The Trolls Among Us, by Mattathias Schwartz

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The Trolls Among Us, by Mattathias Schwartz

Postby admin » Sun Mar 08, 2015 7:21 am

THE TROLLS AMONG US
by Mattathias Schwartz
August 3, 2008

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The Trolls Among Us: Weev (not, of course, his real name) is part of a growing Internet subculture with a fluid morality and a disdain for pretty much everyone else online.

One afternoon in the spring of 2006, for reasons unknown to those who knew him, Mitchell Henderson, a seventh grader from Rochester, Minn., 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 “an hero to take that shot, to leave us all behind. God do we wish we could take it back. . . . ” Someone e-mailed a clipping of Mitchell’s newspaper obituary to MyDeathSpace.com, a Web site that links to the MySpace pages of the dead. 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.

/b/ is the designated “random” board of 4chan.org, a group of message boards that draws more than 200 million page views a month. A post consists of an image and a few lines of text. Almost everyone posts as “anonymous.” In effect, this makes /b/ a panopticon in reverse — nobody can see anybody, and everybody can claim to speak from the center. The anonymous denizens of 4chan’s other boards — devoted to travel, fitness and several genres of pornography — refer to the /b/-dwellers as “/b/tards.”

Measured in terms of depravity, insularity and traffic-driven turnover, the culture of /b/ has little precedent. /b/ reads like the inside of a high-school bathroom stall, or an obscene telephone party line, or a blog with no posts and all comments filled with slang that you are too old to understand.

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“A normal person who does insane things on the internet.” Jason Fortuny in real life.

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. The “an hero” meme was born. 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, hardcore 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 I.T. 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 the M.I.T. professor Judith Donath calls a “pseudo-naïve” tactic, asking stupid questions and seeing who would rise to the bait. The game was to find out who would see through this stereotypical newbie behavior, and who would fall for it. As one guide to trolldom puts it, “If you don’t fall for the joke, you get to be in on it.”

Today the Internet is much more than esoteric discussion forums. It is a mass medium for defining who we are to ourselves and to others. Teenagers groom their MySpace profiles as intensely as their hair; escapists clock 50-hour weeks in virtual worlds, accumulating gold for their online avatars. Anyone seeking work or love can expect to be Googled. As our emotional investment in the Internet has grown, the stakes for trolling — for provoking strangers online — have risen. 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.

Another troll explained the lulz as a quasi-thermodynamic exchange between the sensitive and the cruel: “You look for someone who is full of it, a real blowhard. Then you exploit their insecurities to get an insane amount of drama, laughs and lulz. Rules would be simple: 1. Do whatever it takes to get lulz. 2. Make sure the lulz is widely distributed. This will allow for more lulz to be made. 3. The game is never over until all the lulz have been had.”

/b/ is not all bad. 4chan has tried (with limited success) to police itself, using moderators to purge child porn and eliminate calls to disrupt other sites. Among /b/’s more interesting spawn is Anonymous, a group of masked pranksters who organized protests at Church of Scientology branches around the world.

But the logic of lulz extends far beyond /b/ to the anonymous message boards that seem to be springing up everywhere. 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 I.T.” 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 fall 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 exposé “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’d 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 — respectable suburban wife uses Internet to torment teenage girl — 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.”

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. If I had doubts about whether Fortuny was who he said he was, he had the same doubts about me. I first contacted Fortuny by e-mail, and he called me a few days later. “I checked you out,” he said warily. “You seem legitimate.” We met in person on a bright spring day at his apartment, on a forested slope in Kirkland, Wash., near Seattle. He wore a T-shirt and sweat pants, looking like an amiable freelancer on a Friday afternoon. He is thin, with birdlike features and the etiolated complexion of one who works in front of a screen. He’d been chatting with an online associate about driving me blindfolded from the airport, he said. “We decided it would be too much work.”

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.”



EVERYDAY SADISTS TAKE PLEASURE IN OTHERS' PAIN

Most of the time, we try to avoid inflicting pain on others — when we do hurt someone, we typically experience guilt, remorse, or other feelings of distress. But for some, cruelty can be pleasurable, even exciting. New research suggests that this kind of everyday sadism is real and more common than we might think.

Two studies led by psychological scientist Erin Buckels of the University of British Columbia revealed that people who score high on a measure of sadism seem to derive pleasure from behaviors that hurt others, and are even willing to expend extra effort to make someone else suffer.

The new findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

“Some find it hard to reconcile sadism with the concept of ‘normal’ psychological functioning, but our findings show that sadistic tendencies among otherwise well-adjusted people must be acknowledged,” says Buckels. “These people aren’t necessarily serial killers or sexual deviants but they gain some emotional benefit in causing or simply observing others’ suffering.”

Based on their previous work on the “Dark Triad” of personality, Buckels and colleagues Delroy Paulhus of the University of British Columbia and Daniel Jones of the University of Texas El Paso surmised that sadism is a distinct aspect of personality that joins with three others — psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism — to form a “Dark Tetrad” of personality traits.

To test their hypothesis, they decided to examine everyday sadism under controlled laboratory conditions. They recruited 71 participants to take part in a study on “personality and tolerance for challenging jobs.” Participants were asked to choose among several unpleasant tasks: killing bugs, helping the experimenter kill bugs, cleaning dirty toilets, or enduring pain from ice water.

Participants who chose bug killing were shown the bug-crunching machine: a modified coffee grinder that produced a distinct crunching sound so as to maximize the gruesomeness of the task. Nearby were cups containing live pill bugs, each cup labeled with the bug’s name: Muffin, Ike, and Tootsie.

The participant’s job was to drop the bugs into the machine, force down the cover, and “grind them up.” The participants didn’t know that a barrier actually prevented the bugs from being ground up and that no bugs were harmed in the experiment.

Of the 71 participants, 12.7% chose the pain-tolerance task, 33.8% chose the toilet-cleaning task, 26.8% chose to help kill bugs, and 26.8% chose to kill bugs.

Participants who chose bug killing had the highest scores on a scale measuring sadistic impulses, just as the researchers predicted. The more sadistic the participant was, the more likely he or she was to choose bug killing over the other options, even when their scores on Dark Triad measures, fear of bugs, and sensitivity to disgust were taken into account.

Participants with high levels of sadism who chose to kill bugs reported taking significantly greater pleasure in the task than those who chose another task, and their pleasure seemed to correlate with the number of bugs they killed, suggesting that sadistic behavior may hold some sort of reward value for those participants.

And a second study revealed that, of the participants who rated high on one of the “dark” personality traits, only sadists chose to intensify blasts of white noise directed at an innocent opponent when they realized the opponent wouldn’t fight back. They were also the only ones willing to expend additional time and energy to be able to blast the innocent opponent with the noise.

Together, these results suggest that sadists possess an intrinsic motivation to inflict suffering on innocent others, even at a personal cost — a motivation that is absent from the other dark personality traits.

The researchers hope that these new findings will help to broaden people’s view of sadism as an aspect of personality that manifests in everyday life, helping to dispel the notion that sadism is limited to sexual deviants and criminals.

Buckels and colleagues are continuing to investigate everyday sadism, including its role in online trolling behavior.

“Trolling culture is unique in that it explicitly celebrates sadistic pleasure, or ‘lulz,’” says Buckels. “It is, perhaps, not surprising then that sadists gravitate toward those activities.”

And they’re also exploring vicarious forms of sadism, such as enjoying cruelty in movies, video games, and sports.

The researchers believe their findings have the potential to inform research and policy on domestic abuse, bullying, animal abuse, and cases of military and police brutality.

“It is such situations that sadistic individuals may exploit for personal pleasure,” says Buckels. “Denying the dark side of personality will not help when managing people in these contexts.”

-- Everyday Sadists Take Pleasure in Other's Pain, by psychologicalscience.org


“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’ crosshairs. Their personal information — e-mail addresses, satellite images of their home, phone numbers — spread across the Internet. One of the numbers led to a voice-mail greeting with the gleeful words “I did it for the lulz.” 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. “Killing yourself over a MySpace boy? Come on!!! I mean yeah your fat so you have to take what you can get but still nobody should kill themselves over it.” 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?”

Fortuny calls himself “a normal person who does insane things on the Internet,” and the scene at dinner later on the first day we spent together was exceedingly normal, with Fortuny, his roommate Charles and his longtime friend Zach trading stories at a sushi restaurant nearby over sake and happy-hour gyoza. Fortuny flirted with our waitress, showing her a cellphone picture of his cat. “He commands you to kill!” he cackled. “Do you know how many I’ve killed at his command?” Everyone laughed.

Fortuny spent most of the weekend in his bedroom juggling several windows on his monitor. One displayed a chat room run by Encyclopedia Dramatica, an online compendium of troll humor and troll lore. It was buzzing with news of an attack against the Epilepsy Foundation’s Web site. Trolls had flooded the site’s forums with flashing images and links to animated color fields, leading at least one photosensitive user to claim that she had a seizure.

WEEV: the whole posting flashing images to epileptics thing? over the line.

HEPKITTEN: can someone plz tell me how doing something the admins intentionally left enabled is hacking?

WEEV: it’s hacking peoples unpatched brains. we have to draw a moral line somewhere.


Fortuny disagreed. In his mind, subjecting epileptic users to flashing lights was justified. “Hacks like this tell you to watch out by hitting you with a baseball bat,” he told me. “Demonstrating these kinds of exploits is usually the only way to get them fixed.”

“So the message is ‘buy a helmet,’ and the medium is a bat to the head?” I asked.

“No, it’s like a pitcher telling a batter to put on his helmet by beaning him from the mound. If you have this disease and you’re on the Internet, you need to take precautions.” A few days later, he wrote and posted a guide to safe Web surfing for epileptics.

On Sunday, Fortuny showed me an office building that once housed Google programmers, and a low-slung modernist structure where programmers wrote Halo 3, the best-selling video game. We ate muffins at Terra Bite, a coffee shop founded by a Google employee where customers pay whatever price they feel like. Kirkland seemed to pulse with the easy money and optimism of the Internet, unaware of the machinations of the troll on the hill.

We walked on, to Starbucks. At the next table, middle-schoolers with punk-rock haircuts feasted noisily on energy drinks and whipped cream. Fortuny sipped a white-chocolate mocha. He proceeded to demonstrate his personal cure for trolling, the Theory of the Green Hair.

“You have green hair,” he told me. “Did you know that?”

“No,” I said.

“Why not?”

“I look in the mirror. I see my hair is black.”

“That’s uh, interesting. I guess you understand that you have green hair about as well as you understand that you’re a terrible reporter.”

“What do you mean? What did I do?”

“That’s a very interesting reaction,” Fortuny said. “Why didn’t you get so defensive when I said you had green hair?” If I were certain that I wasn’t a terrible reporter, he explained, I would have laughed the suggestion off just as easily. The willingness of trolling “victims” to be hurt by words, he argued, makes them complicit, and trolling will end as soon as we all get over it.

[Brene Brown] We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history. The problem is -- and I learned this from the research -- that you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can't say, here's the bad stuff. Here's vulnerability, here's grief, here's shame, here's fear, here's disappointment. I don't want to feel these. I'm going to have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. I don't want to feel these.

[Audience] [Laughing]

[Brene Brown] And I know that's knowing laughter. I hack into your lives for a living. God. You can't numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.

-- The Power of Vulnerability, by Brene Brown


On Monday we drove to the mall. I asked Fortuny how he could troll me if he so chose. He took out his cellphone. On the screen was a picture of my debit card with the numbers clearly legible. I had left it in plain view beside my laptop. “I took this while you were out,” he said. He pressed a button. The picture disappeared. “See? I just deleted it.”

The Craigslist Experiment, Fortuny reiterated, brought him troll fame by accident. He was pleased with how the Megan Had It Coming blog succeeded by design. As he described the intricacies of his plan — adding sympathetic touches to the fake classmate, making fake Lori Drew a fierce defender of her own daughter, calibrating every detail to the emotional register of his audience — he sounded not so much a sociologist as a playwright workshopping a set of characters.

“You seem to know exactly how much you can get away with, and you troll right up to that line,” I said. “Is there anything that can be done on the Internet that shouldn’t be done?”

Fortuny was silent. In four days of conversation, this was the first time he did not have an answer ready.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I have to think about it.”

Sherrod DeGrippo, a 28-year-old Atlanta native who goes by the name Girlvinyl, runs Encyclopedia Dramatica, the online troll archive. In 2006, DeGrippo received an e-mail message from a well-known band of trolls, demanding that she edit the entry about them on the Encyclopedia Dramatica site. She refused. Within hours, the aggrieved trolls hit the phones, bombarding her apartment with taxis, pizzas, escorts and threats of rape and violent death. DeGrippo, alone and terrified, sought counsel from a powerful friend. She called Weev.

Weev, the troll who thought hacking the epilepsy site was immoral, is legendary among trolls. He is said to have jammed the cellphones of daughters of C.E.O.’s and demanded ransom from their fathers; he is also said to have trashed his enemies’ credit ratings. Better documented are his repeated assaults on LiveJournal, an online diary site where he himself maintains a personal blog. Working with a group of fellow hackers and trolls, he once obtained access to thousands of user accounts.

I first met Weev in an online chat room that I visited while staying at Fortuny’s house. “I hack, I ruin, I make piles of money,” he boasted. “I make people afraid for their lives.” On the phone that night, Weev displayed a misanthropy far harsher than Fortuny’s. “Trolling is basically Internet eugenics,” he said, his voice pitching up like a jet engine on the runway. “I want everyone off the Internet. Bloggers are filth. They need to be destroyed. Blogging gives the illusion of participation to a bunch of retards. . . . We need to put these people in the oven!”

Halo 4 -- Master Chief's Face (Unmasked) -- Legendary Ending



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[Didact] In this hour of victory, we taste only defeat. I ask why.

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We are Forerunners.

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Guardians of all that exists.

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The roots of the galaxy have grown deep under our careful tending.

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Where there is life, the wisdom of our countless generations has saturated the soil.
Our strength is a luminous sun towards which all intelligence blossoms ...

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And the impervious shelter ...

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beneath which it has prospered.

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I stand before you.

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Accused of the sin of ensuring Forerunner ascendancy ...

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Of attempting to save us from this fate where we are forced to ... recede ...

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Humanity stands as the greatest threat in the galaxy.

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Refusing to eradicate them is a fool's gambit.

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We squander eons in the darkness ...

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... while they seize our triumphs for their own.

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The Mantle of Responsibility for all things ...

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belongs to Forerunners alone!

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Think of my acts as you will.
But do not doubt the reality.

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The reclamation ... has already begun.

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And we are hopeless to stop it.

I see a vast and distinguished room.... Portraits of prominent men of history hang on the walls. They are men who have led Germany through much agony. Are they not the chancellors of the Reich? Yes, this is the Conference Room of the Chancellery. Noise penetrates through the windows. The Storm Troopers move down the Wilhelmstrasse. There has been a magnificent victory. The people want Hitler. Victory, Victory! Hitler is victorious. Resistance is useless.

-- Gods & Beasts -- The Nazis & the Occult, by Dusty Sklar


I listened for a few more minutes as Weev held forth on the Federal Reserve and about Jews. Unlike Fortuny, he made no attempt to reconcile his trolling with conventional social norms. Two days later, I flew to Los Angeles and met Weev at a train station in Fullerton, a sleepy bungalow town folded into the vast Orange County grid. He is in his early 20s with full lips, darting eyes and a nest of hair falling back from his temples. He has a way of leaning in as he makes a point, inviting you to share what might or might not be a joke.

As we walked through Fullerton’s downtown, Weev told me about his day — he’d lost $10,000 on the commodities market, he claimed — and summarized his philosophy of “global ruin.” “We are headed for a Malthusian crisis,” he said, with professorial confidence. “Plankton levels are dropping. Bees are dying. There are tortilla riots in Mexico, the highest wheat prices in 30-odd years.” He paused. “The question we have to answer is: How do we kill four of the world’s six billion people in the most just way possible?” He seemed excited to have said this aloud.

OLIGARCHICAL MALTHUSIANISM THEN AND NOW

From 9/11 to "peak oil" is a dangerous leap, and from "peak oil" to population reduction is more dangerous still. Because oligarchs have always held humanity in general in contempt, they have from time immemorial exhibited the outlook which has, during the last 200 years, been called Malthusian. Back among the early Greeks, one school of thought explained the Trojan War as necessary to remove the weight of the masses of mankind which were oppressing the breast of Mother Earth. Together with the axiomatic notion of overpopulation has gone a profound hostility to science and technology, especially because of their egalitarian effects. During the time of Thucydides in Athens, the writer called the Old Oligarch complained that the high-tech Athenian navy was helping the plebs to achieve upward mobility, while the equally high-tech long walls between Athens and Piraeus kept the armies of oligarchical Sparta at bay. During the agony of the Roman Empire, the decrees of the Emperor Diocletian in effect banned technological progress by making it illegal to alter the equipment and property of any guild. During the decline of the Venetian Empire, the decadent Giammaria Grtes (1713- 1798) elaborated the notion that the earth had an absolute and unalterable maximum carrying capacity, which he set at 3 billion persons. Ortes was the original from which the English Reverend Thomas Malthus copied. Malthus' well-known contention that population increases geometrically while food supply increases arithmetically stands in contradiction with thousands of years of successful human development. Malthus' real interest, it should be remembered, was to convince capitalists that they had to pay to maintain a numerous state church made up of people like himself, whose consumption would make sure that no crises of overproduction occurred. This was Malthus' notorious slogan, "The church with a capacious maw is best." Malthus was in turn the key to the bankruptcy of Darwin, who based himself on the greedy prelate. There is no doubt about evolution, but Darwin is a completely separate kettle of fish, especially his wayward thesis about the "blind watchmaker," meaning that the universe is a totally random process. The present writer agrees rather with Leibniz's view of a least action universe which has a definite in-built tendency towards greater order, greater energy organization, and greater development.

The fatal flaw of Keynesian economics is that they are based on Malthusian premises: there is a surplus which has to be consumed, and Keynes is unable to distinguish between productive and parasitical ways of doing this. In more recent times, the Malthusian outlook has been promoted with great success by the sinister Club of Rome, founded by Alexander King and Aurelio Peccei. The Club of Rome sponsored that infamous hoax, the 1968 Meadows and Forrester Limits to Growth. This fraudulent study took a snapshot of the then-known reserves of the main industrial commodities, and then simply extrapolated when these would be gone, based on the current rate of consumption. Almost forty years later, not one of these dire predictions has come to pass, and known reserves of many raw materials are greater than they were in 1968.

In 1971-1973, the long period of world economic expansion associated with Franklin D. Roosevelt's Bretton Woods system and postwar economic reconstruction came to an end in a series of monetary crises that destroyed the most successful monetary arrangement the world had ever seen. Since 1971-73, long-term economic growth in the main industrial countries has been cut in half: from about 5% per year to about 2.5% per year. This, plus the later push for deindustrialization, is the main reason why living standards in the US have declined by about 50% over the same period, and the costs of essential services like health care and education have gone into the ionosphere. After 1971-73, we are no longer dealing with a normal economy, but with an increasingly sick one.

-- 9-11 Synthetic Terrorism Made in USA, by Webster Griffin Tarpley


Ideas like these bring trouble. Almost a year ago, while in the midst of an LSD-and-methamphetamine bender, a longer-haired, wilder-eyed Weev gave a talk called “Internet Crime” at a San Diego hacker convention. He expounded on diverse topics like hacking the Firefox browser, online trade in illegal weaponry and assassination markets — untraceable online betting pools that pay whoever predicts the exact date of a political leader’s demise. The talk led to two uncomfortable interviews with federal agents and the decision to shed his legal identity altogether. Weev now espouses “the ruin lifestyle” — moving from condo to condo, living out of three bags, no name, no possessions, all assets held offshore. As a member of a group of hackers called “the organization,” which, he says, bring in upward of $10 million annually, he says he can wreak ruin from anywhere.

We arrived at a strip mall. Out of the darkness, the coffinlike snout of a new Rolls Royce Phantom materialized. A flying lady winked on the hood. “Your bag, sir?” said the driver, a blond kid in a suit and tie.

“This is my car,” Weev said. “Get in.”

And it was, for that night and the next, at least. The car’s plush chamber accentuated the boyishness of Weev, who wore sneakers and jeans and hung from a leather strap like a subway rider. In the front seat sat Claudia, a pretty college-age girl.

I asked about the status of Weev’s campaign against humanity. Things seemed rather stable, I said, even with all this talk of trolling and hacking.

“We’re waiting,” Weev said. “We need someone to show us the way. The messiah.”

“How do you know it’s not you?” I asked.

“If it were me, I would know,” he said. “I would receive a sign.”

Zeno of Elea, Socrates and Jesus, Weev said, are his all-time favorite trolls. He also identifies with Coyote and Loki, the trickster gods, and especially with Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction. “Loki was a hacker. The other gods feared him, but they needed his tools.”

“I was just thinking of Kali!” Claudia said with a giggle.

Over a candlelit dinner of tuna sashimi, Weev asked if I would attribute his comments to Memphis Two, the handle he used to troll Kathy Sierra, a blogger. Inspired by her touchy response to online commenters, Weev said he “dropped docs” on Sierra, posting a fabricated narrative of her career alongside her real Social Security number and address. This was part of a larger trolling campaign against Sierra, one that culminated in death threats. Weev says he has access to hundreds of thousands of Social Security numbers. About a month later, he sent me mine.

Weev, Claudia and I hung out in Fullerton for two more nights, always meeting and saying goodbye at the train station. I met their friend Kate, who has been repeatedly banned from playing XBox Live for racist slurs, which she also enjoys screaming at white pedestrians. Kate checked my head for lice and kept calling me “Jew.” Relations have since warmed. She now e-mails me puppy pictures and wants the names of fun places for her coming visit to New York. On the last night, Weev offered to take me to his apartment if I wore a blindfold and left my cellphone behind. I was in, but Claudia vetoed the idea. I think it was her apartment.

Does free speech tend to move toward the truth or away from it? When does it evolve into a better collective understanding? When does it collapse into the Babel of trolling, the pointless and eristic game of talking the other guy into crying “uncle”? Is the effort to control what’s said always a form of censorship, or might certain rules be compatible with our notions of free speech?

One promising answer comes from the computer scientist Jon Postel, now known as “god of the Internet” for the influence he exercised over the emerging network. In 1981, he formulated what’s known as Postel’s Law: “Be conservative in what you do; be liberal in what you accept from others.” Originally intended to foster “interoperability,” the ability of multiple computer systems to understand one another, Postel’s Law is now recognized as having wider applications. To build a robust global network with no central authority, engineers were encouraged to write code that could “speak” as clearly as possible yet “listen” to the widest possible range of other speakers, including those who do not conform perfectly to the rules of the road. The human equivalent of this robustness is a combination of eloquence and tolerance — the spirit of good conversation. Trolls embody the opposite principle. They are liberal in what they do and conservative in what they construe as acceptable behavior from others. You, the troll says, are not worthy of my understanding; I, therefore, will do everything I can to confound you.

Why inflict anguish on a helpless stranger? It’s tempting to blame technology, which increases the range of our communications while dehumanizing the recipients. Cases like An Hero and Megan Meier presumably wouldn’t happen if the perpetrators had to deliver their messages in person. But while technology reduces the social barriers that keep us from bedeviling strangers, it does not explain the initial trolling impulse. This seems to spring from something ugly — a destructive human urge that many feel but few act upon, the ambient misanthropy that’s a frequent ingredient of art, politics and, most of all, jokes. There’s a lot of hate out there, and a lot to hate as well.

So far, despite all this discord, the Internet’s system of civil machines has proved more resilient than anyone imagined. As early as 1994, the head of the Internet Society warned that spam “will destroy the network.” The news media continually present the online world as a Wild West infested with villainous hackers, spammers and pedophiles. And yet the Internet is doing very well for a frontier town on the brink of anarchy. Its traffic is expected to quadruple by 2012. To say that trolls pose a threat to the Internet at this point is like saying that crows pose a threat to farming.

That the Internet is now capacious enough to host an entire subculture of users who enjoy undermining its founding values is yet another symptom of its phenomenal success. It may not be a bad thing that the least-mature users have built remote ghettos of anonymity where the malice is usually intramural. But how do we deal with cases like An Hero, epilepsy hacks and the possibility of real harm being inflicted on strangers?

Several state legislators have recently proposed cyberbullying measures. At the federal level, Representative Linda Sánchez, a Democrat from California, has introduced the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, which would make it a federal crime to send any communications with intent to cause “substantial emotional distress.” In June, Lori Drew pleaded not guilty to charges that she 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 Prof. Daniel J. Solove on the blog Concurring Opinions.

Many trolling practices, like prank-calling the Hendersons and intimidating Kathy Sierra, violate existing laws against harassment and threats. The difficulty is tracking down the perpetrators. In order to prosecute, investigators must subpoena sites and Internet service providers to learn the original author’s IP address, and from there, his legal identity. Local police departments generally don’t have the means to follow this digital trail, and federal investigators have their hands full with spam, terrorism, fraud and child pornography. But even if we had the resources to aggressively prosecute trolls, would we want to? Are we ready for an Internet where law enforcement keeps watch over every vituperative blog and 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 can’t 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 overseas dissenters. Ultimately, as Fortuny suggests, 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.”

One type of corrective effort against the sanctioned definition of victim categories is to use every opportunity to individualize the targets of violence, at home or abroad. As long as they remain identityless and are described in terms of stereotyped categories, they can more readily be dehumanized. Furthermore, just as we must constantly protest any tendency within the society to treat violent actions as normal and legitimate, so must we protest all implications that there are groups -- without our own society or outside of it -- that are subhuman and fair game. No attempt to exclude from the human community a group, by whatever criteria that group may be defined, must remain unchallenged. It is particularly important to challenge such attempts when they are made by public officials, and especially by officials who speak with the highest authority. Their pronouncements contribute most heavily to creating the atmosphere and providing the legitimization that make systematic attacks against designated victim categories possible. The president and vice-president do have the right to criticize practices of which they disapprove, but to single out categories of objectionable people and define them as outside of the bounds of the community represents a dangerous abuse of their authority that must be challenged whenever it occurs.

Finally, society must establish the principle that advocacy of genocide against any group of people is not permissible. We may have to reconsider -- and I say this with profound reluctance -- some of our assumptions about the limits of freedom of speech or at least about the criteria for clear and present danger. The danger of genocide is very real and a permissive attitude towards its advocacy helps to legitimize it and to create the conditions for its occurrence. Whether or not there are to be legal restrains against the advocacy of genocide, we must never allow it to appear legitimate through our silent or expedient acquiescence. Whenever, wherever, and in whatever guide genocide is advocated, we must immediately identify it for what it is and unambiguously condemn it....

The appeal of doctrines (on the right or the left of the political spectrum) that glorify violence can be understood more readily if we recognize their close relationship to commonly held stereotypes of masculinity. In our culture, as in many others, violence is often taken as evidence of the toughness and aggressiveness, the lack of sentimentality, and the emotional stoicism that males are expected to demonstrate. Thus the readiness to proclaim or endorse the glories of violence is often a response to the perceived requirements of the male sex role; to shy away from violence is to fail a challenge to prove one's manliness. Similarly, those who feel particularly oppressed by their powerlessness and lack of personal agency may resort to violence because they see it as a way of regaining their lost manhood.

To counteract the glorification of violence, we must challenge the concept that killing is a heroic enterprise or a legitimate form of self-expression. We must learn to overcome the reluctance to take a firm stand against the jingoist or terrorist who declares that violence is the only way, even at the risk of appearing insufficiently patriotic or insufficiently radical as the case may be. More fundamentally, we must find ways of counteracting the rigid sex-role stereotypes that are so deeply rooted in our culture and that have a profoundly dehumanizing influence. Just as commonly held notions of the female role tend to undermine women's sense of identity by restricting them in the development and expression of personal agency, so do commonly held notions of the male role undermine men's sense of community by restricting them in the development and expression of empathy toward their fellow human beings.

-- Violence Without Moral Restraint: Reflections on the Dehumanization of Victims and Victimizers, by Herbert C. Kelman


Of course, none of these methods will be fail-safe as long as individuals like Fortuny construe human welfare the way they do. As we discussed the epilepsy hack, I asked Fortuny whether a person is obliged to give food to a starving stranger. No, Fortuny argued; no one is entitled to our sympathy or empathy. We can choose to give or withhold them as we see fit. “I can’t push you into the fire,” he explained, “but I can look at you while you’re burning in the fire and not be required to help.” Weeks later, after talking to his friend Zach, Fortuny began considering the deeper emotional forces that drove him to troll. The theory of the green hair, he said, “allows me to find people who do stupid things and turn them around. Zach asked if I thought I could turn my parents around. I almost broke down. The idea of them learning from their mistakes and becoming people that I could actually be proud of . . . it was overwhelming.” He continued: “It’s not that I do this because I hate them. I do this because I’m trying to save them.”

Weeks before my visit with Fortuny, I had lunch with “moot,” the young man who founded 4chan. After running the site under his pseudonym for five years, he recently revealed his legal name to be Christopher Poole. At lunch, Poole was quick to distance himself from the excesses of /b/. “Ultimately the power lies in the community to dictate its own standards,” he said. “All we do is provide a general framework.” He was optimistic about Robot9000, a new 4chan board with a combination of human and machine moderation. Users who make “unoriginal” or “low content” posts are banned from Robot9000 for periods that lengthen with each offense.

The posts on Robot9000 one morning were indeed far more substantive than /b/. With the cyborg moderation system silencing the trolls, 4chan had begun to display signs of linearity, coherence, a sense of collective enterprise. It was, in other words, robust. The anonymous hordes swapped lists of albums and novels; some had pretty good taste. Somebody tried to start a chess game: “I’ll start, e2 to e4,” which quickly devolved into riffage with moves like “Return to Sender,” “From Here to Infinity,” “Death to America” and a predictably indecent checkmate maneuver.

Shortly after 8 a.m., someone asked this:

“What makes a bad person? Or a good person? How do you know if you’re a bad person?”

Which prompted this:

“A good person is someone who follows the rules. A bad person is someone who doesn’t.”

And this:

“you’re breaking my rules, you bad person”

There were echoes of antiquity:

“good: pleasure; bad: pain”

“There is no morality. Only the right of the superior to rule over the inferior.”

And flirtations with postmodernity:

“good and bad are subjective”

“we’re going to turn into wormchow before the rest of the universe even notices.”

Books were prescribed:

“read Kant, JS Mill, Bentham, Singer, etc. Noobs.”

And then finally this:

“I’d say empathy is probably a factor.”

Mattathias Schwartz last wrote for the magazine about online poker. He is a staff writer at Good magazine and lives in New York.
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