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.