolls, an annotated bibliography on the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy 2008 community wiki, has tons o’ links about the history of trolling — and policies for dealing with it

** of course there are exceptions.  Last summer, progressives intentionally attempted to disrupt the #dontgo channel.  See Tracy Viselli’s The story of #dontgo on Reno and its discontents for more.

*** Vann Schaffner’s Free Swim proposal was an earlier idea along similar lines, in response to progressives trolling #tcot.