Looking for the face behind the troll

Jeremy Gordon

In the winter of 2009, afraid that I have a stalker, I am ready for something to go down pretty much all the time. I’m on edge without uppers, tweaked without weed, griping about my situation to friends who care but don’t understand or understand but don’t care. My hypothetical stalker calls himself Victor, after the first debate we had that ended in him declaring himself “the victor,” and for more than a year, he has followed me across the Internet. He leaves hateful comments on articles I had written for The Daily, Tweets about my mental state and even finds my personal blog and starts nitpicking posts I’ve made about the NBA or Taco Bell or whatever. Most of the time when I log online, I receive an instant message from a friend of mine saying, “Dude, did you see what that guy said about you?” Well, no, I hadn’t, but now I have to look, masochistically drawn to whatever new way of calling me a faggot this guy had discovered, or whether my hypothetical virginity was being discussed-again.

The things he says about me are patently absurd-I’ve learned how to brush off his comments, a mix of fiery invective and bizarre hyperbole-but the idea that someone is devoting so much time to hating me is unreal. My thoughts seemed so innocuous, my opinions on blink-182 or John McCain so inoffensive that I’m convinced my faceless, nameless adversary is someone I know, someone carrying a grudge born out of a slight at some party, a diss in a classroom discussion. Worse, it could be someone I don’t even know. Why not? Maybe my sentences are poorly constructed, my opinions trite and collegiate, my hair totally lame…I try to take it in stride, but while the attacks start as overblown criticisms of my writing, they soon become deeply misguided personal attacks, ones that no matter how bombastic and comedic, seem rooted in some kind of obsession. Pretty soon, I start wondering whether or not my nemesis is following me around campus. If I let my thoughts overwhelm me, he’s sitting at the far end of the table at Joy Yee’s, overhearing my conversations with my mom; following me on my way to class, memorizing my mannerisms so he can mock them online; watching me eat in Norris, trying to hate me to death. “You shouldn’t think about it,” my friends tell me, but what do they know? The words I’ve written are an extension of me and my real feelings; by attacking them, my nemesis is attacking me.

Eventually, I go to a professor of mine and describe my situation. First off, my professor says, anyone who hides behind an anonymous name on the Internet is a f—ing loser. Second, he tells me, if I really feel threatened, I should go to the police, which I’ve considered but resisted thus far, unsure whether or not it was an overreaction. But then, I go out for lunch and constantly look around without consciously doing it, wondering who is looking back. Even if the police tell me there was no case, I need to hear it from them. With that in mind, I send an e-mail to University Police and wait to hear their response.

Writing anonymously on the Internet is a form of catharsis, a way to say what we really mean. It’s also a great opportunity to be an incredible asshole. If you don’t use your name, you don’t have to be accountable for anything you say. You can gossip about your roommate being a jerk on College ACB, compare that blogger you dislike to Hitler, become free to be as negative and spiteful as your inner-psyche will allow.

When I first started commenting on campus publication Web sites as a way-too-serious freshman, I never used my real name. Why would I? If I used a fake name, like “Jack,” or “This article sucks,” I could adopt whatever fake persona I wanted in order to tear into any article I decided was stupid, which was most of them. I never made personal attacks, which saves my experience of being harassed from being completely hypocritical. I just thought everything sucked.

But the majority of NU commenters weren’t as bitter as I was, and a lone dissenter swaying in the wind comes off like a troll rather than a person with a legitimate axe to grind. Eventually, I realized that no one was listening, even the people who might have agreed with me in principle, because I was just being an asshole. I stopped anonymously commenting less and less and eventually started using my full name, toning down my comments so I would feel comfortable reiterating them in public should I have to.Some sites such as Gawker, the popular New York City media blog, don’t wait for their users to grow a conscience. Gawker requires users to register accounts before they’re allowed to comment, but they can only sign up once they’ve left worthwhile comments, proving that they’re going to be productive posters. For Web sites with heavy traffic, users aren’t discouraged by the sign-up system; if it’s free, they’ll sign up in a moment, as they’re already committed to being a part of that Web community. Other sites, like Something Awful, charge a one-time fee for users to be able to use their forums, figuring it will weed out anyone who isn’t serious about contributing.

For new Web sites, the sign-up system can be a readership killer, as readers are unlikely to sign up for something brand new, if it hasn’t proven itself consistently readable. When NU Intel, a campus media Web site, launched in 2009, readers were initially asked to sign up for accounts before they could comment on articles. Quickly, the system was scuttled and the comment boards opened up for anyone to post on. “It didn’t work,” says NU Intel co-founder Peter Jackson. “People don’t want to sign up for things.” (Full disclosure: Peter Jackson is a former Daily staffer and a friend of mine.)

The Daily doesn’t require users to register accounts and neither does North by Northwestern, another campus publication. Again, the answer is simple: traffic. “There is no question that there is a somewhat chilling effect (on traffic) when you ask people to register,” says Charles Whitaker, who teaches magazine courses at Medill and serves as chairman of the Board of Directors of The Students Publishing Co., the company that financially supports The Daily. “But I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

Whitaker, like most journalists operating in the 21st century, has gotten an amount of abuse on the Internet. He used to be a columnist for The Wednesday Journal, a newspaper in Oak Park, Ill., and recalls with some annoyance how his columns would inspire angry commenting. “My God, the editors let this go on forever,” he says, flailing his arms, “And they allowed people to write all kinds of crap and post. They believed in the complete freeness of ideas.” To Whitaker, making people stand behind their opinions, name and all, makes them act more responsibly, keeping the conversation civil.There are differing opinions on this, of course. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that defends digital rights, justifies the need for anonymity as one of life and death, as anonymous commenters are enabled to say things in public they could never in private. “Whistleblowers report news that companies and governments would prefer to suppress,” their Web site reads, “Human rights workers struggle against repressive governments; parents try to create a safe way for children to explore; victims of domestic violence attempt to rebuild their lives where abusers cannot follow.” It’s a valid argument, one that can be respected when it’s followed in good faith. But what happens when people get offended-which often happens-is a little undefined.

The scariest thing about having an anonymous stalker was the complete randomness of his attacks. I would often be reading an article on The Daily’s Web site and find an attack directed at me-even though I hadn’t written the article. It turned into a pattern of complete avoidance; I would ignore most articles with multiple comments, assuming that my name would eventually be mentioned by this weirdo following me, but then someone would link me to his Twitter (anonymous) or his blog (also anonymous) where, a
propos of nothing, I would be mentioned yet again.

It depends on how you’re being attacked. College ACB is a Web site where students can post anonymous gossip, from who hooked up at Pike’s date party to which girls have the best asses on campus. Anonymously posting about the shallowest things possible, users often cross the line of good taste. When Liz Sachs, a bubbly Weinberg junior in Tridelt, was told by her friends that her name was popping up on the Web site-in both good and bad contexts-she found it incredibly bizarre. “My comments were all about my body and nothing about my personality or substance, so it doesn’t really affect me,” she says. “It’s very silly. So artificial that people are caught up in this world when there’s so much out there.”

In retrospect, the things my nemesis was saying were mildly humorous. “This is the type of writing you read when you just stop caring about having the slightest pretense of intelligence or wit,” one comment would start out. “When you want to sink into completely asinine and incoherent babble, Jeremy Gordon is there for you.” At the time, I even appreciated opening up Victor’s blog and being greeted by the headline of “Jeremy Gordon=Asshole” (I even made it the tag line of a party I threw later that quarter). I wondered whether he was attacking me or some abstraction of my personality-could he see through my words and understand the person I was trying to be, or was he just grasping at straws?

Another reason I was so unsettled is because I didn’t know what legal recourse I had, if any. Because the person’s identity was hidden, how was I supposed to track him down? Were the police capable of deducing his identity through IP addresses? Even if I did find out who he was, could I do anything besides telling him to leave me alone?

There’s plenty that I, and anyone else feeling the brunt of online harassment, could do, says Lt. Ronald Godby of UP. Harassment through electronic communication is a criminal offense, one that can be justified through direct or non-direct contact. Even though my nemesis wasn’t directly e-mailing all of his comments to me, he was leaving them in places I was expected to come across-making him a violator of the law.

When UP gets a harassment complaint, they start by breaking down the victim’s life in order to find any potential leads: people who might be mad at him, people he interacts with every day, etc. If that doesn’t pan out-and it wouldn’t have for me-the IP address of the offender can be investigated. There are several ways to disguise one’s IP, in which case, Godby says, UP gets a grand jury subpoena, giving them the authorization to contact the service provider of the network being used and request information about whoever’s doing the commenting.

Sometimes the service providers resist, claiming the service they provide is completely anonymous. The anonymity of bloggers has been protected in cases like Manalapan v. Moskowitz-where the New Jersey Township of Manalapan tried to uncover the identity of a blogger who had been critical of town leadership in the New Jersey Superior Court-and USA Technologies v. Stokklerk, which went to the Pennsylvania District Court. However, when a demonstrable legal claim such as harassment is filed, service providers must comply.

After the person’s identity is confirmed, UP contacts them and tells them to stop. Most of the time, they acquiesce. “I didn’t know” is a common response-“I understand, and I’ll stop” is another. Rarely do people continue to harass after being approached by the police; if they do, then they get arrested.

Material on the Internet stays in cyberspace forever. Deleted blog posts can be found in Google caches, negative comments on articles stay up on Web sites, and even private Facebook photos can be dug up with enough effort. Just because you haven’t put your name on something doesn’t mean it can’t be tracked to you or that you’re unaccountable because you aren’t aware of the rules. All it takes is for someone to file a criminal complaint, and you’ll be before UP.

In my case, it never comes to that. When I make an appointment with UP to discuss my case, I tell some of my friends, who in turn tell some of their friends. Eventually, word gets around that unlike the rest of my colleagues, who haven’t been targeted as much as I have, I’m going to do something about the problem.The day before I’m scheduled to meet with UP, I get an e-mail entitled, “Regarding Victor” from a student I’ve never met or heard of. “First off,” it began, “I just want to apologize for this Victor character for which I am responsible. I meant for it to be purely fun and superficial only and not to be taken seriously. Recently I realized that it may have spun out of control, and for that I am truly sorry.” The e-mail went on, ending with a fairly considerate apology, the subtext being, “Please don’t go to the police.” In hindsight, I can see if I had gone to the cops, they would have found him, and he would have been in an entirely new world of trouble-maybe he would be rejected from graduate school with a criminal record, or maybe he wouldn’t be allowed to graduate at all.

The disgust hits me when I realize I’ve never met my stalker-who I’ve declined to name now out of respect for his privacy, though he gave me none. He had just read my writing and decided to create a character devoted to attacking it without regard for how I might have felt after the relentless barrage of insults. It turns out he knows people I know because he also worked for The Daily, but I’ve never seen him before, never heard his name, never considered him during my long, paranoid considerations of who among my friend circle could have been the offender.

Through an awkward turn of events, I end up meeting him at a party when he taps me on the shoulder and drunkenly apologizes. “I just wanted to let you know,” he slurred, a little too happily, “That I think you’re a really good writer.” Well, thanks, I remember thinking to myself, like that was some consolation. By the end of the ordeal, it wasn’t my work being attacked-it was me, and no half-assed validation of my writing could account for the physical insecurity I had felt for weeks because of this guy. One of our mutual friends-who, upon finding out that he was behind things, was severely weirded out-says we should take a photo with each other and goes to find her camera. I politely decline and leave the party a few minutes later.

One year later, the negative comments haven’t stopped. In the fall, a blurb I write for the weekly on Taylor Swift is largely derided online; likewise, an article I write for NU Intel is labeled “pointless.” But now, rather than neurotically worrying about every piece of less-than-favorable criticism, I’ve accepted that anonymity, at least on campus, doesn’t necessarily reflect the truth that has to be spoken. Anger and vitriol have their place in online discourse, but I’m not going to let it bother me. Instead, I’ll just laugh and move on, remembering even if my writing does suck, at least I’m not the one pissed off about it.