I am just the Paul Blart of the mall that we all collectively know as Private Groups. I lurk in the low-raster shadows. My regulation necktie flows behind me like a cape as I whiz through posts on my virtual Segway looking for perps: of spam posts, general hate against human beings, religious evangelism gone rogue, conspiracy theory to the nth degree, stealth catfishing, or just plain bad manners, like swearing and name-calling.
I am but one of many. We are legion.
Some of us work deep undercover, only lurking, never posting, passing intel to admins with names and addresses like the stealthiest of black ops recon.
Others are loud and vociferous from the moment they arrive, teasing out the thugs preemptively for incontrovertible blockage.
I'm somewhere in the middle, actually there to be a force of good, a kind of digital Red Cross for those who are desperate for support, switching in midstride to full-on militia breastplates in the event of a flame war, when I toss off my nurse's cap and don my spartan's helmet.
This is my job as a volunteer forum moderator, mashed up with my real-world work in health and media literacy: sharpen the admin's scythe with page captures and guilty URLs so they can move in for the clean sweep and behead the internet trolls.
And you know what? I don't mind it.
Someone wrote some things about me today. A perfect stranger who I am tied to only by the fact that we are members in the same digital community, a private healthcare group of about 12,000 who share in common a specific medical diagnosis.
Yes. Twelve thousand. These are not my neighbors or my family members or friends (at least not initially); as members, we may not even grace the same hemisphere.
But we have something biological in common, and it has no cure, so we are left to sort it out digitally, posting links to new research, theories, symptoms, side effects of medications, often very private and uncomfortable details that are difficult to share even with our closest loved ones.
This is what human beings due in the face of adversity; we come together. We should feel akin enough to trust each other.
But social media being what it is... For all the bright lights that inhabit these spaces, a few shadows still hide under the rocks. So, in the vernacular, "mistakes were made," or more commonly, "S&$% happens."
catfishing" situation, not with a romantic aim, but with the aim of playing on the sympathies of others using digital friendship. Several members fell for it before we could identify the scammers and stop it from proliferating. It was a multilevel scam using a number of false IDs and other people's info (who were not complicit or, in some cases, were dead and therefore could not claim their identities in this world).
It took dozens of hours for the admins and moderators to investigate; it involved the police and left many members in our group feeling victimized. They had become emotionally invested in these scammers and their stories. It happens. Good people want to help others in need. But scammers are clever and charismatic and post with forked tongues, and the biggest hearted among our community were betrayed.
The admins naturally made it a rule last winter to ban all crowdfunding posts because they caused too many legal entanglements for the forum admins and moderators (all of them volunteers), who do not have the resources to vet and investigate any of these requests. We are already busy with general housekeeping: we place people in their corners during debates, mitigate hotly contested disputes, identify those in distress, and keep the language to PG to be respectful of families and elders, among other things. Oh, and ads. We hate ads and multilevel marketing. A forum for people suffering an incurable chronic illness, which can leave them disabled in some way, is not the place for selling "cures" and so all ads get the boot.
I told the member posting the gofundme request that it is against the forum rules to solicit money using crowdfunding campaigns due to the prevalence of fraud in health groups, where morale is already low and hearts are big and mental health is unsteady; people who are already vulnerable to biological disease also struggle with depression, mood disorders, anxiety, and they are often the best targets for fraudulent requests. The rule exists to protect ourselves, and not as a cheap attempt to harm anyone.
I asked the member politely to choose their own wall for the gofundme request. It was the perfect place for their request, after all. I warned them that the admins would probably take down the post if they didn't voluntarily do it themselves. I made sure they understood: I am not an admin, I do not have those privileges, but I can certainly issue a friendly (and it was, in fact, very friendly) warning to do so. Which I did.
All recent history aside, there are other reasons why some posts are removed.
Thread hijacking happens when one person's question or comment is taken into completely unrelated territory, thereby redirecting it away, leaving the original poster no opportunity to get the feedback they were seeking with their original post.
The second reason is a little bit more squeamish to deal with: it's what I like to call emo-bombing, in which people going through some sort of crisis post details of it in places that are truly inappropriate. For instance, one should probably not post the details of their newly diagnosed STD in a forum where they are hanging out with business cohorts. It's not really appropriate.
People who do this are genuinely desperate or even hysterical in some cases, because they are stressed and may not have good IRL ("in real life") support during a crisis situation. This is sad, but it does not make their posts any more appropriate. Sometimes, they are just plain lacking in social networking skills. They might also be mentally ill: depression, anxiety and mood disorders often easily unmask in virtual situations because these people (like all of us) feel enough remove from the medium to actually share more intimate thoughts and feelings. Finally, they may also the friends who simply leave TMI posts because they've never really learned boundaries.
You know these folks. They are often the ones you finally unfriend because they are either a big downer all the time, or they have asked you to buy their books or join their multilevel marketing scheme too many times, or they have posted political or religious comments that are hurtful or unsupportable, or they do not know how to ask for help IRL and so their problem-solving skills begin and end with questions and comments on the web that reveal just how poor they are at coping with life in general. All of this, without ever once asking you, "And how are you today?" It's no surprise why people are unfriended for these reasons.
Going back to today's post: The call-to-action situation my fellow forum member posted was not even close to being relevant to the forum theme (more of a forum hijacking than a thread hijacking, but you get the point). With a group of this size, the rule is that discussion must stay on point and relevant to the interests of the group; our shared concerns must remain the priority or else the support group part of the group (which is 99% of it!) dissolves into chaos.
That may seem cold, but this is how large discussion groups must be managed. It's inappropriate to hijack private community space with personal concerns that have no relationship to the community.
Not only did the forum member with the gofundme post protest my advice to remove it, but then they got u-g-l-y about it. Very quickly.
Fine. I can be patient. We've all seen this. People get emotional during extreme stress. I have had mental health first aid training (seriously, I'm not kidding, it's all about de-escalation in all kinds of situations). Sometimes a bad day with numerous crappy things happening before the moment of the post can explain away a lot of these faux pas. I am, at heart, a forgiving person.
So I very calmly explained the rules, why they existed, told them I was sorry about their current situation and wished them well.
Their response became a vicious flaming troll attack, followed by a series of threatening emails to both the admin and myself, including this lovely passage, in which they said these things about me [Note: this single section of commentary is verbatim, the member's comments in red are broken up by comments I have made in reply only here in this blog]:
****NSFW OR FAMILY****
"... she's a fukked up person to attack someone like that n I was not asking for nothing but prayers..."
[my note: there was a GIVE button clearly assigned to the gofundme account and they had already accrued at least $100]
"...y'all are all fukked up in the head fukk u and her bitch .. Go bk n ask it too be screenshot u will know wtf I said..."
[my note: I took the screen shots of the entire conversation and sent them to the admin, per protocol; the comments were just as nasty there as they are here]
"Rude ass cunts!!! Shove it up ur asses now ur taking me out of character y'all must be FAM..."
[my note: nope, I've never met the admins of this forum in person and we are not related. However, I'd love to meet all of the admins as they are stellar human beings doing a ton of voluntary work to help thousands of people in need of emotional support and advice, who also happen to have an incurable chronic health condition as well.]
"It OK N y'all need Jesus to fix ur anger problems now that am pissed so take me the fukk off bitch... She is Satan n so are u..."
[my note: My Christian friends would cringe to read this. Sorry 'bout that. And the forum admin? Christian. Hmmm.]
Interestingly, this incident has been discussed openly in the forum and there are still members (at a rate of 1 out of 20, by my estimate, or 5 percent) who still think the person shouldn't have been kicked out for breaking this rule.
I got nothing for them.
So you wanna be a forum admin or moderator? Really? Sure about that? Do you have the cojones to stand up to this kind of repartee?
(I do not have the cojones, myself, because I am female, so please understand, I'm really just being metaphorical here.)
I have been a moderator at this particular forum for over a year. I have previously been the admin of a few other forums for a while (three or more years, maybe?). Trust me when I tell you: This happens
I know I send my admin wonderful snips of "love notes" several times a week because, let's face it, the democratic revolution that is the internet has flooded our social universe with a dark and toxic cyber ocean which is deep enough to house all the Loch Ness monsters and undiscovered giant squid and octopi still plumbing the depths of planet Earth.
(I would like to fit in a joke about 12,000 Legs Under the Sea here, but dinner time's calling.)
My apologies to my admin, I know that at least half the time we converse in email, it is so I can share some toxic text. She's an awesome person; she doesn't need this any more than I do! It is never my intention to open up an email with her to send along this garbage, which is basically a ticket to "have a bad day." Let me tell you, some of this stuff can really suck all the good out of 24 hours if you let it.
She's good, though. She does what she does for the same reasons I do what I do.
And don't worry about me. As one of the few, the proud, the early adopters of social networking, I have learned tricks over the years for blockading the psychic vampires and digital trolls that haunt these swamplands.
I also have a deep enough interest in media literacy and health literacy to be the kind of drone it takes to predict, and actually be somewhat jaded by, the antics of most trolls. I'm not bulletproof: some people are wicked mean and it seems to come out of nowhere! But most of them follow the same basic formula and after a while, you learn to tune that out like you learn, as the parent of a toddler, to tune out their tantrums.
I do try to remember that mental illness and poor social skills are tragic, but more more importantly, they are not really about me (or any other harmless target) but about their pain and their fear and their powerlessness. That is a sad place for them, and gives me empathy. They have much to fix in their lives.
The bigger challenge in managing private discussions online is actually not about them, at all (as much as it seems they want it to be): it's about making sure the non-trolls--the people who need quality information, emotional support, proactive advice and positive reinforcement while going through rough times--get what they need. And I'm down with that. I live for these people. So does my admin. So do all of us who belong to this ghost army.
I told a friend today that it felt like I was wearing the cape of justice today. It does feel that way sometimes, to police a community, discover someone trying to victimize it, and help give them the much needed boot. Capes, white hats, silver spurs, pick your own adventure.
Ultimately, I feel sorry for trolls. Even as I watch them go (literally in a single keystroke from the admin), I wonder... how badly must they hurt that they should lash out, so angrily and with such intent to harm, at those who would aim to help them otherwise?
Now, whether today's troll casualty had its roots in an actual personal tragedy and call for help is quite questionable at this point. More likely, this was a not-so-brilliant person trying to get one over on a bunch of people who are already suffering; when their evil plan was found out, having a digital tantrum was all they had left in them. Which is equally tragic.
I can't imagine a person with the purest of intentions not appreciating the rules for what they are, nor can I imagine them hurling these egregious insults in both public and private venues with the clear purpose of hurting the very people they hoped to receive help from.
However, I most certainly can imagine--based on previous experience with the catfishing scheme mentioned earlier--someone behaving this way when the jig is up.
Anyway... think about it. If you are really going through a sudden and extreme family tragedy, what the heck are you doing on social networks picking fights with perfect strangers who won't give you money? If you are truly grieving, it would seem your best course would be to put aside all that and focus on being with family and friends IRL. I also recommended that the member do this, too, that it would be a better use of their energy.
Besides, a red flag should go up every time you see the F word spelled with a double K: this is the language used by spammers and phishers to bypass spam filters to hack your account.
Finally, a word about gofundme. I recently helped out a friend with a gofundme request, so this is not to slight the actual crowdfunding platforms out there; my friend not only landed enough money to fix a serious personal problem, but she was able to collect a little bit more which she shared with a group of people also suffering in her situation. A very happy ending and good people did good things for other good people. That is gofundme at its level best.
So by all means, if you know the person behind the gofundme request, and can vouch for them, go for it. PEOPLE NEED HELP. We all get by with a little help from our friends, after all.
Who knows if these people are Christians at all? They certainly don't seem to be acting upon the principles of Christian love and Biblical tenets. Not the principles by which my wonderful friends (most of whom who are Christian, even if I am not) abide.
But if they are, then these would-be Christians are poisoning the well for those who actually live by the values Jesus taught, which have nothing to do with swearing, condemnation, threats, name-calling or defamation.
I don't know what church they subscribe to, but it sure doesn't sound like a place the son of God would want to grace with His presence. And I'm pretty sure Jesus would not be happy with all the misspelled swear words, besides.
Update: I totally missed out on the infamous sunlight as troll buster motif. Many thanks to my friend JC for identifying this common LOTR trope. Can't believe I didn't see it! LOL! I like this idea much better than warriors and Paul Blart! Happy Hump Day everybody!