How to avoid twitter trolls and online bullies

Unfortunately you may encounter a troll or bully online.  Even within agriculture, although “on the same side”.  There’s a difference between trolls & bullies:

What is an online “troll”?

A ‘troll’ is someone angry or bitter who pokes around spoiling for a fight online; who is very deliberately provocative.

Usually trolls will go on their merry way if you ignore them, and you never cross paths again.  They’re often far more vitriolic than bullies as  usually their account is either fake or anonymous, so they aren’t identifiable.  But in the scheme of things they aren’t as bad because they do go away. Unlike bullies.

What are the classic signs of an online bully?

There’s two aspects which when combined, equate to bullying.  The main aspect is that the behaviour is persistent/ongoing – possibly stretching over years.  Bullies don’t forget and move on.  The other is the personal nature of the negativity, aimed to hurt.  As distinct from expressions of polite disagreement with facts or an opinion, which can lead to useful discussion.

Online bullies are people who persistently harass, belittle, criticise, torment.   They don’t ‘agree to disagree’, they don’t walk away, they persist with force.  Another classic bully trait? Bullies  never apologise for mistakes.  They don’t think they make any.  Many bullies exhibit the classic features of a psychopath; they can appear charming, but deep down are devoid of empathy and self-awareness.

There’s a number of ways online bullies work:

  • Scrolling back through your tweets and retweeting anything you wrote that they know their followers are likely to react negatively to.  (Without a care as to whether it’s taken out of context or not – clarification of meaning is never sought.) Then sitting back & watching their followers throw rocks at you; while of course feigning innocence.  This is classic twitter troll/bully behaviour, although quite a few people who aren’t bullies, do this without realising the potential fallout. Personally, I’ve never retweeted something I haven’t agreed with and cannot understand why anyone would ever do so, with positive intentions.  Far better to respond to a tweet you don’t agree with yourself, than retweet it as-is; as this just looks like you’re encouraging your followers to say what you haven’t got the gumption to.  “Getting someone else to do your dirty work”, so to speak.  At the very least, retweeting a message you don’t agree with encourages bullies to get busy. If you don’t agree with something someone else said, either speak up and say so, or leave it well alone.
  • Bullies will often follow the accounts of people they disagree wildly with.  No two people will agree on everything and if we did, the world would never become a better place.  I like variety however if someone I’m following is tweeting truckloads of stuff that really really grates, I unfollow them to remove the temptation to engage in pointless conversations.  Bullies, on the other hand, will happily follow someone they deeply disagree with or despise, as it’s fuel for their fire.
  • Persistently only ever responding to your tweets with fault-finding remarks can tip over into bullying if the comments are not just polite disagreement but remarks aimed to hurt and perhaps also damage your reputation.   Perhaps by sneering, innuendo or implying untrustworthiness etc – ie more subtle damage than simply swearing and ranting (which simply shows the sender up for who they are).
  • Curiously, bullies often forget that the beauty of social media is that it is free – people can write whatever they like, within the law, and they also have the right to remain silent and not respond.  People are free to state opinions with no obligation to explain these opinions to anyone.  Classic bully behaviour is belittling someone who has chosen to not respond to questions.  Being ignored tends to enrage bullies; they just cannot abide not being in control.
  • Bullies who are blocked will sometimes open up a new account and follow you with the new account (which may be easily identifiable as theirs, but more often than not, it’s anonymous, so you don’t realise they’re lurking and reading what you’re writing).  Blocking someone is a way of conveying, ‘I don’t want to converse with you (for whatever reason), go away and leave me alone’.  It’s the best response to trolls and bullies. Using another account to follow someone who has blocked you, is akin to creepy stalking.  And it’s a weird thing to do.  Who on earth wants to talk to someone who has quite clearly indicated they don’t want to talk to you?  Never ever follow someone who has blocked you, with another account.  And if you find someone has done this to you, report them for harrassment.  It is a cast-iron hallmark of a bully; someone who refuses to take no for an answer, who pokes their head in your window because you’ve slammed the front door shut.
  • Mistakes happen.  Sometimes a group conversation on twitter starts to turn bad, and participants are accidentally caught up with someone who has stepped over from feisty conversation into bullying. Usually the penny will drop regarding what is happening and other participants will go silent.  Sometimes someone might be passionate about a particular issue close to their heart and get carried away with persistence or sharp words, or they’re simply having a bad day or immersed in stressful events.  People in this category are able to realise their mistake and are able to apologise for it, albeit sometimes this has been done privately, for diplomacy reasons, rather than publicly.   If someone has upset you and they look reasonable, it’s smart to contact them privately to discuss it. Nine times out of ten the air is cleared and everyone benefits.  Tweeting just 140 characters at a time leaves little room for niceties and detailed explanations; misunderstandings are easy. The nature of passionate people who care about the planet is that they can get carried away with enthusiasm.  This is different to through-and-through bullies, who classically seem to lack the powers of self-reflection. In fact often when bullies are called to account, they will accuse the victim of bullying them, or of being paranoid or over sensitive.  Feigned victimhood is classic bully behaviour.

Bullies can pop up anywhere, unfortunately. As bullying is often driven by insecurity and/or jealousy, the higher profile someone is, the more likely it is that they’ll attract the attention of bullies.

What can be done about online bullies?

  • Block and report them, if the behaviour is persistent (particularly vicious, or lasting days).
  • Private conversations may reveal that others have had issues with the same people. Naturally this won’t be discussed publicly, as to do so would potentially result in a big drama (plus a hail of spears). Private conversations may shed light on a pattern of behaviour independently observed by others, and alleviate misplaced beliefs that you’re in some way responsible for what happened, or shed light on what could be done better.
  • If you notice someone you know being bullied, you may want to contact them privately, for a chinwag.  Being bullied at a low patch can be the catalyst that results in suicide.  It’s best not to presume everyone you know is feeling 100% ok.  Ask if they are ok and listen to the answer.  Sometimes the people who appear happiest on the outside are those struggling the most.
  • If you see someone you follow on twitter bullying someone else, and you’re not able to speak to them about it, at least unfollow them.   Don’t tolerate abhorrent behaviour, just because it’s not you on the receiving end.  If you associate with bullies, you risk being viewed as condoning their behaviour and newcomers may not realise they are playing with fire by associating with them.


Avoiding trolls is relatively easy – steer clear of zealots and favourite zealot topics.

Zealot personalities have standard traits:

  • Focused on one issue, often exclusively.
  • Zealots have no intentions of ever changing their minds, so are absolutely deaf to even incontrovertible facts presented to them.  This renders conversation pointless (unless you’re happy to just agree with everything said).
  • Usually abusive when disagreed with.
  • Quite often zeal is a result of a traumatic event earlier in life (deserving of sympathy), or some other deep source of unhappiness.

What issues and causes are typically taken up by zealots?

  • anti-meat eating (veganism)
  • anti-abortion campaigning
  • anti-religion (oddly enough; the anti-religious fanatics are far more prolific, vitriolic and unprepared to ‘live and let live’ than pro-religion zealots; certainly in Australia)
  • anti-racism
  • pro-gun control
  • pro-animal rights (extremists)
  • pro-refugees
  • politics (of all persuasions)
  • euthanasia

If you steer clear of these topics, you’re unlikely to encounter a troll.


As much as observing others is vital, so is self-awareness. Social media – especially Facebook & Twitter – is best avoided:

  • If you have a significant mental health issue. Social media is unlikely to help and very likely to make things seem worse.  Stick to small & private groups of close friends.
  • If you’ve been drinking alcohol.
  • If you’re going through a tough patch or have something you’re really strugging with.

There have been some well-publicised instances of public figures having a nasty dig at someone, then receiving a hail of rocks in return, then kicking up a fuss. If you poke sticks up logs you must be prepared to deal with whatever comes running out of the log. Don’t light fires if you aren’t prepared to deal with a bushfire!

Really understand the difference between how men & women communicate:

Differences aren’t as obvious verbally, but magnified in writing. And the shorter the written communication, the more obvious the gulf between women and men. To summarise: most men cut to the chase and many women mistakenly interpret this as rudeness. Many women add qualifiers & faff around, and men often interpret this as waftiness, not to be taken seriously – or even just ignored outright. When emailing you’re talking to one person so tailoring your speech to suit that one person is easy. Twitter is talking to the masses so what a bloke might think is succinct & interesting a woman may feel hit over the head with. Before taking offence, be mindful that there is always the risk of misinterpretation.  Have a look at their conversations with other people. Is this just their usual style? If Twitter has taught me one thing, it’s don’t be too quick to presume someone is having a poke. Learn to recognise the difference between cheeky, a dry sense of humour and someone who enjoys debating issues or banter – and someone who is just out to bring you down.

PS:  Regarding trolls and online rows, remember:

  1. Just because someone tweets something factually wrong, extremely offensive or nasty – doesn’t mean you have to respond. In fact, the best way to put out a fire is to starve it of oxygen. When it comes to individual fanatics of all kinds – they won’t listen to your opinion, you will NEVER change their mind, so unless you’re wanting some patience practice, don’t waste time and energy on them.  It may just raise your blood pressure and lead you down the temptation path of losing your cool.  Don’t follow such people, ignore them.  Instead, engage in discussions with fence-sitters and moderates.  Responding in any way to fanatics simply encourages their impression that they’re doing some good, because someone is listening.  However, organisations are a different kettle of fish. Because they are identifiable so must usually behave in some sort of restrained manner, and have the power to influence the opinions of many others, yes it is worth responding to offensive or untruthful messages.  But do it in a calm & logical fashion (don’t be a troll yourself or encourage others to be).  Be aware that engaging with an organisation may then result in followers throwing rocks at you (ie the followers do the ‘dirty work’ while the organisation keeps it’s hands clean.  Animal rights extremist organisations are a classic example of this.   And many have set up alerts for key words, so online crusaders can pop up unexpectedly after tweets on certain topics.)
  2. When retweeting a message or commenting on something written by someone completely unfamiliar, it’s wise to check who they are first. Look at their profile; their pic, twitter account name, bio, location and most importantly – the sort of tweets they’ve been sending. Trolls are usually very obvious (dodgy pic, aggressive or nasty account name, no location,  suss followers/followings, sneering tweets; etc).  Some trolls have gathered thousands of followers so never presume a large following equates to decent behaviour.
  3. Stick to a good motto for life; just do your best and give it a red hot go. And if you stuff up, apologise sincerely to who needs to hear it. And move on, with the intention of not making the same mistake in future. Don’t let anyone beat you with a stick for something you’ve genuinely apologised for. Some people are simply looking for a whipping boy due to other frustrations in their life. Feel sorry for them & wave goodbye.
  4. Just as in life generally, you will not please everyone on twitter.  Refuse to let that bother you. Have a ‘life and let live’ attitude but be honest and forthright. The world isn’t made better by people who agree with everything.

All advice I try to stick to myself & don’t always get right, but after a few thousand tweets, I have improved!