Patterico's Pontifications


Meeting a Troll

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 7:30 am

An excellent post about the effects of Internet trolling:

It started in July 2009. I’d been on Twitter for over 2 years at that point having joined in May 2007, and I’d never had a problem. My account was followed by a fairly innocuous looking one which I followed back and within 10 minutes I had received a Direct Message (DM) calling me a ‘Dirty f*cking Jewish scumbag’. I blocked the account and reported it as spam. The following week it happened again in an identical manner. A new follower, I followed back, received a string of abusive DM’s, blocked and reported for spam. Two or three times a week. Sometimes two or three times a day. An almost daily cycle of blocking and reporting and intense verbal abuse. So I made my account private and the problem went away for a short while. There were no problems on Twitter but my Facebook account was hacked, my blog was spammed and my email address was flooded with foulmouthed and disgusting comments & images. Images of corpses and concentration camps and dismembered bodies.

Again, it eased off for a couple of weeks. I relaxed. Thought they’d finally tired of failing to get a reaction from me. Boy, was I wrong.

It got far worse:

Then one day something happened that truly frightened me. I don’t scare easily but this was vile.

I received a parcel at my home address.

Nothing unusual there – I get a lots of post.

I ripped it open and there was a tupperware lunchbox inside full of ashes. There was a note included ‘Say hello to your relatives from Auschwitz’ I was physically sick.

I was petrified.

They had my address.

I reported it to the authorities and hoped for the best.

Two days later I opened my front door and there was a bunch of dead flowers with my wife’s old Twitter username on it. Then that night I recieved a DM. ‘You’ll get home some day & ur b**ches throat will be cut & ur son will be gone.’

I got on to the authorities again but, polite and sympathetic as they were, there didn’t seem much that could be done.

Every night for weeks I lost sleep over it.

Listening for noises. Opening the door everday with trepidation. Trying to maintain a semblance of normality and not let my wife or son see that I was dying on the inside. Mortified that they might be in danger because of my big mouth or ancestry.

Then the last straw. I received another tweet, on the public timeline this time ‘I hope you die screaming but not until you see me p*ss on ur wife’

A lot of the post rang true for me. Things like having my address and pictures of my house published.

(The redaction is mine, not theirs.)

Or having someone threaten to do violence to me and do something vile to my wife:

Read the whole post, because the reactions of the man who wrote it are vivid and help you understand what Internet trolling can do to people. The stuff about wandering the house looking for strangers? Yup. Not knowing who to trust? Yup. Worrying about the safety of the family? Yup.

This fellow got to meet the troll, and the troll turned out to be someone not so menacing in real life. I won’t spoil the surprise.

But imagine a situation instead where the troll is an actual psychopath — or, better yet, more than one, joining forces.

Some of us don’t have to imagine it.

30 Responses to “Meeting a Troll”

  1. A decade ago, I was an admin on a website that started as an outgrowth of slashdot. It started out as a tightly knit community with lots of conversation; eventually it was overrun by trolls.

    One of the trolls took particular offense to the actions of the admins in trying to combat him. It started as a fight between that user and another user, and it spilled out across everything. The owner of the site fed the fire.

    *Five years later*, the dude would still stalk me online, and was known to pop into irc channels where he knew he could find me and flood them with “aphrael’s $realname is a faggot child molestor”. I still have, backed up on a hard disk somewhere, the conversation in which he threatened to mail the California bar with that allegation.

    I don’t understand what it is that sets people off to behave in that way. I still think, overall, the internet is a force for good in the world; but there are people who abuse it in terrifying ways. :{

    aphrael (39393a)

  2. aphrael, I hope you read to the end of the linked article. And consider the old—but accurate—trope of the banality of evil.

    Though, as Patterico can attest, sometimes psychos form groups (what would such a group be called), and then egg themselves on into worse and worse behavior.

    I don’t have a solution. Just moral support (and financial, from time to time) to the victimized. Because I know how it feels.

    Simon Jester (c8876d)

  3. I don’t do victim very well. Based upon my background and training, I would be tempted to do a “Josey Wales” and pay a visit myself. However, that type of “self-help” is frowned upon so I would go to plan “B.” Everyone should have a plan “B” for such things – if one or more of these thugs actually show up at your home, a good twelve gauge six shot pump shotgun loaded with buckshot is an evironmentally friendly greeter if you use steel shot.

    Michael M. Keohane (240202)

  4. I met a guy that trolled me on a martial arts forum. I’m not a small man, but he is. Amazing how much he wanted to get away while I asked him what was up.

    BradnSA (980254)

  5. The illusionary anonymity of the internet and the soulless stupidity of a teeanage boy.

    The daughter has her own laptop, iPad and cable. None of them blocked. We know her. We worry about attacks on her, not attacks by her. She understands cyberbulling, and old-fashioned bullying, and predators. Are we on top of the situation? I don’t know. One time, four kids ganged up one her in second grade. I talked to the principal and I talked to the other fathers. One sent the kid to our house to apologize. Another apologized to me. The third could not believe that about his little angel but nonetheless it never happened again. The fourth, the principal talked to the father and the kid was transferred out of school.

    What you can do, I supposse, is have password-only access to your FB and twitter, and even your blog, if you want to have them at all. And a burglar alarm with entranceway cameras with remotely stored signal.

    nk (875f57)

  6. Worrying before it’s time to worry … don’t.

    nk (875f57)

  7. But imagine a situation instead where the troll is an actual psychopath…

    What makes you think this kid isn’t? Look over what he did — it’s not TPing a tree, or egging a car. It was a sustained campaign of harassment and threats.

    Rob Crawford (6c262f)

  8. I’d seen other links to the blog post you’ve linked and quoted, Patrick, but I hadn’t followed those links or read the post. Your excerpts persuaded me I should, and I’m glad I did.

    I do not think it is inevitable that our society will continue to deteriorate in civility. But that’s the direction that things have trended lately, and the internet and its various sub-species have been an accellerant. The conversational setting, and conversation, described in the post are the key to understanding its significance, because they so clearly show one powerful antidote to the corsening of public conversation.

    But I’m not surprised that this particular tale of abuse — followed by discovery, and (one hopes) revelation, redemption, and cure — started on Twitter. Twitter is a medium whose defining characteristic is that it truncates thoughtful expression and instead limits users to 140 characters. I gather that’s about to be changed — to a princely 410 characters.

    Of course brevity is a virtue. I wish I were briefer and more virtuous. But the fault for my prolixity is entirely mine, and Twitter is neither cure nor treatment for the sad fact that it usually takes me at least a good-sized paragraph to make any serious point.

    So I shun Twitter.

    Yes, I’ve read some fine one-liners that have first been published on someone’s Twitter account — but I didn’t read them on Twitter. I read them as republished on blogs, mostly, or in a few cases, in emails. That those media permit more than 140 characters did nothing whatsoever to detract from or dilute any of those fine one-liners. And no one has ever explained to me why a 140-character statement made on Twitter is any more persuasive or useful than the exact same statement communicated through some other medium.

    Many of you disagree, I know; and to you, I can only say: Get off my lawn!

    Beldar (d8195e)

  9. Lest I mislead someone about the planned expansion of Twitter: I gather that your own Tweets are still going to be limited to 140 characters, but those who read your Tweets can also preview additional characters — up to a 410-character limit — of other people’s web content that you’ve linked. So don’t think this “expansion” actually encourages original thinking in more than 140-character depth. The fundamental nature of the medium will remain the same, it will just have more commercial application.

    “Tweets” is such a cutesy and funny name. “Tweeting” is almost as cute and funny as farting. I think Twitter communications should be called “Farts,” and they should come with the sound effect. One can still be really witty with fart sounds backing up one’s 140 characters. But it would better convey the essential nature of what’s being communicated, which are less likely to be lyrical birdcalls and much more likely to be snark.

    Beldar (d8195e)

  10. This is a horrifying account, and it happens to more people than many might realize.

    As far as the conversation on twitter tends to go, I think Beldar is absolutely right.

    You cannot make a good point, and hoping people interpret the abbreviated arguments kindly is futile, so it’s a lot of screaming.

    It only takes 140 characters for Ron Brynaert to commit the crime of harassing Patterico by proposing violence against his wife or saying he wishes to punch him regarding Brett Kimberlin’s hypnotized witness talking point, but it takes more than that to make a thoughtful point about anything interesting.

    Dustin (73fead)

  11. Of course brevity is a virtue. I wish I were briefer and more virtuous. But the fault for my prolixity is entirely mine, and Twitter is neither cure nor treatment for the sad fact that it usually takes me at least a good-sized paragraph to make any serious point.

    You made nine fine points in two lines, Beldar. That’s good. 😉

    Of course, you intended to converse, not curse.

    nk (875f57)

  12. I agree with Beldar about Twitter. Of course, I understand why people like it. Twitter is pithy and amusing, but it also encourages glib and hurtful jabs that are abusive. IMO the amusement doesn’t offset the abuse.

    I also understand and agree with Patterico’s concerns about his abusers. It is worse to face a conspiracy of people whose goal is to hurt you and your family, but it’s also bad to be taunted by an unpredictable loner who acts out of fun or boredom. Sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart.

    DRJ (a83b8b)

  13. Socrates came up with “brevity is the soul of wit”, BTW, but I believe he was mocking the Spartans laconic speaking when he said it. There were bad feelings between Athens and Sparta at the time. 😉

    nk (875f57)

  14. Thank you for the post. And indeed, people need to read the entire story, which reveals a wonderfully level-headed yet fierce in an understated way response. (Fierce in the sense of determined, not to be put-off, the mission will be accomplished).

    I don’t know if others have made the analogy, I imagine many have if it is true, but the anonymity of the Internet is a bit like the anonymity of a mob. Positive peer pressure and personal accountability are great things. When the peer pressure is negative and one thinks they will not be held accountable, all hell can break loose, ever since that episode over the fruit and the “negative peer pressure” of a talking snake. (Note to self: talking beavers are OK, not so much talking snakes.)

    MD in Philly (3d3f72)

  15. I think Twitter is discriminatory. Me, compose a thought with 140 characters? Hardly ever.

    MD in Philly (3d3f72)

  16. MD in Philly – with so many characters, isn’t it more of a Cecil B DeMille production ?

    Alasdair (e7cb73)

  17. I’ve blogged quite a bit about one troll/online bully by the name of Jackie Sperling.

    Incredibly, while her behaviour is well documented (she has for example taunted a rape victim) against her for harrassment she is studying to become a councillor.

    scrubone (e7e0ea)

  18. First, I hope I’m wrong, but I fear Traynor’s story of tracking down and gently exposing his troll will only attract others, more numerous and more clever, to initiate their own vicious attacks.

    Additionally, the kid’s got a screw loose, he should be closely watched for signs of cruelty toward animals or other sadistic inclinations, this sort of thing doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

    ropelight (d35c39)

  19. Thirty years ago these trolls were isolated. Their twisted thoughts were only their own. With the advent of the Internet this is no longer true. No matter how sick, perverted or violent a troll is, there is somebody out there in the ether who will validate those feelings. With validation, up becomes down, unacceptable becomes acceptable and limits cease to exist. The Internet is a bully’s paradise, the troll can be the toughest guy in the room without fear that somebody will prove him wrong.

    Paul (910b74)

  20. Well said, Paul.

    In my experience, the louder and more violent speaking folks online are the wimps in real life, and the people who are kind and use reason tend to be that way because they recognize a battle of wits as requiring thoughtful arguments and persuasive personalities.

    I realize that most of the jerks are their own worst enemies… most of them (if not all of them) do not have jobs, for example. How could they possibly keep one?

    Dustin (73fead)

  21. They’ve always been around. Poison pen letters, prank phone calls, rocks through windows. (Last two happened to me in the last five years.) The thing is they move, or die, or go to jail, or just grow up. The internet? Likely the least harmful of the lot. I do not rely on it for anything, and I know how to close my connection, or use my delete button.

    nk (875f57)

  22. I find it bemusing how Traynor emphasized that he used legal means to find out who the troll was. If it were me, I’d use whatever technology I could, legal or not.

    norcal (322891)

  23. Right now my trolls are starting to coordinate. They are all crazy, I’ve written about each one because each one was bullying or threatening someone else, and each one is now trying to bully or threaten me. Plus the one who is, perhaps, the craziest contacted the other two (she learned of them by obsessively reading every post — thousands — on my site) and tried to coordinate efforts, sort of like a mentally challenged Legion of Doom. But crazy people don’t always get along. Now they are fighting each other. Which is kind of cool.

    Ken (2e87a6)

  24. Ken, that is something I’ve been grimly amused about too. Not the same crazies, but the same tendency of them to wind up hating eachother.

    They reserve their most passionate fury for the good people, though. Somewhere inside their scrambled brains is awareness of their inadequate decency.

    Dustin (73fead)

  25. Can’t like everything, Dustin.

    nk (875f57)

  26. I can if i’m drunk enough.

    Dustin (73fead)

  27. I do not want to drive this conversation silly.

    The illusionary fortress of the internet makes people say things that they would never say otherwise. But I do believe that it mostly stays in KBs.

    Are we that fragile that someboby “defriends” us and we either kill her or commit suicide?

    nk (875f57)

  28. Ken, if you can get your stalkers to stalk each other, you’ll be an Internet God.

    SPQR (26be8b)

  29. Are we that fragile that someboby “defriends” us and we either kill her or commit suicide?

    Comment by nk — 9/27/2012

    Some really are.

    Dustin (73fead)

  30. I joined Twitter after reading posts about Kimberlin, etc. I wanted to see what was out there and hopefully gain a better understanding of Patterico’s and Stranahan’s posts. I interned at a dotcom for approximately two years (actually a little less) and knew about the ED trolls, bored teens, no lives adults, etc. There is something about anonymity that makes people act like fiends. Drivers in LA will understand this last point.

    There are bullies on Twitter or people who act as minions for others (Some will retweet “idiocy,” perceived or actual, knowing that others will attack. The problem is, I saw a conservative last week get attacked after his retweeting of somebody ended up on Twitchy. While I enjoy the idea of Twitchy, it has become an attack arm for Malkin, who really disappointed me after sending people after Matt Lewis. I respect them both and hope civility follows in the next few weeks.) I’ve also seen death threats result from these interactions. In this case, the bullied because the bully and feels they have no responsibility in the matter. I don’t mind fighting back against bullies and harassers, and do it often on Twitter, but I don’t encourage my (few) followers to attack others.

    One more point I’d like to add: because there is so much trolling on Twitter, minor disagreements are perceived as trolling behavior. I used to read a blog that I personally feel has lacked good content. There have been several blogs I’ve read for years, where the blogger seems to attack anyone and everyone and has attention-grabbing, truth distorting headlines. I, being blunt, mentioned this on Twitter and was attacked as a troll and called names by the blog and blogger. I think people on Twitter are so used to getting attacked that mere criticism sets others off.

    I saw another attack when a known conservative claimed they thought Obama would win. They then got waves of tweets calling them a hack, troll, etc. This person has been around for years and is neither. I don’t believe they were trying to get attention, I believe they were saying how they felt. In any case, I’ve lost respect for some people I’ve read for years due to their behavior towards others.

    Unfortunate, really as it ruins dialogue. That’s Twitter, I suppose.

    In any case, thanks for posting this, Patterico. It is reminiscent of Amy Alkon (whom I read because of reading a recommendation of the book by Patterico) tracking down a trolls and various idiots.

    ratsurf (f5aad4)

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