How to control trolls with Google+

How to control trolls with Google+

Not all social networks are equal when it comes to defeating trolls, haters and spammers. Here's why Google+ has the best anti-troll system and how to use it.

Every major social network is a mixed bag of good qualities and bad. For example, the best quality of Twitter might be its limit on the length of tweets, which enables you to follow many people and organizations without getting bogged down in long-winded, complicated posts.

The worst quality of Twitter, in my opinion, is the weakness of tools, features and policies for protecting against cyber-harassment. Trolls, bullies, racists and other haters run wild on Twitter, and there's little ordinary users can do about it.

Which brings us to one of the best things about Google+: The social network is nearly ideal for posting publicly and in the full light of day, while simultaneously protecting against trolls and other haters.

In truth, most people aren't affected by trolls. But for those who are -- especially those who want to voice their opinions, promote their work or causes and be themselves (or their pseudonyms) in public, gain influence, interact with a lot of people and do it all without fear, harassment or bullying -- it's worth considering a move from Twitter to Google+, where trolls can be effectively managed.

Wait, what? Move to Google+?

Emphatically yes. While Google's focus has shifted away from Google+ of late, leading some industry watchers to speculate that the company may abandon its social network, new Google+ head David Besbris says it's not going anywhere, and I believe him. The strong anti-troll features of Google+ are part of a larger set of features that make it (in my opinion) the best social site on the Internet -- and something that Google isn't likely to pull the plug on.

In this article, I'm going to give you my definition of the word "troll." I'll talk about the damage they increasingly do. And finally, I'll go into detail on how to control trolls on Google+.

What's a troll, anyway?

In countless conversations online and off on the subject of trolls, I've noticed both enlightened differences of opinion and also widespread misunderstanding. So I'll be clear about what I mean when I use the word "troll."

A troll is not someone who passionately argues points of view they believe in, or who stridently forces their opinion on people online. It's not necessarily a bully, either. Not all cyberbullies are trolls and not all trolls are cyberbullies.

Simply put, trolls (according to a recently published study from the University of Manitoba) are "everyday sadists" and "psychopaths" who get pleasure from the unhappiness of others. Some are "accidental trolls" -- and don't even know that they're trolls. Others are proud of the distinction and devote countless hours to honing their trolling skills and bragging to other trolls on dedicated message boards.

That's who trolls are, but what is this thing they do? What is trolling?

Trolling is the act of gratifying one's desire to see people suffer by the use of specially targeted comments on message boards or social networks under the cover of anonymity.

The motives for trolling vary wildly. Sometimes trolls harbor hatreds (women, minorities, people on the other side of the political spectrum). Some trolls resent the famous or influential and want to bring them down. Trolls view anonymity as a source of power, often attacking people who are known and public while they themselves remain anonymous.

Some trolls just like making people upset, hijacking conversations and becoming the focus of attention. Others are profoundly aggressive and malicious and try to ruin, or actually succeed in ruining, people's lives or businesses.

Trolls do real damage. Trolling (and spambot-generated spam) convinced Popular Science -- a publication devoted to open discourse about science -- to shut off comments for everybody. Trolls swarm to grieving people who have recently lost a loved one -- for example, they drove the daughter of the late actor and comedian Robin Williams off Twitter, though temporarily. (The event was seen by some as part of a larger trend of women being forced offline by trolls' intimidation tactics.) They've allegedly even driven young victims to suicide.

Such horrible events are rare. Far more common is that women, racial minorities, LGBT people, political dissidents and others are silenced by trolls. They simply withdraw from social media and public posting.

Trolling is wrong. And you don't have to accept it. It's time to stop putting up with trolling and do something about it.

Why Google+ excels at shutting down trolls

The good news for anyone who wants to be a public and influential person is that there are places to go where you can express yourself, have conversations and share your passions and still keep trolls in check. The best of these is Google+, in my opinion.

The reason why I say Twitter is the worst and Google+ is the best is partly structural. On Twitter, each tweet is equal to every other. So if someone makes a statement, and another person comments on it, those tweets are equal in status, theoretically.

But on Google+, comments to a post are part of and subordinate to that post. When trolls comment on your post on Google+, you can delete the comment and block future comment. On Twitter, you cannot do either.

I'll give you a very basic example. If you post a picture of your dog on Twitter and a troll says something horrible about your dog, there's nothing you can do to prevent your followers and their followers from seeing the troll's comment. The troll can then continue to harass and threaten you without consequence until the end of time by @-mentioning you, everyone you engage with and others who commented.

Blocking on Twitter is mostly pointless -- it shields you from seeing the troll's tweets, but everyone else can still see them. And you still see their tweets when they @-mention you, which they will. Blocking on Twitter might as well not even exist as a feature. It does very close to nothing.

By contrast, if you post a picture of your dog on Google+ and a troll says something horrible about your dog in the comments, you can delete the comment and block the troll. Boom! Done! You will never see that troll again on Google+, and they will be banished forever from commenting on your posts or participating in the conversations you start.

After you block them, the troll will see nothing on your profile as long as they're logged in. If they log out, they can see your public posts -- Google+ posts are, after all, public pages on the open Internet. But they can't comment (i.e., troll you) without being logged in.

The troll can, of course, create a new account with a new fake name and come back to troll you. But because it takes some time and effort to create a new account, and they can be blocked with such little effort on your part, trolls almost never do this on Google+ for any length of time.

Blocking on Google+ is the opposite of blocking on Twitter. On Google+, the troll is gone forever. On Twitter, the troll continues to troll you without restraint. The only effect is that you have your head in the sand while the troll reaches all your followers.

One other point of differentiation: On Twitter, you can't direct-message (privately message) someone unless they follow you. So to reach out to someone new you have to message them publically, which alerts trolls and enables them to troll the person you're contacting as well -- they get to you by going after everyone you interact with. On Google+, on the other hand, you can privately message strangers without the trolls knowing.

How to block trolls on Google+

When you encounter a troll, click on their name. That will take you to their profile. In the upper left corner of their profile page, you'll see a box with their name, information about who's following whom, and in the bottom row a bunch of cryptic icons. The icon on the right is a down-arrow. Click that and choose "Report / block," followed by the troll's name. Click on the "Block" check box at the top. Optionally, you can choose some options for reporting the user to Google. Click "Done."

You can also do it from the comment itself. Click the "Delete comment" icon (a circle with an X in it), and you'll be given the option to block the commenter as well.

Just to be clear: Blocking prevents that user account from seeing your posts while they're logged in. They can see your posts when they log out. They can create a new account. But either way, they can't comment on your posts. You can't see their posts either, while you're logged in. When you comment on other people's posts, they won't see your comment. And they won't be able to plus-mention you.

On Google+, blocking someone makes that account vanish for you, and makes your posts and comments vanish for them. It's a very complete termination of interaction between you and the troll.

It's one thing to know how to block. It's another to know why. I've noticed reluctance by many users to block. It feels like an impolite and aggressive act. My view is that you should block every user you encounter who you believe disrupts conversation, exhibits abhorrent values or who offends you in any way. There are two reasons for this approach.

First, if you're offended, there are probably dozens, hundreds or thousands of other users who are offended, too. By blocking one person you benefit a great many more. Second, the troll you're blocking has the whole social network, in fact the whole universe of social networks, message boards and more to roam. Your account on Google+ belongs to you. Blocking who you don't like and circling who you do is how you end up with an amazing group of people to interact with.

Sometimes people will troll you not in comments on your own posts, but in someone else's. In that case, it's a good idea to send a private message to the poster and ask that they delete the comments and/or block the troll. Just say why. If the poster values your engagement more than the troll's, and they probably will, they'll block them for you.

Blocking alternatives

Sometimes it's better to just not "feed the trolls." Blocking signals trolls that they "got to you," and that they forced you to take some action. Google+ offers two passive-aggressive actions you can take that are similar to blocking trolls, but the troll doesn't know he or she has been removed from the conversations.

The first is muting. When you mute someone, they're essentially blocked from your perspective -- you can't see their activity -- but they don't know it. They continue as if nothing had happened. Muting on Google+ is like blocking on Twitter -- it simply covers your eyes to their activity, which is otherwise unchanged. Muting is just like blocking, except you choose the Mute option instead of the Block option.

The second is flagging. If you believe a troll will go away if he or she gets no reaction (the theoretical foundation of the "don't feed the trolls" strategy), you can guarantee no reaction by flagging their comments on your posts.

To flag a comment to one your posts, click the "Report spam or abuse" icon: the little flag next to the comment. When you do so, the comment is removed for everyone except the person who made it. They still see their comment and will continue to believe it's visible to other people.

This is a great way to not feed trolls. They get neither the satisfaction of being blocked, nor the satisfaction of being responded to. They just feel ignored, which removes all incentive for those seeking to make themselves the center of attention.

When you flag a comment on someone else's post, the opposite happens. It disappears for you, but not for anyone else. You can, of course, privately ask the poster to flag the comment for you, which will make it disappear for everybody.

Regardless of who flags a comment, Google is notified and will investigate, at least theoretically.

Rescuing auto-flagged comments

While we're on the subject of flagging, there are two important facts you need to know: First, Google software also algorithmically flags and removes some comments from view. And second, this software is very bad at deciding whether a comment should be flagged or not. As a result, the majority of posts algorithmically flagged and removed from view are perfectly good, constructive, valuable posts (in my experience). I recommend that as part of your normal comment moderation, you go and rescue the comments unfairly flagged by Google.

Here's how: Between your post and the comments, you'll see a link showing the total number of comments. Clicking on that link might show you another link that says, "Show comments removed as spam" -- but only if there are algorithmically flagged comments for the post. By clicking on that link, you'll see all the flagged and removed comments. And by hovering your mouse pointer over the right side of a comment, you'll get a drop-down menu offering "Restore" and "Block" options. Restore makes it visible again. Go to the next flagged comment and repeat.

When not to respond

There are two circumstances on Google+ where the trolls invariably come rushing in. The first is when you post a popular YouTube video directly. The reason is that Google integrated YouTube and Google+ together. So when you embed a YouTube video into a post (by simply pasting in the URL), that video is also posted on YouTube, a notorious troll hangout. When a YouTube user posts a comment on the YouTube version, that comment shows up on your Google+ post, and vice versa.

My advice is to never embed YouTube videos. It's better to use a screenshot from the video, then link to the YouTube video in the post. If you paste in the video link after adding a screenshot or picture, it won't embed the video, but it will be a live link to the YouTube video.

The second circumstance is when you have a runaway viral hit on Google+ and make the "What's Hot" list. That moves the post to the Google+ "front page" where trolls might jump into your conversation.

In both the YouTube and the What's Hot situations, it might not be worth the trouble to block trolls because they're probably transient. They'll troll that one post, but likely won't come back to bug you later. If they do, then just block them, mute them and/or flag their comments.

It's all about great conversations

By blocking trolls, while simultaneously cultivating conversation around your interests, you end up having the most amazing conversations, making the most amazing friends and having the most amazing time.

These are not actions you do once, then forget about. If you make it a daily ritual to engage with the interesting people and block or flag the trolls, you'll eventually end up with a whole lot of constructive, interesting and fun people in your circles -- and no trolls, haters and bullies.

You don't have to put up with trolls. Just move to Google+ and shut them down.

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