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


  • Michael Lee Humphrey Colorado State University, USA




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


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 sometimes just puckish behaviour. 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 made by those whose digital troll persona were unmasked. I pay special attention to the word ‘I’ and the dissonance in offline-online personae, long discussed by academics, but also becoming an increasingly practical concern.


Download data is not yet available.

Author Biography

  • Michael Lee Humphrey, Colorado State University, USA

    Michael Humphrey is a Visiting Assistant Professor in digital media and entrepreneurial journalism at Colorado State University, where he also recently completed his Ph.D. in Public Communication. His research focuses on life writing and memory in digital spaces. In addition, he covers digital community and marketing as a contributor for Forbes.com.


Anscombe, GEM 1958, ‘Modern moral philosophy’, Philosophy, vol. 33, no. 124, pp. 1–19.

— 1975, ‘The first person’, in SD 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.

— 2014, Digital teens and the ‘antisocial network’: Prevalence of troublesome online youth groups and internet trolling in Great Britain. International Journal of E-Politics, vol. 5, no.2, pp. 1–15.

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, DC 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.

Dibbell, J 1993, ‘A rape in cyberspace: how an evil clown, a Haitian trickster spirit, two wizards, and a cast of dozens turned a database into a society’, The Village Voice, 23 Dec, retrieved 19 Oct 2017, http://www.juliandibbell.com/texts/bungle_vv.html.

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.

Fairclough, N 2003, Analysing discourse: textual analysis for social research, Routledge, New York.

Hermans, HJM 1996, ‘Voicing the self: from information processing to dialogical interchange’, Psychological Bulletin, vol. 119, no. 1, pp. 31-50.

Jurgenson, N 2011, ‘Digital dualism versus augmented reality’, Cyborgology, 24 Feb, retrieved 19 Oct 2017, https://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2011/02/24/digital-dualism-versus-augmented-reality/.

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

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

Murfitt, N & Luck, A 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, MP 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.

Phillips, W 2011, ‘LOLing at tragedy: Facebook trolls, memorial pages and resistance to grief online’, First Monday, 5 Dec 2011, retrieved 19 Oct 2017, http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3168.

Phillips, W & Milner, RM 2017, The ambivalent Internet: mischief, oddity, and antagonism online, John Wiley & Sons, New York.

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 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 1984 Second self, 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






Open Submission Articles

How to Cite

’I Am In No Way This’: Troll Hunters and Pragmatic Digital Self-Reference. (2017). Persona Studies, 3(2), 21-34. https://doi.org/10.21153/ps2017vol3no2art673