Troll Hell: do you keep quiet or fight back against social media nasties?

By Candy Gourlay (@candygourlay)

Troll Hell panel: Nick Cross, SCBWI blog network editor; Nicole Burstein, author of Othergirl; and Liz de Jager, author of the  Blackheart Legacy books 
Mo O'Hara (@mo_ohara) and I organised the Troll Hell event on 28 July after reading that John Green, the celebrated author of A Fault in Our Stars, had been subject to a rant on Tumblr accusing him of being the equivalent of 'that dad of a kid in your friend group who always volunteers to “supervise” the pool parties and scoots his lawn chair close to all the girls'. Green responded in robust fashion - 'I do not sexually abuse children ... Throwing that kind of accusation around is sick and libelous and most importantly damages the discourse around the actual sexual abuse of children'.
You can read John Green's brilliant response here - it ends wisely too, warning his fans: "To be clear, sending hate to people who say this stuff is counter-productive and only continues the outrage cycle, so please don’t abuse anyone. Thanks."

You only have to Google cursorily to discover that despite benefiting from its promotional powers, exposure on social media can be toxic for some authors who find themselves targeted by haters. One of the most trolled authors, Cassandra Claire, has chronicled the hate she receives online and Kathleen Hale describes becoming so obsessed with her hater to the point of confrontation.

(Edit Note: Jim at the YA Yeah Yeah blog later objected to my use of the word "hater" when I was trailing the event on Facebook as well as here - pointing out that the Blythe Harris comments were more nuanced than mere hating. Thanks, Jim - I am leaving the word 'hater' in so that this note has context but I accept your point that the use of the word 'hater' will give the wrong, broad-brush impression. At the actual Troll Hell event, the discussion briefly touched on Hale's inappropriate response to a bad review - the main conclusion being: who turned out to be the troll? Thanks again for the comment.)

Mo and I quickly put together a panel of experienced SCBWI bloggers:  Nick Cross (@whoatemybrain) is a winner of the Undiscovered Voices and editor of the SCBWI Blogging Network. He reads most member blogs, flagging up the best of the week in his regular column Ten Minute Blog Break. Liz de Jager (@LizUK) blogged on the successful review blog My Favourite Books before her Blackheart Legacy books were published. Nicole Burstein (@nicoleburstein) was a Waterstones bookseller before her debut novel Othergirl was published this year.

Troll Hell panel. Photo: Mio Debnam @dogini

The basement venue - the Walrus and the Carpenter pub in Monument - swiftly filled up. It was nice to see familiar faces, meet new members on their first SCBWI social, as well as welcome Mio Debnam, regional advisor of SCBWI Hong Kong.

It was a great discussion - asking many of the questions that perturb us about the dark side of the internet. Why do trolls do it? Who are they? What do they want? What should we do about it? GoodReads came up many times - with authors dreading the famously harsh reviews and ratings that the social network for readers dishes up.

Peter, Chitra, Margaret, Nick
I am hoping to add links to any blog posts that emerge after the fact. Do post a link of in the comments if you've written a report about it .

We began the night with a chilling review of trolling experiences on social media including:

  • One author's experience of a young stalker. In the end, the police had to be called and all credit to the police, the situation was handled with sensitivity and calm
  • One illustrator being targeted by a hate campaign that continues to follow her even on unrelated sites
  • A social site chief's attempt to close down hate and abuse groups resulting in a hate campaign and her subsequent resignation 
  • Nicole's own experience of intense trolling after she opposed the 'Is your body beach-ready?' campaign

Liz  and Mo
Interestingly, the discussion returned time and again to the topic of diversity, which sadly appears to be a lightning rod for hate and negativity. For example, white authors keen to populate their books with characters of diverse backgrounds, expressed fears of drawing the ire of the public. Conversely there were examples of posts about diversity on social media that attracted trolls and negativity.

The conversation ranged far and wide, the audience giving as good as it got. 'I don't think "ignore them" can be the right solution,' writer John Condon said. 'In the long term we need a better solution. Where does free speech and the right to have an opinion stop and the bullying begin? If it’s not clear, when will we know it has been crossed? If we don’t know, or don't define it, how can society act accordingly?'

So how does one survive social media nasties? Here are my top ten ideas from the night:

1. Do not feed the trolls - responding to trolls escalates the situation. On the internet, it only takes a spark to create a fire.  

2. Your public persona must remain professional. Keep private, controversial and irrelevant opinions out of sight using privacy settings and private messaging.

3. Encourage and respond to positivity. Do not engage with negative reviews.

4. Many negative reviews and comments come from young people. Remember what it was like to be young person, stay cool.

5. Once you are a public person, readers will forget that you are an ordinary human being. Be prepared by keeping yourself informed about the ins and outs of social media. 

6. Remember that you are nurturing a career in the industry and that strangers you meet, criticise, make fun of, etc on the Internet may someday turn out to be your colleagues, fellow authors, publishers, agents. 

7. Sometimes a situation could be an opportunity to raise awareness, do good, make a statement. 

8. Do not troll a troll! Ignore it!

9. Reviewing books is a minefield. Star ratings can alienate author friends.

10. There is protection ... trolls can face up to two years in jail under new laws (thanks to Caroline Hooton for this)

Miriam, Sue, Michelle
Patrice and Matt

In responding to his troll, John Green said:

Too often the Internet moves from jolt to jolt, from hatred to hatred, ever more convinced of our own righteousness and the world’s evil. And getting caught up in that is very painful.

I realize that will seem privileged to many of you (and it is), or like an excuse (maybe it’s that too), or lacking in empathy (maybe so), and I’m sure there is plenty here to deconstruct and reveal my various shortcomings (which are legion).

But this stops being a productive place for me to be in conversations if I’m not allowed to be wrong, if my apologies are not acknowledged alongside my misdeeds, and if I’m not treated like a person.

Read the whole blog post

He warned his fans that as a result of this, things will probably become more one-way on his Tumblr feed, that he might no longer engage as much with his followers for his own wellbeing. Which I think is a good bottom-line for any author on social media.

We must keep asking ourselves: is this still a productive place? Am I happy here?

It was a thought provoking evening of many good conversations. Thank you to the panel, and thank you to our vociferous guests.

Mo O'Hara and I are part of the Pulse team - a small group of published SCBWI volunteers who are looking to create events that can serve the burgeoning numbers of published and other experienced members. Mo and I wanted to design events that acknowledge the audience's wisdom and experience while at the same time responding to current burning events in the industry. Our first attempt in June was Call Yourself an Author, with Sarah McIntyre. The impromptu appearance of Carnegie working committee chair Joy Court and Bookseller journalist Charlotte Eyre, deepened the discussion. You can read about it here. In a flash of inspiration on the night, Mo dubbed our Troll Hell event a 'Pop Up Pulse' ... and we're going to call it that from now on. Troll Hell was a juicy topic, and the Walrus and the Carpenter was a nice venue for our last social before the summer holidays. Watch out for more Pop Up Pulse events - everyone is welcome to not only attend but to share their thoughts!


  1. Sounds like a great event and thanks for the useful report, Candy. I think tip 5 is spot on and such a useful thing to keep in mind if you're feeling personally attacked. Having a public persona is something that takes careful handling. I bet we'll be discussing some of this at our Edinburgh SCBWI event 'How to Survive Being Published' in August. It's all part of the survival strategy!

    1. Indeed! Wish I could come to your event, Louise. Impressed you got Jane Yolen.

  2. A sobering reminder of the darker side of being published and thus pushed into the limelight. It's so easy to become incensed by someone's outrageous comments online. We shouldn't feel tied and censored fearing a whiplash of trolling, but react with common sense - bearing this article in mind.
    But it happens on virtually every online comments platform. You've only to read down a dozen or so comments before someone pours out the vitriol. It's online road rage.

    1. The problem is oftentimes its not even rage. Just boredom, meanness, and mischief making.

  3. I wish I'd been there - looks like you had a lively discussion. Thanks for the tips, Candy. Good advice. :)

    1. I was worried the venue would be stuffy, it was hot outside. But hey presto, they had aircon!

  4. Sounds like a really terrific event, well done everyone. For those of us not so much in the public eye it's probably belligerent book reviews we most have to deal with (or ignore - the best option of course!)

  5. It pays to develop a thick skin & not get upset at every little thing. Many times commenters honestly don't mean to offend. The ones who do are the trolls.

    Also: make sure you're never a troll yourself! Watch what you say online. (And not a bad idea to have this conversation with your children, too.)

    Sorry to have missed this! Good job everyone!


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