7.12.2009

magnolia and me

They're the bane of the internet, more annoying than a slow connection or an inbox full of spam. Their presence is almost inevitable, and like some energy-based creature from the original Star Trek series, your attention only makes them stronger.

They're trolls, and if you've established an online presence, chances are you've tangled with your share.

When I first started blogging (in July 2004), some American hard-right-wingers found "we move to canada". I never sought them out, but my desire to leave The Greatest Nation on the Face of the Earth™ provoked them to angry tirades.

I was called a coward, a "disgusting and vile traitor", a "fascist pig," a "Marxist minion". I was told I'd die in Canada while waiting for health care - or freeze to death, since it snows here 12 months a year. After the Canada-bashing and the U-S-A chest-thumping came the inevitable "good riddance, who needs you". But if I am so unimportant, why were they frothing at the mouth?

In those early days of blogging, I was still developing my own comment policy; when I deleted their spew, I was, of course, accused of censorship. This turned out to be useful, as it led me to articulate to myself why I wouldn't tolerate hateful comments on my blog. Trolls poison the atmosphere, derail constructive conversation, contribute nothing, and ruin everyone's fun. Free speech is a red herring. I defend your right to express yourself, but I'm not obligated to rent you a billboard on my front lawn.

Eventually the Fox-News–style trolls faded away, and a different breed took their place: disgruntled Canadians. This type of troll was best exemplified by someone calling himself GaryStJ. GaryStJ hates Canada, and my admiration for my new country got under his skin.

GaryStJ drove wmtc readers around the twist with circular illogic, trying to prove that Canada and the US are exactly the same. Since same-sex marriage is legal in Massachusetts, doesn't that mean same-sex marriage is legal in the US? Since Canada is at war in Afghanistan, isn't Canada an imperialist superpower, too?

Eventually, out-witted and out-argued, GaryStJ resorted to name-calling of the lowest kind – the kind only delivered behind the shield of anonymity. By that time, we had recognized GaryStJ for what he was: a troll with a big vocabulary.

Banned from my blog, GaryStJ didn't give up. He started appearing at other blogs on which I commented, airing his imaginary gripes about me. He embarrassed himself a few times, then disappeared from my radar screen.

Which is more than I can say for "magnolia_2000". This Canadian man (of that I'm certain) began by posting under half a dozen different names (at the time I didn't know they were all the same person). Finally, he settled on the persona of an admiring female reader. He posted under that disguise for months before flaming out in a barrage of bigotry. He then revealed himself as the keyboard behind all those earlier personas, but retained the female pseudonym. For me it was a relief to learn that wmtc hadn't been attacked by eight different trolls.

Ever since Magnolia announced his multiple personality disorder, it's been nothing but racist, sexist, homophobic filth, plus childish personal attacks, on my blog as well as Allan's. I long ago started using comment moderation, so his comments never appear. Despite that, he has kept up his attacks, off and on, for almost three years.

Think about that. Since Mags revealed himself as a disrupter, I've never posted his comments and never communicated with him in any way. And he's continued his monologue for nearly three years. The expression "get a life" doesn't even make a dent.

* * * *

When I first turned on moderation, Magnolia bragged that he had gained control of my blog. Of course, the opposite was true: I had increased my own control. But was his reaction a clue to his motivation? Is he trying to control me, like a bully, or an assailant?

After that, the frustrated troll tried to bargain with me. "I'm calling a ceasefire. If you remove comment moderation, I promise to leave you alone." This went on for weeks, his posts alternating between threatening – "If you don't take off moderation within 24 hours, I'll make you sorry you ever began this boring stupid blog!" – and plaintive: "Come on, L, I promise I'll stop, you can take it off now...".

Not content to have his erstwhile comments trashed on wmtc, every so often Mags posts about me on other people's blogs, to the bafflement of all concerned. He visits the blogs of select wmtc readers, telling the bloggers I've insulted them and suggesting they reconsider their friendship with me. Then he comes back to my blog to tell me he's done it.

Mags also has gone through phases of posting under a name that appears similar to mine, telling online friends that our friendship is over. Once I received a flurry of emails – some from people who were fooled, others to alert me to his presence. Allan checked the dates and times of all the comments: Mags had invented eight different names, and posted at nearly two dozen blogs – for eight hours.

Mags' knowledge of me betrays a close, if twisted, reading of my life, from both wmtc and Allan's Joy of Sox. Our Joy of Sox "gamethreads" routinely run to 500 comments or more. Is Mags lurking the entire time, following a rambling conversation during a game he isn't watching? Or does he scroll through the thread later, hoping to glean some nugget of information that he can later try to use against me?

For all his persistence, Mags has never crossed the line from troll to cyberstalker. He's emailed me only once: when, based on some unrelated postings, he feared someone else's harassment might be attributed to him, and he could be facing real – that is, real life – trouble. He was reduced to pleading and whimpering – but he never again contacted me again outside of his rejected comments.

Every so often, Mags swears off me and disappears for a while. But like something you can't completely scrape off your shoe, the stench returns.

* * * *

That this man has too much time on his hands is obvious. But it's more than that. It's pathological.

What drives him?

I've often tried to imagine the mentality that might be at work. Who is this person when he's not online? What drives his obsession? Why does he need to insult me?

I suspect a longing for a secret identity must come into play. Mags can never reveal his hidden hobby to a friend or co-worker; he would instantly expose himself as unbalanced, even dangerous. He can only enjoy this game in secret. Does he fancy himself an online Bruce Wayne?

Since Mags is clearly addicted to trolling, perhaps his anonymous insults serve one of the same functions as all addictions: an anesthetic. In a dull, gray, lonely life, perhaps even a painful one, Mags soothes himself by lashing out at a stranger, choosing a method that protects him from return volleys.

Is his professed loathing of me a disguised form of jealousy? While he constantly tells me how boring and meaningless my life is, I continue to live my interesting and meaningful life, while he spends his evenings writing hate mail under an assumed name.

Is there some profound self-loathing, some essential lack of confidence, that prevents the troll from engaging in normal discourse?

Will this post embarrass him? In the comments I'll reject, he'll be gleeful, declaring victory because his antics inspired this post. But privately, will he squirm to have his sickness laid bare? For that, he would need some awareness that he has a problem, and we don't know if he's reached that stage.

We'll never really know. But I do know this: as soon as I hit "publish post," comment moderation will be very busy.

32 comments:

johngoldfine said...

That's scary--the persistence, intensity, obsessiveness, malice, ingenuity, and deep-down looniness.

I know your closing questions are only partly rhetorical--I certainly don't have a unified theory of trollism, but I'd imagine that one thing that attracts magnolia is the reality of the voice in wmtc. Your readers do get a sense of who you are and what you are like (a tribute to your writing!) That's not a given for a blog, so it might be part of the persistence thing. Can't you write a little more blandly, anonymously, drily, impersonally, dully, and blahly?

johngoldfine said...

Now I've gone and read through some of the GStJ threads you linked to--whew, that infinitely aggrieved, disingenuous, paranoid tone is nightmarish.....

L-girl said...

"That's scary--the persistence, intensity, obsessiveness, malice, ingenuity, and deep-down looniness."

Oh the malice... I won't repeat the kinds of things he writes. Seriously malicious. Seriously loony.

JohnGoldfine, thank you for those very kind words. :)

L-girl said...

Btw, I found and linked to a thread at Orcinus where GaryStJ appeared to trash me.

It's a really interesting thread in general, and very instructive about trolling and reaction to trolling. It's linked above on "appearing on other blogs".

redsock said...

Allan checked the dates and times of all the comments: Mags had invented eight different names, and posted at nearly two dozen blogs – for eight hours.

Please note that those eight hours were roughly 9 PM to 5 AM.

Yes, he stayed up all night.

(I posted my findings in a thread at the time. Maybe it's one of the ones L has linked to?)

***

Are most trolls racist, homophobic assholes who see everything in stark black & white? Or are there also progressive trolls spend hours (and weeks and months and years) posting in vain at conservative blogs?

***

With any luck, this post will click on some self-awareness light in Mags's brain and he will get the help he needs.

Cornelia said...

I think he's a sexist bully and not just bored, but he has a few serious issues. Of course, he can only reveal his fit with accomplices who are into the same or else he might get trouble, but definitely no applause! You know, the author of bullyonline.org, who has some very good points, stated that bullies are very much into projection so it's him who is extremely bored with his life and other hopefully more harmless and less unpleasant activities...Too much time and too little medicine, as you rightly said earlier on, Laura. Some people are just weird. Good for you for using moderation! You really needn't provide bullies with a forum on your blog, most definitely not.

Cornelia said...

Allan, of course most or at least a whole lot of bullies - both male and female - (though of course not all of them!) are into sexism, patriarchy, racism, homophobia and discrimination in general.

Kim_in_TO said...

My guess is that he works in a job in which he has no control, or maybe he's unemployed. Maybe this is the only way he can feel he has control over something - even when he really doesn't.

But what is it about the right-wing and trolling? Online papers are filled with right-wing trolls. I've been taking Laura's advice lately and am getting out of the habit of even looking at the reader-submitted comments.

Amy said...

That is awfully scary. Do you ever worry about someone like this going beyond cyberspace to harass you? You do so little to hide your identity. Perhaps I am too much of a worrier, but I know it would spook me.

(Feel free not to post this if you think the nuts out there might get some ideas from my suggestion.)

L-girl said...

"Do you ever worry about someone like this going beyond cyberspace to harass you?"

Nope. It hasn't happened so there's no point in worrying about it. If he ever took one step towards it, I would act then.

"You do so little to hide your identity."

More than that, I have no online persona. Everyone here knows (or can know) my full name. That's my byline, and I link to it all the time.

I see absolutely no reason to hide my identity.

Journalists all over the world are imprisoned or even assassinated for their political expressions, yet keep writing. I'm not going to let some idiot with a fake name change my behavior.

I find Mags "scary" in the sense of "geez, there are people out there like this!" but not scary in a real sense of fearing for my own safety. That's not an issue here.

Tom said...

The obsession is unhealthy. I used to comment at a religion forum being the only gay voice in the crowd. After way too long I realized I was banging my head against a wall. You and Kim were the ones to smarten me up saying why waste your time on them.

Once in a awhile I pop in and the same people are still having the same exact arguements for years.

These same religious people said the same things against us for moving to Canada. Even after explaining there are no methods for gay Americans to sponsor their partners.

L-girl said...

"Maybe this is the only way he can feel he has control over something - even when he really doesn't."

That's a good theory. I bet the control issue is very big.

"But what is it about the right-wing and trolling?"

I've often wondered this. Maybe it has something to do with seeing the world in simplistic terms - of issues being reduced to slogans and knee-jerks.

Are there progressive trolls? Antonia Zerbisias posted a link on FB (see them more recent wmtc post). Rachel Marsden, a conservative columnist, left a comment that (paraphrased) the internet is full of those, you'll find them at D-Kos, too - meaning it's not exclusively conservative. But I wonder. I think 90% of trolling is right-wing.

Sarah O. said...

When Mags left a comment on my blog last week, I didn't even bother emailing you about it. It was all so been-there, done-that, I just deleted it. He thinks he's so devious, but he's just so darn pathetic.

Tom: Once in a awhile I pop in and the same people are still having the same exact arguements for years.

Yes, it's as if trolls like Mags and social conservatives (all conservatives?) are stuck in a feedback loop - everyone repeating themselves until it becomes this pointless, unbearable screeching, and none of them think it's a problem.

L-girl said...

Definitely unhealthy!

It took me a while to learn to stop banging my head against the wall, too - although mine was more in person. By the time the internet came around, I was already through with arguing with those idiots.

We feel passionately about something, and we think we can spread some perspective. But if minds are closed, there can be no rational discussion.

L-girl said...

"When Mags left a comment on my blog last week, I didn't even bother emailing you about it."

Works for me. :)

Jere said...

"I'm not obligated to rent you a billboard on my front lawn."

Especially not at a rate of "$0/mo."

Was this the guy that left a comment on my blog pretending to be you or Allan yelling at me and telling me to "stay away" from his blog? He was dumb enough to think I'd believe it was real, which would be about as likely as me getting a spam email titled "HI, I"Ve Miss'd YOU!!1" and think, "Oh, this has to be a friend of mine!"

L-girl said...

"Was this the guy that left a comment on my blog pretending to be you or Allan yelling at me and telling me to "stay away" from his blog?"

That would be Mags. That's his MO.

Then he leaves a "comment" at wmtc: "I'm stirring up shit with all your friends. Or former friends, once I get through. Soon you won't have any friends."

L-girl said...

"Do you ever worry about someone like this going beyond cyberspace to harass you?"

Also, one big reason to not be afraid of trolls is that they are cowards. Someone like Magnolia would never have the guts to do or say anything IRL.

Jere said...

""I'm stirring up shit with all your friends. Or former friends, once I get through. Soon you won't have any friends.""

That is so ridiculous. How could he possibly think that work, especially since on the off chance someone falls for it, he's given you a warning anyway! This guy would be a bad practical joker. He'd tell the mark about the joke on their way into the house from the car. It's like it's so important to him to get credit, he'll risk ruining the whole thing to ensure he gets it.

L-girl said...

"It's like it's so important to him to get credit, he'll risk ruining the whole thing to ensure he gets it."

Yes, exactly! It's obviously no fun for him unless I know he's done it.

redsock said...

So he's obviously far from devious.

He does something childish and then immediately jumps up and down waving his arms, yelling: "LOOK AT ME, LOOK AT ME"

***

I wonder does he troll other blogs or are you his "special project"? A search on his name turns up very little. He may have other aliases for other blogs.

***

His last few comments at Joy of Sox have been little more than "You are in Canada now so you should start rooting for and writing about the Blue Jays." Yawn.

***

One other obsession of Mags: He says (over and over again) how L and I will never be "REAL" Canadians.

L-girl said...

"I wonder does he troll other blogs or are you his "special project"? A search on his name turns up very little. He may have other aliases for other blogs."

I've always assumed he does this at many people's blogs. I sure hope so! :)

"One other obsession of Mags: He says (over and over again) how L and I will never be "REAL" Canadians."

Oh yes. He seems to care about this almost beyond anything else. When he get citizenship, he's going to go berserk!

Cornelia said...

Good that you posted the alerts for the friends of yours he tried sending bullshit and misinformation. Is he a hacker, too? I don't think he would stalk and verbally abuse and bully you in person because he could not get away with it then! Violence Protection Act restraining orders rock, yeah! You might want to check out www.bullyonline.org for more ideas on possible measures against bullies who take advantage of new media and bother people over the net or otherwise.

L-girl said...

To my knowledge, he is not a hacker.

I appreciate the resource, but I don't feel bullied by this man at all.

Sadly, protection orders often do little to prevent violence. How many women have been killed by their ex-partners with an Order of Protection in their bag?

But there's no issue like that going on here. Mags is not a stalker. He's a troll - annoying, but ultimately harmless.

Cornelia said...

I know that re: extremely dangerous and freaked-out criminals, for example honor-murderers, additional security measures are very important! They are just so heinous and plain dreadful...
Thank Goodness M. doesn't bother you!

redsock said...

Way more humorous than harmful!!

Cornelia said...

Cool, Allan, thanks, I'm happy to hear that!

Kim_in_TO said...

The other thing that's so stupid about this kind of trolling, is that each time the issue resurfaces, it just brings us all closer together. I'm not just talking about the solidarity that comes from sharing advice and strategy; I'm talking about the realization that it makes me feel protective of you (and I'm sure I'm not alone), and that makes me realize what good friends we are.

Good job, Magnolia!

deang said...

what is it about the right-wing and trolling?

Right-wingers are characterized by bellicosity and a preference for aggression over diplomacy and discussion. US right-wingers furthermore believe that there are no testable facts, no truths to be sought through rational discussion. They believe instead that everything is just a point of view, an opinion, or a belief, and thus that, for their ideas to prevail, they must impose them, in part by undermining views they dislike, even if said views are actually proven facts, like evolution or US military malfeasance. Some seem to see this as a sacred mission or something. To my mind, that explains why the vast majority of trolls are right-wingers.

redsock said...

Damn! That about nails it dead on.

L-girl said...

Dean, that is excellent analysis. Living in Texas, you've had a lot of opportunity to think about this, and you've put it to good use.

Kim, thank you. :)

L-girl said...

A slightly condensed version of this post is now up on The Mark, also for now on their front page.