‘A Misery of Trolls’: Van Badham’s Tips on Dealing with Internet Nasties

Kate Larsen of Writers Victoria talks to Guardian Australia commentator Van Badham about the ‘age of the internet troll’ - and gets her seasoned advice about how to fend them off.

The internet has democratised the art of critique. With photos of our every meal scrolling through our Facebook feeds, everyone’s a food critic now. Read a good book lately? Any one of us can rustle up a review of the latest blockbuster on our blog or tweet our opinion about the latest political disaster.

The removal of media and publishing gatekeepers has increased the number of diverse voices being heard and opened up more issues, art works and events to debate in the public realm. It has also swamped us with an avalanche of new information, which is why there is still a place for the professionals within the maelstrom of consumer opinion – the voices we trust in the shouting crowd.

But in the ‘age of the internet troll’ (as dubbed by Victorian writer and commentator Van Badham), what happens when the critics get critiqued?

People writing about controversial or political subjects online can find themselves recipients of hostile responses from internet users who loudly express their disagreement or disdain. Badham was a theatre-maker and novelist when her tweets on political subjects came to the attention of Guardian Australia – as well as to the cohort of internet trolls who now read and respond to almost everything she writes on a daily basis.

Trolls are usually the sort of people who join in discussions purely to provoke or annoy. They may or may not engage with the subject matter at all and they’ve become a fact of life for professional critics and commentators.

Recently, the Twitterverse went wild with speculation on what the collective noun for trolls might be: from a misery, a crock or a closet, to a lifestyle-envy or even an ‘apoda’ of trolls, referencing the greater bird of paradise whose song sounds like ‘WANK WANK WANK’.

Now one of the most controversial political commentators in Australia, Badham shares her advice for emerging writers and online critics who may be faced by an internet troll for the first time:

Don’t feed the trolls

As Badham wrote in The Women’s Agenda last year, the trolls’ greatest fear is losing your attention, so if you just laugh and stop listening, they’ll usually go away.

OK, you can feed the trolls (if you must)

Badham herself can receive up to 100 troll comments per day on Twitter – as a public commentator, sometimes she does choose to respond, because ‘the alternative is shutting up and f*** that’.

‘I have a very busy Twitter feed due to my columns in the Guardian and elsewhere,’ she says. ‘The articles provoke discussions among people asking questions or making legitimate and non-troll challenges to my point of view. When a troll interjects within the conversation, it can silence the other participants. While I embrace “blocktivism” as a tactic to shut the trolls down, sometimes – sometimes – it’s necessary to make an example of one.’

If you do decide to engage, there are a number of different approaches you can take:

Be genuine

If you feel passionately about something, argue your case. Having a different opinion doesn’t make someone a troll and good things can come from online conversations. Just don’t be disappointed if you get more drivel than debate.

Be funny

‘Trolls are usually fairly simplistic, angry people with hateful opinions,’ explains Badham. ‘If the best they’ve got is “shut up, slag”, a torrent of clever mockery is not something they can engage for very long. Another technique developed by feminist tweeters is called “kittening” – where instead of a defensive retort, the response to a troll is a stream of unicorn or kitten GIFs. This usually cutes them into submission,’ she recommends.

Of course, creative tweeters may combine both mockery and kittening in responses – like this tweet from Badham on her @vanbadham Twitter account: ‘OMG, your opinion means SO MUCH to me! Thank you! Here’s a picture of a kitten!’

Let them have it!

Not for the faint-hearted, but change isn’t always easy and it’s very rarely polite.

While some trolls will back down when challenged, if you engage with them you open yourself to more personal and prolonged attacks. Just remember, if someone has resorted to calling you names rather than arguing your points then they’re not worth debating.

‘There’s a fantastic quote from Bernard Shaw that I try to keep in mind when I’m tempted to lash out,’ says Badham. ‘He said, “Don’t wrestle with a pig – you both get dirty and the pig enjoys it”.’

If it all gets too much

Shut the troll down, report the post so they can’t contact you again, and don’t despair. Allow yourself to be flattered that your opinion has caused ripples.

Badham’s suggestion for beating the Twitter blues is to organise an event or tweet-up with like-minded people, such as the Reading the Trolls event at last year’s National Young Writers Festival where Melbourne literary critic Bethanie Blanchard and other commentators read aloud their best and worst burns and bullies.

Badham herself is collaborating with another oft-trolled Melbourne comedian Catherine Deveny to take joint revenge on their detractors with their Melbourne International Comedy Festival show ‘The Trollhunter.’ May the best troll win.