Troll Hunting by Australian journalist Ginger Gorman is a new book which examines the world of online hate and its human fallout. Along with interviews with a small number of trolls and general reflections upon this hateful world, Gorman’s book includes a number of case studies of trolling, some of which are relatively well-known while others not: all make for disturbing reading. While it’s of general relevance, many of the characters and events which populate this world would be especially familiar to (Australian) readers, or at least those who take an interest in such matters: on the one hand, ‘GamerGate’, convicted terrorist Joshua Goldberg, Andrew Auernheimer (AKA ‘weev’) and GNAA; on the other hand, those subject to what Gorman calls ‘predator trolling’, including writer Van Badham and lawyers Josh Bornstein and Mariam Veiszadeh (among others). Gorman’s book is well-written and engaging, and weaves together the author’s own experience of being ‘trolled’ with those of others, along with some examples of ‘troll hunting’ and ‘troll hunters’, the latter category including journalist and lawyer Luke McMahon. As well as being of general interest, the text is of particular interest to me because of the ways in which the ‘world of online hate’ has been ‘weaponized’ by elements of the far right, a theme explored in more detail in the anthology Cyber Racism and Community Resilience: Strategies for Combating Online Race Hate (Palgrave, 2017). At a little over 250 pages long, the text includes endnotes, which are useful, but — rather annoyingly — no index.
Gorman’s book is divided into three parts: ‘Trolls’, ‘Targets’ and ‘Troll hunting’. The first part examines the evolution of online trolling, the emergence of ‘predator trolls’ in particular — which Gorman defines (p.18) as those who set out to do real-life harm — and details the author’s lengthy conversations and interactions with several of its enthusiastic practitioners. In the second part, Gorman provides case studies of predator trolling and investigates the ways in which law enforcement has responded, or more precisely failed to respond, to these activities. Gorman also explores how social media giants like Facebook and Twitter have dealt with trolling and cyberhate generally — which is argued to be less-than-adequate. The third and final part of the book explores how some trolls, including Goldberg, came unstuck. Throughout the text, Gorman reflects upon her journey into this ‘world of online hate’, and how her interactions with the creatures which inhabit it change her understanding of them, their world, and its relationship to broader social and technological trends, especially racism and misogyny and the central place of social media in everyday life.
While the second part reveals varying degrees of incompetency and indifference on the part of tech companies, after documenting the systemic failure of law enforcement to address cyberbullying, Gorman does detect a more hopeful sign (pp.119–120):
Some stories are emerging of more appropriate, and effective, responses to cyberbullying complaints. Take comedian and writer Catherine Deveny. After making controversial comments on Twitter and Facebook about Anzac Day in 2018 — describing it as ‘Bogan Halloween’ and a ‘fetishisation of war and violence’ — she was doxed multiple times. Her home address was posted all over the internet and she received an avalanche of credible rape and death threats. She was the focus of several facebook hate groups. One night, five men in a ute turned up to her house. One of them knocked on her door and videoed himself doing it.
Within forty-eight hours of Deveny’s original comments being posted — and the resultant blow-up of public vitriol — Victorian counter-terrorism police reached out to her. They got her statement and started investigating. Police patrolled outside her house and work events. An investigator from the Office of the Federal eSafety Commissioner also got in touch. In contrast to many who’d gone before her, Deveny received significant and appropriate support. After hearing so many dire stories, it’s great to hear one like this. Wouldn’t it be amazing if all predator-trolling victims could rely on getting this kind of assistance?
For what it’s worth, I remember when this incident took place, and at the time made brief reference to it on the blog. In which context, a few things. First, those responsible for paying Deveny a nocturnal visit included right-wing activists Julian de Ross (AKA ‘Hugh Pearson’), Rino ‘Bluebeard’ Grgurovic and Ricky Turner. Secondly, whatever became of the intervention by Victorian counter-terrorism police and the Office of the Federal eSafety Commissioner, the boys carried on as before. Thus one month later, members of the same crew — on this occasion consisting of Paul Exley and Danny Peanna/Parkinson from Sydney, together with the Melbourne-based Grgurovic, Logan Spalding, and their ringleader Neil Erikson — filmed themselves disrupting a church service in Gosford; in June, Erikson, Turner and several others paid another nocturnal visit to a private address, on this occasion that of rival right-wing entrepreneur Dave Pellowe. While it’s unclear if those responsible for attending Deveny’s and Pellowe’s address faced any legal repercussions (it seems not), for his part in the disruption of the church service Erikson at least was later charged under an obscure law making it an offence to ‘obstruct a member of the clergy in the discharge of his or her duties’.
It’s possible, I suppose, to characterise this behaviour as ‘IRL trolling’ — but there’s certainly other interpretations. One critical difference is that, while it may be performed for teh lulz, unlike almost all of the examples of ‘trolling’ Gorman provides in her book, such actions are not really all that anonymous. In fact, while there’s occasionally some effort made to disguise the identities of those responsible, for the most part it’s very public — and by public I mean ‘filmed and then published by/on Facebook’. When de Ross, Grgurovic, Turner & Co. visited Deveny’s home; Exley, Peanna, Grgurovic, Spalding and Erikson disrupted a church service; and Erikson, Turner & Co. visited Pellowe’s home; these actions were undertaken precisely in order to be documented and distributed via Facebook. So too, the numerous other occasions upon which Erikson in particular has undertaken the role of a serial pest, from disrupting council meetings and various left and ‘multicultural’ events to stalking and abusing various public figures he happens to dislike. (Note that Grgurovic is due in Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on February 26 over assault charges; Erikson, along with his kameraden Ricky Turner and Richard Whelan, have a date on May 13 over similar.)
All of these acts have been performed publicly and for the benefit of his Facebook audience, the corporation having granted Erikson permission to do so for at least the last four years. Thus, it was only in the space of the last few days that Facebook, for unknown reasons, banned a number of Erikson’s accounts. (It’s possible that the pest may have come unstuck upon announcing the re-launch of the ‘United Patriots Front’ by creating an event page for a February 16 rally at Federation Square — the UPF collapsed after Facebook banned its page in May 2017.) Still, there are hundreds if not thousands of very similar pages on the site, and it remains the critical tool for far-right organising in Australia and elsewhere. (See, for example, Fraser Anning’s Neo-Nazi connections (The White Rose Society, January 11, 2019) and Facebook Fueled Anti-Refugee Attacks in Germany, New Research Suggests (Amanda Taub and Max Fisher, The New York Times, August 21, 2018) for two among innumerable other instances.)
More broadly, while Gorman makes fairly short work of the corporate pablum spewed by Facebook and Twitter concerning their commitment to combating trolling and ‘hate speech’, if Facebook in particular is understood as being a massive private data-collection agency — one which derives a substantial proportion of its profits from selling this information to advertisers (and whoever else can pay for it) — it’s possible to cut through this nonsense fairly easily. Further, like corporations generally, Facebook is able to use the enormous financial and political power at its disposal to ensure the forms of regulation which might inhibit its continued growth and profitability are kept at bay. And while YouTube/Google doesn’t feature in Gorman’s account, its role in promoting racist and fascist propaganda, along with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, rivals that of Facebook, and has long been understood as a key node in the distribution and promotion of race-hate and other forms of hate speech (see, for example, ‘Fiction is outperforming reality’: how YouTube’s algorithm distorts truth, Paul Lewis, The Guardian, February 2, 2018 and ‘Alternative Influence: Broadcasting the Reactionary Right on YouTube’, Rebecca Lewis, Data & Society, September 9, 2018).
In any case, to return to Goldberg and Veiszadeh (pp.218–219):
Towards the end of 2014, [Veiszadeh] publicly voiced her outrage that a Woolworths supermarket in Cairns was selling singlets printed with the Australian flag alongside the tagline,’If you don’t love it, LEAVE’.
Three months after her tweet, the far right anti-Islam group The Australian Defence League posted her tweet to their Facebook page. From there, it was picked up by the alt-right Daily Stormer website. Chillingly, The Daily Stormer post about Veiszadeh, written under the byline Michael Slay, demanded of its thousands of followers: ‘Stormer Troll Army … assemble!’ ‘We need to flood this towelhead subhuman vermin with as much racial and religious abuse as we possibly can,” the spite-filled post reads …’
(Note that a few weeks ago the former ‘President’ of the ADL, Ralph Cerminara, was found ‘guilty of two counts of intimidation and one count of common assault’ after attacking his neighbour in Sydney.)
In addition to being attacked on The Daily Stormer, Veiszadeh’s tweet also triggered a Queensland woman, Jay-Leighsha Bauman, to send Veiszadeh messages calling her a “whore”, a “rag-head” and [telling] her to return to her own “sand dune country” — Bauman was later sentenced to 180 hours of community service for the crime. A few months later, an Ordinary Mum™ and Reclaim Australia supporter was charged with threatening to slit Veiszadeh’s throat. On these and other occasions, it seems the chief fault of those charged was not bothering to anonymise their threats; the fact that Bauman’s threats were reported on by both the BBC and CNN may also have prompted authorities to take a closer look. That said:
Later in 2015, Luke McMahon and Elise Potaka reported in Fairfax newspapers that Michael Slay turned out to be not one person, but two. One of those two men was Joshua Goldberg, whose main trolling preoccupation was preserving freedom of speech. As the troll hunter explained earlier, this was how he ended up choosing targets such as Josh Bornstein.
Nathaniel Jacob Sassoon Sykes
The ‘other’ Michael Slay was of course Jewish neo-Nazi and toy-doll enthusiast Nathaniel Jacob Sassoon Sykes, who was exposed by McMahon in April 2017. Like Goldberg, Sykes contributed scores of articles to The Daily Stormer, inter alia attacking Veiszadeh along with Badham, Bornstein, Dr Tim Soutphommasane and yours truly. Currently, Sykes is the chief writer for the ‘United Nationalists of Australia’ blog, the online shitsheet of the ‘Australia First Party’. In that capacity, Sykes attacks the various enemies of the AFP on the left as well as the right. Sometimes, this creates legal difficulties. Hence, after publishing an article in June 2017 by party leader Dr Jim Saleam which detailed alleged crimes committed by members of rival fascist groupuscule ‘Klub Nation’, in May 2018 legal action against Saleam and the blog was apparently taken by various persons associated with KN. (Member of this radical right-wing network are also implicated in an attempt to infiltrate the Young Nationals in NSW last year.) Beyond this, members of the neo-Nazi ‘Lads Society’ and, more recently, a man called Michael Freshwater, have also been attacked by Sykes on the UNA blog. While Sykes was dismissed by ex-UPF and Lads Society organiser Tom Sewell as a ‘divisive little Jew’, Freshwater, it’s alleged, has been part of a conspiracy to undermine AFP, embracing elements of the Liberal Party as well as neo-Nazis like Mark McDonald, the leader of the Lads Society in Sydney and former leader of neo-Nazi groupuscule ‘Squadron 88’.
• Joshua Goldberg (as ‘Moon Metropolis’) published a statement on Medium on December 28, 2018 which provides a defence of sorts to his actions: ‘It was always my intention to infiltrate online jihadist spheres so that I could eventually become either a journalist, an FBI agent, or both.’ The statement also refers to … when I got Milo Yiannopoulos to publish that “expose” on Shaun King, I did it purely to see the shitstorm that I knew it would create, not because I actually care in the least about anything involving either Shaun King or Milo Yiannopoulos (both of those people are complete and utter clowns as far as I’m concerned). The article, ‘Did Black Lives Matter Organizer Shaun King Mislead Oprah Winfrey By Pretending To Be Biracial?’ (Breitbart, August 19, 2015), is dissected in this blogpost on Internet Famous Angry Men. Yiannopoulos is of course a very well-known troll who for several years was able to translate his trolling activities into sponsorship by wealthy right-wing reactionaries and sought to acquire more filthy lucre by conducting (semi-)lucrative tours. In fact, Yiannopoulos, along with Gavin McInnes and Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, are supposedly being brought to Australia by Penthouse Australia publisher Damien Costas next month (March 9–14) for a speaking tour. For his part, Costas is currently embroiled in a legal battle with publicist Max Markson regarding alleged unpaid debts. See also : Here’s How Breitbart And Milo Smuggled White Nationalism Into The Mainstream, Joseph Bernstein, BuzzFeed, on October 5, 2017 (A cache of documents obtained by BuzzFeed News reveals the truth about Steve Bannon’s alt-right “killing machine.”).
• Gorman makes reference (pp.199-200) to a category of trolling known as ‘media fuckery’, and cites US academic Whitney Phillips who defines it as ‘the ability to turn the media against itself … by either amplifying or outright inventing a news item too sensational for media outlets to pass up’. This brought to mind two things. First, a recent example of ‘media fuckery’ in which a fake Facebook page titled ‘Melbourne Antifa’ applauded the 2017 Las Vegas shooting. This later featured in an article in The Daily Mail by Stephen Johnson (‘Melbourne Antifa extremists praise Las Vegas shooter’, October 2, 2017), was fact-checked by FactCheck.Org and Snopes and in May 2018 also triggered a bizarre interaction between myself and a right-wing blogger in the US. Secondly, the phrase immediately brought to mind similar terms such as ‘culture-jamming’ and ‘subvertising’, political practices which pre-date both ‘media fuckery’ and teh intarwebs as a whole. See : How To Make Trouble And Influence People.
• Gorman also makes reference (p.47) to local neo-Nazi activist Blair Cottrell in the context of a discussion regarding ‘hate leaching into the mainstream’ and Cottrell’s appearance as a very special guest on Adam Giles’ show on Sky News in August last year. As noted elsewhere, Cottrell – following an appearance on Sky News – told his 25,000 Twitter followers he might as well have raped presenter Laura Jayes on air because “not only would she have been happier with that but the reaction would’ve been the same”. In which context, a few things: first, while Facebook has banned the UPF and Cottrell, such commentary is considered acceptable by Twitter (to which platform Cotrell shifted after being kicked off Facebook). Secondly, his kamerad Neil Erikson made a similar remark directed at another female journalist, Jodi Lee, in November last year: ‘Jodie [sic] Lee acted like I had raped her on live TV….. She wishes!’ Thirdly, Cottrell has an extensive criminal record, mostly revolving around his stalking of an ex-girlfriend. Finally, Cotrell, Erikson and fellow white nationalist Chris Shortis were convicted in September 2017 of inciting hatred for Muslims; Cottrell is appealing the conviction on the grounds that the Victorian Act under which he was convicted (The Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001) is in fact un-Constitutional, and will be appearing in the County Court in Victoria on February 19.
• While Gorman devotes relatively little space to d0xing, it’s relevant in several instances. In her chapter on weev, ‘A Professional Racist’, for example, Gorman notes (p.232) that weev appeared on a neo-Nazi podcast with Mike Enoch and Christopher ‘Crying Nazi’ Cantwell. Later in the chapter (p.236), Gorman also refers to ‘Azzmador’, who along with Daily Stormer publisher Andrew Anglin wrote a post for the site encouraging their fellow neo-Nazis to attend the murderous ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville in August 2017. As it happens, Mike Enoch is in fact Mike Peinovich, who got d0xxed in January 2017, while ‘Azzmador’ is Robert Warren Ray. (According to a November 2018 report, Ray is currently a fugitive after being charged with a felony allegedly committed at the rally.) As for Cantwell, late last year he voiced an audio version of local neo-Nazi Ryan Fletcher’s tract ‘From HEMP to Hitler’, which has been promoted on David Hiscox’s AltRight website XYZ. See also : The far right, the “White Replacement” myth and the “Race War” brewing, Julie Nathan, ABC (Religion & Ethics), February 12, 2019:
The potential for violence which such online posts portend was graphically demonstrated in the United States in October 2018 by Robert Bowers, who wrote on Gab, a Twitter-like platform which is a haven for extremists and racists, “Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Shortly afterwards, he entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and murdered eleven Jews. Afterwards, Bowers told police that he was motivated by his belief that “the Jews” were “committing genocide to my people.”
Chillingly, these words were echoed by another Gab user, an Australian named Ryan Fletcher, who wrote, “I think its [sic] about time to say ‘f*** your optics I’m going in’.” Fletcher has a dark history of calling for the murder of Jews in Australia and worldwide, and of posting images of Jews being killed, on his Gab account. Fletcher subscribes to the myth: “#White gentiles are waking up to the agenda of #ZOG (which is #WhiteGenocide).” “ZOG” stands for “Zionist Occupied Government,” a term used to insinuate that “the Jews” control the United States and other Western governments. Fletcher also writes articles for XYZ.
See also : Online abuse of women in the media, Justine Landis-Hanley, The Saturday Paper, February 16, 2019 | Meet The Woman Giving A New Face To Troll Hunting, Jamila Rizvi, Future Women, February 2019 | The ‘Canary In The Coalmine’ Link Between Terrorism And Trolling, Alex Bruce-Smith, Ten Daily, February 5, 2019 | Internet trolls are not who I thought — they’re even scarier, Ginger Gorman, ABC, February 2, 2019 | Troll hunting: a journey to the dark side, Karen Hardy, The Canberra Times, February 2, 2019 | Twitter, the barbarian country, or how I learned to love the block button, Van Badham, The Guardian, January 31, 2019 | Troll Hunting review: Ginger Gorman goes in search of the online bullies, Jonathan Green, The Sydney Morning Herald, January 18, 2019 | Staring down the trolls: Mute, block or resort to ‘digilantism’?, Ginger Gorman, The Sydney Morning Herald, June 16, 2017 | Cyberhate With Tara Moss, ABC, 2017 | Misogyny Online: A Short (and Brutish) History, Emma A Jane, SAGE (2017) | Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous, Gabriella Coleman, Verso (2014). As well as providing some further detail regarding weev’s activities prior to his going full nazi as an editor for The Daily Stormer, Coleman’s book also contains important background on the various (sub-)cultural contexts from which the ‘predator troll’ emerged. (Note also that, in conversation with weev in August 2010, Coleman writes (p.22): ‘His denunciation of “the repulsive order of the financiers” had the ring of truth, given the recent financial mess their recklessness has engendered, so I found myself, only minutes into my first bona fide conversation with a world famous troll, in agreement with him.’ LOL.)