A Field Guide to Trolls

Given that we have an infestation of foreign-national trolls on social media and website comment sections throughout the civilized world, particularly the US, I thought it might be useful to offer a field guide, so that you can identify the different types of troll, and how to handle them.

Types of Troll

There are basically two kinds of troll:

Genuine Trolls are the prototype for all other kinds of troll. A genuine troll is an official disinformation agent, typically associated with a particular government agency, political party, commercial interest, or other group that involves money, resources, and a specific motivation to deceive.

Pseudo-Trolls are ordinary persons spreading disinformation for any of the ordinary human reasons, including social bonding, virtue signaling, group conformity, desire for attention, or actual belief in the disinformation.

Troll Motivation

Genuine trolls are paid, or otherwise incentivized, and their incentives are tied to typical marketing metrics such as repetition rate, response rate, penetration, visibility, and so forth. In particular, when they are “arguing” with you in a social media thread, they are not actually arguing — they are using your response as an opportunity to repeat their original disinformation, or to post another piece of disinformation. Their fundamental method is, as in all marketing, repetition. Let me say that again. Repetition. To repeat: repetition.

See how that works? Repetition.

They aren’t arguing with you. In many cases, they can’t actually argue with you, because they aren’t following the conversation at all. They will often, like a commercial fisherman, have multiple lines in the water in many different social media pools, and when you respond to their bait by posting a reply, it’s a twitch on the line: they know there’s a fish nibbling on that line, and where there is one fish, there are likely more. Someone is listening. That’s an opportunity to put their message out again. They aren’t paid to argue with you: they are paid to get eyeballs on their message.

In addition, the genuine trolls often work in teams, in shifts, from an office. The troll you are arguing with may not even be the same person from hour to hour, or post to post. They have hierarchies, like telephone marketing, and there are managers and star-performers who may step in to escalate the disinformation if it seems appropriate. I’ve seen a single, clumsy, flawed-English comment start a comment-frenzy, and shortly after the churn begins, the level of original commenter’s writing (and English) improves dramatically and magically. The disinformation becomes more subtle, and the tone changes.

Almost like it’s a different person talking to you. Well, it probably is.

Identifying Trolls

It can be tricky to identify trolls, but here are a few simple pointers that may be helpful.

First, if you are on a social media site that has an extensive user profile, like Facebook, your first step should be to click on the user link and go to their user profile page. A very typical (low-echelon) troll signature is that they will have virtually nothing on their user page but two or three identical images of a beautiful woman or man that looks like it was taken in a professional modeling photo-shoot. It probably was, and was simply copied from a Google image search for “cute girl” or “cute guy.” These are the profiles of trolls, or other fake people with hidden motives. Just block them.

This is especially important if the person is asking to be your friend, without introducing themselves first. What they are actually asking is to be invited into your circle of friends and acquaintances. They want your friends list, so they can ask to be their friend, and expand their circle of influence. They are up to no good. Decline and block them.

On any social media platform, if you can see a user’s history with other users, as in chat groups or comment streams, you can look for patterns. Normal people spend most of their time having normal conversations with other people they get along with. They support each other. They get snarky with outsiders. Often they quibble, sometimes they argue, sometimes they come around to the other person’s viewpoint, sometimes they agree to disagree, sometimes they get so angry they curse each other out and then block each other. They have pet peeves with each other, nicknames, inside jokes. That’s normal human behavior.

A troll doesn’t behave like this.

Most of the foreign-national trolls are incentivized to help destroy social cohesion in the US. They have two broad strategies.

On the extremist social media sites, the strategy is to raise the level of anger and hatred that already exists. That means they’ll basically agree with the group, which is already in a hating place, but they’ll push it further. They’ll promote disinformation about how things are much worse than people on the site think. We could call this strategy, “DidYouKnow-ism.” Did you know that Joe Biden is going to make hamburgers illegal? Did you know that conservatives use Nazi themes in their home decoration?

On centrist and more thoughtful sites, they will disagree with the group, call them names, claim the site is an echo chamber, and promote disinformation that is flagrant nonsense. The strategy is not to convince anyone, but to stir up a tempest of counter-disagreement that disrupts the site, and also gives the troll an opportunity to continue to repeat their disinformation to an engaged group. We can call this strategy, “WhatAbout-ism.” You libtards complain about Trump, but what about the Iraq invasion under Obama? When the observant readers point out that the Iraq invasion was under Bush, it invites the response, “But what about Clinton’s Socialism?” More correction invited.

They aren’t looking to win an argument. They are looking to get the disinformation out there, and they want people to see it. They want to get the Coke logo out there, the Doritos brand, the Alka-Seltzer theme song. They want the idea to slip past our guard.

Ask yourself the question, “Is this a sane conversation with a normal person?” and if the answer is, “No, this is weird,” then you are very possibly conversing with a troll.

How to Handle Yourself Around a Troll

The simplest, and best, way to handle a troll is to stop responding.

If you have a lot of other people in your circle continuing to churn around the troll, call out the troll: “Can’t prove you’re a foreign-national troll, but you are behaving like one, and troll-is as troll-does. You’re ghosted.”

If your social media venue gives you the option to block the troll, do so, without hesitation, and without remorse.

If your social media venue does not give you this option, then just ignore the churn. Ignore the troll’s protests that he/she is Canadian-born. Ignore the whining. Ignore the name-calling. They’ll give up quickly. If your line isn’t twitching, their bosses aren’t paying them. They will move on.

What About the Pseudo-Trolls?

You will mis-classify, from time to time. The person you are calling a troll might be nothing worse than a jerk.

You still have to ask yourself if that makes it worth putting up with their troll-like behavior.

What If the Troll is Your Friend?

As in, your real friend — someone you actually know — has become a right-wing (or left-wing) pseudo-troll. You know that no one is paying them to be trollish. They’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, and they are now True Believers. They think the election was stolen from Donald Trump. They think Obama was born in Kenya. They think the Earth is flat. They think space aliens are among us and are planning to cook us all up in a stew.

Sigh. Yes, it happens.

You probably aren’t going to be able to talk them out of it. You have to decide if the friendship transcends the crazy.

But remember that we all go a little crazy every once in a while. We join a church that turns out to be a religious cult. We start a business that, in retrospect, we realize had no chance of success. We join a political movement that is entirely mad.

Most of us — I think — eventually outgrow such fits of madness, and return to a form of sanity. We don’t get to escape the consequences, though. And that may include some irrecoverably lost friendships.

All I can advise is, be kind to your troll-friend, but keep good boundaries.

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