Cybertrolls, Freethought Blogs and Operant Conditioning

Cyber Bullying by Grant ChochraneCybertrolls, Freethought Blogs and Operant Conditioning

It turns out that freethinkers aren’t any more wonderful than any other group of people. We have the same foibles, the same inability to think straight when angry, the same inability to curtail our anger to work more productively and… we also have trolls.

If you don’t follow the gossip within the larger Freethought community, you are lucky. I don’t except when something big happens. And some big things have been happening for a while. Here’s the long short of it. Some women complained of sexist behavior by some (not all) men who go to Freethought conferences. For pointing out this behavior these women have been subjected to quite a bit of online harassment. And when I say quite a bit, it’s like mob trolling is taking place.

Not to be cowed by cowards, these women kept making their case, and calling out the trolls as evidence that yup, there really is a problem. And so the cycle perpetuated itself. Rude sexist comments and remarks are met with rightfully angry – hey that’s sexist retorts which are met by more rude sexist comments. The women at the center of the storm don’t understand why things kept getting worse and more toxic for them and for everyone else as a result of this cycle of nastiness.

In the middle of all of this, there have been some genuine attempts to figure out how to deal with it all. Unfortunately, those attempts are hijacked on both sides in the angry tit for tat back and forth that has going on.  Good people on both sides of the sexism in the movement debate have been unfairly maligned and subject to some rather vicious ad hominem attacks. However, it is clear that regardless of the merits of the arguments being made, women who have participated in this “discussion” have experienced cyber trolling on a massive scale that is impacting their personal lives. And no, that’s not ok under any circumstances. It doesn’t matter how much you dislike what they say, the proper way to deal with that is to a) ignore them, b) make a rational argument about why they are wrong, or b) do both. To make ad  hominem attacks is out of line in any context for a group of people who claim to be rational. Which just goes to show, no group corners the market in stupidity, even groups who like to think of themselves as smart.

The Bully Vaccine - dealing with cybertrollsHowever, I was asked to weigh in on how things could have been handled differently by utilizing operant conditioning techniques along the lines I teach in my book: The Bully Vaccine ( .  And the reason I was asked to weigh in on this is because cyber trolling is a form of bullying.

So, here is, in my opinion, what the dynamic at play has been, what anyone who is experiencing a cyber troll attack might do to make it better or worse and how to get it to stop. And I don’t think anyone is going to like what I say because once a bullying attack has gotten severe, there are no good alternatives and the victim has to take responsibility for their side of what is going on to get it to stop. Keep in mind, this doesn’t mean that the attacks against them are ok, it is more that we can often, without realizing it, make our problems worse. That is what has happened here. To make matters better, they need to change what they are doing and yes, use a little science to help them get the situation under control.  So, for all you ladies at FTB and anyone deal with cybertrolls, look up operant conditioning, extinguishing a behavior – or get my book The Bully Vaccine (

Rule #1: nip it in the bud so it doesn’t become a problem in the first place.  It is totally unnecessary to respond to trolls at all. In fact, the less you respond to them, the better. Trolls, like all bullies, are looking for attention. Give them attention because they behave badly and they will behave badly more.  The problem is that negative reinforcement is still reinforcement. It’s all the same to the cybertroll. If you want to extinguish a behavior, you don’t punish people or animals for their bad behavior,  that just reinforces the behavior.  People who use operant conditioning don’t include punishment in their responses because it is counterproductive. Research backs this up. Seriously – it does. Not rewarding the behavior at all is what works to get a bad behavior to stop. Unfortunately, it’s really hard not to get angry and respond. But that’s what the troll views as a reward, so you need to not do it. Ever.

Rule #2: If you must acknowledge someone who is being an idiot and cybertrolling/bullying – say something simple and bored like” Thank you very much for that insightful observation. It’s very helpful.” That lets them know they have been heard, but that you clearly don’t care what they have said nor are you bothered by it. Again, cybertrolls are looking to get an emotional reaction. Failure to give that to them and they will get bored. There are two problems with the FTB response. 1) even if the blogger didn’t respond, her fans did. Fan response is just as good as if the target responded. Bullies don’t care who pays attention to them as long as someone does.  2) The women at FTB’s actively drew attention to their trolls. I know they were trying to make a point that people were behaving badly,  but all they did was encourage the trolls to troll some more because they finally found a target that resonded.

Rule #3: Be consistent. Don’t ignore them sometimes and respond at other times. That creates what is known as a variable reinforcement strategy. The problem with that is that it strengthens the behavior instead of decreasing it. So again, the fine ladies at FTB did not mean do make their problem worse, but that’s what they did. You either ignore bullies completely and don’t respond, ever, Or you respond every time with a consequence, like banning them from the site, no exceptions. This must be done consistently every day until the problem goes away. This consistency reduces the behavior. It really does.  It’s the only thing that works. Think about how communities turn around their grafiti and vandalism problems. By fixing every single act of vandalism promptly. And it works. The same principle works with websites. If they go to another site and complaint that you are a feminazi who refuses to allow honest dissent that is their right to voice themselves. You are not preventing them from expressing themselves on the web, you are just not tolerating trolling on your website. Resist the temptation to defend yourself against such allegations. I know it’s hard, but you can simply put up a note that cyber trolling won’t be allowed. There is no additional response required and anything else will feed the trolls. Don’t feed the trolls.   

Rule #4: Don’t get in a pissing match over anything. A lot of the posts back and forth are devolved arguments about what someone did or did not do and how horrible they clearly are for doing it. I’ve seen these posts on both sides. If you try to make your case by attacking someone who is attacking you, you’ve lost the argument.  You are being just as childish as the troll. I am an adult, so I will tell you quite plainly; I don’t give a crap about who started it or who is right. I don’t want to hear from either child. Stick to substantive matters and ignore the personal nonsense or be branded a childish idiot who is no better than the trolls. The choice is yours. I suggest you choose to be mature.  Yes, it hurts, it stings and it sucks to have people disagree with you and call you names and threaten you etc.  If you are going to participate in a public dialogue, you need to expect the trolls. So grow up and don’t respond to childish people in a childish way. Respond as an adult would, quietly, compassionately and resolutely.  

Rule #5: If you get mob trolled, as these women have – shut it down. Exit for a few months. Let the trolls find someone else to harrass. There are worse things that not posting your latest thoughts on whatever controversy you have. Your fans will still be there when you return. If you want to continue writing, write about something unrelated and keep shutting down the trolls. They will move on. They only stayed so long because they were being fed. The problem is that once a pattern of behavior has become established, it’s really hard to get it to stop. If you are being mob trolled on a regular basis, you don’t have any really good options left. The problem has already escalated and it’s not going to get better doing the same thing you have been doing. Cut the trolls off entirely allow them to blow out about how horrid you are in an attempt to get you to respond. This is to be expected, all animals do it. Your trolls are no exception. Ride the blow out out without responding, by disconnecting entirely so you are oblivious to it. Have someone else delete all the troll posts for you if necessary.  Unfortunately, it appears that the women who are being trolled at FTB don’t seem to have the personal discipline to do this for any length of time. And I realize they shouldn’t have to but if they want the trolling to stop, this is how you do it. You stop feeding the trolls and you ride out the blow out. Again, it doesn’t appear that the ladies of FTB have the discipline to ride a blow out out. But if they did. the problem would eventually go away.  

Long story short, ignore them, thank them for their helpful insights but don’t respond and give them time or talk about them or let them know they have upset you . Develop a strategy to ride out the blowout and move on.

Image: “Cyber Bullying Cartoon” by Grant Cochrane