Trolls, Sock Puppets and IP Addresses

A bit more than 20 years ago, a very decent old college friend got a series of nuisance calls regularly on the phone.  As her old man worked in Telecom, it seemed the most sensible thing to do to complain to the Poll-Iss, get the number traced and catch the vagabond with nothing better to do.  Surprisingly enough, it turned out to be a kid on the same street.  I think he WAS actually charged, at least for a minor offence anyway.

I also recall the total persecution we as kids inflicted on one poor lady Muinteoir who lived next door to my Mum's good Irish Countrywomens Association friend.  The teacher was the constant victim of what in Dublin we call "knick knacks" - basically knocking on the door and running away.  After being tortured at school, eventually it followed her home.  Except that there wasn't a kid in the school, myself included, who could resist the urge to take even a tiny tap on the way by and flee.  Nowadays I guess you'd have security cameras or something like that.  Unfortunately for her, these were not around cheaply in those days, and the school was one of the biggest in Ireland, with over 600 kids.  So I am sure her life was a misery of harmless torments.

And so nowadays we have real life, much more aggressive bullying.  I guess I can honestly say I've in some way or another played every role in the bully neme.  I've been the victim, the passive bystander who hadn't the guts to stand up, once even the furious bystander who did, much to the shock of the bullies, and I guess when I was around 11-12, I was a bit of a bully myself.  I reserved my worst vitroil of course, for adults.  Kids don't get some stuff you see.  I had my nose close to broken at 14 in secondary school (by another ICA daughter funny enough) in a bout of homophobic bully, practically legitimised and validated by the then head nun who went on, disgracefully, not only to pretty much hurt my parents for life with some vicious language about how much I deserved it, but who went on to hold many responsible leadership positions.  If I do ever meet her again, I'd really like to box her, actually, and tell her just how much she hurt really innocent, well meaning people, who didn't have the privilige to live in a more sophisticated world where taboos could be overcome.

But online bullying has taken the place once reserved for the sneaky fag at the back of the bus.  I think a lot of it is because so many kids now are shipped straight to school, schools are more heavily monitored and supervised, and so the kind of (fun) opportunities for misbehaviours that once were available are sadly no longer there.  And unfortunately making fun of others has changed along with that.

Its fair to say that there is a fair amount of harmless fun, and lots of banter takes place in adult life.  In fact most comedy and satire of some kind is a result of making fun of somebody.  Best of all of course is when its yourself.  I can't forget a rather amusing no uniform day in my few years of teaching music at Sandford Park Schools, when one-day-to-be comedian Abie Philbin Bowman made the ultimate fun of himself and showed up in drag.  Whats better still is that he wasn't the only one (but he made a very pretty girl).

Anyway in the last couple of years what used to be called flame wars have flamed all out of proportion.  Especially on systems like Twitter, one of the few places where total strangers can randomly chatter, celebs and the great unwashed actually interact, like some great big hetero intellectual version of Grindr without the naughty photos of yourself in your underwear.  The flip side of this is its so much easier to have a pointedly nasty comment thoughtlessly flung your direction from a total stranger out of the blue.

Of course, celebrities get it most.  There are crazy people out there and do they find twitter?  Of course they do!!  And of course, ALL of the one sided, ranters of the media, who are so used to foghorning into a world that they can easily ignore learn the hard way.  There was, of course, the unsurprisingly angry reaction of the trans community some years ago so some really thoughtless critique by Julie Bindel in the Guardian.  In fact women writers very much get most of it, but thats because sometimes they do write things which really do hurt, offend and anger others.  Of course men do it too, but they tend to ignore it.  Witness the now notorious video of Michael D Higgins very rudely insulting US right-winger Michael Grahame on youtube.  Grahame never stays deflated for very long.  In fact, if you listen to his slots on George Hook's Newstalk radio programme, he appears to quite enjoy being insulted.  But sometimes it can get more serious.

We've an awful history in Ireland of mismanaging interpersonal "situations."  How often is it that you turn on the radio to hear that one violent criminal family or another has eliminated more or less half of their rival clan in the name of some "feud"?  And that awful case a while back in Ballymun where a noise complaint ended up with a fatal stabbing?  Not to mention the dreadful case of the Poles stabbed by teenagers with screwdrivers in Clondalkin a few years back, and that dreadful shooting in the North Wall by a 15 year old of a man in his 40s.

Most of those cases started out as either "banter", a bit of fun, or a straightforward interpersonal feud.  One of the best of all was at home, where I am from, in Swords.  And bizarrre.  One pair of neighbours took out their feuds by loudly playing hymns on a hammond organ late at night.  It ended up in court.  I kid you not.  But sadly, some of these cases also end up in morgues.

Leo Traynor describes himself as a number of things, and had a blog republished in the Guardian about how he experienced not only abusive messaging on twitter, but stuff sent to his door, and his wife got some abuse also.  He writes that an IT expert friend helped him to trace the "troll" who turned out, yet again, to be a friends kid, and confronted the family.  On the way, he had complained to the Poll-iss, who in their way in these cases in Ireland, said they couldn't help.  This is unfortunately where the story gets challenged by those in the UK who don't actually understand how we do things here in Ireland.

We are a far less formal nation, and police complaints are taken seriously.  But generally Gardai make their own judgement and tend to avoid getting thickly involved in interpersonal cases that are likely to collapse.  They are not wrong.  A really good friend of mine once stitched up a battered wife and popped her into a taxi to the nearest battered womens shelter, only to get an anxious call from the taxi man to say they she'd insisted in stead that he bring her straight back to her violent husband.  If you are the garda in that case, and the wife drops charges, as so often they do, your time is wasted.  So unless you are my friend with the persistent pervert on the phone and a nice clean train of evidence, you are probably going to pick carefully among the cases presented to you.

This can work out to peoples advantages.  It means that if you are unfortunate enough (and stupid enough) to overindulge to the point that its the police who pick you up and bring you home or to the nearest A&E, they are likely to think twice before automatically charging you.  A lot of other modern police forces don't use such discretion.  It means that perfectly respectable people make a big lapse of judgement one night and next thing can find themselves with a criminal conviction.  And it does happen.  It happened to one of my best friends abroad, and has had lasting consequences.  Luckily, the Irish police are not so enthusiastic about rigidly punishing everybody who has a bad night.

So this explains why the police didn't take Leo Traynor's case up.  That is not to say that they would not take his case on if it went further.  But they tend to respond to peoples demands to press charges, and courts in Ireland often demand a higher level of evidence than in other countries to produce convictions.  It doesn't mean they are a bad police force, it does unfortunately point to erring on the wrong side of justice by the courts which often are perceived to be too lenient or let wrong doers off scot free.  You cannot blame the police force for that.

As for the IP tracing, if the harasser leaves enough evidence, you can get a good idea of where they are.  Email headers often include ip addresses, mail server names, routes, and crucially, computer names.  A lot of people and some workplaces name computers with partial formations of real names.  Thats a real giveaway.  For example, I've used a work PC with names like xxx-lauraf-20.  If you saw that computer name in the header you'd probably guess it was me.  And trolls love bait, so simple efforts to bait a troll can lead you their way.

A lot of messages have location services attached, people use common user names across platforms, and the advent of iPhones and Android phones has made this ubiquitious.  For example, my sister and myself have a lot of fun with Android's location based applications as we live quite closeby.  ("Will you get me milk while you're down the shops? Thks")  So it isn't entire implausible.

But such a tale would be far less likely to happen in the UK.  In Ireland, our community is so small that I repeatedly fall over old work colleagues, schoolfriends, college classmakes etc all over the internet by accident.  I once even got a call from a recruiter who turned out to be the son of a former school teacher.  Thats Ireland, people can be easy enough to trace.

There are shades of embellishment in Traynor's story, and some people have seized on these as evidence that its made up.  I don't think they are correct.  Its also intersting to note that anti-semitic tinge to his harassment, and when I pointed this out on the Graunwatch blog, the immediate response was the same kind of undertone of anti-semitism, with its constant bleating about "Zionism" which to me was such baited anti-semtic tones that I chose not to engage with such an obvious bigot.  (There is no point, I've noticed in public debates that members of that movement rant on for so long and with such enthusiasm nobody can get a word in - so if you do try to spew me with your anti-jewish hate mongering, please understand that I'm really not interested in letting it through my moderators filter, save your rants for people who want to hear that kind of thing).  Its sad that in this day and age in Ireland, we still make such a fuss over differences in religion, race or country of origin.

Its unfortunate that Traynor has not responded to his critics, but I'm not really sure what he can say.  Should he produce all evidence?  The suggestion, by the way, that he had involvement in one Chris Andrew's unmasking, is bizarre.  Andrew's put himself in a very disingenous position, by using sock puppets to criticise the very system which empowered him and those like him in the first place.  I don't think its anything to do with Traynor.

But to come back to my original story.  This isn't really about trolls or the internet, but of cruel peoples endless capacity to find new and innovative ways to be mean to others.  And its sad, that in the act of unmasking one such case, that so many find it an opportunity to find somebody else to be equally mean to.

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