'I Am In No Way This’: Troll Hunters and Pragmatic Digital Self-Reference

Michael Lee Humphrey


If personae are masks used to communicate a certain character in performance, what happens in rapid unmaskings, especially as they occur in digital space? That question is central to the phenomenon of “troll-hunting.” Employing both journalistic and algorithmic tools, troll hunters unmask the offline identity of purveyors of digital hate speech, child pornography, illegal commerce and more. Digital citizens have concerned themselves with the efficacy, privacy, and ethics of such hunting, but have not as frequently explored another area: The narrative distance between a digital persona and a perceived “real”person behind that persona. Such distances can range from some version of the sentiment, "I am in no way this kind of person" to a comfortable coupling between online-offline selves, even during public shaming. Using textual analysis, I critically examine statements of those whose digital troll persona were unmasked, with special attention to the word I and the dissonance in offline-online personae, long discussed by academics, but also becoming an increasingly practical concern.


Internet persona, troll-hunting, digital self, anonymity, narrative of self

Full Text:



Anscombe, G.E.M. 1958, ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’, Philosophy, vol. 33, no. 124, pp. 1–19.

Anscombe, G.E.M. 1975, ‘The First Person’, In S. D. Guttenplan (ed.), Mind and Language, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 45–65.

Bishop, J. 2013, Examining the Concepts, Issues, and Implications of Internet Trolling, IGI Global, Hershey.

Chen, A. 2012, ‘Unmasking Reddit’s Violentacrez, The Biggest Troll on the Web’, Gawker, 12 Oct, retrieved 2 Aug 2017, http://gawker.com/5950981/unmasking-reddits-violentacrez-the-biggest-troll-on-the-web.

Clarke, R. 1994, ‘The digital persona and its application to data surveillance’, The Information Society, vol. 10 no. 2, pp. 77–92.

Daubney, M. 2015, ‘Britain’s vilest troll: “I’m here to expose hypocrisy’, The Daily Telegraph, 5 Feb, retrieved 2 August 2017, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/11390745/Britains-vilest-troll-Im-here-to-expose-hypocrisy.html.

Davies, C. & Conlan, T. 2015, ‘Woman killed herself after being doorstepped over McCann trolling’, The Guardian, 20 Mar, retrieved 7 Sept 2017, http://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/mar/20/sky-news-mccann-brenda-leyland.

Dennett, D.C. 1992, ‘The self as a center of narrative gravity’, in F. Kessel, P. Cole, & D. Johnson (eds.), Self and Consciousness: Multiple Perspectives, Erlbaum, Hillsdale, pp. 275–288.

Dynel, M. 2016, ‘“Trolling is not stupid”: Internet trolling as the art of deception serving entertainment’, Intercultural Pragmatics, vol. 13, no. 3, p. 49.

Edstrom, M. 2016, ‘The Trolls Disappear in the Light: Swedish Experiences of Mediated Sexualised Hate Speech in the Aftermath of Behring Breivik’, International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, vol. 5, no. 2, pp. 96–106.

Elwell, J.S. 2014, ‘The transmediated self: Life between the digital and the analog’, Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, vol. 20, no. 2, pp. 233–249.

Fairclough, N. 2003, Analysing Discourse: Textual Analysis for Social Research, Routledge, New York.

Hermans, H.J.M. 1996, ‘Voicing the self: From information processing to dialogical interchange’, Psychological bulletin, vol. 119, no. 1, pp. 31-50.

Kaczynski, A. 2017, ‘How CNN found the Reddit user behind the Trump wrestling GIF’, CNN, Available at: 5 Jul, retrieved 2 Aug 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/07/04/politics/kfile-reddit-user-trump-tweet/index.html.

Kripke, S.A. 1982, Wittgenstein on rules and private language: An elementary exposition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

McAdams, D.P. 1985, Power, intimacy, and the life story, The Guilford Press, New York.

McRae, S. 2017, ‘“Get Off My Internets”: How Anti-Fans Deconstruct Lifestyle Bloggers’ Authenticity Work’, Persona Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 13–27.

Milner, R.M. 2013, ‘Hacking the Social: Internet Memes, Identity Antagonism, and the Logic of Lulz’, The Fibreculture Journal, no. 22, retrieved 2 Aug 2017, http://twentytwo.fibreculturejournal.org/fcj-156-hacking-the-social-internet-memes-identity-antagonism-and-the-logic-of-lulz.

Morrissey, B.C. & Yell, S. 2016, ‘Performative trolling: Szubanski, Gillard, Dawson and the nature of the utterance’, Persona Studies, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 26–40.

Murfitt & Luck 2013, ‘Father of six who is one of Britain’s vilest internet trolls exposed after posting sick jokes about Hillsborough disaster’, Mail Online. 7 Sept, retrieved 7 September 2017, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2415122/Twitter-troll-unmasked-Father-Britains-vilest-internet-trolls-exposed-posting-sick-jokes-Hillsborough-disaster.html.

Nolan, M.P. 2015, ‘Learning to Circumvent the Limitations of the Written-Self: The Rhetorical Benefits of Poetic Fragmentation and Internet “Catfishing”’, Persona Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 53-64.

Romano, A. 2017, ‘Trump’s anti-CNN tweet originated from Reddit's largest right-wing extremist forum’, Vox, 3 Jul, retrieved 1 Sept 2017, https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/7/3/15913966/trump-cnn-wrestling-tweet-the-donald-origins.

Rovane, C. 2004, ‘A nonnaturalist account of personal identity’, in M. De Caro & D. Macarthur (eds.), Naturalism in question, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp. 231–258.

Smith, P. Read, 2014, ‘The Deleted Tweets Brenda Leyland Sent About The McCanns Before She Died’, BuzzFeed, 6 Oct, retrieved 2 Aug 2017, https://www.buzzfeed.com/patricksmith/read-the-deleted-tweets-brenda-leyland-sent-the-mccanns.

Thomas, E. 2014, ‘Twitter troll: What I said was utterly appalling and disgusting’, BBC, 16 Nov, retrieved 2 Aug 2017, http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/30075370/twitter-troll-what-i-said-was-utterly-appalling-and-disgusting.

Turkle, S. 1995, Life on the Screen, Simon & Schuster, New York.

Werning, S. 2017, ‘The persona in autobiographical game-making as a playful performance of the self’, Persona Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 28–42.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21153/ps2017vol3no2art673


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License | ISSN 2205-5258