A Life Ruin: Inside the Digital Underworld

Jamie Bartlett explores the recent history, cultural context and sinister motivations behind the world of online trolls in this chapter from The Dark Net

‘Hi /b/!’ read the small placard that Sarah held to her semi-naked body. ‘7 August 2013, 9.35 p.m.’

It was an announcement to the hundreds — thousands, perhaps – of anonymous users logged on to the infamous ‘/b/’ board on the image-sharing website 4chan that she was ready to ‘cam’. Appreciative viewers began posting various sexually explicit requests, which Sarah performed, photographed and uploaded.

On 4chan, there are boards dedicated to a variety of subjects, including manga, DIY, cooking, politics and literature. But the majority of the twenty million people who visit the site each month head for /b/, otherwise known as the ‘random’ board. Sarah’s photographs were only part of one of many bizarre, offensive or sexually graphic image ‘threads’ constantly running on /b/. Here, there is little to no moderation, and almost everyone posts anonymously. There is, however, a set of loose guidelines: the 47 Rules of the Internet, created by /b/users, or ‘/b/tards’, themselves, including:

Rule 1: Do not talk about /b/ Rule 2: Do NOT talk about /b/

Rule 8: There are no real rules about posting Rule 20: Nothing is to be taken seriously

Rule 31: Tits or G[et] T[he] F[uck] O[ut] — the choice is yours

Rule 36: There is always more fucked-up shit than what you just saw

Rule 38: No real limits of any kind apply here — not even the sky

Rule 42: Nothing is sacred

The anonymous and uncensored world of /b/ generates an enormous amount of inventive, funny and offensive content, as users vie for popularity, and notoriety. Did you ever click on a YouTube link and unexpectedly open Rick Astley’s 1987 smash hit ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’? That was /b/. Or receive funny photographs of cats with misspelled captions? Also /b/. The hacktivist group Anonymous? /b/ again.

But anonymity has its downside. Female users are a novelty here, and are routinely ignored or insulted, that is unless they post photo- graphs of themselves, or play ‘camgirl’, which is always a simple and effective way to capture the attention of the /b/ tards. 4chan has a dedicated board for camming, called ‘/soc/’, where users are expected to treat camgirls nicely. Every day, dozens of camgirls appear there and perform. But occasionally one foolishly strays into /b/.

Approximately twenty minutes after the first photograph was posted, one user requested that Sarah take a naked photograph of herself with her first name written somewhere on her body. Soon afterwards, another user asked for a naked photograph of her posing with any medication she was taking. She duly performed both tasks. This was a mistake.

Anonymous said: shit, I hope no one doxxes her. She actually delivered. She seems like a kind girl. — Anonymous replied: dude get a grip she gave her first name, her physician’s full name, and even the dormitory area she lives in she wants to be found. — — Anonymous replied: She is new. Any girl who makes signs or writes names on her body is clearly new to camwhoring, so they really don’t know what they’re getting themselves into.

Sarah had inadvertently provided enough personal information to allow users to ‘dox’ her — to trace her identity. Other /b/tards were alerted and quickly joined the thread — on 4chan, doxing a camwhore is seen as a rare treat — and before long, users had located Sarah on her university’s searchable directory, and revealed her full name, address and telephone number. Next, they tracked down her Facebook and Twitter accounts. Sarah was still at her computer, watching helplessly.

Anonymous said: STOP. Seriously. Fucking fat losers — Anonymous replied: good to see you’re still in the thread sarah. You’re welcome btw.— Anonymous replied: heyyy . . . sarah . . . can I add you on facebook? Just kidding delete that shit before your nudes get sent to your friends — — Anonymous said: She literally just made her fucking twitter private while I was browsing her pics. Fucking cunt.

Anonymous replied: It’s K if she does delete it. I’m making notes on the people on her friends list and their relation with her. Will start sending the nudes soon. — Anonymous replied: LOL she deleted her Facebook. Doubt she can delete her relatives though. — — Anonymous replied: Eh, just save her name. Eventually once all this settles she will reactivate it and she will have her jimmies rustled once more. She will now never know peace from this rustling. And she’s going to have one embarrassing fucking time with her family.

Anonymous said: You fucking nerdbutts got her Facebook? You guys are fucking unbelievable. A girl actually delivers on this shit site, and you fuckers dox her. Fucking /b/, man. — Anonymous replied: get the fuck out you piece of shit moralfag trash — — Anonymous replied: How much time do you spend here? You’re really surprised by this?

Anonymous said: Those who deliver nudes deserve no harm — Anonymous replied: hahahahahahaha you must be new here. ‘for the lulz’.*

Anonymous said: I don’t wanna be a whiteknight, but already being one, I wonder why /b/ does this. She provided tits and shit, yet ‘we’ do this to her. Internet hate machine at its best. — Anonymous replied: /b/ camwhoring: 2004–2013. R.I.P. Thanks. — — Anonymous replied: The amazing thing to me is how you guys never shut up about how ‘if u keep doxing them we wont have any camwhores left :(.’ notice that you’ve been saying this for roughly a decade.

Anonymous said: Anyway here is a list of all her Facebook friends. You can message friends, and all their own friends, so that anyone with a slight connection to sarah via friend of friend knows — Anonymous replied: So has somebody started messaging her friends and family or can I begin with it? — — Anonymous replied: Assume no one else has, because anyone else who responds might be a whiteknight looking to make you think that someone else was already sending the pics out. — — — Anonymous replied: gogogo

One user created a fake Facebook account, put together a collage of Sarah’s pictures, and began sending them to Sarah’s family and friends with a short message: ‘Hey, do you know Sarah? The poor little sweetie has done some really bad things. So you know, here are the pictures she’s posted on the internet for everyone to see.’ Within a few minutes, almost everyone in Sarah’s social media network had been sent the photographs.

Anonymous said: [xxxxx] is her Fone number — confirmed. — Anonymous replied: Just called her, she is crying. She sounded like a sad sad sobbing whale. — — Anonymous replied: Is anyone else continuously calling?

This was what /b/ calls a ‘life ruin’: cyberbullying intended, as its name suggests, to result in long-term, sustained distress. It’s not the first time that /b/ has doxed camgirls. One elated participant celebrated the victory by creating another thread to share stories and screen grabs of dozens of other ‘classic’ life ruins, posting photographs of a girl whose Facebook account had been hacked, her password changed, and the explicit pictures she’d posted on /b/ shared on her timeline.

Anonymous said: I feel kinda bad for her. She was hot and shit, also cute. Too bad she was dumb enough to leak her name and whatnot. Oh, well. Shit happens. — Anonymous replied: If was clever she would have g[ot] t[he] f[uck] o[ut] she didnt, therefore she deserves the consequences — — Anonymous replied: I don’t give a shit what happens either. Bitch was camwhoring while she had a boyfriend.

The operation took under an hour. Soon, the thread had vanished, and Sarah was forgotten.

Doxing camgirls is only one of a growing number of ways that people abuse, intimidate, provoke, anger or ‘troll’ others online. Celebrities, journalists, politicians, sportspeople, academics — indeed, almost anyone in the public eye, or with a large following online — regularly receive insults, inflammatory comments and threats from complete strangers. In 2011, Sean Duffy was imprisoned after making offensive remarks on Facebook, including a post mocking a fifteen-year-old who’d committed suicide. When journalist Caroline Criado-Perez and others succeeded in a campaign to get Jane Austen featured on the new ten-pound note in 2013, she was bombarded with abusive messages from anonymous Twitter users, culminating in bomb and death threats deemed serious enough for the police to advise she move to a safe house. After appearing on BBC’s Question Time, the University of Cambridge classicist Mary Beard received ‘online menaces’ of sexual assault. In June 2014, the author J. K. Rowling was viciously attacked online for donating £1 million to the ‘Better Together’ campaign to oppose Scottish independence.

Some form of trolling takes place on almost every online space. YouTube, Facebook and Twitter all have their own species of troll, each evolved to fit their environment, like Darwin’s finch. MySpace trolls have a register and tone perfectly adapted to upset aspiring teenage musicians. Amateur pornography websites are populated with trolls who know precisely how to offend exhibitionists. The ‘comment’ sections on reputable news sites are routinely bursting with insults.

Over the last five years, there seems to have been a dramatic increase in this type of behaviour. In 2007, 498 people in England and Wales were convicted of using an electronic device to send messages that were ‘grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or of a menacing character’. By 2012, that number had risen to 1,423. Almost one in three eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds in Britain knows someone who has been a victim of anonymous online abuse. In a poll of almost 2,000 British adults on the subject, 2 per cent said that they had insulted someone, in some form, online — which, when extrapolated, would amount to some one million trolls in the UK alone.

‘Trolling’ has today become shorthand for any nasty or threatening behaviour online. But there is much more to trolling than abuse. Zack is in his early thirties, and speaks with a soft Thames Estuary accent. He has been trolling for over a decade. ‘Trolling is not about bullying people,’ he insists, ‘it is all about unlocking. Unlocking situations, creating new scenarios, pushing boundaries, trying ideas out, calculating the best way to provoke a reaction. Threatening to rape someone on Twitter is not trolling: that’s just threatening to rape someone.’

Zack has spent years refining his trolling tactics. His favourite technique, he tells me, is to join a forum, intentionally make basic grammatical or spelling mistakes, wait for someone to insult his writing, and then lock them into an argument about politics. He showed me one recent example that he’d saved on his laptop. Zack had posted what appeared to be an innocuous, poorly written comment on a popular right-wing website, complaining that right- wingers wouldn’t be right wing if they read more. An incensed user responded, and then posted a nude picture that Zack had uploaded to an obscure forum using the same pseudonym some time before.

The bait had been taken. Zack hit back immediately:

You shouldn’t deny yourself. If looking at the pics makes you want to touch your penis then just do it . . . if you want I can probably find you some more pictures of my penis — or maybe you’d like some of my ass also? Or if you want we could talk about why regressive ideologies are a bad idea in general and why people who adopt them are likely to have a much harder time in understanding the world than someone who’s accepting of progress and social development?

Zack then began posting a series of videos of his penis in various states of arousal interspersed with insults about right-wingers and quotes from Shakespeare and Cervantes. ‘Prepare to be surprised!’ Zack said mischievously, before he showed me the posts.

For Zack, this was a clear win. His critic was silenced by the deluge, which occupied the comments section of the website for several hours. ‘He was so incapable of a coherent response that he resorted to digging into my posting history for things he thought might shame me — but I’m not easily shamed.’

‘But what was the point?’ I asked him. ‘I thought you were trying to expose far right groups?’

‘Yeah, and by posting the naked photos the discussion drew attention from across the site. This is what trolling is all about — creating a scene in order to get more people to think about the issue being raised’.

‘And do you think you succeeded in doing that?’

There’s a short pause. ‘I dunno, but it was fun. It doesn’t really matter if it was otherwise fruitless.’

For Zack, trolling is part art, part science, part joke, part political act, but also much more. ‘Trolling is a culture, it’s a way of thinking’ – and one, he says, that has existed since the birth of the internet. If I wanted to discover where this apparently modern problem came from, I had to go back to the very beginning.


The internet’s precursor, the Arpanet, was, until the 1980s, the preserve of a tiny academic and governmental elite. These ‘Arpanauts’, however, found that they enjoyed chatting as much as exchanging data sets. Within four years of its creation the Arpanet’s TALK function (originally designed as a small add-on to accompany the transfer of research, like a Post-It note) was responsible for three quarters of all Arpanet traffic. TALK, which later morphed into electronic mail, or ‘e’-mail, was revolutionary. Sitting at your computer terminal in your department building, you could suddenly communicate with several people at once, in real time, without ever looking at or speaking to them. The opportunities aff by this new technology occasion- ally made the small group of world-class academics behave in strange ways.

One research group, formed in 1976, was responsible for deciding what would be included in an email header. They called themselves the ‘Header People’, and created an unmoderated chat room to discuss the subject. The room became famous (or infamous) for the raucous and aggressive conversations held there. Arguments could flare up over anything. Ken Harrenstien, the academic who set up the group, would later describe them as a ‘bunch of spirited sluggers, pounding an equine cadaver to smithereens’.

In 1979, another team of academics were at work developing a function called ‘Finger’, which would allow users to know what time other users logged on or off the system. Ivor Durham from Carnegie Mellon University proposed a widget to allow users to opt out of Finger, in case they preferred to keep their online activity private. The team debated the merits of both sides, but someone leaked the (internal) discussion to the rest of the Arpanet. Durham was attacked relentlessly and mercilessly by other academics from across the US, who believed that this compromised the open, transparent nature of the Arpanet.

Most of these academics knew each other, so online arguments were tempered by the risk of bumping into your foe at the next computer science conference. Nevertheless, misunderstanding and righteous indignation spread across the Arpanet. One participant in the Finger episode thought that tongue-in-cheek comments were usually misread on a computer, and proposed that sarcastic remarks made on the Arpanet be sufficed with a new type of punctuation to avoid readers taking them the wrong way: ;-) But even the first emoticon wasn’t enough, because users just started slotting them after a sarcastic put-down, which was somehow even more annoying. (‘The f***ing a**hole is winking at me as well?!’) Worried that the network was quickly becoming an uncivil place, Arpanauts published a ‘netiquette ’ guide for newcomers. Satire and humour, it advised, was to be avoided, as ‘it is particularly hard to transmit, and sometimes comes across as rude and contemptuous’.

Flaming on BBS

In 1978, Ward Christensen and Randy Suess invented the dial-up Bulletin Board System. With a modem, telephone and computer, anyone could either set up or connect to a ‘BBS’ and post messages. From the early 1980s onwards, BBS was many people’s first experience of life online.

Within a year, insulting strangers on boards became a widely acknowledged and accepted part of BBS. Finger and Header Group disputes were more often than not heated debates between academics.

But here, people started joining groups and boards with the sole purpose of starting an argument. This was called ‘flaming’: provoking strangers, disrupting other groups and creating tension for the fun of it. The best ‘flames’ were well written: subtle, clever and biting. Good flamers (who would often post under a pseudonym) built a reputation; people would eagerly await their posts, and archive their best lines. This was more than simple nastiness. For many flamers, it was an opportunity to experiment, to push boundaries, and to have their efforts read and appraised. One prominent flamer even published a guide — ‘Otto’s 1985 Guide to Flaming on BBS’ — advising potential flamers that being as controversial as possible was ‘the only way that people will read your opinions’. ‘It is very hard’, Otto wrote, ‘to ignore a board-wide or NET-wide flame war.’

Dedicated groups started to appear to discuss how to most ef- fectively flame others. In 1987, one BBS user called Joe Talmadge posted another guide, the ‘12 Commandments of Flaming’, to help flamers old and new develop their style:

Commandment 12: When in doubt, insult. If you forget the other 11 rules, remember this one. At some point during your wonderful career as a Flamer you will undoubtedly end up in a flame war with someone who is better than you . . . At this point, there’s only one thing to do: INSULT THE DIRTBAG!!! ‘Oh yeah? Well, your mother does strange things with vegetables.’

BBS groups were controlled by a systems operator (sysop), who had the power to invite or ban users, and delete flames before they reached the victim. Often labelled censorsops, they were themselves the targets of a nasty strand of flaming called ‘abusing’. Abusers would torment the sysop with insults, spam or anything else they could think of. Sometimes abusers and flamers would ‘crash’ a board with bugs, or post links to Trojan viruses disguised as pirated arcade games for unsuspecting users to download. Another trick was to upload messages referring to pirating, in order to direct snooping authorities towards the unsuspecting sysop.

Usenet Flame Wars

Around the same time that the BBS was invented, two academics at Duke University set themselves an even more ambitious task. Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis were aggrieved that the Arpanet was elite and expensive — access cost approximately $100,000 per year

– so in 1979 they set up a new network called ‘Usenet’, which, they hoped, anyone could access and use. (Anyone, that is, who had a computer connected to the operating system UNIX, which amounted to very few people.)

Usenet, it can be argued, is the birthplace of the modern troll. Usenetters — a small clutch of academics, students, Arpanauts and computer nerds — would take a pseudonym and join a ‘newsgroup’ full of strangers. Like BBS, anyone could start a Usenet group, but unlike BBS the administrators — the people who ran the whole network — had some control over which groups they would allow. The hope of harmony reigning was dashed almost immediately. Usenetters clashed with the haughty Arpanauts over How Things Should Be Done in this new space, with the Arpanauts declaring the new Usenet ‘trash’ to be ignorant and inexperienced. One simple spelling mistake would often instigate a chain reaction, resulting in months of users trading insults and picking apart each other’s posts.

Usenetters were a rebellious bunch. In 1987, Usenet administrators forced what became known as the ‘Great Renaming’, categorising all the haphazard groups into seven ‘hierarchies’. These were: comp.* (computing), misc.* (miscellaneous), news.*, rec.* (recreation), sci.* (science), soc.* (social) and talk.* — under which users could start their own relevant subgroups. To name the group, you took the main hierarchy name, and then added further categories. John Gilmore, who would go on to co-found the cypherpunk movement with Tim May and Eric Hughes in 1992, wanted to start a group about drugs, called rec. drugs. His request was turned down by the administrators.

So Gilmore and two experienced Usenetters created their own hierarchy, which would be free of censorship. They called it alt.*, short for alternative (it was also thought to stand for ‘anarchists, lunatics and terrorists’). Flaming became extremely popular on alt.*, and flamers would take pleasure in being cruel to other users in as creative and imaginative a way as possible. A 1990s Usenet troll called Macon used to respond to flames by posting a single, 1,500-word epic mash-up of creative insults he ’d written over the years: ‘You are the unholy spawn of a bandy-legged hobo and a syphilitic camel. You wear strangely mismatched clothing with oddly placed stains . . .’ When, in 1993, a user named Moby asked the group alt.tasteless for advice about how to deal with a pair of cats on heat who were ruining his love life, he received an explosion of maniacal solutions, each more ludicrous than the last: do-it-yourself spaying, execution by handgun, incineration and, perhaps inevitably, sex with the cats.

On both Usenet and BBS new idioms, rules and norms were being created. But it was a world that was about to be inundated. The early 1990s saw the number of internet users grow exponen- tially. And many new users would beeline straight for one of the most active and interesting places online: alt.*. Usenetters, irate at the sudden influx of immigrants, attempted to flush them out. In 1992, in the group alt.folklore.urban, a new type of flaming was mentioned for the fi st time, targeted at the recent arrivals: trolling. The idea was to ‘troll for newbies’: an experienced user would post an urban myth or legend about Usenet in the hope of eliciting a surprised reaction from anyone new, thereby exposing their status. Caught you! The responder would thereafter be mercilessly mocked.

With so many potential targets, flaming and trolling began to spread, and became increasingly sophisticated. Several groups dedicated to trolling were set up in alt.* In 1999, one user called ‘Cappy Hamper’ listed in the group alt.trolls six different types of trolls: the ‘straight-up asshole flame troll’ (‘easy!’ explained Cappy Hamper, ‘Post in alt.skinheads with the header: “you buncha racist asswipers eat dog crap bisquits!”’); the ‘clueless newbie joke troll’; the ‘hit, run and watch troll’; the ‘confidence’ or ‘tactical troll’; the ‘creative cross-post troll’; and the ‘gang troll’.

The Meowers were infamous gang trolls. In 1997 a group of Harvard students had joined an abandoned Usenet group called alt.fan.karl-malden.nose to post updates about comings and goings on campus. They then started to mildly flame other Usenet groups, in order, wrote one, ‘to rile up the stupid people’. Matt Bruce, one of the Harvard group, suggested targeting alt.tv. beavis-n-butthead. Users of alt.tv.beavis-n-butthead didn’t take kindly to these arrogant students, and started to post back to alt. fan.karl-malden.nose. So did people from other Usenet groups. So much so that the Harvard students abandoned the group, and the Beavis and Butthead invaders took it over, renaming them- selves ‘the Meowers’, in mock deference to a Harvard student who, because his initials were C.A.T., signed off his messages with ‘meow’. The Meowers began setting up other Usenet groups (including alt.alien.vampire.flonk.flonk.fl alt.non.sequitur and alt.stupidity), from which they started to invade other groups by posting ridiculous, Monty Pythonesque posts, preventing anyone else from posting or entering into a discussion. This technique, now known as ‘crap-flooding’ is still very popular among trolls. In 1997–8 the Meowers went on a crap-flooding spree, targeting groups across Usenet with what they called their ‘Usenet performance art’. Meowers would also spam individuals who fought back, using anonymous remailers to disguise the address of the sender. The college email system at Boston University was broken by a Meower spam-fl The campaign lasted for at least two years.

The trolling collective alt.syntax.tactical specialised in the ‘cross- post’ troll. Members would take a genuine post (from a group like alt.smokers, for example) and forward it via an anonymous remailer, with the original email address intact, to a group who, they believed, would not respond kindly (alt.support.non-smokers), sparking an argument between two groups who had no idea that they were, in effect, trolling each other. Alt.syntax.tactical attacks were carefully planned and often involved plants, dummies and double agents. Trolls like alt. syntax.tactical weren’t out for quick wins, but to provoke as large and aggressive a reaction as possible. This is, they argued, what separated the trolls from the flames. A flame was typically just a deluge of insults. Although there was some overlap between the two, a troll was considered to be more careful, subtle and imagina- tive: ‘A troll will hold back, understanding the value of a bigger spank,’ wrote one anonymous poster to the group alt.troll. And the bigger the ‘spank’ the better:

Anyone can walk into rec.sport.baseball and say ‘baseball sucks’. It takes unbelievable skill and discipline to cause a PROLONGED flame war. That is what we do. But it can only be done with talent, and numbers to match that talent. We only bring into the fold people who have the knack to use smarts to incite chaos.

Alt.syntax.tactical were explicit in their goals:

  • Our names to appear in kill files
  • Regulars/Legit people abandon invaded newsgroup
  • Receive much hate mail

As trolling spread, so did its reputation. It was at this time that the industry standard response emerged: ‘Don’t feed the trolls!’ A line that spurred many trolls on to increasingly extreme and shocking behaviour.

In the late 1990s, trolling took a leap towards the gutter. Trolls of the era had an informal but widely accepted code of conduct: ‘Trolling is matching wits . . .’ wrote one anonymous user in alt. trolls in 1999:

The contest must be confined to the ‘level playing field’ of Usenet. What someone posts on Usenet is fair game. But real life investigations into what someone posting with their real name does in real life by someone not using their real name (or a common and virtually untraceable one) shouldn't strike anyone as fair.

But the distinction between digital and real was becoming increas- ingly vague for newer users. Two long-running, infamous episodes put paid to the ‘real-life ’ limits. A small disagreement in alt.gossip. celebrities between two posters, Maryanne Kehoe and Jeff Boyd, quickly degenerated into an argument. Kehoe believed that Boyd was spamming the group with pointless messages, and emailed his employers asking for action to be taken against him. The vicious troll, it turned out, was a sensible computer programmer, and had recently become a father. In possibly the longest case of trolling in the history of the net, the games developer Derek Smart was insulted repeatedly about his (admittedly disappointing) 1996 game Battlecruiser 3000AD. ‘They were your run-of-the-mill anti-social

misfits. And when they run into people like me — who doesn’t take crap from anyone — well, then everyone cried foul,’ Smart told me, via email. Arguments in Usenet groups when the game was released spread across the internet and just kept ratcheting up, partly because Smart kept counter-trolling. ‘Back in the day,’ he confessed, ‘I let this sort of thing get to me.’ By 2000, most of the comments concerned Smart’s personal life and professional credentials, and most were allegedly posted by a man named Bill Huffman, a ‘self- proclaimed Derekologist’, and the manager of a California software company. Smart was also stalked by a sixteen-year-old, who claimed to own a gun. Smart applied for restraining orders and filed complaints with a confused police force. The final dispute — concerning a website Huffman had set up — was only settled in 2013. This niche online world was being subsumed by the newcomers: Usenet codes of conduct about trolling were increasingly meaningless. It was about to get a lot worse.

GNAA and Goatse

By the late nineties some feared that Usenet would be ruined by trolling. In the end, innovation killed it off. The internet was becoming more accessible and the speed of downloading (and more importantly, uploading) was slashed, enabling users to post more content online, including pictures and videos. Usenet, like most new and exciting technologies, had become outdated.

At the turn of the millennium, trolls migrated from Usenet to a new breed of irreverent, user-driven, censorship-free sites, that were soon collectively labelled as ‘Not Safe For Work’ (NSFW), and often created by students or teenagers: SomethingAwful.com, Fark.com and Slashdot.com. Unlike traditional media, these sites were filled with stories, links, suggestions and comments from their readers. Whatever stories were the most read or shared by users would rise up the ranking system, meaning popularity was driven not by centralised editorial control but by whatever happened to capture the attention of the community. This created — as with many content-driven sectors online — a natural incentive to be outrageous. Stories that were offensive, rude or bizarre were usually the most popular. Fark had one million unique visitors in its fourth year of existence: a decent slice of the internet pie in 2000, when only 360 million people in the whole world were online.

The denizens of these new sites adopted and extended the philosophy of their trolling predecessors: abhorrence of censorship — which was thought of as archaic and analogue — and the idea that nothing online was to be taken seriously. The humour — which still characterises a lot of internet culture — was abstract, self-referential and irreverent.

Trolls pressed offensiveness into the service of this ideology, often in creatively disgusting ways. Goatse is short for ‘goat-sex’. It is also the name of a website set up in 1999. (I don’t advise that you search for it.) The home page features a photograph of a naked middle-aged man stretching open his anus. Trolls used the website for ‘bait-and- switch’ pranks: the posting or sending of harmless looking links that actually direct clickers to the Goatse website. This is also known as ‘shock trolling’. In 2000, Goatse links were repeatedly posted on Oprah Winfrey’s ‘Soul Stories’ chat board, with misleading accompanying messages: ‘I’ve been feeling so down lately, here’s a link to a poem I’ve written.’ There was an exodus of offended Oprah fans, and at one point the whole board was shut down. The SomethingAwful users behind the prank celebrated this strike against the earnestness that seemed to be spreading across the internet.

The Gay Nigger Association of America (GNAA) was created in 2002, and typified this sort of extreme trolling. Their opening page featured the following invitation: ‘Are you GAY? Are you a NIGGER? Are you a GAY NIGGER? If you answered “Yes” to all of the above questions, then GNAA might be exactly what you’re looking for!’ The creators of GNAA were reportedly highly skilled programmers, and dedicated an enormous amount of time to creating and dissem- inating extremely offensive material, with the aim of upsetting bloggers, celebrities, popular websites and anyone else the group took against. It would often ‘crap-flood’ sites — filling chat functions with nonsense, just as the Meowers had done a decade earlier — and hack other popular websites to alter them. GNAA described their purpose as ‘sowing disruption on the internet’ but eventually set up an internet security organisation, hacking into sites to demonstrate how susceptible to attack they were. They called it Goatse Security — ‘exposing gaping holes’ — and while members of the group have been investigated by the FBI for various hacking offences, Goatse Security has also identified and fixed a number of security flaws in major internet products and software. Zack was an early admirer of GNAA and Goatse.

‘People were just so ready to be offended by things like Goatse,’ he tells me. ‘It’s fun to upset someone who is so ready to be offended. And when they get upset, they prove you’re right. It’s circular.’

Doing It for the Lulz

In some ways Zack, GNAA and other NSFW trolls felt it was ‘their’ internet that was being invaded by marketers, celebrities, big busi- ness, the authorities and legions of ordinary people, in the same way Usenetters felt inundated in 1993. People outside of the tribe, and all of them taking everything so seriously. Out of this milieu came Christopher Poole, a fourteen-year-old fan of SomethingAwful, who had found a Japanese image-sharing website called Futaba that allowed users to post about anything, anonymously. NSFW sites were exciting and bold — but participants were often identifiable, and sites were frequently moderated. The anonymous Futaba users were wildly creative, highly offensive and uncontrollable. The website was notorious in Japan for gory fiction about students slaughtering teachers, anime porn, and much besides, causing general moral outrage. Futaba’s web address was www.2chan.net, in tribute to the similarly outrageous website 2channel, so when Poole decided to set up an English-language equivalent in 2003, he called it 4chan: ‘its [sic] TWO TIMES THE CHAN MOTHERFUCK!’ he posted under the pseudonym ‘moot’.

Zack joined immediately: ‘We were trying to carve out our own space, our own part of the internet.’ The quasi-enforced anonymity made /b/ a natural home for trolls. Trolling in /b/ is widespread and extremely varied, with dozens of different trolling categories. The hacktivist collective Anonymous were almost all committed /b/tards, and used the site to plan and coordinate their ‘operations’. The group’s first major action was called Project Chanology, directed against the Church of Scientology after the Church tried to remove embarrassing videos of Tom Cruise from the net. Although the message was a genuine one — about censorship and transparency — alongside the serious demonstrations and computer hacks were endless prank phone calls to the Scientology hotline, 4chan-inspired placards and hundreds of black faxes.

Enforced anonymity, the competitive urge to outdo your fellow users and a determination to push offensiveness in the name of a vague anti-censorship ideology are all wrapped up in a/b/trolling catchphrase: ‘I did it for the lulz’ — a phrase employed to justify anything and everything where the chief motivation is to generate a laugh at someone else ’s expense. The problem, as Zack explains, is that ‘lulz’ are a bit like a drug: you need a bigger and bigger hit to keep the feeling going. Trolling can quickly spiral out of control. The popular social networking and news-sharing site Reddit once hosted a group called Game of Trolls. Its rules were simple: if you successfully upset someone on Reddit without them realising they were being trolled, you won a point. If you were identified as a troll, you lost a point. The highest scorers were listed on a leaderboard. One user visited a popular subreddit and posted an invented story about the problems he was having with a co-worker. The same user then replied as the co-worker in question, demanding an apology, and explaining that he had difficulty making friends. Redditors believed the story, and some even offered to send flowers to the abused colleague. The group had been successfully trolled. ‘It was glorious,’ recalled a witness. Game of Trolls was eventually banned by Reddit; a highly unusual step for the otherwise liberal site, but testament to the pervasiveness and persistence of the Reddit trolls.

The competition to insult and offend, by any means necessary, can often lead to shocking extremes. In 2006 Mitchell Henderson, a fifteen-year-old from Minnesota, committed suicide by shooting himself with his parents’ rifle. Mitchell’s classmates created a virtual memorial for him on MySpace and wrote a short eulogy, which included repeated references to Mitchell as ‘an hero’: ‘he was an hero to take that shot, to leave us all behind. God do we wish we could take it back.’ The combination of a grammatical error with the contention that committing suicide was a ‘heroic’ act caused great hilarity on 4chan. After learning that Mitchell had lost an iPod shortly before killing himself, the /b/tards created photoshopped images of Mitchell and his lost device. One even took a photo of an iPod on Mitchell’s grave, and sent it to his bereaved parents. For almost two years after his death, they received anonymous phone calls from people claiming to have found Mitchell’s iPod.

Meeting the Trolls

Finding genuine trolls is diffi Many use proxy servers to mask their IP addresses and most have dozens of accounts with different names for each platform they use. If they are banned or blocked by a particular site, they’ll just rejoin under a new name. But like the Meowers, today’s trolls enjoy spending time with other trolls. A lot of the worst trolling is coordinated from hidden or secret channels and chat rooms.

Zack agreed to show me one of his hideouts, inviting me in to a secret channel he ’s been frequenting for over two years. It’s a private group on a well-known social media page, ‘a pirate base for trolls’, he told me. The main group page — the one the typical user sees — is a series of pictures of people masturbating. ‘That’s a facade,’ says Zack, ‘to keep away the dullards.’ To get to the real action, you have to be invited to join as a moderator by an existing moderator, granting you access to the group’s internal mailing system. Inside, the pace is frantic: every day there are constant, lengthy and hilarious arguments and discussions that draw in up to twenty moderators at once, some of whom know each other and some of whom do not. Everyone uses a fake name, because everyone has been banned from the site before, so I didn’t stand out — I could have been anyone. Everyone is trolling each other endlessly here, and most of the messages are very funny, and extremely sharp. According to Zack, at least two of the contributors are university professors. It feels like a training ground for trolls, a place to go to try out new tactics and battle others without too much damage being done. A place to come and relax, to wind down a little with some peers.

While I was there, an infamous troll became a moderator too. Zack explained to me that this particular troll described himself as an ‘incel’, short for an ‘involuntary celibate ’. This troll was well known in trolling circles for having run a blog in which he argued at length that the government owes him a woman to have sex with; and he boasted that he became so desperate that he once tried to have sex with his own mother. When he pushed his line on the group — that he should be able to have sex with anyone he wants, that the govern- ment should help him do so, that all girls are sluts anyway — no one could quite work out if he was trolling them or not. They were all fascinated, though, and started probing back, counter-trolling:

Hey incel are you homophobic? like just for example pretend this was a real room we’re in and me and started kissing, how would you feel about that? if it became really passionate and i was squeezing his soft little bum as i pushed my tongue deep down his neck? would you have opinions on that?


Hey incel — is your mother pretty? how many out of ten? is she a 7+ I’m just curious if your need for a girl to be hot as fuck (else you abuse them) extended to your mother . . .

Um, yeah . . . I can only laugh at ya

The other trolls in the group appeared to be sizing him up, searching for weaknesses. This is called ‘trolls trolling trolls’: when no one is really sure who’s trolling whom. It’s not about winning or losing, more like sparring.

Old Holborn has been called Britain’s ‘vilest troll’ by the Daily Mail newspaper for his endless online abuse, including his attacks on the families of the ninety-six Liverpool football fans who died in the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. He tweets and blogs constantly, hiding his face behind a Guy Fawkes mask. Without it, he’s not quite as intimidating: a well-dressed, fast-talking middle-aged man from Essex, a successful computer programmer and recruitment specialist, he tells me. ‘You could call me a gobshite,’ he explains over coffee. ‘Always have been. I’m very anti-authoritarian.’ He’s more than that, he’s a minarchist – someone who believes in the smallest possible government. ‘We just need someone there to protect private property. Everything else, we can work out ourselves.’ He sums up his world view: ‘the government should just leave us alone’. Trolling is his way of causing trouble for the system: ‘I want to be the itch, the grain of sand in the machine.’ In 2010 he stood for Parliament in Cambridge, wearing his mask and frustrating the Electoral Commission by changing his name to Old Holborn by deed poll. Around the same time, he marched into a police station in Manchester wearing the mask and carrying a suitcase full of five-pound notes to post bail for a pub owner who’d refused to enforce the 2007 ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces. This, he says, is also trolling.

It’s hard to see what insulting the families of the Hillsborough disaster victims on Twitter has to do with minarchy. But there is a link. To live in Old Holborn’s libertarian stateless utopia, people need to be tough and independent, and take responsibility for their actions. He fears a silent and obedient society, and says that one where everyone is easily offended will lead to self-censorship. He sees it as his role to prod and probe the boundaries of offensiveness to keep society alert. He targeted the Liverpudlians, he says, to ‘prove’ that they suffered from victimhood syndrome – and for Old Holborn, just like the Usenet trolls, the unit of success was the reaction. ‘I would be controversial, just to show that they loved feeling like the victims. The response was phenomenal: they threatened to burn down my office, my house, and rape my children. Haha! I was right! They proved I was right!’

As a result, though, he was doxed and — soon after we met — he’d moved to southern Bulgaria to, in his words, ’cause trouble full-time’ from there. ‘I’m the good guy!’ he shouted in the cafe. ‘I’m the one exposing the hypocrisy. I’m the one trying to make society freer!’

The Truth about Trolls

In the 1980s and 1990s, as a growing number of people went online, psychologists became interested in how computers were changing our thoughts and behaviour. In 1990, the American lawyer and author Mike Godwin proposed a natural law of Usenet behaviour: ‘As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a compar- ison involving the Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.’ In short, the more you talk online, the more likely you’ll be nasty; talk long enough, and it’s a certainty. (Godwin’s Law can easily be observed today on the pages of most newspapers’ online comments boards.) In 2001, John Suler’s famous Online Disinhibition Effect put forward a reason why. It listed six factors that, Suler claimed, allowed users of the internet to ignore the social rules and norms at play offline. He argues that because we don’t know or see the people we are speaking to (and they don’t know or see us), because communication is instant, seemingly without rules or accountability, and because it all takes place in what feels like an alternative reality, we do things we wouldn’t in real life. Suler call this ‘toxic disinhibition’. According to other academic studies, between 65 and 93 per cent of human communication is non-verbal: facial expression, tone, body move- ment. Put very simply, our brain has evolved over millions of years to subconsciously spot these cues so we can better read and empa- thise with each other. Communicating via computers removes these cues, making communication abstract and anchorless. Or, as the web comic Penny Arcade has it: ‘The Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory’: ‘normal person + anonymity + audience = total fuckwad’.

The easiest way to deal with the trolls is to remove their anonymity, to force websites or platforms to insist that everyone log in under their real names. That wouldn’t stop online nastiness entirely of course, but it would at least make trolls a little more accountable for their actions, and perhaps encourage them to hesitate before abusing others. But removing anonymity online has its drawbacks. Anonymity is not a modern invention designed to protect trolls. It also allows people to be honest and open and invisible when there are good reasons to. We dispense with that at our peril.

Get rid of trolling and we might lose something else, too. The line between criminality, threats, offensiveness and satire is another very fine one. Trolls like Old Holborn do occasionally cast a satirical eye on society’s self-importance, expose the absurdity of modern life, moral panics or our histrionic twenty-four-hour news culture. One branch of trolls, called ‘RIP memorial trolls’, target people who post messages to online memorial pages of the recently deceased. According to Whitney Phillips, an academic who wrote her Ph.D. on trolls, they usually target what they call ‘grief tourists’: users who have no real-life connection to the victim and who could not possibly be in mourning. The trolls themselves claim that grief tourists are shrill, disingenuous and wholly deserving targets. The Gay Niggers Association of America frequently posts ridiculous news stories in the hope that lazy journalists will repeat them. They often do: a GNAA story alleging that African Americans were looting people’s homes during Hurricane Sandy in order to steal domestic pets that was widely reported by mainstream media outlets. Within the trolling community, the undisputed champions of trolling ‘in real life ’ are considered to be US comedian Stephen Colbert and British comedy writer Chris Morris, both famous for puncturing the inflated egos of politicians and celebrities.

Zack claims that his work has value and purpose too — ‘trolling in the public interest’ to expose hypocrisy and stupidity in society. He has even created his own complicated religion, which he’s spent years pulling together, simply to use as a trolling tool. He calls it ‘auto-didactic time travel pragmatism’, a mixture of absurd humour, physics and fragments borrowed from other religions. He uses it to troll religious and political groups. ‘It’s the tried and tested hazing technique of presenting someone with something that is impossible to know whether or not to take seriously — impossible to know where the joke ends and the seriousness begins.’ It’s a clever tactic, and — to my surprise — one with significant ramifications for contemporary theological debate. *

While many trolls are simply bored teenagers trying to cause a little trouble, the serious trolls seem to broadly follow a libertarian ideology, and believe that part of living in a free society is accepting that no idea is beyond being challenged or ridiculed, and that nothing is more stifling to free expression than being afraid to upset or offend. Trolls have existed just as long as networked computing, which surely says something about the need many of us have to explore the darker sides of our nature. Every troll I’ve spoken to says what they do is natural, a human need to push a boundary simply because it’s there.

The problem with a boundary-pushing philosophy is that it can be used to justify bullying and threatening people with no regard for the consequences. When I asked Zack if he’s ever gone too far he nods, ‘Yeah, I guess there were a few people who I hounded so bad that they left the internet. One had a mental breakdown.’ Does he feel responsible? ‘At the time, I didn’t — we all knew what we were doing. Although now I’m less sure.’ Old Holborn is more resolute: ‘I pick my targets carefully. They always deserve it.’ But the powerful and the rich are not always the targets. Too often it is the weak, the newcomers like Sarah, who are the easiest to attack. Anonymous users on /b/ pick on camgirls because their pictures and threads are wildly popular: far more than the normal /b/tard thread. Ultimately Old Holborn agrees with /b/: ‘Would you go post photos of yourself and put them on the internet? So why did she do it? It’s not about teaching her a lesson, but she has to be responsible.’ Zack is uneasy about Sarah’s case, but finally concludes, ‘Well, she probably shouldn’t have done that, although she didn’t deserve the consequences.’

To me, the Sarah dox just felt like crude nastiness. The perpetrators made a limp effort at justifying it: ‘That silly bitch may have learnt the most important lesson of her young life tonight: that posting pictures of your naked body on the internet is a monumen- tally bad idea.’ I’m sure she did learn a painful lesson, but that was only a side-effect of the ‘life ruin’:

Anonymous said: I’m a moral fag

I see no problem in doxing sarah’s ass It’s for the lulz

At the top of the tree of life there isn’t love: there is lulz

Whatever their motives, and even at their worst, perhaps we can learn something from trolls. Trolling is a very broad church, ranging from /b/ bullies to amateur philosophers, from the mildly offensive to the illegal. An increasing desire for digital affirmation is leading more of us to share our most intimate and personal lives online, often with complete strangers. What we like, what we think, where we’re going. The more we invest of ourselves online and the more ready we are to be offended, the more there is for trolls to feed on. And despite the increasing policing of social media sites, trolling is not going anywhere. It has been a central feature of online life since the mid-1970s, evolving and mutating from an unexpected offshoot of electronic communication within a niche community to an almost mainstream phenomenon. For people like Zack, the degeneration of trolling from creative art to random threats and bullying is frus- trating. But that won’t stop him.

Whether we like it or not, trolling is a feature of the online world today. As we all live more of our lives online, trolls might help us to recognise some of the dangers of doing so, make us a little more careful, and a little more thick-skinned. One day, we might even thank them for it.


Four days after Sarah’s ordeal, another /b/ camgirl was doxed, with photos sent to all her family members, her employer and her boyfriend: ‘Do you know your girlfriend posts pictures of her tits on the internet? You can see them here ___’

‘Another day, another harsh reality,’ wrote one. ‘She’ll be back,’ replied another.

*. You have been trolled.

This has been an extract from Jamie Bartlett’s The Dark Net