The New York Times: continuing a fine tradition of giving people too much credit
Mattathias Schwartz of The New York Times writes an incredibly long, deeply serious and utterly pointless article about internet trolling, and the steps some of its biggest instigators take to avoid legal hassles and real life asskickings.
In a hilariously self-important tone that suggests he’s writing about 12 year-old meth addicts, Schwartz explains some of the background behind trolling.
“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.
INTERNET SLANG=SRS BZNS, as the kids like to say. Along with an exhaustive history of juvenile assholery committed behind the safety of a computer monitor, Schwartz interviews two celebrities in the troll universe, Jason Fortuny of the notorious Craigslist Experiment, and a fellow who goes by the name of Weev, who claims to be part of a “hacker organization” that pulls in more than $10 million a year (without offering a single shred of proof) and for all intents and purposes appears to be a complete lunatic. Both claim their antics, which include creating a fake webpage in support of Lori Drew, whose alleged online harassment drove 13 year-old Megan Meier to suicide, and flooding the Epilepsy Foundation’s website with animated flashing pictures, have led to numerous threats made on their lives. Fortuny owns a gun and has an “escape plan” should one of his victims show up at his door one day, while Weev supposedly has gone as far as no longer having a permanent address, and refuses to give his real name, though curiously he has no problem allowing his photograph to be published in one of the biggest newspapers in the world.
Any attempt to look for reason behind Fortuny and Weev’s behavior is ill-advised, as the entire article is a disjointed jumble of statistics and Schwartz’s own ponderings on free speech and internet debate, as well as superfluous details of his interviews with them, such as describing Fortuny as “bird-like” and dedicating three sentences too many to a friend of Weev’s who addresses Schwartz by a racial slur. As best as can be ascertained, Fortuny believes trolling provides a valuable service, bringing self-absorbed people down a few notches and forcing them to look at the ridiculousness of certain situations, while Weev is just a misanthropic nutcase. The most coherent moment comes from Fortuny himself, who states that trolling will fade away when people stop taking it so seriously, a valid point that is completely negated by the fact that The New York Times dedicated an article more than forty-seven paragraphs long to it.
Continuing to give far more credit than is due, Schwartz ominously mentions that Weev has sooper seekrit access to all sorts of personal information.
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.
You know, I’m a little mystified at to why it took Weev a whole month to get Schwartz’s Social Security number, considering there are 100% legal websites available where he could have gotten it in a matter of minutes, along with his home address. I know, I used to look up that kind of information for a living. If Weev is spending hours hacking for it, he’s a moron, if he’s just paying a fee for the services that provide it within legitimate guidelines, then he’s hardly some sort of fearsome, omnipotent figure on the internet. He’s simply taking information that people willingly provide and using it to fuck with them, and thus is the heart of the issue with trolling.
While I do not in any way condone the behavior of Fortuny and Weev, it would behoove us all to remember that when we put ourselves out there on the web, we leave ourselves vulnerable to what is essentially just schoolyard bullying taken to the nth degree. It pains me to agree with Fortuny, but if people didn’t treat trolls as though they’re either insidious supervillains or edgy geniuses (Fortuny in particular boasts a vast array of toadying acolytes), they’d eventually go back under their bridges, returning the internet to a peaceful wonderland of free pornography and Orlando Bloom fan pages. And again, in most cases their tools of harassment are often inadvertently provided by their victims. “This information is secure” is the biggest crock of shit on the internet since “I’m a green-eyed blonde, 110 pounds with a 38DD chest.” No one deserves to have personal information made public, but at the same time no one should be surprised either, and they definitely shouldn’t treat nuisances like Jason Fortuny and Weev as though they’re all-powerful beings with the capability of blowing up the entire internet. While somehow managing to be both disapproving and admiring of their behavior, Mattathias Schwartz did the worst thing possible: validating the misguided notion of their own importance.
Then again, I just dedicated an entire blog post to them, so clearly I’m a hypocrite as well. I look forward to my e-mail inbox filling with many photographs of Tub Girl and aborted fetuses.