Trolls are an online phenomenon whose definition is constantly changing and expanding.

In the past, trolls were associated with frustrated individuals - often anonymous or using fake profiles - who derive their fun from other people in the online space getting annoyed. The formal term for this behavior is "negative social potency," that is, they receive pleasure from someone else suffering or having a negative reaction caused by this behavior. According to Professor Mark Griffiths, "these people troll others for revenge, for attention, for personal entertainment or out of boredom."

Today, there are also trolls hired by political organizations, who aim to flood the online space with their views, or rather the views of whoever pays them. This behavior, that is, the work of so-called "troll farms", is called "coordinated inauthentic behaviour".

Regardless of the type of troll, communication experts agree that the best way to handle a troll is to ignore them. If you try to outsmart them, you're doing exactly what they want: giving them attention.

But how can you tell if you're dealing with a troll and not simply someone holding an unpopular opinion? First, let's see what a typical "self-motivated" troll looks like.

1. Troll “habitats”

Before we can recognize a troll “in the wild”, we have to know where they usually hide.
Trolls often join current discussions, such as those "trending" on Twitter, precisely because there is a greater chance that more people will fall for their bait. Furthermore, trolls are often found in the comments of popular videos or posts by influencers. Again, the goal is to increase the potential number of people who would be annoyed by their comments.

Lastly, trolls have the greatest presence on anonymous forums, such as Reddit, 4chan or Quora. It's the anonymity that allows them to say things they probably wouldn't say to someone's face.

2. Off-topic comments

Although, as mentioned above, trolls join discussions about current topics, this does not mean that they will discuss those topics. On the contrary, they skillfully divert the topic into some field in which they know they can more easily get on other users’ nerves. Namely, trolls often derail the dialogue towards controversial political topics. That very irrelevance of their comments will often prompt other users to join the discussion to try to get it back on track.

3. Smug and “naïve” tone

Trolls, despite clearly intending to provoke a negative reaction in other people, often act as if they are not trying to be provocative or that they are "just asking questions", which of course only further annoys other users.

Comments like "calm down" or "why are you so upset?" are an almost certain sign of the account being a troll, and not worth paying any more attention to.

3. Ignoring facts

If you don't follow the above advice and decide to engage in a battle of words and arguments with a troll after all, you'll quickly notice that they often aren't listening to facts. Even when presented with concrete evidence that contradicts their claims, they will usually ignore it and switch to tactic #2, i.e. changing the subject.

4. Trolls for hire

Although "individual" trolls may annoy you, they pose less of a social danger compared to hired trolls. Such trolls work in coordination with others, on so-called "troll farms", in order to increase the popularity of a certain politician or their ideology, by flooding the online space with certain views.

Troll farms have appeared in many countries, including Serbia, Russia, China and North Macedonia.

These trolls have a different style than "individual" trolls which is slightly more subtle.

The goal of these trolls is not to annoy you just for fun; they aim to divert your anger towards opposition politicians and create support towards the politicians who have hired them.

If an account seems to you to hold overly positive or overly negative stances towards a certain political cause, it's worth looking into their account to see if it is an inauthentic account.

  1. 5. Lack of personal information

If you find few personal photos, or just some generic pictures on a profile whose authenticity seems doubtful to you, there is a high probability that that person does not actually exist. After all, trolls who work on "troll farms" often control several profiles, each posing as a different person.

6. Staggering number of posts on a single subject

Additionally, some of these troll accounts post so much that you must wonder how they have time for it - but it's easy to find time to comment and post so much if that's your job.

Additionally, troll accounts often post about several of the same things (because they are directly told what to post, not expressing their personal views).

The types of posts that are most often a sign of a hired troll include: sharing posts where certain political parties are praising themselves; posts from websites that regularly post misinformation; and negative comments about political opponents, which cross the line into hate speech.

The openness of the internet has provided space for people who might not have been able to find their voice before, but it has also provided space for plenty of inauthentic behavior, whether from trolls who simply enjoy the annoyance of others, or from trolls who systematically try to manipulate public opinion. In any case, you can skillfully avoid trolls if you're careful not to take the things they say personally and beware of taking the opinions of questionable accounts too seriously.