How I minimise the online abuse I receive

a winged monkey sculpture crouched against a chimney stack

Source: monkeyswithwings.com

I’m sure this post will probably lead to some fucknecks deciding that they’ll show me just how much abuse it’s possible to get, but you know what? I’m middle-aged and self-employed, and more cynical about internet squads of flying monkeys than you can possibly imagine, so I’ll just filter every attempt so that you’ll only get to say it to me once or twice, and only saying it once or twice won’t do what you fucknecks want, will it? I’ll cackle gleefully with glowing satisfaction every time I use my banhammer finger to plonk your pixels to oblivion, too. I can do that because I know how to block your hate speech from intruding on my cyberspace.

It’s a comforting myth that just standing up to bullies makes them powerless, but most of us know better, don’t we? Standing up to, confronting, challenging the bullies mostly gets you tormented harder, because they know that the sheer volume and relentless repetition will grind most people down eventually. The other common advice of “just ignoring them” isn’t so simple either, since they go out of their way to intrude on your personal space and interrupt your routines, which is a real burden on your efficiency/effectiveness as well as upon your emotions; it’s not just a little inconvenience.

What the targets of bullies need is an effective way to block them out, which can be hard to find in real life. Actual avoidance is usually a little easier in meatspace because at least it’s against most public nuisance ordinances for them to stand outside your house with a bullhorn and say the same thing over and over, and they’re definitely not allowed to follow you around with a bullhorn at your place of work or study. The internet amplifies bully campaigns with a megaphone that operates 24/7 around the planet wherever you log on to the Net, but only if you let it.

The technology that gives cyberbullies a virtual bullhorn to swamp you with hate is a two-edged blade: you can use exactly the same technology to clock out the bullhorn, to filter their interruptions and interferences, so that you can literally no longer see nor hear them (or at least the worst of them). Once you’ve put an effective barrier between their harassment and yourself, they won’t get a reaction from you, they’ll realise they’re having no effect, and eventually they’ll get bored and move on.

So here is an assortment of technical tips & tricks whereby bloggers can cut down the volume and the repetition coming from this cyberbullying cadre of keyboard jockeys, making the harassment little more than a tiny hiss of background noise instead of an overwhelming flood of spite.

How I do it

  1. Disable trackbacks/pingbacks
    Yep, some blogging diehards are going to hate that, because in the early days of blogging (5+ years ago) trackbacks were a crucial part of following a conversation across several blogs. On the other hand, there’s a few philosophical net purists out there who hate trackbacks anyway, as content-free web-bloat that munches bandwidth for no good purpose.In any case, for a blogger receiving negative reactions from all over the web because they’ve written things that question the status quo? Seeing new track/pingbacks come in every day, maybe every hour, from sites where you know people are saying hateful things about you just adds to the volume/repetition effect that they are hoping will overwhelm you.So don’t subject yourself to it. Turn them off – both as sender and receiver. That way you’re not pinging the arsehats you blog about with your own posts about them either, which also helps tone down the backchat. Here’s how to do it in WordPress:

    A screencap showing how to disable trackbacks/pingbacks in WordPress using Dashboard | Settings | Discussion page

    Tell your blog to stop sending and receiving pingbacks/trackbacks

    (You can even delete all the old track/pingbacks on your blog if you want)
    N.B. You’ll still get to hear about the nastiest criticisms. People will let you know one way or another. But at least you won’t be seeing titles of blog posts that consist of threats against you right there on your own blog.

  2. Along the same line of reasoning, think about how you’re handling Google Alerts and Twitter accounts. The goal is to block the harassment from intruding directly into whatever else you’re doing. You’ll still know intellectually that it’s out there, but it won’t be right in your face unless you seek it out. Especially Twitter. Block the haters. Think about going private/locked-content, or if you use your primary account for PR, how about having a second locked account where you only interact with people you know are supportive?
  3. Unapologetic Moderation
    We stand up for our readers and ourselves by moderating disruptive commenters and declining to publish unacceptable content. I am, according to some, the echo-chamber-loving free-speech-suppressing feminazi from Hell (or at least from Central Casting) because I don’t publish every single non-spam comment submitted to this site. Repeatedly vexatious commentors, or even new commentors who just make my spidey-sense tingle, go into permamod so that their occasional comment made while wearing their sheep’s-clothing doesn’t inadvertently give them free rein.I also permamod non-malicious commentors if their contributions are unintentionally/obtusely disruptive of substantive/edifying/entertaining discussion in a comments thread, because it just makes it more enjoyable for the rest of us. Not everybody’s comfortable with doing that, but it’s a valid and defensible choice. Read our comments policy.Commentors – you are free to publish whatever you like on your own websites, but you don’t get to bully me with vacuous platitudes about “suppressing free speech” into hosting any of your bullshit that I find unacceptable on my dime. Just like nobody has to let you sling insults in their living room, but you can say whatever putrid things you like in your own house.

    Bloggers – you don’t have to put up with obnoxious crap on your blog, and don’t let anybody bully you into it.

      e.g.

    • Does the comment assume that you’re ignorant/stupid/petty etc otherwise you couldn’t possibly have written what you did? Delete it – you don’t have to publish personal abuse.
    • Has the comment seized on a misunderstanding/misrepresentation of something you wrote without bothering to ask for clarification? Redact the relevant portion with something like [Content misrepresenting my position on {foo} has been removed. Please ask for clarification regarding how you are misunderstanding this matter. ~ Moderator]. You don’t have to publish anything on your website that misrepresents you, and if they can’t manage to query/challenge you without misrepresenting you then they are either too lazy or too obnoxious to be worthy of your attention. Plonk them.

    If they repeat it, delete it. If they repeat it again, send them to the Den of Disruptors – your automoderation and/or spaminator filter.

    Here’s how I handle moderation using WordPress’ Dashboard >> Settings >> Discussion admin page:

    • If you leave a comment which appears to have no point other than vexatious provocation, I will not only most likely not publish it unless I disemvowel it first (yay for the handy Greasemonkey Disemvoweler for WordPress script), but I will also put your username and email address straight into my automoderation file, so that you will not be auto-approved in future simply because you might put your sheep’s clothing on for a while.
    • If you continue to leave such comments, your IP address will go in there as well, because I know that the next step will be morphing your ID. Some folks like to move around proxy servers to get past that, so then there’s the next step.
    • If your comments have repeated “tells” in your abusive phraseology, then your special phrases go into the automod as well, so that any sockpuppets/entourage you might have following your script get caught up as well.
    • If these telltale phrases get submitted in comments frequently enough to be tedious, then I take the whole lot – username(s), email address(es), IPs and phrases and copy them into my spaminator filter, and that means I will never see those phrases before my eyes in my comment queue ever again.
  4. Handling email
    Firstly, have a dedicated email address just for your blog that you can filter separately. Even if you have your own domain and want to use info@mydomain.com or blog@mydomain.com as contact addresses, you can always forward that to a gmail or other webmail account that keeps it separate from the rest of your email accounts.Next, learn how to use your mail filters!

    • make sure that everything that comes from your blog’s contact email address is sent to its own subfolder rather than sitting in your inbox alongside everything else.
    • regularly copy new additions to your blog-moderation-filters to the mail-filters, and send any emails that meet those conditions to a separate folder called Arsehats or whatever rocks your boat – that keeps them separate from the normal blog notifications.
    • Any username, email address or phrase that you find particularly obnoxious, tell your mail-filter to just delete it so you never ever see it at all
  5. Remove the comment CONTACT form from your blog.
    There is absolutely no reason to make it easy for them to just oneclick to get to your inbox. Make them have to cut and paste your email address into their own mail program at the very least.Will you be putting barriers between yourself and your “good” readers by doing this? Only a few, because there’s no rule that you must be contactable via email. Not everybody is comfortable interacting with strangers on the internet, not even the nice ones, and there’s no obligation for you to do so. You could have a contact page that consisted only of a commenting form whereby you ask readers to leave you a comment asking you to email them if they want to discuss something off blog (and you use a webmail account to respond). However, I suggest that such a page should have a Big Hint that you’d really mostly prefer discussions to remain on the blog, because comments are what blogs are about, aren’t they?
  6. Look into enhanced comment management and enhanced security plugins for your blog. There are quite a few around for any of the self-hosted blogging platforms, but I only know WordPress ones. These should allow you to fine-tune your moderation and block malicious attempts to hijack your blog. If there are many problems with hacking attempts, consider moving to a more secure public platform rather than self-hosting. Most important of all, make sure that you have a Strong Password and change it frequently.
  7. If you have server access, learn how to bar certain web IP ranges and email addresses from even accessing your blog via the .htaccess file. I won’t go into details on that – try a websearch.

Anybody else got something that’s working for them, or that they think might be useful? If you want to leave a comment without your usual username or bloglink appearing, in order to not attract any undue attention, please make your comment with the following fake email address “my-usual-nym@hoyden” so that I know who you are. (I could of course find out via IP matching, but that takes time and effort – save me a bit of that, eh?)

One thing I haven’t addressed above is how blocking out this negative feedback might let you be unaware of something online that is particularly vile – a disgusting libel, perhaps. Some people use their pingbacks and Google Alerts and Twitter replies to monitor what is being said about them so that they can challenge/correct/counter it, but IMO this is not just very difficult to cope with unless you have an especially thick skin, but also usually counterproductive. Slimy attacks against you will only get linkjuice that affects you via search results if lots of other people link to it, and generally they only link to it if you react. So why give them linkjuice?



Categories: ethics & philosophy, technology

Tags: , ,

17 replies

  1. I do several of these already and highly support this post. Especially no trackbacks and no easily found e-mail. That last one REALLY helps.

  2. Just correcting a typo: at #5 where I wrote ‘Remove the comment form from your blog’ that should have read ‘Remove the CONTACT form from your blog’.
    Have corrected the post. Oops.

  3. I’d just like to say that the way you keep the signal-to-noise ratio up here is superb — it makes me happy to share posts with others knowing that they won’t have to see bigoted ranting that’ll ruin their day (because it really does, you know), and it’s why I look here first for “101” links to share with people (non-trollish people, anyway). Maybe that’s not reason #1 for doing this, but it’s a good side effect.
    Why would anyone go to the trouble of carefully crafting a piece on an issue that is complex, subtle, volatile, emotionally charged… and then stage the view of some idiot who only read the first sentence and wants to pick a fight? Or has the same damn thing to say as we’ve heard a thousand times before?
    One thing you left out* is that if the discussion heads off the rails a bit it’s worth explicitly saying “enough of that now, move it along,” before it turns into a circus. Otherwise you can end up with trollish comments from serious commentators, and what’s the difference? Especially to other trolls? I admit that I’ve been guilty of acting like a pompous arse on here before, and one such comment has saved me from looking like more of a fool… so, um… thanks… and sorry…
    (*…probably because it’s less to do with prevention of out-and-out abuse, but it’s still a good idea…)

  4. I hope this post isn’t prompted by anything in particular. Moderation has to be one tough gig.
    Not much of a suggestion, but: maybe have different handles for your online activities. One for the blogosphere, one for online shopping, one for work-related forums, one for email etc. That way, if someone gets really narky, they can’t mess up your customer ratings, or reach you by sending an email to “yourhandle@whatever.com”.

  5. @Jason, thanks for the compliment. We have discussed some of those other goals of moderation in terms of shaping discussions in previous posts over the years about the sort of space we see Hoyden as – since the focus of this post is on blocking out abuse I didn’t go into that this time around, but the occasional admonishment to nudge folks away from derails is part of it, definitely.
    @The Amazing Kim, there’s nothing in particular happening here to prompt it. I’ve just read a lot of posts this year about other bloggers who have suddenly come to the attention of the flocks of flying monkeys and who have felt overwhelmed by what’s appearing in their moderation queue and in their inbox. Many seem to feel some obligation to keep a count of what they receive, or at least some sort of monitoring, and they seem very reluctant to just get out the banhammer on these jerks. I’m trying to encourage people to be less reluctant about that, because I think they’ll be much happier.
    I disabled pingbacks about a year ago after reading some web purist thing dissing them to hell and back (can’t find it now). Don’t get them, don’t send them. I have no idea what other bloggers are saying about me going by what I see in my admin dashboard, and I’ve come to really like it that way. I highly recommend it.

  6. As a very new blogger, I haven’t encountered anywhere near enough traffic to attract the haters, yet. But this is a very informative and easy to follow post that I will bookmark and comeback to, should the need every eventuate. Thanks tigtog.

  7. Hey cyberbullies…eff you! You can’t silence us!

  8. @Lexi, that is exactly what they want to do. Seeing as technology is what lets them intrude so closely in the first place, I reckon using technology to block them out is the way to go.

  9. Banhammer… Lovely word! I’ll add it to my vocabulary!
    Lots of good advice too! Came here by following a link from Geekfeminism.

  10. One thing that was a huge help to me in managing both spam and nasty comments was to close commenting on posts after 100 days.
    That way, I don’t have to deal with someone discovering a post from 2007 and going ballistic over something that I’ve moved on from.

    • Welcome to our readers via geekfeminism!
      @bug_girl, I’d forgotten to include that one about closing comments after a particular interval. We’ve had that operating here for a while.
      WordPress also has a separate option (in the Akismet settings) for auto-discarding comments flagged as spam on posts older than 30 days, which I highly recommend.

  11. WordPress also has a separate option (in the Akismet settings) for auto-discarding comments flagged as spam on posts older than 30 days, which I highly recommend.
    Highly recommended – I used to have to go through posts periodically and turn comments off manually on each one.

  12. I do some of these and am torn about some of the others, but just seeing this post makes me feel way better. Because I do stand up to the bullies and have for years and years and it has never done anything than made a few other bullied people feel better and gotten me more harassment.
    I have, sort of philosophically, in the past always allowed the nasty nasty comments to post because I’ve wanted people to see what’s out there, what the cost is of being outstpoken and proud on the Internet. But I am slowly switching over to a “beneath my notice” mindset, even if I do still feel the need to be somewhat aware of what’s up because I have received threats in the past.

    • What any bullied person truly wants is for the bully to just go away. The moral-victory narrative of all those “just stand up to them” stories would be very satisfying if it actually worked as it’s supposed to, but as you say: it doesn’t work that way. In cyberspace at least technology can make that just-going-away happen.
      I too have had a past philosophy of posting the nasty stuff, at least some of it (although usually disemvoweled) just to show others what’s happening behind the curtain. I still monitor some of it, but I use my filters to send it to subfolders where I view that at my time of choosing, when I’m in the mood to analyse the crap, rather than being confronted by it at the cyberbully’s chosen time. What I’ve found since I’ve cut myself off from the toxic stuff is that I feel the need to view those folders less and less often, because I’m just not thinking about it hardly at all. When I do go there these days, I don’t find much either. When they don’t get a reaction, they do get bored and go away, at least in my case.

      • P.S. Caveat on the above: I’ve never yet received what I consider to be a credible meatspace threat from a cyberbully. I have no doubt that I would monitor my toxic folders more closely if I had.

  13. I gotta say, tigtog; your moderation policy is one of the primary reasons this is one of the few blogs I really hang out at these days, and certainly why I agreed to join the roster (I will get around to posting soon! Slight case of moving and floods got in the way /o). I’ve still had the odd uncomfortable conversation around here, but it’s less frequent and I’m less likely to just shut down emotionally than I have been in other spaces.
    I have to say, it’s the ‘supressing free speech’ that always makes me chuckle (aside from the commenter at a previous blog I contributed to who accused me of being a Maoist, which made me want to punch things for obvious-to-peope-who-know-my-background reasons).
    @RM: Sometimes, the knowledge that standing up to certain bullies will make other bullied people feel better and safer is enough to tip the balance in favour of doing do, but it’s always a thing I weigh up on a case by case basis. Certainly if we’re talking about a space like my LJ/DW, and I haven’t been able to be there in time to keep the bullies from harassing my friends, I will stand up to them in the first instance do people can see quite clearly what I will/won’t put up with in spaces I mostly control.

  14. I’ve just opted out of our default closing-comments period for this post, because I’ve just linked to it on a post discussing the many skeptic women bloggers who are being targeted by flying monkey squadrons at the moment, so some new readers might like to ask questions.

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