August 4, 2008
The Web of Wanton Cruelty As ‘Trolling’ Turns More Vicious, What, If Anything, Can Stop It?
By Mattathias Schwartz
One afternoon in the spring of 2006, for reasons unknown to those who knew him, Mitchell Henderson, a seventh grader from Rochester, Minnesota, took a .22-caliber rifle down from a shelf in his parents' bedroom closet and shot himself in the head. The next morning, Mitchell's school assembled in the gym to begin mourning. His classmates created a virtual memorial on MySpace and garlanded it with remembrances. One wrote that Mitchell was a "hero to take that shot, to leave us all behind. God do we wish we could take it back."
From MyDeathSpace, Mitchell's page came to the attention of an Internet message board known as /b/ and the "trolls," as they have come to be called, who dwell there - the designated "random" board of 4chan.org, a group of message boards that draws more than 200 million page views a month. A post on /b/ consists of an image and a few lines of text. Almost everyone posts as "anonymous." The message board reads like the inside of a high-school bathroom stall or an obscene telephone party line.
Something about Mitchell Henderson struck the denizens of /b/ as funny. They were especially amused by a reference on his MySpace page to a lost iPod. Mitchell Henderson, /b/ decided, had killed himself over a lost iPod. Within hours, the anonymous multitudes were wrapping the tragedy of Mitchell's death in absurdity.
Someone hacked Henderson's MySpace page and gave him the face of a zombie. Someone placed an iPod on Henderson's grave, took a picture and posted it to /b/. Henderson's face was appended to dancing iPods, spinning iPods and hard-core porn scenes. A dramatic re-enactment of Henderson's demise appeared on YouTube, complete with shattered iPod.
The phone began ringing at Mitchell's parents' home. "It sounded like kids," remembers Mitchell's father, Mark Henderson, a 44-year- old information technology executive. "They'd say, 'Hi, this is Mitchell, I'm at the cemetery.' 'Hi, I've got Mitchell's iPod.' 'Hi, I'm Mitchell's ghost, the front door is locked. Can you come down and let me in?'" He sighed. "It really got to my wife." The calls continued for a year and a half.
In the late 1980s, Internet users adopted the word "troll" to denote someone who intentionally disrupts online communities. Early trolling was relatively innocuous, taking place inside of small, single-topic Usenet groups. The trolls employed what Judith Donath, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, calls a "pseudo-naive" tactic, asking stupid questions and seeing who would rise to the bait.
Today the Internet is much more than esoteric discussion forums. It is a mass medium for defining who we are. Teenagers groom their MySpace profiles as intensely as their hair; anyone seeking work or love can expect to be Googled. As our emotional investment in the Internet has grown, trolling has evolved from ironic solo skit to vicious group hunt.
"Lulz" is how trolls keep score. A corruption of "LOL" or "laugh out loud,""lulz" means the joy of disrupting another's emotional equilibrium. "Lulz is watching someone lose their mind at their computer 2,000 miles away while you chat with friends and laugh," said one ex-troll who, like many people I contacted, refused to disclose his legal identity. (While reporting this article, I did everything I could to verify the trolls' stories and identities, but I could never be certain. After all, I was examining a subculture that is built on deception and delights in playing with the media.)
The logic of lulz extends far beyond /b/. Two female Yale Law School students have filed a suit against pseudonymous users who posted violent fantasies about them on AutoAdmit, a college- admissions message board. In China, anonymous nationalists are posting death threats against pro-Tibet activists, along with their names and home addresses. Technology, apparently, does more than harness the wisdom of the crowd. It can intensify its hatred as well.
Jason Fortuny might be the closest thing this movement of anonymous provocateurs has to a spokesman. Thirty-two years old, he works "typical Clark Kent IT" freelance jobs - Web design, programming - but his passion is trolling, "pushing peoples' buttons."
Fortuny frames his acts of trolling as "experiments," sociological inquiries into human behavior.
In the autumn of 2006, he posted a hoax ad on Craigslist, posing as a woman seeking a "str8 brutal dom muscular male." More than 100 men responded. Fortuny posted their names, pictures, e-mail and phone numbers to his blog, dubbing the expose "the Craigslist Experiment." This made Fortuny the most prominent Internet villain in America until November 2007, when his fame was eclipsed by the Megan Meier MySpace suicide.
Meier, a 13-year-old Missouri girl, hanged herself with a belt after receiving cruel messages from a boy she had been flirting with on MySpace. The boy was not a real boy, investigators say, but the fictional creation of Lori Drew, the mother of one of Megan's former friends. Drew later said she hoped to find out whether Megan was gossiping about her daughter. The story was a media sensation.
Fortuny's Craigslist Experiment deprived its subjects of more than just privacy. Two of them, he says, lost their jobs, and at least one, for a time, lost his girlfriend. Another has filed an invasion of privacy lawsuit against Fortuny in an Illinois court. After receiving death threats, Fortuny meticulously scrubbed his real address and phone number from the Internet. "Anyone who knows who and where you are is a security hole," he told me. "I own a gun. I have an escape route. If someone comes, I'm ready."
Fortuny and I met in person on a bright spring day at his apartment in Kirkland, Washington, near Seattle. He is thin, with birdlike features and the etiolated complexion of someone who works in front of a screen. A flat-screen HDTV dominated Fortuny's living room, across from a futon prepped with neatly folded blankets. This was where I would sleep for the next few nights. As Fortuny picked up his cat and settled into an Eames-style chair, I asked whether trolling hurt people.
"I'm not going to sit here and say, 'Oh, God, please forgive me!' so someone can feel better," Fortuny said, his calm voice momentarily rising. The cat lay purring in his lap. "Am I the bad guy? Am I the big horrible person who shattered someone's life with some information? No! This is life. Welcome to life. Everyone goes through it. I've been through horrible stuff, too."
"Like what?" I asked. Sexual abuse, Fortuny said. When Jason was 5, he said, he was molested by his grandfather and three other relatives. Jason's mother later told me, too, that he was molested by his grandfather. The last she heard from Jason was a letter telling her to kill herself. "Jason is a young man in a great deal of emotional pain," she said, crying as she spoke. "Don't be too harsh. He's still my son."
In the days after the Megan Meier story became public, Lori Drew and her family found themselves in the trolls' cross hairs. Their personal information spread across the Internet. Anonymous malefactors made death threats and hurled a brick through the kitchen window.
Then came the Megan Had It Coming blog. Supposedly written by one of Megan's classmates, the blog called Megan a "drama queen," so unstable that Drew could not be blamed for her death. In the third post the author revealed herself as Lori Drew.
This post received more than 3,600 comments. Fox and CNN debated its authenticity. But the Drew identity was another mask. In fact, Megan Had It Coming was another Jason Fortuny experiment. He, not Lori Drew, Fortuny told me, was the blog's author. After watching him log onto the site and add a post, I believed him. The blog was intended, he says, to question the public's hunger for remorse and to challenge the enforceability of cyberharassment laws like the one passed by Megan's town after her death. Fortuny concluded that they were unenforceable.
The county sheriff's department announced it was investigating the identity of the fake Lori Drew, but it never found Fortuny, who is not especially worried about coming out now. "What's he going to sue me for?" he asked. "Leading on confused people? Why don't people fact-check who this stuff is coming from? Why do they assume it's true?"
Why inflict anguish on a helpless stranger? It is tempting to blame technology, which increases the range of our communications while dehumanizing the recipients. But this does not explain the initial trolling impulse, which seems to spring from a destructive human urge that many feel but few act upon. There is a lot of hate out there, and a lot to hate as well.
Several U.S. state legislators have recently proposed cyberbullying measures. At the federal level, Representative Linda Sanchez, Democrat of California, has introduced the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, which would make it a crime to send any communications with intent to cause "substantial emotional distress." In June, Lori Drew pleaded not guilty to charges that she had violated federal fraud laws by creating a false identity "to torment, harass, humiliate and embarrass" another user, and by violating MySpace's terms of service.
But hardly anyone bothers to read terms of service, and millions create false identities. "While Drew's conduct is immoral, it is a very big stretch to call it illegal," wrote the online-privacy expert Daniel Solove on the blog Concurring Opinions.
Are we ready for an Internet where law enforcement keeps watch over every backbiting comments section, ready to spring at the first hint of violence? Probably not. All vigorous debates shade into trolling at the perimeter; it is next to impossible to excise the trolling without snuffing out the debate.
If we cannot prosecute the trolling out of online anonymity, might there be some way to mitigate it with technology? One solution that has proved effective is "disemvoweling" - having message-board administrators remove the vowels from trollish comments, which gives trolls the visibility they crave while muddying their message. A broader answer is persistent pseudonymity, a system of nicknames that stay the same across multiple sites. This could reduce anonymity's excesses while preserving its benefits for whistle- blowers and political dissenters.
Ultimately, trolling will stop only when its audience stops taking trolls seriously. "People know to be deeply skeptical of what they read on the front of a supermarket tabloid," says Dan Gillmor, who directs the Center for Citizen Media. "It should be even more so with anonymous comments. They shouldn't start off with a credibility rating of, say, 0. It should be more like negative-30."
Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.
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