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Thursday, January 15, 2015

How to hunt trolls

In light of the conclusion of the successful hunting of one of the Internet's more notorious trolls, a few people have asked me to explain how to go about doing the same. Here are some of the observations I have made along the way.
  1. Stay calm. The troll's primary objective is to upset you. Trolls feed off attention and negative emotion, so it's important to control your own reactions and deny them both. Staying calm serves two positive purposes, as it prevents you from establishing an emotional relationship with them as well as forcing them to increase their efforts in order to achieve the desired effect, thereby increasing the likelihood they will make a mistake or cross a line.
  2. Be patient. A security expert has told me that no one can regularly comment without giving away their true identity within one year. Remember, the troll is in it for the attention, so hiding even the smallest significant aspects of his identity places him fundamentally at conflict with his own instincts and desires.
  3. Directly inform the troll that he is banned from visiting your site and from commenting under all current and future identities, and that if he persists in his activity, he is engaged in illegal trespassing and cyberstalking. It is vital to put them on notice. For some reason, many people who are capable of understanding that physical trespassing is not only illegal, but can permit them to be legally shot in some places tend to find it hard to grasp that online trespassing is illegal. The fact that you CAN access a site does not automatically give you permission to do so any more than the fact that you CAN physically access someone's lawn gives you permission to walk on it.
  4. Don't delete the troll's comments. It took me a long time to learn this; even though I saved them in a separate text file, I sometimes got lazy or couldn't be bothered. It's best to have them there, in the blog, where they can be easily produced as evidence or mined for investigative purposes.
  5. Don't permit the readers to engage with the troll. They may mean well, but their reactions to the troll are usually a bigger problem than the troll's comments are. Set a policy of "Comments responding to a troll will be deleted" and delete them on sight. Commenters cannot shut down a troll because he seeks their negative attention; them saying "shut up" and "go away" is something he desires, so their effort on your behalf are counterproductive. Don't let them feed him.
  6. Look for the troll's other identities. Trolls always have sockpuppets, and often they are less careful when using them. Yama had over 30. Even a cursory glance at the mined comments shows that NTA has at least three. And often, the sockpuppet identity is the troll's primary identity on other sites. Yama did not use Yama here at all, he primarily used Will leFey, Dan Picaro, Luscinia, and Alauda. But once I was able to link him to the Yamamanama and Yama the Spacefish identities, I was able to learn considerably more information about him and those around him.
  7. Identify their literary tics. We all have them and they are nearly as reliable as fingerprints. Once you develop some skill at this, you'll be able to recognize a troll under a new identity within two or three posts. It doesn't hurt that they always gravitate towards the same bugaboos no matter what identity they present.
  8. Join forces with the troll's other targets. You are probably not his first or only target. Comparing notes will almost always prove informative and multiple complainants make it impossible for the troll to claim it is a "he said, she said" situation or to blame everything on you once you bring the situation to the attention of third parties.
  9. Once you have the troll's IP address, research the cyberstalking laws in their legal jurisdiction. Most communities consider cyberstalking to be a felony and penalties tend to be steeper than you probably expect. Jail sentences of up to 5 years and fines in the five digits are common.
  10. Don't bother with threats and warnings. The troll habitually makes empty threats himself, so he's not going to take yours seriously.
  11. Don't pay undue attention to the troll's assertions. Given that he is on your site under a false identity, why would you believe anything he says? Observe how trolls are very quick to claim entirely factual statements made by you and others are lies; this is psychological projection on their part.
  12. Don't bother contacting his friends, employer, and family except to gather more information. They already know something is off about the troll and are accustomed to turning a blind eye to his activities. They will be very reluctant to cooperate in any way and may even try to put you off the trail. For example, Yama's friend Emma lied to me about knowing him when I contacted her, and if she hadn't overdone the fake sympathy I might have even bought it. Don't be upset with them, after all, they know him and they don't know you. Just don't expect assistance from them or to be able to use them to put any pressure on him. Again, you're not dealing with a normal individual here. Never forget that.
  13. Expect the troll to try to spin the situation as you harassing him as the net tightens. This is actually a very good sign of progress. It means that he is frightened and that his confidence has been shaken. Trolls like to think of themselves as the cunning masters of the situation, so the switch to helpless victim role marks a significant change. It also confirms that you are dealing with a genuinely aberrant psychology, as no normal individual would ever reach the same conclusion.
  14. Don't contact the police until you have prepared a succinct summary of the troll's activity on your site, dating back to the documented beginning, and organizing the various evidence in detail to be available upon request. The summary that I sent to the Marshfield police was only two pages long, but included a description of what additional information I could provide. If possible, provide multiple summaries, from as many of the troll's other targets as possible. These summaries will not only articulate the complaint, but will save the police a considerable amount of time in substantiating it. Th easier you make it for them to do their job, the sooner they are likely to do it. The detective who addressed Yama's case specifically commented on how useful the summaries were to his investigation.
  15. Before you call the relevant police department, check their website and see if they have an officer or a department specializing in online crimes. Most do. Those are the only officers to whom you should talk, as their colleagues tend to regard computers as akin to magic and beyond their ability to address.
  16. Be prepared to press charges, but be open to the possibility of other desirable outcomes. The objective should not be vengeance, but simply to end the trolling. For the most part, trolls are disturbed and damaged individuals; the primary reason they have the time to wage their bizarre campaigns is because they are not normally functioning adults with responsibilities.
  17. Above all, don't be afraid. The troll is targeting you because he hates the fact that other people think you matter and he feels he does not in comparison. He's trying to bring you down to his level, to enmesh you in his petty hatred and fear. Don't permit him to do that. Remember that people snipe from cover because they are too psychologically weak to dare engaging in open and direct confrontation.
UPDATE: Yama surfaced here. Several people spotted him and it's been reported.

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52 Comments:

Anonymous KMD January 15, 2015 5:42 AM  

Wouldn't committing "cyber trespassing" be dependent on the specific jurisdiction and state where the troll posted from? Understand he would also be liable in the affected party's jurisdiction but doubt local law enforcement would care much unless the troll's actions were especially heinous. Not sure there is a Federal cyber trespassing type law.

Anonymous VD January 15, 2015 5:45 AM  

Wouldn't committing "cyber trespassing" be dependent on the specific jurisdiction and state where the troll posted from?

Yes, exactly. See point 9.

Anonymous Clay January 15, 2015 5:53 AM  

I apologize for asking...but, what exactly pissed you off at this guy?

You've always seemed so Teflon to me.

Anonymous fp January 15, 2015 5:56 AM  

18. And turn Markku loose on him!

Anonymous Clay January 15, 2015 6:07 AM  

Finnish kill Russians, and manufacture and invent & service electronics,

Blogger Cinco January 15, 2015 6:10 AM  

@Clay

Yeah, I have been reading this blog for over a decade and cannot even recall this guy. I read the comments too, they are a highly valued piece of mentertainment and enlightenment.

Anonymous VD January 15, 2015 6:38 AM  

I apologize for asking...but, what exactly pissed you off at this guy?

Repetition and persistence. After more than a decade of blogging, I've learned that ignoring the trolls doesn't do much good now that I've got substantial blog traffic. Even the modicum of attention they can get here is more than they can get elsewhere and the more ideological sorts consider me to be dangerous to their side. So, they will continue their activity unless there are sufficiently negative consequences for them. I now know how to provide those consequences.

The thing is, the trolls have to be perfect every time, whereas I only need them to make a single mistake, somewhere on the Internet, at which point I can take the offensive. And not only am I smarter and more persistent than they are, but I am entirely accustomed to being attacked. They are not.

Anonymous Stingray January 15, 2015 7:22 AM  

Cinco,

You likely don't remember these names because sometimes the comments he left were so off or so blatant that they were easily forgotten. I remember Dan Picaro and Clamps quite well. They were both just . . . strange. Dan Picaro is the guy who used to comment on almost every thread in which Vox would write about a book he had written and talk about what a terrible author he is. Is was bizarre.

For someone to troll for this long and this persistently, it's no wonder Vox finally had enough.

Blogger W.LindsayWheeler January 15, 2015 7:35 AM  

I usually hunt trolls, like gnomes, with a shotgun.

Anonymous fp January 15, 2015 7:41 AM  

"So, they will continue their activity unless there are sufficiently negative consequences for them. I now know how to provide those consequences."

So VD are you making an example of this guy for all trolls to beware?

Anonymous NorthernHamlet January 15, 2015 7:49 AM  

VD,

Identify their literary tics. We all have them and they are nearly as reliable as fingerprints. Once you develop some skill at this, you'll be able to recognize a troll under a new identity within two or three posts

Do you try to identify and control your own tics at any time? For example, when participating in a different forum or when writing for first person point of view.

If so, do you find that you are successful more or less?

Blogger Cataline Sergius January 15, 2015 7:56 AM  

I suddenly can't help but wonder if Larry Correia's Melvin character from the Monster Hunter books is based on Yama.

I'm pretty sure he used to troll Larry as well.

If Melvin was, we actually have something to thank him for.

Anonymous The Deuce January 15, 2015 7:57 AM  

Vox, is there a way to hide comments without deleting them? If not, there should be.

Anonymous VD January 15, 2015 7:59 AM  

So VD are you making an example of this guy for all trolls to beware?

Precisely. Few are so persistent or determined as he was, and yet those traits were turned against him. One hopes they will profit from the object lesson. No doubt that was why NTA was inclined to disbelieve it.

Do you try to identify and control your own tics at any time?

Only when writing fiction, and to limited success. I don't bother when posting online. I seldom post anywhere but here anyhow. I think it is easier for a professional writer to do so, if he is aware of them, but it's always an effort. If one's concentration lapses, they will slip back in.

It's not just one little thing, it's word choices, sentence structures, rhythm, the use of rhetorical devices, and so forth. Once I am familiar with an individual's style, I can usually recognize it in a matter of sentences. It's how I knew the UVA rapes were fake, by the way. It was written in a transparently fiction style, it was obviously not a description of an actual event.

Anonymous VD January 15, 2015 8:01 AM  

Vox, is there a way to hide comments without deleting them? If not, there should be.

No. There is considerable room for improvement in the Blogger comment system.

Blogger LP 999/Eliza January 15, 2015 8:04 AM  

It is repetitious but remain objective or a little removed in not getting upset or when engaging.

Trolls are almost perfect for pump and dump info depending upon their levels of oddity. The range is what disturbs me, some are certifiably crazy scary, mildly nuts with minor presentations of paranoia, irritating, insulting, irking.

Blogger Joel Downs January 15, 2015 8:31 AM  

Vox, in a way this attention whore has won. He has forced you to pay so much attention to, and think about what he said, to become so intimately familiar with his style, that you were able to identify him from this "literary tic" fingerprints. Of course, you have gained from this too. In mind muscle from the intellectual exercise.

You should write a book about this experience. Create a new discipline; "troll detective". Someone might make a living from it.

Anonymous VD January 15, 2015 8:48 AM  

Vox, in a way this attention whore has won.

If this is defeat, I'll take it.

OpenID genericviews January 15, 2015 8:58 AM  

I aspire some day to be worthy of having a troll of my own.

Blogger pgstreby January 15, 2015 9:02 AM  

"Directly inform the troll that he is banned from visiting your site .... For some reason, many people ... find it hard to grasp that online trespassing is illegal. The fact that you CAN access a site does not automatically give you permission to do so any more than the fact that you CAN physically access someone's lawn gives you permission to walk on it."

Maybe I'm misreading here, but are you saying that someone can be banned - with the backing of the law - from going to a particular public website (i.e. one requiring no password) and reading what's on it?

Anonymous jack January 15, 2015 9:11 AM  

VD January 15, 2015 8:48 AM
@VD
Vox, in a way this attention whore has won.

If this is defeat, I'll take it.

Its used so often its become a cliche, but still so perfect:
'I love the smell of napalm in the morning'...

Anonymous VD January 15, 2015 9:33 AM  

Maybe I'm misreading here, but are you saying that someone can be banned - with the backing of the law - from going to a particular public website (i.e. one requiring no password) and reading what's on it?

Certainly. You can even get restraining orders informing them so. The fact that you don't lock your house does not automatically grant the public free access to it.

That's why you have to warn them. Now, I have never banned anyone from READING my blog, only from COMMENTING on it. And, of course, it is considerably harder to prove that they have been reading it, given the fact that an IP address can have multiple users.

Blogger W.LindsayWheeler January 15, 2015 9:56 AM  

Now, for hunting trolls, a bloodhound is sufficient. They're sneaky things, they are. Dangerous most are.

Anonymous Tad's Brain January 15, 2015 9:57 AM  

Yama was an amateur.

I'm still the King around here, bitchez.

Anonymous Stickwick January 15, 2015 10:32 AM  

Speaking of trolls, what's the deal with kilopapa? He seems like a particularly disturbed person.

Blogger Jordan179 January 15, 2015 10:40 AM  

Identify their literary tics. We all have them and they are nearly as reliable as fingerprints. Once you develop some skill at this, you'll be able to recognize a troll under a new identity within two or three posts. It doesn't hurt that they always gravitate towards the same bugaboos no matter what identity they present.

To be fair, Andrew's really easy because his reasoning style is utterly alien to that of most other human beings with his vocabulary. In fact, I can usually tell it's him because of the kind of comments he makes -- these terse non sequiturs, often declaring something bad by (strained) connection to something else which is bad (often a connection which exists only in the sense that he made it, and is based on nothing identifiable as logic).

Blogger Aquila Aquilonis January 15, 2015 10:49 AM  

Hahahahahah. You said bugaboos.

Anonymous Don January 15, 2015 10:49 AM  

Some entertaining writers had recognizable 'tics'. Andre Norton, Robert Heinlein, Leigh Brackett, Neal Stephenson, Robert Howard, Stirling, etc. Not surprising that trolls have the same.

Blogger MidKnight January 15, 2015 11:05 AM  

RE: #2 - while much more indirect - a pattern also begins to emerge from what is avoided as well. What someone hides can reveal what they perceive as a vulnerability

Anonymous MendoScot January 15, 2015 11:23 AM  

Super summary. Thanks.

Anonymous Murgy Troyd January 15, 2015 11:36 AM  

Melvin (iirc) was based on a real life troll of the board where Larry was a moderator for a number of years. Among his more memorable trolling antics were things like "tactical wheelbarrow" and "debarked chihuahua". His posting decreased after he was invited to be a guest at Uncle Sam's Striped Sunlight Hotel for a few years

Anonymous MendoScot January 15, 2015 11:36 AM  

Don't permit the readers to engage with the troll.

So, at what point does the chew toy become off-limits?

Anonymous Susan January 15, 2015 11:41 AM  

VD, Your point #3 is why the legal system has taken so long to catch up with the rest of us when it comes to dealing with online stalking and other forms of illegality.
Most people, particularly the older more luddite generation still don't get it, IMO. Stalking is stalking, whether or not you have physical evidence in your hand or not.

Blogger John Wright January 15, 2015 11:56 AM  

An excellent and succinct list.

Blogger rcocean January 15, 2015 12:32 PM  

I wonder how many counter-productive troll attackers are in fact Sock puppets of the troll. Or are people who continue to engage trolls after being told not to that stupid?

Blogger Quadko January 15, 2015 12:44 PM  

Thanks for taking the time to expand on this, much appreciated. My biggest surprise is how one apparently "somewhat off" individual could have such a big impact across a width of the internet. I guess it shows what a magnifying force the internet is, and correlates to RL criminal activity. It just never occurred to me to think of it that way.

And the other thing, wouldn't it be nice to have the time such people apparently have! So many constructive things could be accomplished. But then, "I yearn my livin'"* is indeed a constructive thing that is taking that time up.


*Gratuitius G&S Patience reference.

Blogger Mekadave January 15, 2015 12:58 PM  

I suddenly can't help but wonder if Larry Correia's Melvin character from the Monster Hunter books is based on Yama.

I'm pretty sure he used to troll Larry as well.


Yup, Yama showed up on Larry's board several times, mostly as Clamps and Alauda, IIRC. I think he used more IDs because Larry would ban him after awhile, but I can't remember what they were.

Anonymous Idle Spectator January 15, 2015 1:50 PM  

2.Be patient. A security expert has told me that no one can regularly comment without giving away their true identity within one year.

Haha, bullshit. Then again I am able to alter my write-print at will. I even alter certain words like "color" goes to "colour." Oh shit, I spilled the beans.

It's not just one little thing, it's word choices, sentence structures, rhythm, the use of rhetorical devices, and so forth. Once I am familiar with an individual's style, I can usually recognize it in a matter of sentences.

Usually, said the Laedamonianian. (I borrowed that rhetorical device from Vox) Ye cats!

Remember, the troll is in it for the attention, so hiding even the smallest significant aspects of his identity places him fundamentally at conflict with his own instincts and desires.

That's probably true.

Anonymous Rex Little January 15, 2015 2:07 PM  

Jail sentences of up to 5 years and fines in the five digits are common.

Is it actually common for such penalties to be imposed? Or are you just saying that many jurisdictions have laws on the books providing for them?

Anonymous WaterBoy January 15, 2015 2:12 PM  

Overall, a very good list and explanation.

From #3: "The fact that you CAN access a site does not automatically give you permission to do so any more than the fact that you CAN physically access someone's lawn gives you permission to walk on it."

With the caveat that this depends on the provider's TOS. If you OWN the domain/computer/resources being accessed, it's true.

But if you subscribe to a service provided by another entity, like Blogger/Google, it's their TOS which must be adhered to. Then it's more akin to hosting a reception in a ballroom at a hotel; you may have a guest list, but it's up to the hotel staff to determine whether or not to show the partycrasher to the door.

And of course the stalking aspect has legal relevance no matter what...the above only applies to who is allowed to use the service.

Anonymous ticticboom January 15, 2015 2:38 PM  

Yeah, I remember the post at Larry's where the Clamps persona was attacking Larry's ability as a writer, and someone who must've seen it here posted Yama's "Greetings, wayfarers!" masterpiece. There wasn't enough left to make bait when everyone was done. Maybe chum.

Anonymous Stickwick January 15, 2015 2:39 PM  

rcocean: Or are people who continue to engage trolls after being told not to that stupid?

It seems to be a compulsion. The troll dangles the bait, and some people just can't resist. They can't believe that the troll is not only not discouraged by the negative response, but gets a charge from it. I dunno if that counts as solipsism or what, but whatever it is, it's pretty irrational.

What's really fun to watch is a failed trolling attempt in a venue where the commenters resist responding. The troll throws out some bait, no response, throws out juicier bait, no response, maybe tries a third time with something really provocative, no response, and then the troll disappears.

Anonymous VD January 15, 2015 4:08 PM  

Or are people who continue to engage trolls after being told not to that stupid?

It's not so much stupidity as being self-centered and short-sighted. They don't care about the long-term consequences for everyone else, they are simply seeking their own momentary entertainment.

OpenID standingagainsttheworld January 15, 2015 4:22 PM  

@VD

I do often wonder why some trolls stalk a person like yourself so long? Its like they have nothing better to do with the lives.

Excellent post by the way.

Blogger automatthew January 15, 2015 6:35 PM  

VD: "It's not so much stupidity as being self-centered and short-sighted. They don't care about the long-term consequences for everyone else, they are simply seeking their own momentary entertainment."

I don't think that's always true. Really excellent trolls like Tad make comments that are well calculated to draw angry or frustrated responses from reasonable men.

Anonymous Salt January 15, 2015 7:00 PM  

OT -

I was told at dinner that Duke changed its mind after receiving a letter from Rev. Billy Graham. No Muslim calls to prayer.

Blogger James Dixon January 15, 2015 7:52 PM  

> Maybe I'm misreading here, but are you saying that someone can be banned - with the backing of the law - from going to a particular public website (i.e. one requiring no password) and reading what's on it?

Legally, yes. Doing so effectively is much more difficult.

> Then again I am able to alter my write-print at will.

Superficially, yes. But there are always clues, Idle. It's like trying to hide the fact that you're left or right handed in real life.

Anonymous GreyS January 15, 2015 8:10 PM  

And not only am I smarter and more persistent than they are, but I am entirely accustomed to being attacked. They are not.

This is the entire thing right here. No one who reads this blog in any long-term way could fail to realize if VD is anything he is persistent. Sooner or later-- he will get ya.

But then-- no normal, clear-thinking person engages in this sort of behavior, and the usual stop signs don't register.

Anonymous John January 15, 2015 9:27 PM  

You'd think trolls might use VPNs. I mean, I'm sure the government could figure out his real I.P. address, but I'd also think the usual blog owner could not. As a blog owner, could you determine whether somebody was using a VPN "I.P." vs a real I.P.? Just curious, because I've often wondered just how effective VPNs are at masking real I.Ps.

Blogger James Dixon January 15, 2015 11:14 PM  

> Just curious, because I've often wondered just how effective VPNs are at masking real I.Ps.

AFAIK, very effective. But it's still an IP address you can track. As long as it stays the same or in the same IP address range, it doesn't matter to the blog owner whether it's a VPN address or the real physical IP address. It merely makes it harder to determine the physical location.

Blogger Cargosquid January 17, 2015 8:50 PM  

I don't know if you've been told of this sighting.
http://thoughtcatalog.com/tanya-cohen/2015/01/why-do-americans-reject-human-rights-when-the-whole-world-embraces-them/#comment-1794230076

yamamanama MoonliteSonata • 2 days ago

Heinlein didn't write novels, he wrote aphorisms with flimsy strands of story strung between them.

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Tom Kratman yamamanama • 2 days ago

Does the Marshfield PD know you're back on the computer, Andrew?
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yamamanama Tom Kratman • 2 days ago

You mean to tell me that you don't really believe in freedom of speech?
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Tom Kratman yamamanama • 2 days ago

I asked a question, Andrew. If you don't want to answer it, so be it.
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yamamanama Tom Kratman • 2 days ago

You seem to be under some delusions.
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Tom Kratman yamamanama • 2 days ago

No, I am quite certain that a) I asked a question and, b) don't really care if you don't want to answer it.

Hey can I borrow _two_ cups of captive beads of brilliant golden sunlight? See, i want to make a purple-sequined survival suit in my factory that is devoid of life, but only for this evening. (Those who get the joke will get it, those who won't, won't.)

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