If there's one thing I hate about blogging, it's blog comment trolls. The topic recently came up in my post on SocialImplications.com -- "Gurus" and Other Social Media Monsters. Someone asked about tracking trolls. I gave them some tips. It's something I've been wanting to cover in detail here, given that this blog has been the target of trolls in the past, and I'm sure some of you have had similar issues. So today let's talk about identifying trolls, and exterminating them.
What is a Blog Troll?
A blog troll is someone who comes to your blog specifically to cause trouble. It's usually a repeated effort rather than a one-time thing. Tom Hespos recently published a great post detailing some of the different types of trolls you might encounter in 6 Trolls that can Wreak Havoc in an Online Community. More importantly than what a blog troll is though is what it isn't. The following do not necessarily mean someone is a troll:
- They disagree with you (even if passionately, and even if often).
- You think they're being "mean" to you ("mean" is subjective -- just make sure they abide by your published comment policy).
- You don't like them (because really, who cares?).
History with Blog Trolls
In one of the more pathetic examples of trolling I've seen, Yo and I actually shared one. They would come to this blog, to her blog, and to our joint blog then tied to the Freelance Theater project. It didn't much matter what was said. The troll (who thought they were sneaky and anonymous as they hid behind a proxy), would comment often just to bash us personally because they disagreed with our stance on a particular issue we'd covered in the past.
On one hand that kind of trolling is really sad, because clearly they had nothing better to do. On the other hand, it's kind of flattering when a troll is that obsessed with you and what you have to say. Either way though, it's destructive to a community, and we don't allow it here -- while I don't mind people bashing me, I expect them to take credit for their words.
It took a bit of time and comparing notes between the site stats, but we were able to identify the troll even though they were hiding behind a proxy's IP address (meaning you can't identify them through their own). The trolling was in turn tied to a reasonably known person in the niche. Their own image would have taken a hit had those comments gotten through with their own name attached.
Then again, that's a part of what makes trolls trolls. They're cowards. They often hide behind a certain level of anonymity as they say things they wouldn't dare say publicly. There are exceptions of course -- ones who are proud to take credit for their trolling. Those trolls are easy to identify and get rid of though. So let's focus more on the semi-anonymous ones.
Tracking Trolls: Beyond IP Addresses
Every time someone comments on your blog, that comment is tied to their IP address. Therefore, if they commented once under their real name, and later under a fake name while trolling, they could be easy to catch. You just run an IP search (you can do this from the comments page in your WordPress admin if you use that platform).
Sometimes it's not that easy. Some people change their IP address regularly instead of using static IPs (depends on their Internet service provider). Others use Web proxies. These are websites you visit before going to the end site you want to see. You enter the site's URL there (just like you normally would in your browser window directly). Then, when you're taken to the site, your behavior is tracked under the proxy's IP address rather than your own.
Does that make it harder to track trolls? Sure. But it's far from impossible. Remember, trolls aren't as smart as they like to think they are. Oftentimes, they think by masking their IP address, they're free and clear. Fortunately they have a harder time masking other things, and sometimes they're downright idiotic.
The Quick Snag
Let's talk about the dumbest of all blog trolls. These are the ones who fill out their blog comment fields out of habit. Once they're using a proxy, they don't even think about anything else. They post personally identifiable information, and don't even realize it until it's too late. While it's pretty unlikely they'll slip so badly that they'll publish their full name, they might publish one of the following:
- Their real email address (they're so used to them being kept private from the public readers that they forget the email address is still visible to the blog owner -- sometimes their email address includes their full name, and other times you'll know who it is because they've commented before or you know their email address for other reasons);
- Their website address (let's face it -- some trolls just can't seem to pass up a free link, even if it means getting caught).
Yes, some less-than-genius blog trolls really do leave this information. But what if they don't?
Habits are Hard to Break
No matter how hard a troll tries, there's one thing that often gives them away -- their habits. Have you ever moderated your comment queue, and you immediately know who a comment author is by reading it (without having to look)? I have. Some commenters are very set in their ways, and their comments are easy to identify. That doesn't usually change with a false name and proxy.
For example, the troll might be well known to you for their passionate take on an issue. They might use the same word or phrase often (such as a word they like to call their opponents in that debate) -- one that almost no one else uses. That can give away a troll's identity.
So can their grammatical habits. For example, I tend to overuse parentheses. Others might use semi-colons constantly or ellipses. Or they might use certain general phrases all the time or make the same typos constantly. If the troll is someone you know reasonably well, chances are good that you'll pick up on these subtle things. At the same time, the troll probably doesn't even realize what all of their usual habits are, so masking them all would be extremely difficult.
Whois Your Troll?
What if you aren't sure who the troll is from the post content, and they didn't leave personal info that makes them easy to identify, but they did leave a link to a website you don't recognize? This goes back to the fact that some trolls just can't seem to resist that free link they get for commenting. They won't leave a site they know you'll recognize as theirs, but they do take the opportunity to link to another site they own or are affiliated with.
These trolls fall into that fun little "I think I'm devious, but I'm really a dunce" crowd. If they were dumb enough to link to a site they own, here's a tip that might help you find them:
Do a Whois search on that website.
A Whois search will give you the domain name registrant's information -- name, address, phone number, email address, etc. as long as they haven't used a private registration service (many don't). Even if they do use private registration, you might not be out of luck. Run an IP search on the domain name. When you get the IP address for the server it's hosted on, you can do a check on that IP address to find other sites hosted on the same server.
If they use shared hosting (common for bloggers), there might be a lot of sites on that server -- most not belonging to the troll. But take a look anyway. You might just find a recognizable site or two in that list -- sites you know the owner of. The odds that they'd be two people in your niche with sites that happen to be on the same server are pretty slim.
You can do similar searches for links they include in their comment body too.
A Troll by any Other Name
I've found that trolls often have another interesting little habit. They use the same troll name repeatedly. Rather than come up with identity after identity, they use the same name or handle (sometimes set to look like a real full name). If you're getting slammed frequently by a troll, you might not be the only one. Do a search for that name or handle and see if the troll appears on others' blogs as well.
Even if the troll was able to mask their posting habits on your blog, they might not have been able to on others. You might pick up on something by reading them. More importantly, check the links they left (if any). If they're trolling in multiple niches, they might have left a link to a site you recognize while trolling in a different niche.
Getting rid of trolls is actually pretty simple. While you can't always identify them by their IP, you can ban IPs from commenting on your blog (in WordPress you can automatically force their comments to be flagged as spam, or you can force them into the moderation queue for review).
This won't stop all trolls on the first go-around. Some will just switch proxies for example. So ban the next IP too. It takes very little time for you to do that, and eventually the troll will get fed up and they'll take their ball and go home. If you're really lucky, they might get annoyed with the proxies being banned, so they'll slip up and post using their real IP address.
If you want to, you can also stop trolls from even visiting your site by banning traffic from their IP address, but that's a bit beyond our scope today.
Trolls vs Time
It's not always worth the time it takes to track a blog comment troll, so I don't recommend actually following all of the steps above every time you encounter one. Reserve the more thorough troll-hunting for ones causing big problems -- following you around to multiple sites, posting so frequently that dealing with the comments is a time drain itself, etc. Otherwise you risk letting the troll win. After all, what they want is attention. In the end, there's only one real rule to live by:
DON'T FEED THE TROLLS.