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So you have a troll problem on your Facebook page or group, and you are not sure how to deal with the problem. You want to be transparent, and you want to encourage free discussion, but a hands-off approach is guaranteed to make the problem worse. How do you handle online bullies and trolls without stifling your group?

As a former online abuse admin at Bullypolice.org, a former ISP abuse admin, with more than 15 years of experience at managing online discussion groups, I have more experience than most with online bullies.

Back in the early days of the Internet, when all we had were green and black screens, I managed a set of discussion groups. I wanted total freedom of speech, but I was soon disabused of the idea by a small group of persistent trolls. The harder I worked, the worse the abuse became. Over the years, I have watched the same patterns repeat themselves time and time again. Giving trolls a platform can definitely increase the overall traffic to a group, but it will eventually result in the demise of that group, not to mention the emotional damage that can be perpetuated.

First qualification: I don’t consider disagreement to be abuse or bullying. I enjoy a good argument, even if I totally disagree with the other side. Unfortunately the ability to stay respectful in an online argument seems to be a somewhat rare skill. It is more common to see personal attacks, distortion, projection and other common bully tools.

Engaging “in kind” isn’t the most effective way to deal with an online bully. No one’s mind is changed. It only escalates the problem.  Name calling only confuses and upsets the observers, many of whom ultimately come to the conclusion both sides are bullies. At the first sign of abuse, block access. Yes, they may come back under another name, and there may be criticism, but if you do not take action, eventually, all the legitimate members of your group will leave, and you will be left with the angriest and most hostile participants, none of whom contribute anything to your business or cause.

At my ISP, if a customer accused another of online abuse but was abusive themselves in return, we would not take action until the complainant disengaged. It doesn’t matter who started it, if both sides are perpetuating it. That might not seem fair to the victim of abuse, but the ISP or social media platform can’t always tell who started it, especially when both sides are being abusive.

Bullies crave attention. Blocking and ignoring them works well. Advanced moderation, where you must approve all posts, works best. Just be sure that your policies are clear, brief, easy to find, and applied fairly.