Rude, abusive but legal - how to handle toxic comments

  • Social media
  • February 4, 2010
  • StopPress Team
Rude, abusive but legal - how to handle toxic comments

Rude, abusive and offensive; it all makes good reading but publishers of social media -- who can range from bloggers and niche media to mega-corporations and governments -- must deal with the difficult question of what to do when comments go bad. On the one hand, you want to let comments flow freely (this is a democracy still, I think). On the other hand, some comments are anonymous, abusive, stupid and occasionally defamatory.

What's a poor boy to do?

The first thing to do is identify the problem. In an excellent Computerworld article Derek Wood, vice president of clinical operations at PsychTracker Inc., a journaling site for people with mental illness, identifies such problem commentators  as trolls and cyberstalkers. They can be doing it to attract attention to themselves, promote their own websites, or simply because they are bored and evil.

He identifies five types of trolls:


  • Spamming troll: Posts to many newsgroups with the same verbatim post.

  • Kooks: A regular member of a forum who habitually drops comments that have no basis on the topic or even in reality.

  • Flamer: Does not contribute to the group except by making inflammatory comments.

  • Hit-and-runner: Stops in, make one or two posts and move on.

  • Psycho trolls: Has a psychological need to feel good by making others feel bad.


A cyber stalker is different, motivated by more evil intentions. The three types of cyberstalkers are:

  • Intimate partner: The most common type of stalker, this is usually a man who has a history of controlling and emotional abuse during a relationship.

  • Delusional stalkers: This type of stalker builds an entire relationship with the victim in his or her mind, whether any prior contact has taken place or not. Such stalkers are likely to have a major mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or erotomania, which means they believe the victim is in love with them. The typical delusional stalker is unmarried, socially immature and a loner who is unable to sustain close relationships with others.

  • Vengeful stalker. This type of person is angry with the victim due to some real or imagined insult or injury. Some of these stalkers are psychopaths -- a person affected with an antisocial personality disorder -- who have no conscience or remorse. They may have paranoid delusions, often feeling that they themselves are victims and are striving to get even.


But what you do with such nutjobs?

The first thing we have done is to delete comments that are defamatory--that's simply a matter of reading everything at regular intervals and making an editorial judgement. We could move to a moderated blog ala the Herald or Stuff. This in turn has its challenges. Smaller companies lack the manpower to approve comments in real time. And critically, there's no reward or instant gratification for participating in the discussion. This  is very important in building online communities. If users post a comment and nothing happens, they lose interest very quickly.

Another idea is to ban anonymous comments. This too has its limits. For one thing, whistle blowers and journalistic sources have a long andhonourbale history of anonymity. We'd hate to scare off genuine and insightful comments from insiders. And anyway, names can be faked and identities borrowed (as demonstrated when Stoppress was hijacked for half a day by a nutcase styling himself as 'Rodney Hide', 'John Key', et al).

There is a better way than these two draconian methods. WebworkerDaily has three good suggestions:


  • Have a comment policy. This is a paragraph in your comments section or a separate page that lists your policy for identifying and handling inappropriate comments. What do you do when a reader breaks your comment policy? It depends on how long the reader has been participating in your blog. Personally, I prefer to delete the comment and move on.

  • Set comment approval rules. Blogging platforms and plug-ins can usually automate comment approval for you. Readers that have commented before can have their comments auto-approved, while first-time commenters will have their messages held for approval. This ensures that readers who already know your comment policy will be able to reply to a post without waiting. You can also filter out comments that have swear words and too many outbound links (often a sign of spam).

  • If you get too many comments and it’s no longer practical for you to moderate them, you can get a virtual assistant to help you. You can ask him or her to delete or unapprove inappropriate comments, as well as notify you when specific comments require an urgent reply.


A fourth idea is to get the community to moderate for you. Blogs like Kiwiblog and the Green Party blog have community-based moderating with a system that votes down and hide troll comments.

The last option (well at least for today) is to simply close the comments thread with a polite 'Thank you for participating in the discussion. Comments are now closed' and shut it down.

The freedom of social media carries an equal responsibility to be fair and fact-based with your comments, even if they are objectionable (there's no law against offending but there is against libel). Stoppress is a relative newcomer to the social media frenzy but I hope we'll be up there with best practice.

Meanwhile here are two great talks from Webstock last year on nurturing online communities and why people make sucky comments and how to deal with them:

Heather Champ: Sherherding passionate communities
Derek Powazek: Wisdom Communities (You can fast forward to the Trolls part at 26:50)

This is a community discussion forum. Comment is free but please respect our rules:

  1. Don’t be abusive or use sweary type words
  2. Don’t break the law: libel, slander and defamatory comments are forbidden
  3. Don’t resort to name-calling, mean-spiritedness, or slagging off
  4. Don’t pretend to be someone else.

If we find you doing these things, your comments will be edited without recourse and you may be asked to go away and reconsider your actions.
We respect the right to free speech and anonymous comments. Don’t abuse the privilege.

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