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Smoke Signals

Why I block trolls on Twitter

Having a Twitter account is not an obligation to engage with anyone seeking to troll. Eirik Solheim/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

My first column last week was quickly trolled by a small group of mostly UK-based vaping activists. Of 49 comments posted, 17 were removed by The Conversation’s moderator before the comments were closed off after two days. I saw some of these before they were removed and noted some were from one-track trolls I have long blocked from my Twitter account.

Using this app, I can see I’ve blocked 335 accounts since November 2011 (see table below). By far the biggest category here is a well-connected network of electronic (e-) cigarette advocates, most of whom have small followings of mainly fellow vapers. In many cases their feeds show no other interests than talking about their love for nicotine and hammering anyone who expresses any scepticism about any of the glowing claims being made.

One troll actually went to the trouble of opening 16 different accounts, populating them with random followings and then firing off venom to me in his or her first tweet each time, hoping I wouldn’t guess it was the same person.

I’m targeted because, along with many others in public health, I support regulation of e-cigarettes and have written “hasten slowly” commentaries trying to temper some of the often commercially driven hype in circulation about these products. Anything less than doctrinaire enthusiasm for almost complete lack of regulatory oversight will not be tolerated, apparently.

A month ago, I downloaded my Twitter feed and did keyword counts of all the times I have ever tweeted anything with the words ecig, e-cig, vape or vaping, and compared this with the frequency of other issues I often tweet about. (see table)

So there is a giant disconnect between what I tweet about, and the preoccupations of those whom I choose to stop clogging up my Twitter feed and thereby distorting for my followers the extent of my interest in e-cigarettes. Blocking is a bit like putting a sticker on your mailbox saying “no junk mail accepted”, except that unlike with junk mail, it works!

The concept of an internet troll is unavoidably subjective: what one person regards as hostile or inflammatory can be genuinely intended by the sender as an attempt to engage in debate. But having a Twitter account is not an obligation to engage with anyone seeking to do this, no matter what adamant trolls might want to insist.

I take a similar attitude to hostile, ignorant, obscene or simply tediously persistent tweeters hitting my Twitter feed that I often give to such attempts at interaction communicated through other means. Like millions of others, I block such people on email using junk filters. I don’t engage with uninvited door-to-door or telephone proselytisers and promoters either.

Obsessed vapers, like golf, dope or wine bores, apparently cannot understand why anyone would not want to share their preoccupation and not engage in the endless back-and-forths evident in their feeds with each other.

Trolling often comes in waves and a little searching of new followers’ feeds which look suspicious often quickly reveals networks of those I have blocked. There’s a good deal of mutual goading to troll the recalcitrant. So I sometimes block such people preemptively before they have tweeted.

In Australia, there is a highly civil dialogue about e-cigarettes that is well advanced between colleagues in research and public health who might be described as either highly optimistic or sceptical and cautious about the potential key benefits and risks. There is much common ground. There is also zero tolerance of the sort of infantile name-calling that infests much social media advocacy on vaping.

Twitter is a terrific vehicle for disseminating new research and data but the block and mute functions are a godsend to denying trolls the attention they crave.

Editor’s note: we welcome comments about blocking trolls on Twitter but please ensure your contributions courteous and on-topic.

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