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Don't feed the troll: your survival guide to internet bullies

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They are the snarling beasts lying in the dark ditches of the internet.

The so-called 'trolls' of Twitter and Facebook thrive on misery, tormenting celebrities and ordinary people alike by sending abuse and even threats of violence.

Some have been tracked down by the police and taken to court.

Others have been exposed as sad and lonely individuals living for their 140-character exchanges with their prey.

Troll victim – historian Mary Beard

Yet it is a minority that do this, even though for the victim, alone and confronted by message after message, it doesn't feel like it. Millions and millions of people use Facebook, Twitter and other networks to make new friends and share links to funny videos. The oddballs who think it's all right to express the deepest, darkest corners of their personalities unfortunately spoil it for everyone.

Anonymity helps a lot of trolls, although some make absolutely no secret of who they are.

He said: "There may be a number of potential explanations for trolls.

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"On the internet it is much easier to hide one's identity.

"For instance, one can remain completely anonymous from other online users because in many online spaces we have complete control over how much identity information we choose to disclose. When we are anonymous, the real life repercussions of our actions are reduced and therefore we feel less restrained.

"Because many people also view the online world as being quite separate from the offline world, it is easy for them to dissociate their online activities from their offline personas.

"Even when we are not anonymous however, we are afforded some degree of protection because the people we are interacting with often live in geographically dispersed locations.

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"Therefore, the chances of meeting these people offline are actually quite slim. Trolls also rarely come face to face with their victims. They therefore don't see the extreme emotional responses that their actions produce in others, meaning that the emotional impact is reduced."

Dr Fullwood said trolls may be motivated by revenge, boredom or attention-seeking, with young people especially vulnerable to their attacks.

"This may be because when we are young we are still discovering who we are, and therefore use the internet more for self-promotion, which might open us up to trolls," he said. "Some trolls may purposely stir up a reaction from others because they take some form of pleasure from the extreme emotions that they provoke.

"The best advice is indeed to not feed the troll. As attention seeking is likely to be a key motivation for trolling, by ignoring the troll then this is likely to discourage further transgressions as it would not give them the response that they were hoping for.

"We should also make young adults and children feel comfortable about approaching their parents or teachers when they are exposed to trolls. Reporting abusive behaviour to site administrators may also result in offending materials being removed or perpetrators being blocked."

But what do you do when you're the online equivalent of the Bill Goats Gruff trip-trapping over the bridge that is the internet and the trolls look like they want to devour your last bit of self esteem?

Here's the Express & Star's five-point plan:

1. Know your enemy

Trolls persistently bombard you with abuse or threats. They're not just people who disagree with you, even passionately. As far as you're concerned, you can just remember Voltaire and accept that everyone is entitled to their opinion. Even the idiots. That said, the first course of action you can take to stop yourself being persistently attacked applies to trolls and basic pillocks alike. Twitter and Facebook have a 'block' button. That means you can stop yourself from receiving their messages.

2. Don't feed the troll

Nothing winds up a troll more than being ignored. The whole reason for their thoroughly unpleasant behaviour is that they want to get a reaction out of you. They are desperate to know that you are upset or angry. They will insist upon having the last word. Reason and rational debate do not work on a troll. It's like sprinkling water on an inferno of stupidity. Best just let them burn themselves out. Remind yourself that they're not worth it and are probably just a sad loser with nothing else to do.

3. Report the abuse

Cannock's Stan Collymore, the broadcaster and former footballer, has had a horrendous time of late with racial taunts. He has been campaigning for tighter rules and regulations. But Twitter will not act unless people use the facilities they have at the moment to contact them with complaints. And the police will also take action if there is evidence of threats. So if it gets really bad, take a screengrab and save it.

4. Don't suffer alone

Troll Oliver Eric Rawlings apologised to the historian Mary Beard after another Twitter user threatened to tell his mum. Parents need to encourage their children to tell them if they are being abused. Children today will have far more exposure to the online world than their parents. To them, what is said on Facebook, Twitter and others is as real and as serious as if it was said in the corridor at school.

5. Pity them

Some trolls are rather tragic individuals. Take agoraphobic Frank Zimmerman, who abused the former Conservative MP Louise Mensch. He told Mrs Mensch she faced a 'Sophie's Choice', a reference to the film in which the main character has to choose between the life of her son or daughter in a Nazi concentration camp. Yet Zimmerman, with his scruffy beard, living in a run-down house and unable to venture outside, cut a sad figure. He became a national figure of hatred and ridicule.

Remember: The most depressing thing of all is not to be the object of obsession for someone online, it's actually being the troll. They crave reaction and attention. Above all else, some of them probably just need a friend.

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