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​Trolling the Trolls with Sexism-Hunting Twitter Bots

Activists offer a "self-help" programme to sexist trolls.

Trolls are a real problem. They've become a common sight on Twitter, pred​ominantly bombarding women with comments, insults, and even death threats. A new campaign is launching its own army of Twitter bots in an attempt to "coach" sexist trolls out of their behavior, or at least raise awareness of the issue.

​"Zero Trollerance" was launched today by ​Peng!, a collective that focuses on stunts around social justice issues, many with a sati​rical edge. Over the next six days, a bot will automatically detect likely trolls on Twitter and have a series of coaching videos sent to them, along with motivational tweets encouraging them to assess and address why they feel the need to harass women over social media.

"We wanted to do something a little bit playful, and 'troll the trolls': give them their own medicine," a representative from Peng! Collective told me, who wanted to remain anonymous so as to avoid any trolling to herself.​

An example troll "self-help" video

Last December, Twitter introduced stro​nger protections for those who wish to block other users, but soon after, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo admitted that the company's attempts at dealing with trolls have been ineff​ective. Individuals have also taken it upon themselves to deal with the problem, with one target of harassment building her own tool intended to filter out supporters of GamerGate.

But these approaches can only go so far, Peng! feels, and don't deal with the core of sexism on Twitter. "Blocking people, making these technical solutions, are really not going to solve anything," the Peng! Collective representative continued. "We feel it still hasn't really tackled the systemic issue of sexism." The group aims to tackle the trolls head on.

The campaign starts with a "taskforce" of bots. An automated Twitter profile scours the site for keywords from users, and then passes this information over to another 150 bots, whose profiles are dressed up to give the impression they are lifestyle coaches.

The keywords include vile language such as "nigger slut," "attention seeking whore," and various permutations of other material trolls have tweeted in the past. The list is made up of just over 130 different phrases which are mostly in English, but some German and local terms from Pakistan, India, and South Africa are also included (the collective is based in Berlin but has international members). The group is also inviting members of the public to suggest their own words to search for during the six day campaign.

An example "troll life coach" Twitter bot. Image: Peng!

Once detected, it's the job of the coaching bots "to distribute the message to fight trolls, and to enroll them in the programme," the representative told me. One of six videos will be tweeted out to the trolls, as well as other encouraging snippets.

"You feel the feminist inside you growing? We're proud! Keep up the good work! #zerotroll," is one of the planned tweets, according to a list sent to me by the group.

However, it's likely that these bots may either be suspended because of Twitter's spam filters, or blocked by the trolls targeted. So, to counteract this, "the bots are functioning kind of in a tag team, so as soon as they get killed, one comes up and replaces them." Ironically, just like troll accounts.

Members of the public can also create a Twitter account, send Peng! Collective the login details, and add it to the bot taskforce.

The group aren't expecting their campaign to magically transform sexist trolls into more tolerant Twitter users, however. "It's definitely an awareness campaign," the representative told me.

Regardless, it'll be interesting to see the reaction from trolls when they're bombarded themselves with message after message after message.