Comment Moderation: Fighting Spam and Trolls

A few tips from a long-time blogger.

As any blogger with even a slightly popular blog can tell you, good comment moderation is an absolute requirement to maintain a good, readable blog.

The way I see it, comment moderation serves two purposes:

  • It prevents your blog from being an advertising platform for people who don’t contribute real content. I’m not just talking about obvious spam here, either.
  • It prevents your blog from being a platform for offensive or abusive people who don’t contribute real content. And yes, I am talking about trolls here.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these two points.

Comments by Spammers

There are two kinds of comment spam.

One type — the most prevalent — is mostly automated spam posted by software commonly referred to as spambots. Once your blog gets on the radar (so to speak), automated spam can be quite significant. This blog, for example, attracts more than 500 automated spam comments a day.

This kind of spam is pretty easy to recognize. One type, for example, includes multiple links for things like online gambling, prescription medication, or pornography. The other type puts its link in the comment form’s URL field and then fills the comment field with text that may or may not make sense but has nothing to do with the content of the original post. Here’s an example from my post titled “Five Tips for Composing a More Effective Social Networking Bio“:

I precisely had to thank you so much all over again. I am not sure the things that I could possibly have accomplished in the absence of the entire tricks contributed by you on my problem. It truly was a very frightening case for me personally, nevertheless viewing your specialized manner you handled the issue forced me to leap over delight. I’m just happy for the assistance and believe you are aware of a great job that you’re getting into training other individuals via a site. More than likely you haven’t encountered any of us.

Huh? I get hundreds of comments like this every day.

It should be noted that a lot of this spam appears on posts that may be quite old. This particular one appeared on a post that was 2-1/2 years old. This is one reason why bloggers use plugins to automatically turn off the commenting feature on older posts.

Fortunately, spam prevention tools can detect and catch 99% of this kind of spam. I use Akismet on my WordPress site and it does a great job of catching and corralling this garbage so it never has a chance to appear on my blog. If you’re not using a spam prevention tool and are manually going through this crap, what are you waiting for? Don’t you have better things to do with your time?

The other kind of spam is more insidious. It’s posted by a real person and it looks like a legitimate comment. But its sole purpose is to promote a product, service, or Web site — not to engage you or other blog readers in a conversation about the original post’s topic.

In many cases, the spammer doesn’t put any real effort into his comment. It might contain a sentence or two that’s vaguely related to the post. The spam delivery is in the commenter’s name and URL. Rather than being something like “John” or “Mary Smith,” it’ll be something like “John’s Carpet Service” or “Discount Vitamin Shack.” The URL will be the URL for the site John or Mary want to promote. In most cases, the email address will be something that’s likely fake or never checked for incoming mail — usually a Gmail or Yahoo! account — but sometimes a legitimate-looking email account is included.

To me, this is a gray area — is it a legitimate comment or spam? Considering the content and purpose of the comment should guide you. Your site’s comment policy should help; I’ll get to that in a moment.

Trolls

A far worse problem these days is what many people refer to as trolls. Trolls are people who post offensive or controversial commentary on blogs or discussion forums. Their goal is apparently to make themselves look smart or superior at the expensive of you or other commenters. By posting comments, they’re “trolling” for an argument — much like a fisherman might go trolling to catch fish.

This is where good comment moderation is vital to your blog.

You see, if you allow offensive commentary — including personal attacks on yourself or blog commenters — you do two things:

  • You discourage legitimate commenters from sharing their thoughts. After all, they could be the victim of the next troll attack.
  • You encourage more trolling activity by current and future trolls. After all, you let one offensive comment out there, you’re likely to allow others. They see your blog as a good place to troll for new victims.

Is that something you really want?

I have seen too many blogs and forums completely devastated by the comments posted by trolls and the offensive and defensive comments posted in response. Back in the early days of the Internet and newsgroups, we used to refer to this as “flame wars.” There’s nothing useful or productive about the comments by trolls or the resulting flame wars. Why allow them on your blog?

The Freedom of Speech Argument

The biggest defense against firm moderation that would prevent trolling activities is that it’s “censorship” and that you’re violating the commenter’s “freedom of speech.” They often use the phrase “First Amendment Rights.”

Let’s look briefly at the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. [emphasis added]

Where exactly does it say that I have to put up with offensive commentary on my blog? All it says is that the government can’t make a law abridging the freedom of speech. I’m not the government, I’m not making a law.

So I don’t think “free speech” is a valid argument. After all, should anyone have the right to say anything they want — no matter how offensive — on your blog?

If people want to spout hate and offensive commentary, they can do it on their own blog.

Creating a Comment Policy

One way to fight back against spammers and trolls is to create and uphold a site comment policy. This policy should clearly state what is and/or isn’t allowed in the comments on your blog. Linking to this policy in an obvious place — or even placing a short version of it right above or below the comment form — will make it clear that you don’t tolerate spam or bad behavior.

Want some examples of good comment policies? Here are a few to give you ideas:

  • An Eclectic Mind. This is the comment policy for my personal blog. It’s a bit wordy — what do you expect from me? — but it does cover all the bases. You might also be interested in another post on my blog, “I Love Blog Comments Here.”
  • Stonekettle Station. Jim Wright doesn’t put up with crap either. That’s the short version of his comment policy. The long version, which address trolls and free speech, can be found here.
  • Whatever. John Scalzi’s comment policy. Simple and to-the-point.
  • Lorelle on WordPress. Lorelle knows more about WordPress blogging than I ever will. Here’s her site’s comment policy. You might also be interested in another post on her blog, “Comments on Comments.”

This topic was also addressed back in 2007 by Lorelle VanFossen in The Blog Herald.

Do you have a site comment policy you want to share with readers here? Post it in the comments for this post.

Maintaining Order

Creating a policy isn’t enough. You also have to maintain it. That means objectively reviewing every comment on your site and deleting the ones that violate the policy.

Yes, deleting them.

My advice is not to edit them, or allow them but reply with a warning, or do anything else. If a comment violates your policy, just delete it.

Don’t even send the commenter an email message telling them that you’ve deleted their message and why. If a commenter lacks the courtesy to be civil and follow your established rules on your blog, does he deserve any courtesy from you?

More important than that is the entire concept of “feeding the trolls.” When you respond in any way to a troll, you encourage more trolling activity. You see, these people just can’t let it go. They see any response as having a victim on the hook and they keep up their trolling behavior.

Ignore them and they will go away. Really.

You need to keep this in mind no matter where you see trolls. If you can’t delete their offensive crap, just ignore it. (Or, if it’s offensive enough, contact the site owner directly and tell him/her what you think and how it makes you feel about their blog/site/forum. A responsible site owner will take care of the problem.)

And if the whole concept of trolls is new to you, I urge you to read the entire “Troll (Internet)” entry on Wikipedia. It’s excellent and it clearly shows how bad these people can be for an Internet community like a blog.

Steps to Take

To sum up, I want to review the steps you might want to take to moderate and control the comments on your blog.

  1. Install and use spam prevention tools. Akismet is the best one (in my opinion) for a WordPress blog. It’s free.
  2. Write and post a site comment policy. Use the ones linked to above to give you ideas.
  3. Set up your blog to require moderation of all comments. On a WordPress blog, you do this in Discussion Settings.
  4. Regularly check for and approve (or delete) new comments. I’ve created a bookmark in my browser to quickly go to the comment moderation panel for each of my sites. I check for comments every morning and sometimes during the day so few comments are ever held in moderation for long.
  5. Resist the urge to respond to trolls on your blog. Don’t respond in comments or in email. You will regret it.
  6. Ignore the comments posted by trolls on other sites and in online forums. Don’t feed the trolls.

Please use the comments for this post to share your thoughts, experiences, and questions about this topic.

3 thoughts on “Comment Moderation: Fighting Spam and Trolls

  1. This is excellent advice on how to deal with trolls. I would take it a step further and ban people without warning if they don’t get the message from a few comment deletions.

  2. Pingback: 4 Money Making Features Your Blog is Missing | Social Media Magic | Optimized Marketing Strategies and Services

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