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New Community Video - How to Spot an Internet Troll


Staff member

Original video creator(s): Houseman - Video creator, Writer, Voiceover

Creator's description: How do you know when someone is trolling? I attempt to answer this question and provide you with practical solutions on how to catch and prevent trolls.

Music source(s):
Taisei Iwasaki - Keep On The Sunny Side
Avril Lavigne - Complicated
Taisei Iwasaki - Catch me if you can

For this video, pretend that you're a moderator, community manager, or administrator, and your community asks you to solve a problem.
This problem they present is that one or more users are trolling, or are trolls, and they'd like you to get them to stop.

How do you deal with this?

First, you'll need to undertstand what "trolling" is.

Part 1 - Definition

The Escapist seems to define trolling as "baiting [other users] to respond aggressively"

The old Gamefaqs ToU defines trolling as "Messages intended solely to annoy and/or offend other users by going against the clear nature of a board, topic or chat room are not allowed. This includes, but is not limited to: provoking other users to respond with flames; provoking fans of a particular system or game, especially on boards or topics dedicated to that system or game; making misleading topic titles; asking obviously useless questions; and posting false information as fact."

Urban dictionary defines it as "the deliberate act of making random unsolicited and/or controversial comments on various internet forums with the intent to provoke an emotional knee jerk reaction from unsuspecting readers to engage in a fight or argument"

Wikipedia says: "a troll is a person who starts flame wars or intentionally upsets people on the Internet."

Resetera says "Trolling, or posting with the intention of provoking a negative response from other members"

All of these definitions share a common thread: intent. A troll is someone who purposefully and maliciously intends to annoy, upset, or provoke other users.

Let's contrast this with someone who innocently posts something that ends up upsetting others.

Since you're the mod now, you're going to have to try to distinguish whether or not a post was intended to annoy others or not.
It's not whether or not the post annoyed someone else or provoked someone else. It's whether or not the user intended for this to happen

Resetera's rules also say "Trolling is often disingenuous, but posting your honest opinion can still be trolling if you do so with the intent to inflame."

So how do you gauge a person's intent?
That's complicated, and we'll get back to that.

Part 2 "controversial"

Here's another issue that you, the mod, will have to deal with.
Urban dictionary's definition explicitly mentions "controversial comments". What is a controversial comment?

Let's say that here's an forum for coffee enthusiasts, and you go in and start talking about how much you like Starbucks.
You would probably be accused of trolling, because what you just said would be considered a controversial comment.
These coffee enthusiasts hate Starbucks, to them Starbucks is just trash and soils the reputation of what good coffee actually is. Or at least, that's their opinion. To them, you're just a troll who knows that Starbucks is a touchy subject and you're intentionally annoying them by pretending to like that disgusting swill.

But... millions of people love Starbucks. It is not a widely held-belief that Starbucks is gross. Outside of those enthusiast forums, saying "I like starbucks" is not a controversial comment.

The point of this example is to demonstrate that whether or not a subject is controversial depends on the user demographics, as well as the stated purpose of a site. Whether or not you are "trolling" depends on what opinions the users or moderators have. If a userbase is "extreme" or "fringe" in their opinions, simply expressing an opinion that would be considered "normal" in other circles could be considered "controversial", and therefore "trolling" in others. And vice versa. They would think that you're there to intentionally annoy them by stating an opinion that is, to them, unreasonable.

So, if we can have an opinion that is uncontroversial to some people, but controversial to others, how are you, the moderator, supposed to make a decision?

Part 3 " context"
Let's consider the context.

Let's say someone posts something saying "Nintendo sucks and they make bad games". Is that trolling?
What if this user posts that on the "Nintendo fan club" board, meant for people to gush about positive things that Nintendo is doing. Here we have a user coming into a clearly defined area full of a certain demographic, and expressing a negative opinion about something that this demographic loves. In this context, is it trolling?

What if that same user posts the same message in the "general gaming" board, or even the "Nintendo hate club" board? Is it possible that the same message can be seen as both trolling and acceptable depending on where it's posted?

You might say that these are easy questions and the answers are obvious. Yes, of course, it's trolling to go and talk smack in the Nintendo fan club board, and no, it wouldn't be trolling to post this elsewhere. You might say that this clearly falls under the Gamefaq's definition of "provoking fans of a particular system or game, especially on boards or topics dedicated to that system or game..."

But that comes with it's own problemns. Think about how people can abuse this for their own goals.

For example, let's say that I create a topic saying "Playstation 2 was the greatest console ever", and someone enters my topic and disagrees with me.
Does this fail the the "going against the clear nature of a ...topic", and "provoking fans of a particular system" tests? Is this a "deliberate act of making a controversial comment" and trying to "provoke a fight or argument"? I have clearly stated that I'm a PS2 fan, and I just wanted to gush about my favorite console, so for someone to come into MY topic and talk smack about MY favorite thing, must clearly be provoking an argument, and trying to annoy me, right? Have you just set the precedent that nobody can ever disagree with anybody ever again, because to do so is trolling?

You might say "no, that's going way too far, people can still disagree with each-other"

Well, you'd have to explain how that's possible. How can people disagree with each-other without it being seen as "trolling"? Where do you draw the line between simple disagreement and "provoking an argument" or "annoying" someone?

It seems like for most systems of moderation, the key to distinguishing one or the other is "intent", the common thread all those definitions share.
A moderator has to try to discern whether or not a person is purposefully trying to upset the other person, or if it's just a genuine disagreement.

So how would you do that? Since nobody can read minds, how do you know for sure what the other person's intent is?

Ways to tell whether or not a person is trolling.
1. The suspected user admits it.
This is very unlikely. A user who is truly malicious isn't going to admit to breaking the rules, but maybe they will.

2. The suspect is caught in a lie.
A user could pretend to hold an opinion that they don't really have, or have credentials they haven't earned, or could be lying about having had some life experience in order to annoy the other person, or to win an argument. For example, they could pretend to be a doctor and give fake advice or misleading information, or someone who pretends to be of a group that he is disagreement with, and then attempts to make them look bad, or sway them from the inside.

If you can catch a user in a lie, then that can be taken as evidence of trolling. If, for example, a user claims to be a 16-year-old girl in one post and then a yacht-owning medical doctor in another post, then that's a pretty good indication that the user is a troll.

But you have to be careful with this, and find things that are definite lies, not things you THINK are lies.

For example, if you have a user that claims to be black, and claims that Trump was the greatest president ever, would you think that this user is lying about either of those things, either his race or his political stance? If you can't tell by my voice, I'm black, I've been accused of lying about that, based on some of the opinions that I've shared. If you're going to accuse a user of lying, you'd better have an air-tight case.

And those two things are it. Sorry if that was anti-climactic, those are the only two ways.
Any other way involves mind-reading, something you cannot do, and therefore, it's impossible to know for sure.
Disagreeing with other users doesn't necessarily make them a troll, no matter how often they do it. It could be that they just have opinions. You wouldn't want to make disagreement against the rules, would you? If you try to catch trolls based on how often or how strongly they disagree, you're essentially doing just that, making disagreement against the rules.

If you think these two methods for cathing trolls are too unreliable to rely on, and that you'd rather just "go with your gut" or try out your mind-reading powers, hold on, there's another solution.


How about instead of trying discern intent, you focus on the actions instead?

Think about the coffee example again. What rules can you make to prevent this user from coming in and upsetting everyone by praising Starbucks.

You could make it clear that forum is for people to discuss coffee other than Starbucks, that Starbucks is just too low-quality to merit discussion. That might you seem elietist, snobby, and opinionated, but that's what you are anyway, so just be up-front about it.

Or, you can say that opinions need to be backed up by facts. So, a user wouldn't just be able to post "I love Starbucks, to me, it tastes the best", they would have to suppliment that with, I don't know, results from a taste test competition or something, anything that's objective and measureable. The downside of this is that it really raises the amount of effort that one would have to put in to their posts, and that can turn people off and lower activity on your site. On the other hand, it could raise the reputation of your site as being the place to go for solid, well-researched answers and knowledge about coffee. Subreddits like science and askHistorians, and sites on the StackExchange network do this, and it works for them, but it probably won't work for a normal, general-discussion forums.

You could make it so that disagreement isn't allowed, as in "if you have nothing nice to say, don't say anything at all". That way, the user could say his piece about Starbucks, and then nobody would be allowed to argue with him. Users might be annoyed and be fighting back the urge to furiously disagree with him, but it won't result in an argument. Ideally, they would just go talk about the coffee they do enjoy instead, and ignore the Starbucks guy.

You could make a rule that disallows lying, or spreading false information. Of course, the part that distinguishes a lie from a simple mistake is that the person making the claim knows that it's false, so again, intent needs to be factored in. But by explicitly making it against the rules, you can directly punish it and catch more trolls than you would by trying to read minds. I know of a case, because this happened to me, that a user was insisting that a politician said something that they clearly didn't. I showed that user the official transcript and demonstrated that this politician never said what this user claimed. This user still insisted that they were right, accused ME of ignoring the transcript, accused me of acting in bad faith, of gaslighting, strawmanning, moving goalposts, lying and ignoring facts.

At this point, you, the mod, would step in, review the original claim, review our arguments and the evidence provided, and then make a decision that one of us is lying, then punish that user.

You wouldn't want to be the person that decides what truth is, but you would at least make sure that participants in an argument have evidence backing them up. If a troll is making well-reasoned, well-researched arguments and using actual facts and evidence to prove his points, then what are they doing wrong?

But as you can tell, that takes a lot of time and effort on your part, to do all that. Maybe this wouldn't scale as your site grows, and you just can't spend hours of your volunteered time going through arguments between users and looking for lies. But maybe if your site is small enough, or if your subject matter is focused enough, for example, coffee, then maybe you can make it work.

Disallow all off-topic discussion in a thread, and be strict on enforcing it.

You can probably think of more rules along this line of reasoning. The intent is to stop trolls by taking away their tools. Trolls may seek to derail threads, so take away the "tool" of derailment by disallowing off-topic discussion. Trolls may lie, so take away the tool of lying by making them prove the things that they say. Take away the tool of disagreement, by disallowing disagreement entiretly, if that's what you want for your forums. Focus on the actions that trolls take, not something so unknowable like "intent"


I think a lot of these sites are trying to stop trolling from the wrong angle. Instead of trying to discern and punish intent, they should be modifying their rules to disallow the specific actions that they want to discourage. Disarm the troll by taking away his tools.

My suggestion on how to catch a troll would be "stop trying to catch trolls".
Just make trolling impossible, instead, by taking away the tools.

You can't read minds, so don't even try. If you do try, you'll end up punishing innocent people for doing something as simple as sharing their sincerely held beliefs.

You can also consider doing what StackExchange used to do in its code of conduct: Assume good intent

If you want fewer flame wars, start by encouraging people to not react badly. Start by making it a requirement that people should assume good intentions and act as if each user is a potential friend, not a potential enemy. Assume that the person criticizing your small-batch burlap-sack sumatran blend is doing it because they care, and that they want you to have the best coffee experience, not because they want to ruin your day. If someone says that they think Starbucks is better, don't assume they're just pretending to like boiled garbage, maybe consider asking if there's anything you can do to improve your Starbucks experience. You'll have fewer fights if you make it a violation to escalate things into a fight in the first place. The troll doesn't usually escalate things, the innocent users do, by reacting badly to the troll's provocation.

If you want a diverse group of users to be able to disagree, especially if you allow them to discuss politics or religion, disagreements will happen and users will accuse others of trolling, especially across the ideological or political aisles. Your job, as mod, is not to try to discern intentions, but to facilitate civil discussion by making sure people follow the rules. Your focus should be on making and enforcing rules that, if these rules are followed, will ensure that all users ARE civil.

Take away the tools that trolls use. Create better rules, rules that you can enforce without relying on the ability to read minds, rules that fosters the community and level of discource that you want to see.

If anyone wants me to be their community manager, because I just blew your mind, you know how to reach me
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The Actual Hero
Sanctuary legend
The Escapist would do well to take this advice, but alas, I doubt anybody over there really cares about the forum community.