An expert explains the tools at your disposal to find out who is behind an anonymous account
An online safety expert has said the prevalence of trolls on social media platforms has soared in recent years after BBC presenter Stephen Nolan announced a second settlement with an anonymous troll.
Two Twitter users have paid out six and five-figure sums respectively after the presenter accepted apologies and settlements in lieu of a court defamation action against the trolls, who remained anonymous as part of the arrangement with defamation lawyer Paul Tweed.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Nolan said a personal security team took “a number of months” to track down those behind the anonymous accounts.
Wayne Denner, an expert with 15 years experience in the area of online safety, said it’s a growing problem for social media users and companies alike.
He has met victims who have been targeted by trolls and said “for the most part, there’s very little that does get done. Tragically, it does have an impact on their mental health and wellbeing”.
“The social media platforms have more work to do but it’s a grey area around whether you should be allowed be anonymous online, privacy is important but at what point does that change in relation to something like this? You have to protect the end user. It’s definitely getting worse,” he said.
Stephen Nolan’s security team could have used a number of methods — but what can be done to track down a troll?
Study the Twitter account
This is the first method which should be used before going down any other route, said Mr Denner. “I would do a review of the specific account, their followers, the types of accounts that account is also following.
“It’s very much like detective work where you’re looking for clues and you’re going to get small indications as you start to look at the types of tweets they’re sending, the engagement they’re getting and who is following them,” he said.
Google the username
The anonymous troll may have repurposed their username or a similar handle over a number of other accounts, sometimes over a number of years. “They may not be as private as the individual thinks,” said Mr Denner.
It can form part of the puzzle when it comes to unlocking the identity of those behind malicious tweets. How to go about searching for a username? Just copy and paste the handle into a search engine and carry out some keyword searches, advised the expert.
“Some accounts offer better anonymity than others. That username might be tied to multiple accounts online and whenever those original accounts were set up, they may now have been forgotten about. Information may be available on the public account which may give you more of a clue to dig a bit further,” he said.
Search for IP addresses
An IP, or internet protocol, address gives the physical location and Internet connection characteristics of a web visitor.
Websites keep track of these for various reasons and they are mostly used to create target advertisements that pop up on websites or social media platforms while browsing.
The use of IP addresses to search for the identity of a social media user is commonly referenced as an effective way to track a troll but Mr Denner said it’s not the silver bullet many believe it is. “How much that will give you is debatable, it won’t give you much information to go on,” he said. “It will tell you a bit of geographic information about where the tweet was sent from but it won’t give you a street name or house number so you can call round.”
Go to the platform itself
Approaching a social media platform can lead to going down a legal route to track down a user, sometimes involving sending a subpoena to a company to ask them to work with you to find more information.
“It depends on the situation and the nature of what’s happened,” said Mr Denner. “They may be supportive in some cases and may not be in others. Social media platforms are getting bombarded with this information every day of the week and it might go into some black hole email address that will never get looked at,” he said. “It depends on whether the terms of service have been breached or has it crossed over into harassment or abuse.”
Use baiting techniques
Even anonymous accounts or trolls are susceptible to being befriended to try and draw them out, said Mr Denner.
“This is not a new technique but has frequently been deployed in the online space to catch someone in the act. It’s not high-tech but I suspect Stephen Nolan’s team might have used this along with a number of other techniques used on the internet for some period of time.
“This has in the past been very successful and can play the troll at their own game,” he added.
Try to get more information
If you can find out the mobile number of an account it can be very useful, said the expert.
“Many accounts when you set them up, force you to use a mobile phone number for security in their two-step verification. That in itself is valuable because if you’re able to obtain that, you can find the user behind the mobile phone that is linked to the account,” he said. “In reality, many of them will use fake phone numbers or buy SIM cards.”
Consult an expert
The average person using the internet and social media is not going to know how to do an IP trace, said Mr Denner.
“Let’s not forget the people who are behind these accounts, use safeguards themselves. Many of them will be using virtual private networks (VPNs) or other ways to mask their identity,” he said.
Using an expert can sometimes unlock tools not at everyone’s disposal. “The troll will be aware, when they set these accounts up and they use them in this way, there’s a risk that goes along with that as well as accountability.
“The person behind it will be taking certain safeguards, although there will be breadcrumbs of information that form the big picture.”