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 following signs:
- 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 XYZ")
- they follow up their own articles if the group doesn't respond to their posts
- 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 trolls.
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 addition:
- 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 persona.
- 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 intention.
- 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 place.
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 verify exist;
- 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 privacy.
Strategic TrollsStrategic 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 different things.
- 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 emails.
- 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.
- "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."
Domination TrollsRecently, 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
Other general tactics for dealing with trollsWhen 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 properly traced.
- 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 qualifications.
Return to main troll article.