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How to react to a bully in a comment thread

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Art: Chris GashBullies never win — not even in the comments section. TED’s community manager, Katie Pierce, shares these tips on how to react to a comment-thread bully.

I grew up with a dad who was a baseball-loving criminal investigator, so in my house, dinner conversation was about two things: Yankees batting averages and criminal psychology. At the table, I was introduced to the science of lying and the secrets of writing analysis — and I learned how to remove fear from the equation when dealing with bad guys. And believe me, this comes in handy as a comment moderator. 

TED’s website comments are a place where civility is important, and I’ve had to take on some big bullies while steering our community. I used to see these bullies as completely opposed to TED’s mission to create meaningful interaction in the comment threads on every TED Talk. But after much time spent trying to eradicate them, I’ve realized how valuable bullies can be to listen to and learn from. 

For example, listening for changes in word choice and tone helps me identify potential bullies even before they’ve begun actively bullying their next target. So I take notice when someone starts using more combative language, expressing their superiority or posting with an abnormal frequency. 

While I’ve got your back on, bullies will certainly try to sneak into other areas of your life too. Here are my tricks to dealing with a bully that work online, offline … anytime. The first three are the most important:

  1. Remain calm
  2. Remain calm
  3. Remain calm

That moment when bullying hits you — it really, really hurts. Your emotions are billowing out like a mushroom cloud in your brain and you can’t think straight through all the smoke. Just remember: you are not under siege. You are still the person you were before you encountered the bully. They’ve only stated an opinion, not wished the awful thing into being. If you can tough it out until the emotional plume settles, you’ll be in a great place to respond effectively.

  1. Determine the severity of the bullying

It can be difficult to look beyond yourself when you’ve just been emotionally provoked, which is why steps 1–3 are so important. Make sure your heartbeat has slowed back down and you’re taking full, deep breaths. Then, ask yourself, “Am I angry because this speaker is being aggressively wrong and rude in a general way — or is this a personal attack on me?” Sometimes a comment is pointed enough for you to be in danger: Does it make a specific threat? Does it contain information about you that you don’t want shared? If this happens on the comment threads, flag the comment so our mods see it right away, and write to me.

  1. Ask for the help you need … and be the help you need

No matter what else you do, make sure to address this reality: Being bullied sucks. Bullying is not a normal stressor, and denying that you feel bad after an incident does not make it easier to work through. Maintaining your mental health while dealing with a bully is absolutely essential. Bullies do their real damage if you skip this step. So: Ask a friend to have a decompression session to discuss the interaction; do your favorite form of exercise; or employ another form of self-care that works for you. And in online spaces that have a moderator, don’t hesitate to reach out if you need backup! As a moderator myself, I hate that a bully hurt you, and I really do want to help! Bonus: Involving a moderator helps protect your fellow community members, and it also helps the mods do their jobs better.

  1. Leave no one behind

Part of combating bullying is sticking up for the bullied when you can. Be the friend you’d hope for if the situation were reversed. Comment-thread bullying will never end if the bullies can’t see the large — and growing larger — united front that rejects their behavior. Even if you’ve never been bullied a day in your life, even if you used to be a bully yourself, this is still your fight. If you hope to be protected, you must also be willing to protect. So, the next time you see someone dealing with a bully, make your allegiance clear. Remind the bully that there truly is strength in numbers, and that the numbers are on our side.

Illustration: Chris Gash