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Beware the Troll
To "troll" means to allure, to fish, to entice or to bait. An internet troll is someone who fishes for people's confidence and, once found, exploits it. Whilst the vast majority of internet users are bona fide, there are undoubtedly some trolls out there.
Q: How much damage can an internet troll achieve? Pick one or more of the following answers:
- Cause minor irritation to some people
- Cause major upset to some people
- Obtain a small amount of money
- Obtain a large amount of money
- Obtain millions of dollars
To help you answer this question, here are a couple of quotes from The Times (Nov 4th 1998) when it reported on internet deception:
"According to the Securities Exchange Commission, ... 44 individuals and companies... received in total more than $6.3million and nearly two million shares of cheap insider stock..."
"SEC director of enforcement Richard H Walker... warned investors about operators such as Matthew Bowin, who...entirely over the internet... raised $190,000 from 150 investors and then pocketed the proceeds.... He was convicted of 54 felony counts and sentenced to jail."
Internet deception ranges from childish games to major fraud,with lots of variations in between. There are many different schemes used and they are often ingenious. For example, in early 1998 an "announcement" was made, by email distribution, of an advancement in diabetic research: a new medicine was available which helped bring blood sugar levels under better control. Readers were referred to a web site where details of the research and the product were available. The information was credibly presented. At the end of the article, readers could obtain a trial bottle of the new medicine, for a reasonable price, and an order form was presented.
Of course, there had been no such break through. The purpose of this scam was to obtain credit card information, which was requested on the order form. The scam relied on diabetics or their families being unfamiliar with the risks of submitting credit card information over the internet, and being willing to give anything a try to improve their lifestyle or that of their diabetic relatives.
Internet deception relies on exploiting trust and building confidence, and the rewards can be financial or psychological. There is one golden rule that applies when dealing with people or organisations on the internet:
Before you invest your trust in someone - either emotional or financial trust - you should verify the bona fide nature of the other party from multiple known, reliable and independent sources. "Trust and verify".
There is information, on deception for financial gain, available at the SEC's website: http://www.sec.gov/consumer/cyberfr.htm
Further information on deception for psychological gain is given in the rest of this web page.
"Each of us brings our own reasons, backgrounds and motivations into this scheme. What is important is that each individual brings into this their own brand of inspired mischief. In some ways it is completely innocent. In some ways it is completely destructive."
This quotation is taken from the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) of a mailing list dedicated to trolling.
I remember the first time I heard about "computer viruses", back in the '80s. My immediate response was to laugh and discount what I was being told. The notion that there could be a 'virus' that infected computer discs, and that could spread from machine to machine, was ridiculous. Or so I thought. Eventually I, along with the rest of the world, had to take the threat of viruses seriously, and produce serious countermeasures, because the problem was so prevalent. Trolling falls into the same category as viruses in those early days - it may seem ridiculous, but it exists.
In fact, law-making bodies and respectable news agencies are beginning to recognise the dangers and take appropriate action. In some states in the USA a new offence has been created, called "Cyber-Stalking". At the time of writing this article (early 1999), the first prosecutions were being brought to the courts. And in the UK, on Jan 27 1999, the BBC Breakfast News made the following report:
"A new kind of warfare is emerging - electronic warfare. A website in Ireland was forced to close down because it came under electronic attack"
The news article continued with a brief dramatic reconstruction showing the Webmaster hurriedly unplugging lots of cables from the back of an internet server. In a brief interview, the Webmaster then said:
"We had no choice - there was nothing we could do. We just had to unplug everything and then see what damage had been done."
Although the threat of trolls is beginning to be taken more seriously, anti-troll measures are still in their infancy. 'Caveat emptor' (or let the buyer beware) therefore takes on a much greater meaning in the primitive internet community where, despite the radical nature of the technology, civilisation and community life has only matured to the same stage of development as the dark ages - where each person has to look after themselves, and cannot rely on 'society' to protect them.
What is a troll?
The term "troll" can mean a number of different things, but in essence, a troll is a person who aims to have 'pleasure' at your expense. There are two main types of trolls:
- people who are psychologically disturbed, and seek to feel good by making other list members feel bad. This is a sort of "psycho troll", whose deception involves deceiving themselves as well as others. In this respect, they are no different to the sorts of people we meet in everyday life who are disturbed - some of them are easy to spot, and others aren't. Such people may even use their real names on the internet, and they may not even realise that they are "trolling" because it is all subconscious.
- people who pretend to be someone that they are not - they create personae that you think are real, but they know is fictitious.
The rest of this web page concentrates on the second type of troll.
The Game of Trolling
Trolling is like playing chess - there is a point to the game, and that point is to win. Unlike chess, though, there are various ways of winning for the internet troll. These might include:
- gaining credence for false and invidious ideas
- driving bona fide list members, and/or particular groups, out of the mailing list
- dominating the list with messages/posts that they have generated
- gaining recognition or an award for their trolling from fellow trollers
- getting reprimanded by individuals, list managers or internet authorities
- gaining the confidence, trust and support of bona fide list members
- distracting list members from their own bona fide discussions or objectives.
- gaining attention that they cannot get using their real personalities
Sometimes trolls operate alone, and sometimes they operate in groups, but for all of them trolling is a game. There are newsgroups and mailing lists that are dedicated to trolls, for them to exchange techniques and to plan concerted campaigns where they can invade internet mailing lists. Trolls have no concern for the feelings of the people with whom they deal. They are often manipulative, clever and approach their trolling with the same degree of planning and research as those seeking financial gain, or the same competitiveness as a serious chess player. For those familiar with Transactional Analysis (the psychological theory of real-life game playing) there are many parallels with the activities of trolls: there are many games, with different types of payoff and different tactics.
Trolling can be played at various levels...
- Level one - "Playtime" - This is where the troller is simply out for the gratification provided by a quick "win". An example of this might be to join a list with a fictitious name, cause an argument, withdraw and then boast to friends about what he/she had done. Such trolls are relatively easy to spot because their attack or provocation is fairly blatant, and the persona is fairly two-dimensional.
- Level two - "Tactical" - This is where the troller takes the game more seriously, creates a credible persona with which to provoke the list, and uses recognised techniques or tactics to gain the confidence and support of individuals on the list. Provocation is subtle and invidious, so spotting this type of troll is not easy, because the persona is credible, and off-list email exchanges have caused you to believe that this person is genuine and trustworthy.
- Level three - "Strategic" - This is a very serious form of game, involving the production of an overall strategy that can take months or years to develop. It can also involve a number of people acting together in order to invade a list. Once a list is infested, it can be nigh impossible to work out who is a troll and who is bona fide.
- Level four - "Domination" - This is where the trollers' strategy extends to the creation and running of apparently bona-fide mailing lists. In such circumstances, their payoff may be the knowledge that they are dominating the emotional lives of list members, and is perhaps one of the ultimate forms of deceit that can be achieved.
It should be noted that trolling games are not restricted to the internet. Their tactics can also include contacting people in real life using snail-mail and/or telephone. The boundaries between real-life con-men and internet trolls are not as clear as they used to be.
Playtime trolls are relatively easy to spot, but they may not be apparent to the naive user. There isn't a single set of characteristics that applies to playtime trolls, but you can look for some or all of the following signs:
- a lack of buy-in to the list philosophy or values
- generally low level of activity, with sudden spurts of interaction - or perhaps a new persona that has strong opinions on controversial subjects
- a mixture of friendly posts with a confrontational style of interaction
- the use of provocative language and sweeping generalisations about certain topics or categories of people
- a lack of in-depth understanding of the topic
- a lack of personal information
- a lack of a genuinely unique perspective on the topic
- a lack of humour
- restarting topics that have already been done
- use of language that encourages the dialogue to enter topics that are controversial and likely to upset some team members
- the use of attention-seeking gimmick (e.g.: "I was once exploited by an XYZ")
- they follow up their own articles if the group doesn't respond to their posts
- inconsistencies in the style and nature of the post and any proclaimed information (e.g.: claiming to be a child but writing with an adult style; claiming to be adult, but writing with a childish grammatical construction).
- also note that trolls often seem to use free email services (such as hotmail.com) or have email addresses ending in .edu. However, trolls could be virtually anyone, and the email address is no guide as to whether the persona is a bona fide user or not.
To counteract playtime trolls, the best action is to ignore them. If you are convinced they are trolls, then you can advise the list manager. However, if other group members respond to the suspected troll's posts, then you may have to consider some of the responses outlined for tactical or strategic trolls.
Tactical trolls take much more care and effort over the creation of their personae. Such trolls are likely to be seen as long term list members, and have the confidence and trust of the bona fide people on the mailing list. They use many of the techniques listed for Playtime Trolls, but in addition:
- They engage in off list email dialogues to gain the confidence and trust of influential individuals on the list.
- They are friendly and humorous in the posts, to put you at ease with their persona.
- They have a well-thought-through story such that the persona seems to be very real. They will give apparently personal and intimate information, particularly in off list emails.
- They win trust by giving trust. For example, they may hint at something confidential on-list, but then only reveal the full story to someone off-list. By bringing someone into their confidence, they create a feeling of confidence towards them by the individual's concerned.
- In off list emails, they win allies and support for some of their views. Their offlist emails are subtly manipulative.
- They 'set up' bona fide members to argue with each other. Any view, no matter how outrageous, can be made to sound rational when put in a certain context. By setting different contexts for different people offlist, they create a setting whereby they can raise a topic on-list, in a seemingly innocent manner, and then watch the two list members argue because they have interpreted the topic/message in very different ways.
- In off-list emails, they use techniques borrowed from NLP and Speed-Seduction to make people have a great deal of affection for them. This naturally suppresses any suspicion there might be.
- They use gimmicks that win sympathy and bring out the 'nurturing parent' in other list members, which also suppresses any feelings of suspicion. E.g.: being blind, handicapped, an orphan, rejected, bullied etc..
- They build up a reasonable knowledge of the topic of the list. This enables them to take part for some time as apparently bona-fide list members.
- They use language that is carefully constructed to be subtly invidious. This language is designed to identify two or more separate groups of people, and encourage list members to identify the negative traits of those groups. This creates argument and dissent between list members. Note that subtlety is often their main objective, so this language is difficult to spot.
- They don't enter into the argument directly, but facilitate an argument between list members, e.g.: by highlighting points that one list member has made, perhaps in a way that is more confrontational than the original intention.
- They sometimes create a fictitious persona supported by a web-site, photographs and apparently personal data.
- They may suggest meeting up in real-life, but the meeting doesn't take place.
Many of these behaviours are things that 'real' people would engage in. It is very difficult to distinguish real people from trolls in an internet environment. The only method that can be used to verify the bona fide nature of list members is to investigate their personal information. Trolls will invent personal information, but when you investigate it you will keep coming to dead ends. For example, if their employer is company "xyz", then you may be able to find a web site at www.xyz.com, but there is no contact information. However, with bona fide people, their personal information will lead to an ever-increasing wealth of data, such as:
- if a real person cites "xyz" as the employer, then the web site will give a phone number;
- the company's phone number will be answered by an operator who will be able to tell you the person's extension number;
- company xyz may list clients on their web site, whom you can ring up and verify exist;
- the person may be a member of professional associations;
- you may have met some list members in real life, who will have met other list members and can therefore vouch for them.
The key difference between a troll and a bona fide list member is that when you investigate a troll, their personal data usually leads to dead-ends; when you investigate a bona fide person, their personal data leads to an ever-expanding set of evidence that they are for real. There are some tricks that the tactical trolls may use to deceive you:
- Some trolls will exchange some fictitious data - e.g.: phone numbers, addresses, family details - on the basis that you are not going to actually ring them.
- They may have dedicated personal phone lines that they may use for the purpose of taking verification phone calls
- They will want to hide other personal information, because it can demonstrate that they are not for real.
- Various excuses can be used for not releasing personal information, including privacy.
There are some bona fide people who do not wish to be traced via the internet - but this makes it difficult to distinguish trolls from real people. If in doubt, assume that they are a troll, and don't simply believe the sophisticated lies that trolls use to hide their identity. Also, don't rely solely on your intuition - you need to establish hard data to help find out whether your intuition is for real.
Strategic trolls often operate in groups, rather than alone. They use multiple personalities, each of which uses the techniques outlined in the section on tactical trolls. However, they have an overall strategy for drawing bona fide list members into argument, ultimately causing them to leave, or for the trolls to dominate of the group. In particular:
- They have various phases to their strategy, where each phase aims to achieve different things.
- The first phase usually involves establishing multiple personalities who become recognised as integral members of the group - "friendly trolls". Don't be deceived by the title - they appear to be friendly but they have very different hidden motives. Establishing friendly trolls in a group is a process that can take many months or even years.
- The second phase involves using new personalities to start divisive threads, in the manner outlined under "Tactical Trolls". In the event that no list members respond to these threads, other phase two trolls will respond to them to keep the debate active.
- If existing list members have not yet joined in the arguments, the third phase involves "offensive trolls" attacking their own personae from the first phase. As these trolls will have built up a lot of goodwill in the group, other list members will jump to their defence, and they are therefore drawn in to the argument.
- In case other list members don't join in, "defensive trolls" may join in and continue to give air time to the "offensive trolls". The friendly trolls can also incite bona fide list members to join in using offlist emails.
- Another phase may involve the friendly trolls starting to retaliate publicly, calling on the support of bona fide list members.
- When things start to get out of hand, petrol will be poured on the flames to try and stir things up as much as possible and cause the maximum amount of strife and chaos.
The following is a further extract from the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) of the mailing list that is dedicated to trolling. It will help you to understand what type of person you are up against...
"Anyone can walk into alt.sex and post that pornography should be banned. Anyone can walk into rec.sport.baseball and say "baseball sucks". It takes unbelievable skill and discipline to cause a PROLONGED flame war. That is what we do. But it can only be done with talent, and numbers to match that talent. We only bring into the fold people who have the knack to use smarts to incite chaos, not stupidity to incite being ignored when people see a post and know what you're up to."
Recently, it has become apparent that there are probably trolls also operating as list managers. I am unclear as to the specific motivations for this type of activity, but it may be:
- gratification from dominating the emotional lives of list members
- gangland ware - where one group sets up a list and aims to defend it from other trolling groups
- a genuine area of interest on behalf of the troll
Nevertheless, the lesson behind this is that you need to get verification data for list managers as well as other list members.
Dealing with trolls
When dealing with suspected trolls, there are various strategies that you can employ. First of all, remember that just because you suspect that someone is a troll, it doesn't mean that they are a troll; also, just because you suspect someone is genuine, it doesn't mean that they are genuine. In view of this, the best tactics are:
- ignore postings that you suspect may be from trolls.
- don't invest any of your self emotionally until you have verified beyond all doubt that the person you are dealing with is genuine
- beware of off list emails that praise and flatter, or seem to evoke sympathy. If you feel yourself beginning to like someone, ask first: how much verifiable data do I have about them?
- if you do get involved in anyone, seek out verifiable data. Trolls will provide some data that will lead to dead ends; real people will provide some data that is open-ended and leads to a myriad of sources which enable you to verify their genuine status
- if you must respond to a troll posting, don't get involved in the argument; limit it to pointing out that the posting may be considered as trollish, for the benefit of other list members.
- Write to the listmaster to highlight what is happening
- Write to the postmaster of the troll's domain. Keep it simple, polite and to the point (they are very busy!). Include your evidence (e.g.: offensive emails) and the full email header information, so that the troll can be properly traced.
- Listmasters can also make their lists restricted, and conduct a security analysis of each list application before allowing them to subscribe. This is probably easier to do in areas that have professional associations or qualifications.
Further web pages
More information on trolls can be found at the following web pages: