2020 is a big year for progressive political activists, which means it is also a big year for some of our biggest adversaries: online trolls and nefarious bots. We now know that bots built by ill-intentioned organizations and state actors influenced the 2016 presidential election, and we can expect the same in 2020.

The good news is that identifying, responding to, and reporting trolls and bots is not difficult – and something that every grassroots organizer should know how to do.

What is a troll?

A troll is someone who deliberately provokes you and your followers on social media. Their goal is gain attention by saying mean, angry, and inflammatory things to upset you and your followers. They are NOT people who are simply frustrated or confused, and are looking for genuine resolution.

What is a bot?

Bots are automated programs, not real people. However, they may generate posts and other content that looks very similar to real content – especially content that mimics real life trolls. For this reason they can be difficult to distinguish, but a little savvy sleuthing usually quickly reveals whether or not it’s a real person.

It’s important to note that not all bots are bad! There are bots that give weather updates, answer common questions, post sports scores, or tweet edits made to Wikipedia from IP addresses in Congress. As with any technology, a bot is not inherently bad or good – it’s how humans use and interact with the technology that determines its worth.

How to identify bots on social media

There is no surefire way to identify a bot, but common sense goes a long way. When reviewing their social media account, ask yourself:

  1. Do they have a picture that looks genuine and like it should match someone of their profile? Or, is it:
  • Blurry / low quality with no people in it
  • Suspiciously similar to a stock photo
  • Of a different age / gender / demographic than the rest of the profile
  • Of a person, but their face and other identifying information are obscured
  1. Can you find the origin of their profile pic using a reverse image search?
  2. Do they post at strange times for their alleged time zone?
  3. Do they post a LOT, every day (every few minutes)?
  4. Is their spelling / grammar / sentence formation not quite right?
    • Note that this shouldn’t be confused with someone for whom English is a second language. People trying to communicate in a second language may make a grammatical error, but it’s usually clear what their genuine intent is. Errors made by a bot are usually nonsensical and fragmented.
  5. Do they have other social media accounts and a digital footprint that match?
    • This can be a key way to identify a bot from a troll. A troll is a real person (albeit, a mean person). Trolls may even have perfectly respectable day jobs and social lives – a bot does not.
  6. If it is a bot, please take the time to report it! This helps the entire ecosystem. See below for instructions.

How to respond to trolls

Once you’ve determined that you’re dealing with a troll and not a bot, it’s time to find a solution. Trolls are real people, and they should be handled differently from bots (although it can be difficult to tell the difference). The key thing to remember is: a troll is out to make you angry, so if you respond with anger it will only feed them.

At Sister District, many of our volunteer teams have private Facebook groups and pages for their teams. If a troll gets onto your private page or group, feel free to immediately ban them and delete the comment.

But on a public page or post, deleting comments (however unkind) can sometimes look like you are trying to “cover up” something negative. On public Facebook or Instagram pages and posts, we recommend simply replying to the comment and explaining that it violates the Sister District Code of Conduct, so you are removing their commenting privileges. If the comment is bad enough that it also violates the platform’s Terms of Service, report the account user to the platform as well.

How to report bots

We strongly encourage you to flag and report bots to the relevant social media platform. It may feel futile, but it’s critical that we do our part to combat the influence of nefarious bots on our elections and public discourse. Most social media platforms have made it easier to flag or report users – it’s typically done by going directly to the user’s account. However, processes change quickly so do a quick Help Desk search for the most up-to-date guidelines on how to report a suspected bot.