Recognising and Dealing with Trolls
This page is a supplement to our main troll article, and provides a detailed analysis of the four different types of trolls, how to spot them, and what to do when you encounter them.
Playtime trolls are relatively easy to spot, but they may
not be apparent to the naive user. There isn't a single set of characteristics
that applies to playtime trolls, but you can look for some or all of the
- a lack of buy-in to the list philosophy or values
- generally low level of activity, with sudden spurts of interaction - or
perhaps a new persona that has strong opinions on controversial subjects
- a mixture of friendly posts with a confrontational style of interaction
- the use of provocative language and sweeping generalisations about certain
topics or categories of people
- a lack of in-depth understanding of the topic
- a lack of personal information
- a lack of a genuinely unique perspective on the topic
- a lack of humour
- restarting topics that have already been done
- use of language that encourages the dialogue to enter topics that are controversial
and likely to upset some team members
- the use of an attention-seeking gimmick (e.g.: "I was once exploited by an
- they follow up their own articles if the group doesn't respond to their
- inconsistencies in the style and nature of the post and any proclaimed
information (e.g.: claiming to be a child but writing with an adult style;
claiming to be adult, but writing with a childish grammatical construction).
- also note that trolls often seem to use free email services (such as hotmail.com)
or have email addresses ending in .edu. However, trolls could be virtually
anyone, and the email address is no guide as to whether the persona is
a bona fide user or not.
To counteract playtime trolls, the best action is to ignore them. If you
are convinced they are trolls, then you can advise the list manager. However,
if other group members respond to the suspected troll's posts, then you
may have to consider some of the responses outlined for tactical or strategic
Tactical trolls take much more care and effort over the creation of their
personae. Such trolls are likely to be seen as long term list members,
and have the confidence and trust of the bona fide people on the mailing
list. They use many of the techniques listed for Playtime Trolls, but in
- They engage in off list email dialogues to gain the confidence and trust
of influential individuals on the list.
- They are friendly and humorous in the posts, to put you at ease with their
- They have a well-thought-through story such that the persona seems to be
very real. They will give apparently personal and intimate information,
particularly in off list emails.
- They win trust by giving trust. For example, they may hint at something
confidential on-list, but then only reveal the full story to someone off-list.
By bringing someone into their confidence, they create a feeling of confidence
towards them by the individual's concerned.
- In off list emails, they win allies and support for some of their views.
Their offlist emails are subtly manipulative.
- They 'set up' bona fide members to argue with each other. Any view, no
matter how outrageous, can be made to sound rational when put in a certain
context. By setting different contexts for different people offlist, they
create a setting whereby they can raise a topic on-list, in a seemingly
innocent manner, and then watch the two list members argue because they
have interpreted the topic/message in very different ways.
- In off-list emails, they use techniques borrowed from NLP and Speed-Seduction
to make people have a great deal of affection for them. This naturally
suppresses any suspicion there might be.
- They use gimmicks that win sympathy and bring out the 'nurturing parent'
in other list members, which also suppresses any feelings of suspicion.
E.g.: being blind, handicapped, an orphan, rejected, bullied etc..
- They build up a reasonable knowledge of the topic of the list. This enables
them to take part for some time as apparently bona-fide list members.
- They use language that is carefully constructed to be subtly invidious.
This language is designed to identify two or more separate groups of people,
and encourage list members to identify the negative traits of those groups.
This creates argument and dissent between list members. Note that subtlety
is often their main objective, so this language is difficult to spot.
- They don't enter into the argument directly, but facilitate an argument
between list members, e.g.: by highlighting points that one list member
has made, perhaps in a way that is more confrontational than the original
- They sometimes create a fictitious persona supported by a web-site, photographs
and apparently personal data.
- They may suggest meeting up in real-life, but the meeting doesn't take
Many of these behaviours are things that 'real' people would engage in.
It is very difficult to distinguish real people from trolls in an internet
environment. The only method that can be used to verify the bona fide nature
of list members is to investigate their personal information. Trolls will
invent personal information, but when you investigate it you will keep
coming to dead ends. For example, if their employer is company "xyz", then
you may be able to find a web site at www.xyz.com, but there is no contact
information. However, with bona fide people, their personal information
will lead to an ever-increasing wealth of data, such as:
- if a real person cites "xyz" as the employer, then the web site will give
a phone number;
- the company's phone number will be answered by an operator who will be
able to tell you the person's extension number;
- company xyz may list clients on their web site, whom you can ring up and
- the person may be a member of professional associations;
- you may have met some list members in real life, who will have met other
list members and can therefore vouch for them.
The key difference between a troll and a bona fide list member is that
when you investigate a troll, their personal data usually leads to dead-ends;
when you investigate a bona fide person, their personal data leads to an
ever-expanding set of evidence that they are for real. There are some tricks
that the tactical trolls may use to deceive you:
Some trolls will exchange some fictitious data - e.g.: phone numbers, addresses,
family details - on the basis that you are not going to actually ring them.
They may have dedicated personal phone lines that they may use for the
purpose of taking verification phone calls
They will want to hide other personal information, because it can demonstrate
that they are not for real.
Various excuses can be used for not releasing personal information, including
There are some bona fide people who do not wish to be traced via the internet
- but this makes it difficult to distinguish trolls from real people. If
in doubt, assume that they are a troll, and don't simply believe the sophisticated
lies that trolls use to hide their identity. Also, don't rely solely on
your intuition - you need to establish hard data to help find out whether
your intuition is for real.
Strategic trolls often operate in groups, rather than alone. They use multiple
personalities, each of which uses the techniques outlined in the section
on tactical trolls. However, they have an overall strategy for drawing
bona fide list members into argument, ultimately causing them to leave,
or for the trolls to dominate of the group. In particular:
They have various phases to their strategy, where each phase aims to achieve
The first phase usually involves establishing multiple personalities who
become recognised as integral members of the group - "friendly trolls".
Don't be deceived by the title - they appear to be friendly but they have
very different hidden motives. Establishing friendly trolls in a
group is a process that can take many months or even years.
The second phase involves using new personalities to start divisive threads,
in the manner outlined under "Tactical Trolls". In the event that no list
members respond to these threads, other phase two trolls will respond to
them to keep the debate active.
If existing list members have not yet joined in the arguments, the third
phase involves "offensive trolls" attacking their own personae from the
first phase. As these trolls will have built up a lot of goodwill in the
group, other list members will jump to their defence, and they are therefore
drawn in to the argument.
In case other list members don't join in, "defensive trolls" may join in
and continue to give air time to the "offensive trolls". The friendly
trolls can also incite bona fide list members to join in using offlist
Another phase may involve the friendly trolls starting to retaliate publicly,
calling on the support of bona fide list members.
When things start to get out of hand, petrol will be poured on the flames
to try and stir things up as much as possible and cause the maximum amount
of strife and chaos.
The following is a further extract from the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)
of the mailing list that is dedicated to trolling. It will help you to
understand what type of person you are up against...
"Anyone can walk into alt.sex and post that pornography should be
banned. Anyone can walk into rec.sport.baseball and say "baseball sucks".
It takes unbelievable skill and discipline to cause a PROLONGED flame war.
That is what we do. But it can only be done with talent, and numbers to
match that talent. We only bring into the fold people who have the knack
to use smarts to incite chaos, not stupidity to incite being ignored when
people see a post and know what you're up to."
Recently, it has become apparent that there are probably trolls also operating
as list managers. I am unclear as to the specific motivations for this
type of activity, but it may be:
gratification from dominating the emotional lives of list members
gangland ware - where one group sets up a list and aims to defend it from
other trolling groups
a genuine area of interest on behalf of the troll
Nevertheless, the lesson behind this is that you need to get verification
data for list managers as well as other list members.
Other general tactics for dealing with trolls
When dealing with suspected trolls, there are various strategies that you
can employ. First of all, remember that just because you suspect that someone
is a troll, it doesn't mean that they are a troll; also, just because you
suspect someone is genuine, it doesn't mean that they are genuine. In view
of this, the best tactics are:
ignore postings that you suspect may be from trolls.
don't invest any of your self emotionally until you have verified beyond
all doubt that the person you are dealing with is genuine
beware of off list emails that praise and flatter, or seem to evoke sympathy.
If you feel yourself beginning to like someone, ask first: how much verifiable
data do I have about them?
if you do get involved in anyone, seek out verifiable data. Trolls will
provide some data that will lead to dead ends; real people will provide
some data that is open-ended and leads to a myriad of sources which enable
you to verify their genuine status
if you must respond to a troll posting, don't get involved in the argument;
limit it to pointing out that the posting may be considered as trollish,
for the benefit of other list members.
Write to the listmaster to highlight what is happening
Write to the postmaster of the troll's domain. Keep it simple, polite and
to the point (they are very busy!). Include your evidence (e.g.: offensive
emails) and the full email header information, so that the troll can be
Listmasters can also make their lists restricted, and conduct a security
analysis of each list application before allowing them to subscribe. This
is probably easier to do in areas that have professional associations or
Return to main troll article.
©2013 Team Technology. Further articles/resources that may be of interest include: Personality Test, Personality Type Descriptions, Myers Briggs overview, The Basics of Team Building, What Career is Right for Me?, and Career ideas.