Sticks and Stones: how to harness & farm social media trolls, for fun and profit

phone with angry face emoji
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This blog has been running for around 2 1/2 years now, and though I’ve always been asked for advice on swinging, apps and events (though I can’t claim full encyclopaedic knowledge), I’ve recently had people asking me for advice on writing and blogging. A bit of impostor syndrome aside, it’s really lovely to be approached in this way and I’m always happy to help if I can, in spite of feeling like quite the newbie myself in many ways.

I’m no SEO expert. Social media has been a real learning curve. I’m just someone who likes writing about my little niche of society- the London swing and kink scene, and what it’s like to try to navigate a strange but fun underworld where all the expectations and accepted rules of vanilla life can no longer be taken for granted.

I’m therefore going to look at some non-standard tips now and then, for all you lovely men, ladies and non-binary identities, who are putting yourself out there in the world to create, blog, write, make art, set up events, campaign or otherwise stick your head above the parapet to leave your mark on society.

angry man sits at laptop in a cafe
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Today, let’s look at trolls.

Now, not everyone who disagrees with what you say, do or even who you are, is actually a troll. Feeling ‘triggered’ or misunderstood by a divergent opinion to yours on a topic you present is not justification to vilify an internet identity. Before we get defensive, let’s clarify that. People come to different decisions on topics based on their own reading and lived experiences. Sharing these is not an attack on you. They are starting a conversation. They may put it a little bluntly, or insultingly, but give some leeway for lack of tonicity in the text.

5 people look at their phones
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Use it as an opportunity to learn, to consider whether you have phrased your points in a way that is free from being misconstrued and whether you have included and discussed every relevant opinion on the topic. It is easy to compile a long list of ‘why I’m right about this’ while actively or accidentally omitting a lot of contradictory information. To leave this out is to leave opportunity for critical assault on your cause and your skills as a writer. To fail to include people who don’t fall into your camp, who live a very different life and who aren’t going to automatically agree with you about everything, is to leave yourself open and unprepared. There will always be people who are so diametrically opposed that you will never win them over.

There are people in the middle ground, with little information, but an interest, who will listen with an open mind. I assure you, these are rare. In this day and age, everyone already has a pretty firm opinion about everything. You’ll need to blow their mind a little to shift them an inch. Yet what is the point in only preaching to the choir?

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Internet algorithms group us into little bubbles of people who agree about everything and then we get trapped in an echo chamber of our own ideas. Logical discourse between diverse thought schools goes out the window and militant in-group gatekeepers patrol in ever decreasing circles, picking off people who use a clumsy phrase or the wrong term, whittling the groups down into small, polarised online communities where the clique is kept in a tight herd, lest anyone ‘out’ themselves as ‘not quite one of us’.

Emboldened by the lack of objectivity and diversity around them, not to mention the supreme sense of being a militant champion for their own cause, people can come across as very unpleasant and entitled when they attack your work. Even so, they will be a representative of a section of society who agrees with them. It might be a very small section. It likely won’t be a section you feel an affinity with yourself. Yet they are people too.

man and woman discussing
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With your critics, don’t think of them as trolls. Think of them as an opportunity to look at your own work from a totally different viewpoint. Someone posts, ‘what a load of rubbish’. What do you do? Engage them non-combatively, thank them for taking the time to comment and ask them one of the following:

-what is it about this piece that you disagree with the most?

-which viewpoints did you feel were underrepresented in this piece?

-what would you have liked to have seen that would have improved this piece in your eyes?

-what sources of information do you feel I should have given more time to?

-is this based on something in your own lived experience, or is this just something you are worried about?

-is it the writing style you dislike or is it part of the content?

Your voluntary critics, however acerbic they may seem, are worth more to developing your skills in championing your message than 100 friends telling you that it’s wonderful. Of course, your friends will tell you that. Your friends are splendid for boosting your morale and supporting you. They are absolutely useless when it comes to helping you up your game. For development, one requires conflict. Your detractors are providing you with this valuable opportunity for free.

laptop and drinks at a cafe table, where someone works on improving their writing material
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Proper trolls are another matter. They are not just people who disagree. They pop up and mock you, accuse you, insult you. They may or may not even believe in what they are saying.

Trolls exist in many forms, from the paid ones (said to be used internationally to affect political outcomes in elections) to the sad little man who makes accounts just for trolling to delight in upsetting others, to people just looking to obtain followers. What can you say, some people’s parents clearly didn’t give them attention until they were misbehaving.

Neon faced man in hoodie with X eyes and stitch mouth, representing an internet troll
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The irony is that although they seem like a negative (who wouldn’t want your posts to be filled with glowing praise at your artistic genius, right?) they are actually just as useful to you as any other comment. Many accounts of larger companies will prevent unapproved comments appearing on their posts, or curate them carefully so you never see a negative thing. That’s ok. You can do that. You can remove and block. Or you can be clever.

The algorithms for ‘active, engaged readers and followers’ don’t differentiate between someone saying you are the next Byron or saying that you smell of poo and your mum has a wrinkly bum. It’s all engagement and interaction.

Much as in the series Red Dwarf, where the ship’s computer accidentally brings back Rimmer as a hologram (the one person Lister could not stand) as they had exchanged the most words while alive; your engagement algorithms will count all interactions as positive.

That’s largely why the trolls do it too – they are more likely to get a response from you if they inflame you, which adds to their stats. You can, therefore, choose not to ‘feed the trolls’ and leave them to wither and die. That would be fair enough.

Or you can use them.

As a writer, you should be reasonably well served with an eloquence and wit that will outperform theirs. This is your chance to showcase. To freestyle. To improvise.

JK Rowling is well known for being a ‘Twitter savage’ when it comes to publicly eviscerating her trolls. Whole extra media posts have been compiled from them in the name of entertainment. If she gets trolls, so will you. If she can turn them to her advantage, so can you.

Here are some strategies you can use:

1. if it’s Twitter or Instagram you will likely instantly be able to see the troll’s profile. Often they have few followers. Sometimes they have a lot and seem to make a career out of roasting everyone online. If it’s the latter, then that’s great! Aim for witty comebacks in their own style and you can steal a load of their followers (who apparently like that kind of thing).

2. Look through their profile to get an idea of who they are. My own trolls seem to have divided up into a few basic types: people who retweet Donald Trump and have almost no other content, people who are filled with religious vitriol, people who seem pretty normal and think they are being clever to make a cheeky comment, people who seem to be really just plain nasty in every way.

3. Select an appropriate response, based on the profile and comment made. I always like to start by thanking them for their comment (manners cost nothing, and after all they are boosting your SEO rating for free). Often, it’s possible to make a joke by rolling with whatever they have said. Rather than disagreeing, fearlessly take it to the absurd. It gets a giggle and the troll (and others) will often ‘like’ it. More engagement points for you, all for a moment’s typing.

Twitter trolls

4. Flirt with them. In a silly way. ‘Ahhh, darling. That’s not what you said last night’. Or ‘I’m really feeling the chemistry between us. Don’t fight it’.

5. Sometimes what is said is just too awful to joke around much. It’s important to take the high road. If it’s a fairly normal account, you might find a good cause or a fundraising appeal in their posts. Thank them for their comment, say what a nice person they seem from their profile and offer to highlight their cause for them.

being nice to twitter trolls

6. Occasionally they will raise an issue in a nasty way that is actually useful. You can thank them for highlighting the important issue and post a link to your own material already written on it. Tell them you’d appreciate their feedback on that as well.

Raising awareness and promoting other blog posts using Twitter trolls

7. Sometimes the account of the troll doesn’t give you much leeway to do any of the above. There will usually be something basic from it you can expose to the world; ‘good luck with your Xbox gaming’ or something in it you can compliment them on; ‘you have a beautiful cat’. It either makes them furious or makes them suddenly be nice.

8. Religious zealots can be fun. I’m not sure if they consider themselves trolls or missionary crusaders. If it’s the latter, I’ve got to question why they are spending their time seeking out an adult swing blogger. Who knows, maybe I really do need Jesus. You can either infuriate them by saying things like ‘Jesus loves you’ and watching smoke come out their ears, ask them to explain more (you can get them to repeat posting comments almost endlessly in this way-all great for your engagement ratings) or entering into a really well-informed discussion of scripture, translation, while pleasantly turning the other cheek and showing love for your fellow man as they spew hatred at you.

Complimenting twitter trolls

Trolling is actually an imprisonable offense in the UK now, but let’s save extreme reactions for the times that really call for it. What your trolls say tells the world everything about them and nothing about you. The way you react to their comments is what tells the world everything about you. Rather than coming off as ‘butthurt’ or ‘snowflake’, view it as a challenge and an opportunity. You can really showcase.

I’m not a fan of correcting their spelling. That’s such a low blow to any dyslexics reading. Think of it as banter. Think your responses through until you have a really good one (unlike real life, you have a fairly unlimited window) and craft it beautifully.

Sometimes, the nastiness and irrational hatred can just wear you down. Stick their comments on silent or block, and turn off your social media. You have that luxury, as a keyboard crusader for your cause. Others do not. They live with it every day, in person. Yet if you don’t stand up for anything, what is the point of you? If you aren’t having to fight at least a little now and then for your cause, you are no longer helping the underdog; you’ve gone mainstream. Who cares about fighting a cause that’s already been won?

The viper’s den

Over your own social media accounts, you have relative power. You are the king of the castle and the pesky trolls come to fight you on your own turf, with all your supportive followers. You can block them and delete them. Your followers will take them down for you. These are easy grounds to win on.

The time they will come at you is when you are not so protected. When your image or tale is used by someone else. When your blog gets copied and reposted to a hate group. My goodness, your stats will be booming! But you and your name have been cast into the ‘enemy’ stronghold to be ripped to shreds.

When this happens, you can make a judgment call. Do you leave it there silently, people who would never be brought in line with your views biting into your work, pretending it isn’t happening? Do you follow that incoming link from your stats page and read all the nasty stuff people say and sit there like a pile of wounded jelly? Do you wade into the ants’ nest, off your turf and into a place where you can be sure everyone automatically reviles you, to defend your work and take questions?

Well, I guess that depends on how much trouble you feel it’s worth taking on. You won’t win them over, however clever and erudite you might be. You might defend your integrity. If you are able to, a statement like ‘this has been copied from my female pleasure advice group to a Christian chastity group without consent, and was not written with this audience in mind; however, I’m happy to answer any questions or concerns you have,’ could go a long way. People who are happy to snipe about your work behind your back when you are a faceless entity are often suddenly a bit timider when you’ve had the courage to come in amongst them and courteously offer to discuss the issues they have raised.

It may stop them following the link to your page just so they can tear it apart, though. So there’s swings and roundabouts as to which option is going to benefit you more. What are you all about? Is it the visitor counter or taking a stand for your cause?

Troll farming

You might not yet have had a troll attack. This doesn’t mean you are immune, that everyone agrees with you or that your work is flawless. It means one of two things: either you haven’t got high profile enough yet for them to bother with, or you have nestled yourself into such a snug, secure niche of people who agree with you that you aren’t going far enough out there to win over any of the people in the middle ground. Niche vs. Mainstream. Your niche will give you the warm and fuzzies. Mainstream will give you a baptism of fire. You are going to need to place yourself in both to really make any sort of difference in the world.

Yet fear not. You can make your own trolls. Much as celebrities will have numerous fake accounts and bots placed to give them positive comments on their posts, you too can make additional accounts on apps like Twitter and Instagram to interact with your account. In fact, you can use them to troll yourself. This isn’t something I’ve done myself, but the logic seems sound.

This may sound counterintuitive, but it has a few useful functions:

⁃ it still counts as engagement for your statistics

⁃ You can control this troll; set them up so you can post brilliant, witty comebacks at them that fit perfectly

⁃ You can make your troll lose to you in the debate you have

⁃ It might encourage other readers to attack your troll in your defense! Extra engagement for you

⁃ It gives an easy forum for others to join in and to start their own debates about issues raised

⁃ This is similar to tactics used by PR and marketing companies, where they will have clients with diametrically opposed viewpoints and set them head to head on an issue (vegan sausage rolls ring a bell?) in a war that wins column inches for them both.

⁃ You can send your troll out to (gently, not illegally) disagree with your other competitors and similar interest bloggers, then you yourself can come to their defense! My enemy’s enemy is my friend, right?

What experience have you had with trolls?

What’s your favourite trick?

*This is not official business, SEO, marketing or writing advice and I’m not taking responsibility for anything you do with the ideas and information given.

*Many thanks to the Twitter accounts featured here for their creative interactions, and now unwitting inclusion in the content of my blog

2 comments

  1. I have been online since the days of bulletin boards and dial-up, so I’m very familiar with the trolling phenomenon. That being said, I am no expert, but I have found that trolls, more often than not, simply provide an opportunity to showcase one’s class. As long as one can remain calm and rational, trolls often depants themselves in their attempt to provoke and anger. Every time it happens, I like to ask them absurd questions and make absurd, humorous statements. They’re usually so uptight and childish, they fall right into it and watching a negative person unravel in public is a guilty pleasure. Schadenfreude.

    Liked by 1 person

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