Troll Detection

After 20 years on the Internet, my troll detector has become pretty finely-tuned.  I can usually spot a troll (loosely defined as someone who engages in the discussion dishonestly in some manner, for the sole purpose of derailing it) within a few exchanges, and there have only been a couple times that I identified a troll and then discovered I was wrong.  I suppose I can attribute it to many years on Usenet, the original breeding ground of Internet trolls.

One of the most difficult trolls to spot is the concern troll — especially for nice guys, because the concern troll is always polite and acts like he’s trying to understand.  It’s a method of attack that strikes directly at the Nice Guy’s weak spot: wanting to be nice and help the needy.  So to help others in fine-tuning their own concern troll detectors, here’s how a conversation with one goes:

  • Concern Troll: I’m totally with you guys, but I’m not sure I feel right about this one little thing [which is really the entire premise/strategy under discussion].
  • Normal Human: You’re wrong or you misunderstand. Let me explain/clarify it for you….
  • CT: Ah, that helps a lot. Thanks so much, I get it now. You guys are really awesome. But I’m still not sure about [repeat previous objection in different wording].
  • NH: You’re still not getting it, but maybe I didn’t explain it well. Allow me to explain further.
  • CT: Ok, I really get it this time. I have so much respect for you guys. But [repeat objection, again with different wording].
  • NH: I’m starting to think you’re thick, but you’re being polite, so I can’t be mean to you. I’ll try again. Here’s what you’re still missing.
  • CT: Wow, that really helps. It seems like you’re saying [repeat objection in new words again which completely misstate what NH just said].
  • NH: Ok, I’m done. [Wishes this conversation were taking place in real life so he could punch CT in the face.]

The first question is free. Anyone can have an honest misunderstanding. After that, you get three strikes. I can usually spot a concern troll after 1 or 2 strikes and predict the third, but the third is always decisive.  Incidentally, if you blow up his game by pointing out what he’s doing, he won’t respond with umbrage as a normal person would.  He’ll claim to respect you even more, insist that he’s really trying to understand and beg for your help, and then if you fall for it he’ll go right back to the above script.

Note that this is not about disagreement. Honest men disagree all the time. If you disagree, just say so, and argue your case if you want.  Maybe we’ll go back and forth, maybe one of us will change the other’s mind or maybe he won’t, but we’ll walk away respecting each other at the end. The concern troll doesn’t openly disagree; he pretends to agree while picking away at the premise with his “concerns.”

So that’s the process and what to watch for. It’s at least 99% accurate for me. If that’s too complicated, here’s a simpler detector: imagine that the conversation is taking place in real life. If you would feel compelled to punch the guy in the face in less than 5 minutes, you’re probably talking to a troll.  If you’re not sure why, and you feel kinda bad about wanting to punch him because he seems nice, then you’re probably talking to a concern troll.

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8 thoughts on “Troll Detection

  1. There are times when regulars think I’m a troll, because I ask those types of questions. I don’t repeat, but do ask for clarifications.

    On Vox’s board, there seemed to be an odd perception of me (I don’t post as Anchorman because I logged in with a different application – I think Google). I’m not sure if the regulars confuse me with someone else, think I’m someone else using a new alias because the old one was burned, or what. Again, though, I tend to ask questions and not all answers are helpful/clarifying.

    I let the veiled comments go, because there’s never really specifics about what the regulars are implying. And, let’s face it, Vox’s ilk are more than a little quirky. I think the more I’d make an issue of it, the more it would sound like I’m guilty of trolling or whatever they think. Honestly, its more of a curiosity to me than anything that bothers me.

  2. Detecting trolls is becoming easier as time passes. Nowadays most of them don’t even bother trying to hide who they are. In fact, they are proud of it. They want to elicit emotional responses as many times as possible, through any means, because they thrive on ideological conflict. It makes them feel they are part of something big and important, and thus their lives have further meaning.

    Generally speaking, it’s wise to remember that the huge majority of people are incapable of, and/or uninterested in, what we call logical, reasoned debate. If you’re the kind who’s irritated by trolls, you’re one of a few.

  3. Hi Cail,
    I wonder if this happens a lot due to many sites now having stricter comment policies. People want to get their criticism in, but if they go straight in with the criticism, their comment likely won’t get published (I’m thinking of a certain website regarding vaccuuming…). So they soften the entry, so to speak, in order to actually get to have the dialogue.

  4. Detecting trolls is becoming easier as time passes. Nowadays most of them don’t even bother trying to hide who they are. In fact, they are proud of it. They want to elicit emotional responses as many times as possible, through any means, because they thrive on ideological conflict. It makes them feel they are part of something big and important, and thus their lives have further meaning.

    Yes. This especially applies to those who use multiple aliases, yet the content and tone of their posts is identical everywhere, conferring upon them what amounts to a cybersignature or a set of cyberfingerprints. As obvious as this is it simply has to be deliberate.

  5. On other blogs it is said that spotting the difference between an evangelical christian and its parody is impossible. You felt (doubtless correctly) that you were being wound-up but there is always a tendency to overlook the fact that some people really do not grasp things even after they have been explained a dozen times – perhaps any teacher would be familiar with that. Perhaps it is the assertion of your awesomeness followed by repeated stupidity that gives away the commentor’s insincerity. Overpraise always hides contempt or jealousy.

  6. At the risk of overpraising, you need to write more often, C.C. Having picked through it in the last couple of visits, there is some pretty profitable stuff here.

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