Overview of malevolent commenters: From trolls to spammers

When web sites invite commenting, they open the door to unwanted comments. By quickly identifying types of unwanted comments, you know which comments to delete quickly, which to consider responding to, versus which are part of a healthy community.

The following are common species of unwanted comments…

Mean trolls

Mean trolls are calculating, parasitic commentators who seek to create drama and derail discussions. The best trolls are subtle and appear naive, so trolling in itself is relatively benign — if ignored. Trolling becomes a problem when other commenters take the bait, and the spectator sport begins.

The industry-standard advice is Operor non nutritor trolls (“Do not feed the trolls”). Trolls are not interested in discussion, and don’t want attention on themselves. Most trolls, when ignored, will move on to other sites with more gullible and reactionary communities.

Joel Furfari, founder of Crasstalk.com, a freeform group blog with a vigorous commenting culture says that it’s best not to feed trolls, “but the problem is that it’s not always easy to realize you’re being trolled. If it feels like someone is trying to get a rise out of you, they probably are. Take a deep breath and step away from the keyboard for a few minutes.”

In a similar vein, John Cook, manager of  Skeptical Science, a blog that looks at climate change deniers, says moderators should “resist the temptation to reply to [trolls]. Instead, do what the troll hates most — simply remove the comment.”

For more insight into the complex and varied psychology of trolls, see the 2008 New York Times article, “The Trolls Among Us.”

“True believer” trolls

Troll-like behavior can also be seen in naïve commenters who may have slightly good intentions, or at least believe what they say. Mr. Furfari says, “the true believer tends to be someone who constantly posts on the same theme over and over again.” Some true believers primarily intend to be disruptive; others are genuinely interested in discussion.

At times, it can be effective to talk to the true believers. Mr. Cook says that if people post comments with an “alternative point of view without violating the comments policy, by all means, engage with them.” He elaborates on his approach: “I always aim to maintain a calm, respectful tone. I know people get passionate about climate change as it’s such an important issue — but it’s because climate change is so important that it’s imperative that you maintain your temper. I look at what a person is saying and try to get to the heart of the issue, circumventing the distracting side issues. It’s also important to remember that it’s usually futile trying to convince a strongly opinionated person of your own point of view. Thus I write for the sake of other people reading the discussion as much or more than for the sake of the person I’m engaging.”

For deep passions of a lighter sort (e.g., Star Wars vs. Star Trek), Shlomi Fish recently posted suggestions about engaging with ‘information seekers’ or ‘honestly opinionated debaters’ by relaxing, asking clear questions, finding common ground, being courteous, and writing clear responses that are neither terse nor verbose.

Misguided students

Web sites on topics which overlap with education (e.g., science and culture) will get occasional comments from students. (e.g., “I have a homework on weather, can you pls send me info?”). Over the years at WebExhibits, we have had dozens of student requests, and when we follow up, in virtually all cases, the assignment was modest (e.g., writing half a page for a 7th grade history class), and it was due the following morning. Unless the request is very detailed (e.g., research or interviews for a science or history fair, or other big project), I advise ignoring or deleting these, as the student has long since looked at Wikipedia or other online sources and finished their homework.

Inappropriate content

Vandalism and flyby abuse is often vulgar, obscene, insulting or irrelevant. It can be deleted.

Targeted abuse is actively mean. It can include obscenities, taunting, personal attacks, or violating other people’s privacy (e.g., revealing phone numbers or e-mail addresses). It can be needlessly argumentative. On some sites, profanity is slightly or fully limited. (If schools use your blog, it may be a good idea to block profanity from comments so they are permitted to use it.) These should be immediately deleted.

Inappropriate content can include anything off-topic, plagiarism of large blocks of text, advertising, promotion, recruiting, campaigning, lobbying, soliciting or proselytizing, promotion of illegal activities, “first” comments. For some sites, inappropriate content includes rumors, allegations, or conspiracy theories. For some sites, they want to avoid politics. When comment violate your policies, delete them.

Bad writing

Bad writing degrades the level of discussion. Some sites ban “ALL CAPS,” chat spelling (“ur speling is 2 bad, lol”), improper capitalization, bad grammar, and bad punctuation. These kinds of bad writing can be deleted. Bad writing also includes long, rambling comments. Some commenting systems will automatically to truncate long comments, so they are only visible if a read chooses to see more.

Illogical (and crazy)

Comments can be batty, bonkers or befuddling. The commenter may appear sincere and passionate, but their logic is confusing (often illogical comments have threads of conspiracy theory). This is poor communication and is a variation of bad writing.

Rhett Allain, a blogger at Wired’s Dot Physics says, “I typically let these crazy comment stay and don’t filter them. Once I start filtering for crazy ideas, I start down a slippery slope — where would it stop? … When there is a crazy comment, I find that either other commenters will ignore [it] or point out how it is not such a great idea.  I rarely even post a reply to crazy comments — better to just leave it alone.” And he points out the value of diversity, asking, “Aren’t we all a little crazy at some point or another?”

When illogical comments get to be too verbose, too senseless, or too off-topic, they can be deleted. But only block the most severe instances. A long, senseless tirade could warrant deletion not for it’s objectionable ideas, but because it makes no sense. A variation is the completely incoherent (e.g., drunk commenters) or otherwise perplexing, e.g., “I want to make the banana, where is it?” and other drivel which is vaguely related but is not a real attempt at meaningful discourse.

Ad hominem

At the Skeptical Science blog, the debates often run hot. In their commenting guidelines, they stipulate: “Attacking other users or anyone holding a different opinion to you is common in debates but gets us no closer to understanding the science. For example, comments containing the words ‘religion’ and ‘conspiracy’ tend to get deleted. Comments using labels like ‘alarmist’ and ‘denier’ are usually skating on thin ice.”

A variation of this is a debating technique called “Gish Gallop.” Mr. Cook explains that this refers to “Duane Gish who used the technique in a debate about creationism/evolution. Basically, it involves arguing a long list of talking points so that it’s impossible to reply to every single point, effectively ending any possibility of constructive dialogue.”


There are a few variations of spam. Pure spam directly promotes products and services. Computer robots or low paid laborers post comments selling generic drugs, sexual enhancements, cheap diplomas, lonely attractive women, discount gold watches, and the like. Software filters like Askimet are increasingly accurate at detecting and blocking spam. Those that slip through filters should be immediately deleted.

Search engine optimizers (SEO) work indirectly. They work to increase the number of links to their client’s sites so that search engine robots think the site is more credible. SEO comments almost always have a hyperlink. Often robot spam will link obscure phrases to equally obscure web sites, e.g., “<a href=”http://carsonkirkx.ifdef.jp/1.html”>firefighter dress cap</a>” This link was made because the robot thinks that people will search google for “firefighter dress cap”, and wants the “carsonkirkx” URL to appear in search engines. Googlejacking is a variation of SEO, for noncommercial gain.

Marketers are more targeted, and seek to entice other humans to visit their blog or site (“Great post, check out my blog on goldfish”). Software filters catch these less often, so you will need to manually remove these comments.

Test robots are another source of perplexing comments. These are automated spam where robots test to see what can be posted on your site without being blocked or moderated. The robots do testing because they do not want their computers’s addresses (IPs) blocked. If you have comments with gibberish, such as “PUkTIpWTtyxLzDMFD.” That may be a test fingerprint. They will post that gibberish as random test, and if they detect that your web site posted their comment, then they will send you spam in the future using other source computers.

Update: Added and clarified a category of ‘illogical’ comments.

Do you have other classifications of bad comments? Leave them in the comments below!

4 comments on Overview of malevolent commenters: From trolls to spammers

Tame Your Trolls « Improper Syntax

28 Apr 2011, 12:06 pm

[…] trolls (read more about classifications) are a nuisance everywhere these days, and especially if you find them on your site. Troll […]


Skepticalscience – Rewriting History « Shub Niggurath Climate

10 Oct 2011, 11:13 pm

[…] “…resist the temptation to reply to [trolls]. Instead, do what the troll hates most — simply remove the comment.” — John Cook […]


On “Skepticalscience” – Rewriting History | Watts Up With That?

11 Oct 2011, 3:01 am

[…] “…resist the temptation to reply to [trolls]. Instead, do what the troll hates most — simply remove the comment.” — John Cook […]


Bonnie Popi

03 Dec 2011, 5:49 pm

Good blog. I got a lot of great info. I’ve been watching this technology for awhile. It’s fascinating how it keeps varying, yet some of the core factors remain the same. Have you seen much change since Google made their most recent acquisition in the domain?


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