How to spot a troll

By - Thursday 16th July, 2015

As the AGM of the beleaguered Croydon Communities Consortium approaches, Robert Ward has some advice for people who come under attack from trolls

The notorious ‘trollface’, in its Croydon guise.
Image by Tom Black, used with permission.

Sean Creighton wrote recently of how social media can stifle debate and help destroy community. Sean and the Croydon Communities Consortium seem to have been targets. The perpetrators are known as trolls.

I’ve never met one, but might not know if I had. Most are anonymous and I’ve never seen a troll selfie. But for all that, you can recognise them by their activities on Twitter. Here are some of their telltale signs.

Obsessive ad hominem

Personal attacks over an extended period. Harassment of a single person or organisation, usually on a single issue, is a real give away.

Reverse ad hominem

Their response to evidence that their point defies the facts, common sense or the laws of physics can be ‘how dare you make a personal attack’. They can’t see that pointing out two plus two does not equal five is not a personal attack.

Loony links

Links, often the same link over and over, or to the same online source. Repetition seems to make things true to a troll. Of course, what’s behind the links is uncritical ‘evidence’ of the troll’s view.


Tweets along the lines of ’we’ know the truth about what ‘they’ are doing, but ‘we’ won’t let ‘them’ get away with it. Has the bonus of the troll being able to pretend they have someone who agrees with them or that they might even have a friend.

We are the many (not)

Similar to the paranoid ‘we’, there is the rather grander ‘people’ as in ‘people know that…’. Favoured by politico-trolls like the Cybernats to imply that their tribe has support and the all-important momentum. If you had used Twitter to forecast the election, Ed Miliband would have won by a landslide (he didn’t) and the SNP would sweep Scotland (they did). No, I can’t explain that one.

Non sequitur

The troll responds to a tweet they don’t like with something only vaguely related. Usually elicits a confused response from the original tweeter. Troll response is aggressive accusation of dodging the issue, their issue of course.


The most insidious form of attack, as it can lead to self-censorship. Seizing on tweets by others that might imply the original tweeter has some underlying prejudice, preferably against one of the characteristics protected in law. Racism is the favourite, but sexism and homophobia are also popular. Accusing me of troll-ism wouldn’t make sense, but somehow linking trolls to race or gender would invite accusations and demands for apology. A recent tweet by Andy Murray’s mum implying that Andy is her favourite is a small example. Remember: trolls have no sense of humour.

Faux outrage

Usually in response to an innocent mistake or an unnoticed implication if read in a particular way. A recent “speaking as a mother” tweet by a supporter of Yvette Cooper for Labour leader being interpreted as a dig at her childless rival Liz Kendall, for instance. Complete lack of a sense of proportion is another troll defining feature.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc

‘Person dies after experiencing something I don’t like’ used to imply ‘person dies because of something I don’t like’. A favourite of anti-cuts trolls, usually includes a loony link.

Sham objectivity

“I was neutral, but then I discovered the facts”. A NIMBY favourite, for example, the anti-frackers.

Self-appointed expert

Gives impression they are an authority, but only responds with loony links. Challenge their qualifications and they claim to have done ‘research’. This usually turns out to mean googling loony links. Best defence is to play dumb and keep asking them for explanations. Takes time, but the eventual response is an ad hominem.


Retweets of worthy causes. Designed to show they care about the community, and might even have friends. These usually come in bursts when the troll is bored or remembers that they need to pretend to be a nice person who has many devoted friends.

The patronising farewell

On the occasions they engage in what they think of as debate, usually an extended exchange of loony links, they declare the discussion closed with “I can see your mind is closed, sorry for you, have a really nice life”. Having the last word is really important, so some will then block you – game over. Using the patronising farewell with a subsequent block is worth doing yourself once in a while, but beware – you are feeding your inner troll, don’t get addicted.

In conclusion

From the examples I’ve given, you’d think that all trolls are left wing or thereabouts. This is not the case – but as someone on the right, I’ve naturally been attacked by this type of troll more than any other. Unfortunately, people nominally on my ‘side’ can use all these tactics too. As a europhile I have upset a few ‘kippers’ in my time. If you have examples to share, please feel free to list them in the comments belowTrolling is, sadly, an activity that knows no political loyalty!

This may read like a list of reasons not to engage. If you are a sensitive soul, it probably is. If you are easily provoked, it may also be, although counting to ten before responding is a good defence mechanism.

But if you want to engage with decent people, and maybe learn something once in a while, then it is worth a try. Without engagement with opposing views the twittersphere will become isolated groups parroting dogma to each other in an ideas echo chamber. We will all be the poorer for that, both as individuals and as a community.

The Croydon Communities Consortium AGM takes place tonight at 7:30pm. Tickets must be booked in advance here

Unable to attend? The Citizen‘s Tom Black will be doing a livetweet of the event, starting at 7pm on the @CroydonCit account.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

More Posts

  • Sean Creighton

    Thank you Robert.

    • Anne Giles

      Brilliant, isn’t it?

  • Anne Giles

    This is just about one of the best articles I have ever read on the Croydon Citizen. Robert – you are a star! I had spotted the awful attacks on the Croydon Communities Consortium and on Sean Creighton. I, too, was a target when last year in February I posted a silly tweet, which I quickly removed, but not before a person who wished to damage my reputation had copied the tweet and kept it for future use. It was then sent on to a certain online publication in order to use me as a target to prevent Gavin Barwell from being elected. The other trolls joined in with personal attacks, pretending that I am a racist (when I am anti-racist). This went on and on and on. One of the trolls had started attacking me in the summer of 2010, but I will never know why. Nastiness is something I do not understand. We can all disagree politically, but why get nasty?

  • CroydonNeighbourhood

    Thanks, Robert. Hopefully, tonight’s meeting will put a stop to the trolling and harassment.

    We had to close the bookings as we cannot exceed the hall capacity. This was a difficult decision to make as the committee expects that some of those booked will not actually show on the night, as some are using what appear to be invented names.

    We are running a waiting list and have written to all attending to check they are coming so that if anyone finds they can’t use their space we might have a chance of making it available to another person interested in attending.

    The AGM Event actually starts at 7 pm for registration and refreshments. We hope to start the AGM at 7.30pm, but that will depend on people arriving on time and us waiting to see how many no-shows there are so that we can admit anyone else not yet booked. We have a waiting list and anyone can email us to indicate an interest so we can add them to the list.

    Elizabeth Ash, Chair, CCC

  • Stephen Giles

    Excellent article Robert – the prime culprits, now reduced to a laughing stock, are well known and clearly rejoice in their sad internet antics, which of course, totally failed in the run up to the general election!

  • Austen

    An interesting read, but needs a few examples. See if you can spot the connection between these Twitter accounts:

    and last but by far the best:

    • Anthony Miller

      Astroturfing – if that’s what you’re insinuating – isn’t trolling. Trolling is an essentially nihilistic activity. These people aren’t starting arguments or upsetting people purely for its own sake, they are trying to sell their political viewpoint using …dubious techniques. But trolling to my mind is indulging in deliberately inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messaging ostensibly for its own sake.

  • Anthony Miller

    I think you are confusing trolls and idiots

    A troll is someone who sets out to deliberately confuse issues, press hot buttons and wind people up for the sheer amusement of spreading discord. Trolls are people who are in it for the sheer buzz of being hated. Whereas what you describe sounds more like a coagulation of the sanctimonious, the poorly educated, the idelogicially narrow and deluded.

    • moguloilman

      You could be right. I used Troll in the way it is used in the media – a catch all term for people who indulge in aggressive online behaviour.

      I was more familiar with ‘flaming’ (hence my original title ‘Flaming nuisance” – changed by the editor, which is the behaviour you describe as characteristic of Trolls..