By Erica Stratton

(Credit: Image from Flickr user MEME TN; used with Creative Commons license)

In all the debate about how nasty comment sections should best be dealt with, too few people recommend mockery, pile-ons or relentless hounding with dozens of links to peer-reviewed studies. And in my opinion, they’re missing out.

Forget “don’t feed the trolls.” What I’m here to tell you is that fighting back against trolls is fun — albeit a peculiar, geeky, pedantic kind of fun. It’s time consuming, requires thick skin and the tenacity of a bulldog, and unless you’re getting paid to blog, is probably not worth it. But if you have a lot of excess time and emotion just laying about, the payoff can be huge.

For a year as I recuperated from a busted ankle, my favorite hobby was Internet cage fighting. I commented almost every day on a website called Man Boobz, where the tagline is “Misogyny. I mock it.” To this day, the site continues to live up to its tagline, with blogger and moderator David Futrelle digging up some of the nastiest lady-hate ever spewed on the web for merciless critique.

However, the comment section is much quieter than it was even a year ago. During my time there, I was part of a core group of commentators (including Cliff Pervocracy) who sparred with trolls arguing not only the usual misogynist talking points, but that dolls were better than womenevolution was a myth and women discriminated against men based on how tall they were. In between, we created almost a whole deck of Magic: the Gathering-style cards featuring Man Boobz memes and in-jokes, and took part in a series of real-life meet-ups where I met some of my best friends.

 (Credit: Images created by Ami Angelwings)

But despite all the positives, to this day I’m unsure if my participation on Man Boobz — or, really, in any online discussion — was activism, entertainment or just pure self-indulgence. We regularly thrashed out topics like rape, women’s contributions to world history and society’s fucked-up beauty standards, but Cliff Pervocracy worried that the continuous snark we indulged sometimes tipped over into outright nastiness.

By contrast, Pecuinum (one of our most prolific commentators) seemed to be of the opinion that, even if we weren’t moving mountains, it was important to offer counterpoint to the kind of foolishness we saw being regularly spread around. There were MRAs (men’s rights activists) making wild claims that gangs of women were chasing them around with box cutters, but there was also plenty of the everyday nastiness that said that women just couldn’t cut it in science, technology, engineering and math fields or didn’t have enough upper-body strength to be firemen. For someone like me, who was rediscovering just how narrowly American society defined “people” but lacked the organizational skills to create a national protest, the idea that it was just as important to go after the everyday stuff was a compelling thought. Man Boobz, I decided, would be the proving ground where I could practice debate against the insidious fat-shaming and anti-women attitudes I battled with in everyday life.

Troll-Fighting Tactic #1: Mock Mercilessly

Where Man Boobz really helped me personally, however, was that it taught me how to “win” on the Internet (as dubious a distinction as that may be). Unlike stereotypical high school debates, where you get points for using specific reasoning strategies, Man Boobz was an arena where you had to fight all comers. There were people who used three-dollar words to dress up worthless ideas, people who would simply regurgitate the same talking points over and over no matter how you tried to get clarification on said talking points, or people who would spend hundreds of words arguing for a subject they only had a passing familiarity with. In an environment like this, speaking nicely to people and never pulling out the capital letters wouldn’t even put a dent in their 2,000 word screeds, so the core group of Man Boobz commentators had to develop new strategies.

Troll-Fighting Tactic #2: Cite Real-Life Sources

As I’ve said, Man Boobz’s original tagline was “I mock it,” but that was hardly the only tool we used. Pecunium agreed with this strategy, but he also was particularly good at unleashing the Credible Hulk and fighting facts pulled straight from trolls’ butts with real sources. It was only after getting hit with the fire hose stream of opinions on Man Boobz (at that point, comment threads regularly went over 400) that I fully realized how vital original sources really were, as opposed to a formality in academic papers. A troll might continue in the same vein as before after you posted the original version of what a long-dead feminist said, but in the process, they made themselves look pretty stupid.

Troll-Fighting Tactic #3: Retain Some Humility

The emphasis on citations also made me realize for the first time how uninformed most of my own opinions were. For example, I might argue passionately that dental dams needed to be used for all sex, only to have it brought up that there’d never been a definitive study done on them. I found that there were multiple sources for the number of women raped in the U.S. (though it was still a serious problem) and that there was actual medical reasoning behind banning partners of bisexual people from giving blood. Even though I might have a better handle on, say, evolution than the average troll, my ignorance was still more insidious than I had previously given it credit for. Today I still try to keep that in mind even when arguing for “the right side of history.” A little humbleness is good, even when your goal is to flip your opponent out of the ring.

Troll-Fighting Tactic #4: Give ‘em the Snark

Man Boobz also taught me that tearing into the trolls with snark can serve as a kind of stress relief, a benefit that I’d never imagined back when the advice I most often received for dealing with nasty people on the Internet was “ignore them.” My hunger for blood was never as great as when I was living in a frustrating housing situation where my housemate seemed bound and determined to check off every box of bigot bingo, regularly announcing that black people didn’t belong in a fantasy series or that non-gendered pronouns were nonsensical. To that end, one of my most satisfying memories is of spending almost an hour on the Man Boobz forum, systematically shredding a nerdy dudebro who had unwisely claimed that Game of Thrones had rape in it because that made it “historical.” Doing the same to people I lived with might have endangered my living situation, but my online shenanigans allowed me to brush off their real-life arguments with much less frustration.

Troll-Fighting Tactic #5: Be Creative

Of course, snarking back means you may lose the moral high ground in some people’s eyes, but as long as you’re not threatening them with death or posting their home address, creative smackdowns are a perfectly acceptable response to someone who thinks you’re lesser simply due to your genitalia. One of the more effective anti-troll methods the Man Boobz crew discovered was to take a troll’s more nonsensical statements and form a Mad Libs-style game out of them. Perhaps due in part to the usual “don’t feed the trolls” advice, many of our cruelest commentators seemed honestly shocked that we decided to fight back and would often flounce in confusion when they couldn’t come up with something equally amusing.

Troll-Fighting Tactic #6: Feed the Trolls Until They Explode

Finally, Man Boobz offered something that I had previously never had on the Internet and unfortunately can’t be easily replicated: We were a posse. The privilege of having a group on your side wasn’t something I fully appreciated until I tried to take on a nasty xoJane comment section alone. The result was the written equivalent of Johnny Storm vs. the billion monsters: a very pretty flare with nothing to show for it.

Having a buddy (or five) doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in the right, but having enough backup that you can flood a thread with body-positive messages means that a lot of trolls will give up and start crying that no one’s listening to them rather than continue to post about how ugly fat ladies are. On Man Boobz, we called it “feeding the trolls until they explode” (though I’m sure the term didn’t originate with us). As result of getting piled on, the trolls would often break out the gendered insults — specifically forbidden by Man Boobz’s mod rules — and then David would just have to perform clean-up by banning them. (Different article, but definite community rules and a firm hand on the ban button also have their place in troll control.)

Though I’ve spent some time trying to figure out whether these strategies are particularly fair, they are effective. At Man Boobz, 99 percent of the time these strategies resulted in the trolls either being banned or abandoning the comment section, though sometimes it might take them a few days or months to do so. Now, more than a year after the original group of core commentators stopped troll hunting, the still 200+ comment threads are almost entirely free of people trying to argue that it would be better for everyone if we just put men and women on different sides of the Mississippi.

One last warning: If you decide to use any of these strategies, understand they do have a time and a place. After I “retired” from being a regular commentator, I found that, unless I was commenting on, say, the more virulent parts of YouTube or Reddit, most comment sections are completely unprepared for an assault of snark. I still wince about the time I unleashed the full force of my ire on an LiveJournal comment section full of teen girls who didn’t understand how copyright laws worked. Sometimes, instead of bringing Tyler Durden to a tea party, it really is better just to write a gently worded note.

Erica Stratton is a D.C. freelancer who has crashed a parade and rowed a Viking ship. She also rants about sci-fi and fantasy on Twitter under @meanderingwhale.

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