Internet Bullies: The Ugly Truth About Online Forums And How Business Owners Can Stop The Verbal Abuse

    August 28, 2001

“The Internet is an ideal environment for the bully and the self-righteous – you can attack personally without being personally in front of the victim. The flame is an unavoidable result of one-to-one communication that isn’t face-to-face…” Client Help Desk

A woman posted a question asking for help. When she returned, her post was under a cruel attack by other forum users trying to destroy her reputation, her business and her ambition. Unusual? Not at all.

The truth is, personal attacks happen on the Internet forums every day. Thousands of forum users suffer from verbal abuse each time they are trying to ask for advice. Many times you don’t care about such episodes. Until it happens to you. And now your name or business is under a threat.

Why do people attack on forums? Many times it is because they have a strong opinion about a subject, and want it to be heard. But it only takes one such post to have others jump in and turn an innocent question into an ugly war that is very difficult to stop.

There is a great diversity of views online – many times I am surprised how different people really are in tastes, opinions and reaction! The one reason for debates turning into flame wars is that many people enter a discussion ONLY when they disagree and want to express their opinion. Many people will find a forum boring if everyone agrees. Controversial forums are much more fun and attractive to inquisitive minds of the online users.

Can anyone be attacked on the forum? Absolutely!

When I did a search on the Internet looking for articles on the subject of “flame wars”, I found hundreds of forum messages instead. People are trying to fight flame wars. They complain and ask others to stop. Yet, no solution has been found.

Flaming does not only occur on forums. Discussion groups have their own problem – “trolls”, a common term for a newsgroup bully. Most newsgroups moderators recommend ignoring trolls who once in a while spoil the discussion with their irellevant and abusive messages.

Sadly, people want “blood”. Someone even created a discussion group called alt.flame. It is a forum for every bully that you ever met in your school and if you decide to join, you are certainly not going to be called a “friend”. Prepare to be crushed and humiliated. This group has been specifically created for flame wars and does not claim to be intellectual or informative.

Many forum users agree that a lot of good information and solid advice is missed due to the misrepresentation. You start paying attention to the WAY it is written instead of WHAT it actually says.

The Pew Research Center in their December 1998 survey showed that 45% of online users communicate with other people through online forums, discussion lists and chat groups. 5% of them post every day, and 17% post several times a week.

Online communication has turned our world around by allowing people of all cultures, abilities and means to feel equal and freely express their views. Yet it let out those who thrive on anonymity, abuse and pain.

Are There Solutions?

While there no fool-proof solutions have been found, there are ways to stop or avoid a flame war.

1.In my interview with Dave Brzegowski who is handling abuse reports for Epix Internet Services, I found out that you may report such an attack to the ISP (Internet Service Provider) of the attacker which you can identify by their e-mail address. Such incidents are thoroughly investigated before any action takes place.

2. One way to minimize the number of such attacks is to ask users to register. Every user will need his own ID and password to be able to post. Forum owners, however, are worried that traffic to their web site will drop because people don’t like to go through the registration process.

3. If forum owners are too busy to keep an eye on their forums, a good moderator is a solution. Of course, not too many people are willing to volunteer their time moderating forums, but it is a good chance for them to get their names out, and develop a relationship with their potential customers.

4. Do you know if you are a “forum bully?” There is a good chance that you don’t realize that your posts might make others feel angry and upset. The fact is, you don’t really feel that a message sounds harsh until it is directed toward you. So before you press “Send”, read what you wrote. Use a lot of smiley faces (:-). Be careful how you phrase things and capitalize your words. Try to sound helpful rather than criticizing. State facts rather than emotions.

5. Moderators agree that they are too busy to catch every such attack. It is also hard to draw the line between an attack and a strongly opinionated message. Who should decide? Moderators. The fairness of moderators, though, is totally subjective. Some forum users expressed an opinion that moderators should be voted in and dismissed publicly. If the majority agrees that this moderator is not doing a good job of moderating and being objective while removing attacks on others, he or she should be replaced by someone who is known to be fair. Of course, all of the above is completely up to the forum owner.

6. Some users expressed their willingness to pay an annual fee to be a member of a well-moderated board. When people are paying a fee, forum owners and moderators will feel more obligated to control its atmosphere. A forum should provide a true value to justify the fee, though. If I had to choose, I would probably pick two such forums out of 20 that I visit weekly.

7. Another way to control a forum is to have strict banning rules. After all, if you post an advertisement of your company, the post will be immediately removed and you could lose the privileges to post there ever again. Yet when you are attacked, the attacker is not banned. May be if everyone knew the penalty for attacking or starting a flame war is harsh, there would be less abuse.

If you have been attacked…

While personal attacks can be painful, especially suffer those business owners who have been wrongfully attacked and are worried about their business success. This means they have suffered a business defamation.

To determine if a defamation occurred, go through the following checklist taken from “Online Business Defamation: How to Respond to Cybersmearing” article:

– The statement was published; – The statement referred to the plaintiff; – The statement was defamatory; – The statement was false; – And either: (a) the defendant was negligent in publishing the statement and caused actual damage to the plaintiff’s reputation in doing so; or (b) the defendant published the statement either knowing it was false or with reckless disregard for its truth or falsity.

A “Guide to Flaming” ( outlines over 50 ways to start or aggravate a flame war. Some that were listed are patronizing, sarcasm, threats, cross roasting, generalizations and more. It gives suggestions as to how NOT to get into a flame war or how to deal with someone else attacking you, your credibility or your business.

1. Ask for evidence. If someone frames you publicly, ask what proof they have to support their point. Be sure they have NO proof before you challenge them, though :-)

2. Your self control will enhance your reputation. Before posting a response, wait a few hours. May be someone else will jump in and will help you out in this situation. May be a satisfied customer, or someone who actually knows you and your work. Do not respond to a simple abuse (i.e. where there is no facts or information, but plain insulting comments).

3. Turn flame wars into sales. If your business or your product has been attacked on a public forum, and you feel it is out of control and the moderators are not doing anything to stop it, here is what you could do. Calm down – your business will not be destroyed because of it. Now turn the tables to your advantage: this is an opportunity for you to talk about your business, products and services.

Explain why you think these attacks are false and unfounded. Talk about your company, its integrity and your efforts to make your customers happy.

Those who are in your target market could be so impressed with your presentation that they will go out and order your product! Bad publicity is good for business because it gives you a chance to talk about it. If you can’t fight it, take advantage of it.

If your business has suffered loss due to such an episode of defamation, refer to the “Online Business Defamation: How to Respond to cybersmearing” article for the legal steps to take outlined in the “Checklist for Online Business Defamation Matters” section (

No, there are no laws that can fine board owners and moderators for allowing flame wars full of insults and humiliation towards other forum users, in the US or UK, or any other country so far… But clearly, the search for solutions is on the go.

Milana Nastetskaya is a full time web developer and the author of the “65 Instant Web Design Answers”.