Spot them...then starve them
As useful a tool as the internet is, it comes with evident shortcomings. Online, it’s a free for all. Apart from security issues (for both adults and kids), the rise of platforms like social media presents the digital space as a kind of information warzone.
Here, it’s easy for the lines to be blurred: between perception and reality, genuine interaction and manufactured commentary, real users and trolls. All these can pose a real danger, which is why it’s incredibly important for internet users to be vigilant and careful.
In this post, we turn our attention to internet and social media trolls: fake accounts that thrive in anonymity and exist with the main purpose of hounding other users, provoking them, or hijacking an ongoing dialogue. In extreme cases, trolls go as far as cyberbullying, which should never be condoned or taken lightly.
Learning to identify these trolls, then, is crucial But how do troll accounts look like and operate? Scroll through to find out.
First things first: check the handle and/or account name.
Trolls can be found almost anywhere there is social interaction: forums, public group chats, blog comment sections, and, of course, social media channels. One easy way to check if a user is real or fake is to take a look at his/her/their account name and handle. On Facebook, you can check the URL that corresponds to a person’s page. On Twitter and Instagram, this pertains to the username attached to the @ symbol.
Real people and members of real organizations have no qualms displaying their names outright. That said, know that a seemingly random combination of letters and numbers is a red flag. So is the use of generic terms in the handle itself.
Profile photo check: does their display image feature a real person?
Part of creating an online profile is having a photo to go with a username. Trolls may not represent real people, but manufacturing a persona online poses no challenge to them. Be wary of accounts that make use of clip art, scenery (think: foliage or a sunrise), the flag of a country, cartoons, memes, and even celebrities as their display photo. The biggest giveaway in the bunch, of course, are those accounts with profile photos that are left blank (the egg icon on Twitter, for example).
Putting this together with item #1, account name, the point is that a Google search should lead you to other public profiles owned by this person (often people use the same or similar usernames across different platforms) or published work where he/she/they is/are mentioned. Coming up emptyhanded only reinforces the possibility that you have come across a troll account.
Take a look at the date the account was created.
The when is sometimes just as telling as the who and the what. Take into consideration the rise of troll farms. Here, swarms of people are hired to create fake accounts with the aim of manipulating the public’s perception of certain issues. It’s because of this that it’s become just as important to look at the creation date of an online account, a feature available on platforms like Twitter and YouTube.
If you’ve observed a wave of new users on your timeline especially during a moment where pressing and divisive national issues are making headlines, expect that a number of them are troll accounts: created for the purpose of joining in on the timely dialogue. Their opinions and statements, however? Just as manufactured as the accounts themselves. So tread carefully online and be mindful of whose input you process and commit to memory.
Do a quick skim: what do their existing public posts look like?
Are all their posts related to just one topic? Do they share links that lead to fake news websites? Do they “flood” or spam comment sections? On that note, do they copy and paste the same message to reply to various public threads?
If you come across a suspicious account that checks most of these boxes, chances are you are dealing with an online troll.
Knowing all this, here’s the one rule to keep in mind: once you spot a troll, starve it. Do not reply. Do not engage. Online trolls don’t only thrive in anonymity; they thrive when they get attention. So once you’ve got a confirmed troll in your sights, hit “report account.”
Up next: brush up on the basics of validating COVID-19 information on your feed.