The anatomy of a troll

My research focuses on online aggression, deception, and manipulation. For the past few years I’ve focussed quite closely on the behaviour known as “trolling” (though notably now this term is being used to refer to an increasing scope of behaviours that could be more accurately termed cyberbullying, cyberharassment, and cyberstalking). My plans with regards to this particular area involve finishing the third paper in what has affectionately come to be known as the “trolling trilogy” (or worse, the “trollogy”). This started with the 2010 paper which tackled the question, “what is trolling?” and continued with the 2013 paper which went on to investigate, “how is trolling carried out?” The third paper will discuss, “how do people respond (to trolling)?” Within this area of my research, I am also working on a monograph purely about trolling.

In the near future, I am moving towards doing more research into the manipulation aspect of online behaviour. This includes working with online grooming data in collaboration with undercover police forces, in order to identify the strategies of manipulation that child sex offenders use to groom children online, and to relate these to the ways that those individuals respond to police questioning. This also involves looking more broadly at what might be described as trust-fraud behaviours, such as Munchausen-by-internet (where individuals masquerade as sufferers of illness to acquire attention, sympathy, money, etc.), and online predation (where individuals gain a target’s trust online in order to meet them offline with the intention of offending against them in some way, e.g. theft, rape, murder).

Recent news associated with this project:

  • Turning the tables on the stalkers (19 November 2014)

    On 13th November, I presented a talk at a joint Paladin/Collyer-Bristow event. Paladin, the National Stalking Advocacy Service, assists high risk victims of stalking throughout England and Wales. Collyer Bristow’s Cyber Investigation Unit (CIU), which is headed up by partner Rhory Robertson, comprises a dedicated team of lawyers who advise victims of cyberstalking, cyber harassment, cyber bullying and internet trolls/trolling. The major discussion ...

  • Sweepyface: a linguistic profile (6 October 2014)

    This morning brought news of the suicide of a media-branded ‘troll’. Brenda Leyland, the 63 year-old woman behind the @sweepyface Twitter account, a self-proclaimed “researcher” and “anti-McCann” advocate was found dead at a Marriott hotel on Saturday 4th October in Leicester. She was recently contacted by a reporter at Sky News regarding her Twitter activity ...

  • An afternoon with OFCOM (11 October 2013)

    In August I was invited to visit the Office of Communications (OFCOM) Southwark Bridge Road headquarters beside the Thames, to give a talk as part of Inside OFCOM – a series that has been presented at by such notable figures as Tim Wu, Vint Cerf, and Robert Peston, to name but a few! My remit ...

  • Writing for the press: the deleted scenes (12 August 2013)

    In late July and early August 2013, the stories of Caroline Criado-Perez, the bomb threats, and latterly, the horrific tragedy of Hannah Smith broke across the media, and as a result, the behaviour supposedly known as “trolling” was pitched squarely into the limelight. There was the inevitable flurry of dissections, analyses, and opinion pieces, and ...

  • Web of words: A short history of the troll (15 July 2013)

    Over the past fortnight, various broadsheets and media outlets (see bibliography) picked up the story of my recent article, ‘“Uh…..not to be nitpicky,,,,,but…the past tense of drag is dragged, not drug.”: An overview of trolling strategies‘ (2013), which came out in the Journal of Language Aggression and Conflict. Of the thousands of comments collectively posted ...

  • Dr Claire Hardaker takes part in Houses of Parliament Debate asking “Does the Punishment of Trolls Infringe on an Individual’s Freedom of Speech?” (20 June 2013)

    Yesterday, Dr Claire Hardaker (Department of Linguistics and English Language, Lancaster University) took part in a ministerial debate hosted by Steve Rotheram MP at the Houses of Parliament. Dr Hardaker specialises in linguistic aggression, deception, and manipulation, particularly online, and looks at behaviours such as flaming, trolling, cyberbullying, and online grooming. The roundtable, entitled, “Does the ...

Acquisition of Mandarin Chinese as a foreign language

The British Academy has awarded Lancaster University a three-year grant under its International Partnership and Mobility Scheme (IPM 2013). The research partner in the joint project is Guangdong University of Foreign Studies (GDUFS) in China. The project is entitled “The corpus-based approach to the acquisition of Mandarin Chinese as a foreign language”, which aims to develop a one-million-word balanced corpus of spoken and written Chinese interlanguage, and on the basis of this corpus, to explore various theoretical and practical issues pertaining to the acquisition of Chinese as a foreign language. The research team includes six staff members from the Linguistics department and the Confucius Institute at Lancaster, as well as six staff members from the Centre for Linguistics and Applied Linguistics (the only national key research centre of its kind approved by the Ministry of Education) and the Institute for International Education at GDUFS. For more information, please contact Dr Richard Xiao (, the PI of the project.

Corporate Financial Information Environment (CFIE)

The UK financial sector is a major driver of economic activity and transparent and effective financial communication is a key determinant of its success. Audited financial statements, unaudited corporate disclosures, and information signalled through corporate financial choices are the primary ways that firms communicate with capital market participants. These mechanisms, together with information from analysts, financial journalists, rating agencies and other market commentators external to the firm combine to form the Corporate Financial Information Environment (CFIE).

Narrative disclosures represent a large part of firms’ overall financial communications with investors. We will study the causes and consequences of corporate disclosure and financial reporting outcomes. While a considerable body of research exists on financial narratives, it has been limited by the methods used for measuring the characteristics of such disclosures. In particular, the need to hand-collect relevant data from firms’ annual reports and the subjectivity of textual scoring methods have restricted progress. Recent advances in computing and linguistics provide a basis for undertaking more sophisticated analyses.

This project brings together a multidisciplinary team with the aim of developing statistical and computer-based techniques for measuring the properties of UK corporate disclosures. In particular, we will develop new ways of measuring the quality and tone of company narratives using computer-based rankings of annual reports. Both the rankings and linguistic techniques on which these rankings are based will be made available to those seeking information on corporate disclosure policy or wishing to undertake their own analysis of specific narrative statements. We will also use the findings from our analysis as the basis for studying how managers communicate expectations of firm performance to investors and they seek to manipulate investors’ impressions of reported results.

The project is expected to yield important insights for business policy makers, accounting standard setting bodies and financial market information regulators. We also expect equity market participants including investors, investment analysts, finance directors, auditors, and firm officials to benefit from the research.

For more information, visit the project webpage.


Recent news associated with this project:

  • Corporate Financial Information Environment (CFIE) (9 July 2013)

    The UK financial sector is a major driver of economic activity and transparent and effective financial communication is a key determinant of its success. Audited financial statements, unaudited corporate disclosures, and information signalled through corporate financial choices are the primary ways that firms communicate with capital market participants. These mechanisms, together with information from analysts, ...

Facilitating Critical Discourse Analysis of Contemporary China

This department R&D project aims to build a large corpus of Chinese news text designed to facilitate diachronic critical discourse analysis of social changes in contemporary China, helping to enhance the department’s already-strong reputation in corpus-based CDA by extending it to a language and culture other than English and the West. The resulting corpus will comprise more than 1.3 million news articles published in China’s most authoritative and influential newspaper, People’s Daily, between May 1946 and December 2003, covering all major historical periods in the history of Communist China. The prestigious status of the newspaper and the full temporal coverage of this collection will form the basis for a reliable diachronic discourse study of social changes in contemporary China since World War II to provide a true picture of contemporary China and yield critical insights into contemporary Chinese society.

For more information, contact the project director Richard Xiao at

Metaphor in End-of-Life Care

This ESRC-funded project is a corpus-based study of the metaphors used to talk about end-of-life care by patients nearing the end of life, unpaid family carers and health professionals. We study interviews and online forum data in order to investigate how metaphors may help or hinder successful communication between members of these different groups. We aim to use our findings to improve the quality of communication at the end of life. For more information, visit the project’s main page at


Principal Investigator:


Research Associate:

Former Research Associate and External Collaborator:

Read the latest updates on this project:

  • Some things I have learnt while using corpus methods to study health communication (26 February 2016)

    On a dark winter afternoon in December 2011 (before CASS existed), an email from the Economic and Social Research Council informed me that they would fund the project ‘Metaphor in End of Life Care’, which I had put forward with several colleagues from Lancaster. The project involved a combination of manual analysis and corpus methods ...

  • New CASS Briefing now available — A ‘battle’ or a ‘journey’? Metaphors and cancer (17 March 2015)

    A ‘battle’ or a ‘journey’? Metaphors and cancer. Metaphors matter because they ‘frame’ topics in different ways, which can affect our perception of ourselves and our experiences. The ‘battle’ metaphor for cancer has become controversial because of the framing it may impose on the patient’s experience; the ‘journey’ metaphor frames the cancer experience very differently. We were particularly concerned with whether and how different metaphors ...

  • Workshop on ‘Metaphor in end of life care’ at St Joseph’s Hospice, London (6 October 2014)

    On 26th September 2014, three members of the CASS-affiliated ‘Metaphor in end of life care’ project team were invited to run a workshop at St Joseph’s Hospice in London. The workshop was attended by 27 participants, including clinical staff, non-clinical staff and volunteers. Veronika Koller (Lancaster University) introduced the project, including its background, rationale, research questions, ...

  • Reflections from the Front Line: Sarah Russell on MELC and Twitter (30 May 2014)

    Sarah Russell (Director of Education and Research, Peace Hospice Care and the Hospice of St Francis) attended this month’s Language in End-of Life-Care event, where an audience of approximately 40 healthcare professionals and researchers specialising in palliative and end-of-life care gathered to share their perspectives. In a new blog post on eHospice, she reflects on this experience, as well ...

  • ‘Language in End-of-Life Care’: A user engagement event (12 May 2014)

    On 8th May 2014, the main findings of the CASS-affiliated project ‘Metaphor in End-of-Life Care’ were presented to potential users of the research at the Work Foundation in central London. The event, entitled ‘Language in End-of-Life Care’ attracted an audience of approximately forty participants, consisting primarily of healthcare professionals and researchers specialising in palliative and ...

  • Elena Semino appears on BBC World Service ‘Healthcheck’ (8 May 2014)

    CASS project affiliate (and head of department of Linguistics and English Language at Lancaster University) Elena Semino was interviewed about the findings of the ESRC-funded project ‘Metaphor in End-of-Life Care’ on the BBC World Service’s programme ‘Healthcheck’, presented by Claudia Hammond. The programme will air four times between 7th and 11th May 2014; the first 15 minutes of the ...

  • “Fighting Words Are Rarer Among British Doctors”: ‘Metaphor in End of Life Care’ project findings featured in the New York Times (23 April 2014)

    Key findings from the CASS-affiliated ‘Metaphor in End of Life Care‘ (MELC) project have been featured in the New York Times. Journalist Paula Span interviews Principal Investigator Elena Semino and compares findings from the UK-based project to her own experiences in the US. Whereas ‘British public health leaders and medical practitioners are more apt to ...

  • ‘Fight’ metaphors for cancer revisited: Are they always bad? (5 March 2014)

    By the ‘Metaphor in End-of-Life Care’ project team, funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Funding Council (ESRC): Elena Semino, Veronika Koller, Jane Demmen, Andrew Hardie, Paul Rayson, Sheila Payne (Lancaster University) and Zsófia Demjén (Open University) Recent media controversy over the use of social media by people with terminal illness has sparked a new debate on ...

  • More about the Metaphor in End of Life Care project at Lancaster University (24 February 2014)

    The CASS-affiliated Metaphor in End of Life Care project has just released a free resource containing information of interest to many of our readers. Download the document now to learn more about the project, from basic concepts (what is metaphor, and how are they used in everyday life?) to more specific details (why study metaphor in ...

  • ‘The McGill Pain Questionnaire: A Linguist’s View’ and ‘Language and Art of Trigeminal Neuralgia’ (1 July 2013)

    On 29th June, I was invited to speak at the 2013 Conference of the UK Trigeminal Neuralgia Association, as part of an ongoing collaboration with Professor Joanna Zakrzewska, Facial Pain lead consultant at Eastman Dental Hospital in London. I gave two talks: ‘The McGill Pain Questionnaire: A Linguist’s View’ and ‘Language and Art of Trigeminal ...