Beware The Cyber Trolls

Now here's an instructive feature in the New York Times Magazine about the cultural and mass psychological ruin being wrought by the Internet. Mattathias Schwartz becomes a Jane Goodall among the "trolls," those anarchic misfits of the binary world who live to toy with other people's emotions (sorry, they elicit "lulz") by making bedlam of comment threads, and tossing up fake MySpace pages of their enemies. The more pretentious fancy themselves philosopher-revolutionaries; they believe they're actually improving society by committing identity fraud and issuing violent threats because these and other mean acts force the easily duped to wise up. Posting animated color fields designed to cause seizures in an epilepsy forum? "Demonstrating these kinds of exploits is usually the only way to get them fixed," says "Fortuny."

Since blogs and social network profiles traffic in banality, it's hardly revealing that most trollish shenanigans are motivated by same. One tells the author he was molested by his grandfather and tears up when he thinks of how he's helping his family by hurting everyone else. Those to whom evil is done do evil in return, or at least that's the going press release.

It's an admirable piece on the whole, though I think Schwartz is too dismissive of how technology erodes whatever thin layer of decency keeps offline human behavior — at least in normal social conditions — in check:

[W]hile 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.

Not many feel the urge to phone up a stranger and threaten her with rape, but even with the guarantee of anonymity and impunity, fewer still would attempt it. The Internet is a playground for sociopaths; the worst it ever does to those with consciences is make them seem feverish or silly (yeah, I'm looking at you, Dushkufan3000).

But not for nothing did Alexander Herzen say that his worst nightmare was Genghis Khan with a telegraph. Are we really surprised to discover that many trolls are racist and anti-Semitic?

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!"

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.

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.

It's like a bad parody of Don DeLillo dialogue.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to prepare for waking up tomorrow with Pareene's social security number and one of my kidneys missing.

[NYTM]