Trolling Gone Wild: Internet Forum Harassment Leads to Suicide Attempt

AP Photo
The Associated Press

The Washington Post delivers the sobering story of William Moreno, a socially awkward, depressed, mildly autistic 32-year-old man who got into a feud on a supposedly anonymous Internet forum called Fairfax Underground… only to be swiftly tracked down in real life and subjected to a trolling campaign of threats and harassment.

The Post offers Moreno’s story as an example of “trolling” gone wild, an increasingly common and troubling phenomenon.  It’s easy and cost-free for social media users to whip up campaigns of harassment, unleashing destructive passions that can spill over into far worse activities.

Some of those activities don’t require much more effort than writing snotty Tweets or blog comments.  For example, the Moreno family was subjected to a “swatting” attack, in which hoax phone calls or Web posts are employed to make the target seem like a dangerous criminal, prompting a police response that the attacker hopes will either scare the crap out of the target… or maybe even get them killed, if they respond to the sudden police presence in a way that causes the situation to escalate.

Specifically, Moreno’s harassers dumped a phony Web post in his name that said, “I JUST SHOT MY PARENTS NOW I WILL KILL MY SISTER.”  The result was a 2:30 AM raid on his family home, in which his parents were awakened by a police negotiator telling them to get out of the house, officers with rifles taking up positions on their lawn, and William Moreno getting tackled by officers on the porch.

The Washington Post reviews the harassment saga in great detail. The basics are that Moreno wrote some posts on Fairfax Underground that made people mad, in accordance with the theory that giving anonymity plus an audience to normal people often leads them to behave like jerks. (The most memorable expression of this theory, which uses decidedly non-family-friendly language, along with some serious scholarly work on the subject is discussed here, along with the interesting observation that similar behavior occurred on a smaller scale during the golden age of CB radio.)

It takes a good long while for the Post to get around to telling us what Moreno said that provoked such an extreme reaction from other users, but eventually we learn that under his supposedly anonymous online moniker of “Mr. Misery,” he “displayed quirky humor but also contributed offensive comments about child molestation and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.” He said those posts “were not serious, but he earned the ire of some users.”

Here we may pause to note that in addition to the intoxicant of anonymous fame, one reason Internet conversations turn nasty so quickly is that they lack both the nuances of face-to-face communication, and the painstaking eloquence of old-fashioned letter-writing. Also, either coincidentally or as part of a cause-and-effect relationship, the rise of social media occurred at the same time many people came to view gracious good manners and reticence as signs of hypocrisy, weakness, or a lack of authenticity. Social media is more about blurting than composition. It can be very difficult to tell when people are joking, or what the intended “tone” of their comments is, especially when they feel that inserting obvious declarations that they’re just kidding around and mean no harm would ruin the joke.

In other words, people on a raunchy forum with over a million users may not give you an opportunity to explain what you really meant with your quirky humor about child molestation and 9/11.

The ire directed at Moreno soon escalated far beyond the exchange of harsh words on an anonymous forum. Such escalation is happening with enough frequency to fuel concerns about “cyber-bullying,” but it went to deranged lengths with Moreno, becoming a two-year campaign of harassment after another user called “eesh,” identified in court filings as one Michael Josef Basl, discovered Moreno’s real name and sent him a threatening e-mail.

He also admits to putting a note on Moreno’s car, but denies being the source of many other harassment actions mentioned in the lawsuit filed by the Moreno family, including online accusations of rape against Moreno, death threats, vandalism of his car, and more. However, another Fairfax Underground user testified in court that Basl boasted of having a hand in some of the worst abuses, including the “swatting” attack.

Things got so bad that Moreno’s mother Sharon, who works for an intelligence contractor and must maintain a security clearance, almost lost her job. She was barely able to get her security clearance renewed after investigators contacted her employer, in pursuit of the phony charges of rape leveled against her son. (And then Chinese hackers stole all of her personal information, along with that of everyone else who applied for a security clearance, but that’s another story…)

Moreno’s story provides a dismal laundry list of harassment and slander tactics easily perpetrated by online goons, with only a little personal information about the target. Internet postings falsely portraying him as responsible for everything from sexual assault to bomb threats were created by anonymous saboteurs. One of the trolls told Moreno how easy it would be to ruin his family’s reputation by messing with their Google search results, crowing that his parents were “old and defenseless.” Basl was accused of concocting death threats from Moreno against himself – a very familiar tactic in vicious online disputes.

Internet “trolling” usually involves annoying but harmless social media posts. Trolls can generally be neutralized by simply ignoring them, although the more industrious examples of the breed will generate so much forum junk that their targets feel obliged to respond somehow, lest other readers think badly of their writing due to the sheer volume of negative responses. An increasingly popular trolling tactic involves organized gangs hitting websites where a hated author’s books or other creative products are sold, and flooding it with negative reviews.

What happened to William Moreno seems like a dramatic escalation from mere “trolling” into harassment, and even physical attack… but what’s scary about such stories is that “dramatic” isn’t quite the right word, because such escalation is easy. The swatting tactic of setting up a dangerous encounter between police tactical units and unsuspecting innocent targets has been used by sore-loser video game players who grew annoyed with their opponents. They even hope to watch real-time video of the deadly prank unfolding on the target’s webcam.

Many Internet users have serious concerns about government invasions of online privacy, rightly trumpeting the creativity unleashed by anonymous Internet communications.

The dark side of that freedom is that anonymous harassment is easily perpetrated, unrestrained by the slightest bit of human connection with the target. It turns out that when we are all mysterious voices in the electronic darkness, many of us become lurking monsters. The phenomenon of instant, universal anonymous communication to mass audiences is entirely new – something the human race has simply never experienced before, although the above-mentioned example of people acting like loons on CB radio gave us a taste of things to come. It will take years to learn all of the pitfalls, and devise responses that protect the innocent without giving trolls the ultimate victory of destroying the remarkable new social structures they infest.