Confronting a troll in real life

Leo Traynor, a "writer, analyst & political consultant" in Ireland, was hounded off of Twitter by a vicious anti-Semitic troll whose ghastly threats against him and his family were too much to bear. Traynor located his tormentor, though, and got quite a surprise. It's a tale well told, and gave me goosebumps.


    1. Why is it better? I get forgiveness makes the world go round, but this seems more like putting the problem in somebody else’s hands, who’s already neglected it for nearly an entire childhood.

      1. The way they let him run spend every moment unmonitored online reminds me of the parents of shooting spree perpetrators “We didn’t notice the gun collection and Nazi memorabilia in his room.”

  1. If he’s doing it to one person, he’s doing it to multiple people.  And small animals.  He should have turned him in and demand that the court mandate psychiatric care.  All that he did was let a psychopath move on to new victims.

    1. He did extract a promise from the parents to send the kid to a counselor with the threat of going legal if they didn’t. That’s something, at least.

    2. Second. This kid is a sociopath. They start much younger than that. And the really serious ones can turn the waterworks on and off when necessary. He may be smart enough to stop bothering the author but he won’t go away. Here’s hoping the counseling helps.

      1. Unless I misread the story, the kid started crying once he understood the suffering he’d caused to a real person.  It wasn’t because he realised he’d been exposed (although it’s conceivable he knew where things were heading).

        If the former is true, then that’s a display of affective empathy that’s not consistent with an “exploitative” personality disorder. 

        1. Or he was crying because he got caught and was scared he’d go to jail. Can we be sure he was remorseful?  How can anyone know?

          Are you a psychologist? I’m not.  I have no idea what can “cure” someone of behavior like this.  I suspect it’s not a one time shock that cures them, though.

    3. The ONLY reason he cried and apologized was because he stood exposed and in peril.
      Notice I say “apologized” and not “repented”.
      In view of this, a dance-and-pony show for the counselor is likely to follow.
      Once again differentiating terms, “likely” but not “certain”.

    4. How would court-mandated therapy be any better than parent-mandated?  I guess it’s “more mandatory”, in the sense that they can hold you and medicate you against your will.  But he’d be out of there before long, and likely more unhinged for the experience, not less.

      Not saying I know a perfect solution, but the courts are terrible at dealing with mental illness, whether it’s rehabilitation or even just prevention.

    1. Yup.  It is one thing to send a few messages as a lark, it is another to go up to someone’s doorstep to drop off “presents” and hound them personally without any provocation for months.

  2. I applaud his actions, however, there’s more here than might meet the eye.  In the “old days” there were always stories about how the serial murderer began by killing cats or chickens or whatever.  This sort of thing has the same hallmarks, with one BIG difference.  The internet allows the actions to remain virtually anon, and the game seems to be “just a game” to the criminal.  We all know the internet is addictive, and being free to troll is the ultimate addiction, with each new step just a small increment from before.

    Will the solution in this case work?  I have no idea.  With the right kid and the right parents, it could.  Otherwise, it’s just another “see there’s no penalty” situation.  I hope it works, but sometimes the better answer is a 2 x 4 to the side of the head, just to get their attention.  Unfortunately there’s no way to know which is necessary for a given troll.

  3. I hope the parents keep their word about getting the kid help. Persistent trolls can get scary, skeptics and atheists online have had to deal with “Mabus” for well over a decade. He was finally arrested for issuing death threats but recently has been popping up again.

    1. As someone who has written under a pseudonym for years and knows about Internet protocols I know how hard it is to actually be anomynous, especially to people with skills. But the thing is that lots of people do NOT have skills to be Hidden to pros. I recommend that if some one is being harrassed to find someone who can track the harrasser.

      1. Seconded.  It’s incredibly easy to find out who’s “cyber-stalking” you online.  You can start out asking the various services and sites to identify the IP of who’s stalking you, and if that doesn’t work, you probably have either some techy friend who has enough influence to find out, or a techy friend who knows the right people to ask to find out.

        In the US, the police, and especially the NSA and FBI are all too willing to track ANYONE’s activities online and in real life without even requesting a warrant or permission from a judge.  Too bad the FBI and NSA are so busy foiling the terrorist plots they plan and instigate themselves…..

        But honestly, there are a lot of people who can do IP tracking, and give you a subscriber’s billing address.  If that doesn’t give you the online stalker directly, then they are most likely part of the bill-payer’s household, or have access to their internet connection.

        As many copyright cases show, an IP address is never enough to prove guilt.  But it’s a good starting point generally.

  4. I can understand if the troll isn’t a sociopath or psychopath.  It’s just so damn easy to lose your sense of reality on the web.  I never got so far as to single out someone and intimidate or send threats online directly, but I sure as sh*t have been a terrible dick and a bastard to people on the internet.  And when they reply with a human retort telling me I’m wrong, or that I’ve been a dick or a total bastard, I’m taken aback, and realize I’ve been treating people like crap online when they never deserved it, and it’s not anything like what I do in real life.

    I don’t know.  Maybe it’s borderline personality or something like that….People end up starting out just trying to get a rise out of someone, then poking at them, then eventually graduating to doing horrendous things in real life.  All at the comfortable distance of the web.  I’m actively working on making sure it never gets so bad with myself.  I make honest attempts at apologizing and correcting my behavior in order to keep from making people distraught.  I don’t consciously make attempts to insult people unless they’re “obvious trolls” and even then I try not to feed them.  But I do give in sometimes, hounding them and their unique sounding usernames.  But I don’t really do that anymore.

    The internet, in my opinion allows for two puberties.  The one in real life where you make mistakes that fade away over the course of a few years, and the puberty you have on the internet, which happens whenever you start out on the web, and whenever you switch to drastically different web communities, switching from lurker to commenter or poster.

    I admit I’m an inflammatory poster who often says things that rub people the wrong way.  And I’m honestly sorry for hurting anyone, the only excuse I can come up with is that I’m still something like a toddler in this community, and that I’m probably also an asshole on the internet, while people seem to generally like me in real life.  I’m not exactly sure why it works out that way, but I strive to be a better person online every day, even though being mean, spiteful, and contrarian comes very naturally when I reply in text.

    1. One way to control yourself would be to stop using an alias, and commit to using your real name. It’s easier to feel responsible if you expose yourself.

      1. That’s very true.  But (and it’s a bigger butt than the gigantic one I sit on typing this) I’ve already done nasty things to people under aliases close to my real name, and as we all know, the Internet never forgets.  I haven’t used my real name, or anything close to it, on the web in ten years, and I (in all seriousness) am afraid of retribution for things I’ve done in real life that I’ve spoken of online.  If my real names become active again I feel that people will notice the wrongs I’ve done in the past, and I’ll end up being screwed by that.

        But honestly (really honestly, damn you Poe’s law), thanks.  It’s very good advice for those of us that haven’t spoken of our wrongs using our real names online.  I wish I hadn’t committed the teenager idiocy of bragging and bullying and being a real jerk online.

        My generation (the millennials) must be the most documented people in all of history so far.  And it looks like it’s only going to get worse for our own children.

      2. And yet, 

        Edit – the second one is probably a better source – study by CMU, rather than Disqus. Conclusion: real names policies legally enforced in South Korea resulted in a decrease in trolling of a whopping 0.09%, but resulted in massive identity breaches when hackers, predictably, compromised the huge caches of personal information websites were now required to collect, that were otherwise completely irrelevant to the operation of the sites.

        1. I’m not advocating an externally-enforced “real name” system… anonymity is vital in too many ways to count in a world with lethal oligarchies, or even one with politically minded employers.

          However, for an individual trying to stop using anonymous trolling to cause real pain to other people, choosing to write only things he’s willing to put his name to might be a way to reestablish control over his own behavior.

    2. No. At least around here you aren’t an inflammatory dick who purposely hurts people. 
      For one, Antinous wouldn’t have any of that.  We wouldn’t. 
      It’s perfectly fine to be disagreeable, frictive, argumentative, in a bad mood, aggressive or whiny. 
      Just continue to not be vile and evil. 


    3. At least you’re aware of the problem, and you’re taking steps to correct it. At least in your case you weren’t harassing a friend of your father’s, or someone equally close. And, unless you just haven’t mentioned it, you haven’t been directly confronted by someone to whom you were a jerk on the internet. You recognized, without actually seeing a real person, that those words coming across the screen at you were from another person.

      I don’t want it to seem like I’m letting you off the hook. You say you’ve been a terrible person, and I’m not going to doubt you. But I also don’t know you, so I’m disinclined to be harder on you than you are on yourself. As I said, you’re aware of the problem and you’re trying to do something about it, and I think you deserve some positive feedback for that.

    4. I’m with Idobe. Traynor handled this in the best possible way by holding the jerk in front of a mirror. I don’t think the kid is a psychopath with abnormal brain chemistry. I think this is how ordinary people behave when they aren’t forced to confront the consequences of their actions. The American South had slavery for more than 200 years, yet there was never a time where only psychopaths lived below the Mason-Dixon line and everyone else lived above it. Ordinary people were able to cope with the cognitive dissonance, because cruelty is easily normalized if not exposed for what it is.

  5. I think the poor man’s response was terribly naive, and may well allow the perpetrator to cause future grief that might have been prevented. Lots of maybes there, granted, but in this age of bullies something more needs to be done than sadly shaking one’s head.

    1. He shamed him hard.  To tears and permanently. 
      He has lost all face with his parents.  Eye-contact people. 
      I would have picked a much more violent solution than the man with the limp and the wheeze did, to eliminate this threat, but this will work. 
       Sociopathy [of sorts] seems to be a common feature among kids around that age. 
      I remember not having a clear concept of guilt or remorse.  I felt beleaguered and under attack by the world, felt I was just counter attacking.  But I was just a criminal.  Somehow I learned that. 

      Or, that kid is a real sociopath and will probably not make his parents proud, but get far in life, be very successful.  People like that jog up the corporate ladder, or control the still writhing carcass of the republican party. 
      He could get into working one of the religions.

  6. Yeah online harassment is nasty and a good talking to face to face seems like an appropriate response. But I think once you’re issuing death threats backed up with packages on someones doorstep, you’re a dangerous criminal and fuck you.

  7. I kept wanting to tell Traynor it was a single troll.

    I wanted even more to tell him to take his fear seriously, grab his wife, and get the hell out of there, rather than sitting there waiting for the guy to work himself up enough to act on his threats. That kid’s behavior was well over the line into “imminent real-world danger” range.

    Trolls pull sh*t online. When the harassment and threats move into realspace, it’s time to find a different label for it.

    I honor Leo Traynor for the way he dealt with the situation, but I would not have handled it that way on the saintliest day of my life. Most trolls are just aggressively unpleasant jerks with an oversized sense of entitlement. Their heads aren’t full of that kind of profoundly disturbed ideation. Stalker-trolls who obsessively focus on a single individual are by definition emotionally disturbed to some degree. 

    Picking someone as a target who’s already in the stalker’s face-to-face social circle is where it stops being trolling. Threatening offline contact at the target’s home or workplace should set off major alarms. Why they’re doing it is not the point. This is not behavior that’s going to make sense. The issue is that they’re doing it at all.

    The kid was on a learning curve, teaching himself to act out his impulses: offline contact, elaborate symbolic messages, plausible physical threats, asserting control. You know how every personal safety expert in the world says to listen to yourself when you feel uncomfortable or scared? For Leo Traynor and his wife, that was one of those moments.

    When Traynor confronted the kid in person, he said he didn’t know why he was doing it, and that it was kind of a game. Confusion and game-playing don’t normally translate into an escalating sequence of threats aimed at terrorizing the recipient. Traynor’s right to see the kid as a human being. I’m concerned that it may be a human being who has something terrible happening to him that he can’t control. 

    1. Traynor’s right to see the kid as a human being. I’m concerned that it may be a human being who has something terrible happening to him that he can’t control.

      Agreed. To paraphrase Roger Canaff: “It’s frightening and miserable, but this child is not an aberration. He is as human as anyone.”

    2. Having been the victim of a physical violent crime where the perpetrators were caught, my main goal in contacting the police and pulling them out of a lineup was not revenge.  It was in keeping my community safe.  I wasn’t really angry at the people who mugged me, but my community at the time was experiencing a string of muggings, and keeping those kids from doing it again was what was important to me.

      My view of how to react to these sorts of things is primarily to keep myself and my community safe, and then after that, hope that the perpetrator has some way to get better.  If I fail at the first, I’m providing the perpetrator more opportunities. 

      1. Same for me. Having been gay bashed, I’m committed to making sure that it doesn’t happen to other people.

        1. I’ve been the target of more than one malign crazy, o lucky me, and I know others who have been as well. I collect patterns and telltales like a civilian in a war zone spotting bombers by the sound of their engines.

  8. Idobe, on your worst day you weren’t on the same planet as that kid. It’s a whole different thing.

  9. That kid went wwwaaaaaayyyyy beyond trolling. Especially with the ashes and flowers. I am not saying he would have acted on any of the threats, but something isn’t “right” with that kid. I hope his parents get him counseling and put a key logger on his gadgets or something to monitor his use.

  10. Only on boingboing could half the comments thread be made up of people (including the moderator) concern-trolling the author’s personal reaction to a difficult and emotional family situation.

    1. The other half were mostly empty threats of violence against a 17 year old sociopath. That’ll learn ’em!

      Personally I would have just moved and changed my name.

    2. None of that was concern trolling.

      Useful fact: If you find your mind’s gone blank after you’ve clicked “reply,” you don’t have to post anything. You’re allowed to cancel the message and move on.

    3. Some of us see it as a public safety situation, not this gentleman’s personal emotional situation. There’s a reason that it’s a good idea to report crimes.

  11. all children are sociopaths… by definition.  he was 17, but still a child.  i’m glad his life wasn’t ruined legally.  but he needs help that he’s not getting from his parents.

    1. That’s not true. All children are not sociopaths. If they’re too young to understand right and wrong and consequences, what they are is children. When they reach their teens, they’re changing and developing at a rapid rate, so what they are is hard to diagnose. By the time they’re seventeen, the vast majority of them are definitely not sociopaths, and the rest are cause for concern.

      1.  I would respectfully disagree. Teenage life was an inexplicable and savage time in my history, along with most of the people I associate with. If your personal experience was different, then you may want to count yourself fortunate to have survived unscathed. In the words of Eugene Hütz, I never wanna be young again.

        1. My teenage life was also absolutely miserable and I suffered crippling depression until my school years were over (it magically went away after that!). However, I did know other ‘kids’ who were kind and didn’t partake in torturing and belittling others, myself included. We knew it was wrong and we didn’t want to go down that road. I think it’s unfair to describe all youth as psychopathic by their very nature. It is way too broad and severe a label and it’s dismissive of the kids who DO give a shit and try to be good people.

          1. Dear me, no. That’s what a former associate once said about Yours Truly.

            Also, in the parlance of our times, “Pics or it didn’t happen.” Seriously, I still have scars from having my face ground into school lockers. I’m sure being nice was against district policy or something.

          2. I don’t doubt your word when you say that your teenagehood was brutal and you happened to be completely surrounded by nasty people (very possibly including some psychopaths).

            I’m just saying that the conclusion that ALL youth are by nature sociopathic is throwing a lot of innocent people under the bus.

            (BTW I was kinda joking about your tagline and the liar thing. I guess it didn’t read that way)

          3. Well I suppose it doesn’t matter that much any longer. I’m no longer of high school age, I won’t have children, and most of my friends are spinsters.

            And yes, I appreciate you were joking, but sometimes people don’t understand how bio-lines in Disqus works, and I like to make sure there’s no misunderstanding.

        2. Thanks, Endotoxin, but I had a canonically rotten time of it, especially in middle school. 

          Words mean things. There’s a huge difference between behaving badly and being a sociopath. 

          Besides being inaccurate, dismissing all children as sociopaths devalues the ones who want to live in a more civilized society, and gives tacit permission to the worst among them to do as they please. That very common cop-out on the part of adults was a major contributing factor to your miserable experience as a teenager. Do you really want to repeat that cycle?

          One further note: I never said the kid was a sociopath. That’s not something I’m in a position to know, and for purposes of this conversation it’s not a useful label anyway. 

          What I specifically said was that why he did it is not the point. That he did it at all is cause for concern.

          1.  I’ll agree that adult indifference catered to the environment I was in; I have an impossible time recalling even a single student who wouldn’t go out of their way to give me a hard time. In a school of 1200 students. You’ll forgive me for assuming that this isn’t an aberration, but rather the norm.

            Then again, I only attended high school for a scant 18 months before trying to end my own life, so who knows! Maybe things changed once I left to get a GED and some therapy!

            Also, I never used the word sociopath. I did use “Savage.” I would also hazard “Dangerously disconnected.” But I am not a psychiatrist, and I certainly wouldn’t try to play one on the Internet. Does the kid deserve counseling? Most likely. Do most if not all kids need counseling that they’re not getting from home or from school? Probably.

            What can we learn from this terrible story? Not much, except perhaps “Life sucks, wear a jacket.”

      2. It really isn’t going to do any good trying to with some people. No matter how hard you try, there will always be irredeemable ones.  People who, despite all moral education to the contrary, use psychological terms with no real precision.

        We just can’t help them. Not until they want to be helped. Until then, all we can do us reduce the damage they do.

        1. Error is both oceanic and fractal. I accept this. But if I didn’t once in a while respond to error with “Y’know, what you’re saying there doesn’t make any sense,” I think I’d dry up and blow away.

    2. I kind of agree with this premise that all children are essentially sociopaths, or at least not able to move beyond their id into developing and maintaining a healthy super ego.  I mean, what would Freud say about such behavior?  In fact, where do the Freudian psychologists stand with regard to this kind of behavior?

    3. Stop acting someone who can use the term “sociopath” with any authority.  You’re embarrassing yourself. You’re not a psychologist.  If you were, you’d never have said that.

  12. “Thanks for giving me a break dude.”

    That sent shivers down my spine.  One of the parents I grew up with was a sociopath.  There’s something very familiar in how the boy acted in the beginning and then how he responded once the truth came out.  Count me in with the posters who see this as more than a teenage mistake.

  13. Internet diagnosis is a mug’s game. The kid might be an irredeemable sociopath, or he might be a redeemable one — there are a lot of sociopaths around who don’t cause anyone any trouble beyond the occasional “What an asshole” reaction — or he might be merely troubled, or he may have just spent too much time hanging out with Internet trolls. Notice that he started doing this when he was 14, according to the blog, which can be a difficult time for the many of us who aren’t saints.

    Similarly, second-guessing his parents’ skills at raising children seems a little… what’s a word for the opposite of apropos? Few of us are blessed with omniscient and omnipotent parents who know all the pitfalls a child can fall into. You and I may know the darkest deeps that can be plumbed on the Internet, but for those who have a minimal presence on the web — say, a Facebook page unnoticed except by friends and relatives on which they never say anything remotely controversial — might be unaware just what horrors from the unconscious lurk online and how they can interact with the growing consciousness of a developing adolescent. Sometimes you don’t see the traps until their jaws close on your ankle; that’s the nature of traps.

  14. I am heartbroken for the Traynor family that they suffered such personalized terrorism esp when dealing with illness.  The family of the troll is heartbreaking as well.  The recovery for the troll family may be longer than that of the Traynors.

    I have noticed that for a certain percentage of teen age boys, there seems to be this weird stage of anti-semitism/racism that I cannot wrap my brain around.  Even when the only exposure they have to Jews and Judaism might be the myriad of Hitler voiceovers on youtube.  Or, even after they are educated on the horrors of the Holocaust.  For example, look at 4chan and the /b/tards.  

    What is this and why is this?  Often, it seems that it is displayed as a way to really hurt their parents.  Do they really feel this way about Jews and people of color or do they know entertaining such ugliness absolutely devastates their parents.  Or is there some kind of Nazi factor that is inherent to the developing male adolescent brain?

    I would rather have my children tell me they hate me rather than vent their hate and anger on a group of people who have done nothing to hurt them.

    1. It was the opposite of irresponsible. Traynor could have handed responsibility to the legal system after discovering the troll’s identity, but instead he went out of his way to improve his tormentor’s perspective in a way that only he could have done.

      1. You’re advocating vigilantism from the opposite perspective.  He committed hate crimes.  Mr. Traynor shouldn’t get to be the judge who lets the criminal off the hook because he’s feeling generous that day.

        Because of this, there’s no oversight in what happens with this person who may continue to commit hate crimes.  At least the court could mandate evaluation and therapy.  His parents’ good intentions are meaningless, particularly since he’ll be legally adult with a year.

        1. I understand your point, but I don’t think active and passive vigilantism are equivalent, and I think what Traynor did was probably much more effective than therapy administered by the state on an unwilling subject would have been.

          The state can punish the kid for harassing people, but can’t make him a better person who would be ashamed to do it again. I’m not suggesting that victims of harassment should all confront their tormentors instead of reporting them to the police, but I do think that Traynor took the difficult high path that will ultimately do the most good in the world.

          That is, assuming the kid is not literally psychopathic and incapable of empathy, which I think is less likely than him being an ordinary callous teenager.

          1. That is, assuming the kid is not literally psychopathic and incapable of empathy, which I think is less likely than him being an ordinary callous teenager.

            He waged an ongoing campaign of racial hatred including harassment and physically-delivered death threats. Forgive me if I consider your opinion on whether he’s a psychopath or an ordinary teenager to be irrelevant. That’s for a court-appointed psychiatrist to figure out.

          2. Your faith in the US criminal justice system is surprising.  Also, misplaced.  I think what you’re actually expressing is that the teen’s actions should be taken more seriously, which is a reasonable argument.  But following that up with a call to bring in the cops, and implying that doing anything other than bringing in the cops is endangering others?  Well, it’s laughable.  Cops and courts cannot rehabilitate, and often make troubled people more troubled.

            At best, they can force participation in “programs”, which primarily teach participants to say the right things and deceive those with power over them.  You see, mandatory programs don’t have to make sure he’s actually sincerely invested in the program, because he has to participate.  They just have to make him jump through the hoops.

            And at worst, they can lock him in a cage with a lot of other people who’ve had their empathy destroyed*, and let him stew there until he’s released into the world again with a whole new layer of insane.  I guess you could argue that therefore he shouldn’t ever be released, which is at least a coherent, though facist position (which I don’t think you hold).

            None of these things make society safer.  In fact they make me feel a lot less safe.

            * prison guards, naturally

  15. Having read some of the comments about what they would do in the event of being trolled like described by Traynor , this is what I would have done.
    Made a website dedicated to the troll and his shinanigans, logging every event as it happened with pictures etc.
    I’m sure it would make an internet sensation.

      1.  Really? You think the kid would have been dragged from his home and killed?  I don’t.  I think he would have been yelled at, at worst.  Possibly missed out on job opportunities, gotten in trouble with school, and so on.

        Or is that what you meant by “lynch gang”? If so, that’s really just hyperbole.

  16. I would have done the same thing.  But then I could never bring myself to choose the renegade dialogue options in Mass Effect, so I guess I’m weak that way.  And I keep empathizing with people I disagree with, despite the fact that they are wrong.  I would make a terrible politician.

    I don’t use my real name online for lots of very good reasons.
    1.  I work and take actual real life contracts with my real name – obviously.  Many of my research & policy type contracts have political ramifications.  I am able to separate my opinions from evidence when doing research, but when I discuss political issues online I express my opinions.  Using my real name online would create the false impression that I am a biased researcher.  It is hard enough to get quality work already.
    2.  I play video games online.  No way would I use my real name for that, for the same reasons above.
    3.  Real names make it easy for the asshole trolls like the one under discussion to find and harass me.  No thanks.
    4.  I do my best not to be an asshole online anyway – it is actually easy to not be an asshole, so I don’t see the name I use as relevant to my degree of assholery.

  17. There are a couple of things which surprise me in the story– one is that the teenager was a solitary troll. I thought trolls tended to run in packs these days. The other is that that teenager didn’t blame Traynor for being frightened– this is shockingly sane and kind by troll standards. I don’t know whether it means anything– random variation? Some limits to the kid’s capacity for emotional abusiveness? A *really* sophisticated capacity for pretending to be normal?

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