Trolls. Not since we cheered on Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit have we heard so much about trolls. But what is a troll and how do you spot one? Definitions vary, though I like this one from Wikipedia:
In Internet slang, a troll (/tro?l, tr?l/) is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting quarrels or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal, on-topic discussion, often for the troll’s amusement.
The first thing I look for when troll-spotting is the use of a fake name. Of course, not everyone using an alias is a troll. Some people on Twitter have good reasons to be anonymous. Anonymity has a long and respectable history.
Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay wrote anonymously under the alias “Publius.” They their reasons for doing so. Despite their attempts, their identities were known by the cognoscenti.
Deep Throat’s identity was unknown to the world at large until close to Mark Felt’s death.
One big difference is that the identities of the authors of the Federalist Papers were known to some, and Felt’s identity was known to Woodward and Bernstein.
Still, when I’m checking off the signs of a troll, that’s one I look for.
I also look for the kind of alias a tweep chooses. Is it something clever, well thought out, or is it a common first name and a bunch of meaningless numbers? The latter gets another checkmark.
Next, I look at their Avi, the photo they use. Is it that a very sexy looking woman? Not that there aren’t real people on Twitter using real pictures, who are quite gorgeous, but it’s another checkmark.
Then comes the bio. Do they list a bunch of unrelated clickbait words? See above.
Moving on, I look at their tweets. Are there lots of silly gif’s? Are most of the tweets insulting or needlessly inflammatory? Do they contain epithets or foul language? Some perfectly legit tweets fall into this category. I look for a pattern.
I like Greg Touhill’s advice, which he gave regarding fake news sites, but which applies to trolls.
Third, if it sounds phony, it probably is. Dig deeper when you see things that seem outrageous. You may find that that things that are particularly outrageous, if it’s not coming from a trusted news source, it’s probably is made up.
Here are the results of one of my searches. You can read the disclaimer and weigh the information accordingly.
By way of comparison, here is mine.
Another site is here. I’m not vouching for these sites, but they’re worth trying.
If you find a particularly nasty troll, who attacks you personally, you may have to take the steps outlined in this article. That’s weapons-grade stuff and beyond the scope of this article. Here’s another deep dive if you’re interested.
Here’s my modest suggestion to Twitter: hand out blue check marks to people who are willing to give Twitter their real names and addresses, verified by sending a postcard with a code to their home address. Twitter would not publish this information but would turn it over to law enforcement with a search warrant. Tweeps without check marks might still be real people, but there won’t be any guarantee.