14 Nov 2016

Unmasking internet trolls

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:16 pm on 14 November 2016

When Australian journalist Ginger Gorman found herself under attack by internet trolls, she did something unusual - she went to meet them. 

She tells Jesse Mulligan what she discovered was even worse than she’d imagined.

In 2010 Gorman wrote an article about two gay men who’d adopted a baby boy from Russia. In 2012 the men were revealed to be paedophiles, and the following year she became the victim of vicious trolling.

Ginger says she first met the couple when they responded to her call for interview subjects for an online series about the LGTQI community that she was working on. They told her they’d had a child by surrogacy in Russia five years earlier.

Gorman says that there weren’t any alarm bells during her visits. They had a beautiful house and lots of toys for the child.

Although she says she is haunted by one point in the interview when they told her they had been questioned by the police as they were bringing the child back to Australia.

Was it because the police were concerned they might be paedophiles, she asked? They smiled and laughed.

In late 2012 the men were arrested, then sentenced in 2013.

Ginger says it was a harrowing having spent time with their adopted child and she still thinks about him all the time.

“It’s really indescribable the grief I feel for that little boy, he’s the real victim in this story, it’s not me.”

In mid-2013 the trolling began.

A conservative American, who she won’t name, found her article about the two men online and set his thousands of Twitter followers against her.

“They were calling me a paedo-lover, paedo-enabler, a dimwit, a propagandist for the gay rights movement”

One night she was lying in bed with husband and the tweet ‘Your life is over’ came in. They then realised her phone had location services turned on, meaning her address could be found. 

Gorman was living in fear and didn't know what to do. In 2013 Australia, no-one had really heard of trolling or knew what to do about it, she says.

Her employer referred her to a counselling service. “I said ,I don’t need a psychologist. I need to know if someone’s coming for my kids.”

She then found an academic and asked him for advice. He told her that trolling is usually psychological, rather than physical warfare and their aim was to induce fear.

“I realised that was what the trolls wanted so I had to get control of that.”

She says it took her a couple of years to calm down enough to be struck with the idea that she wanted to meet some trolls. “Who are they? What do they want? What do they want to get out of it?”

Among her many shocking discoveries about trolls was just how easy they were to find, Gorman says. They were also much more dangerous than she realised.

The man she primarily interviewed, whom she gave the name Mark, is part of an international trolling gang and has personally been kicked off Facebook 260 times and Twitter 40 times.

Mark and the other trolls she spoke to happily admitted to being ‘sadists’, she says.

“They research the person, they find what they think the weakest point is, and they go out to hurt them, and get pleasure out of that.

“If you respond that is exactly what they want. They are dying for your response. They want to see that they’ve hurt you.”

Gorman believes part of why trolling is not taken seriously enough is the relatively benign word we’ve given it.

“We all read Three Billy Goats Gruff when we were kids… We think of trolls as funny little guys that hang out under bridges who are a bit antisocial. The idea of a troll is funny and quirky and just a bit mean.

“That isn’t the reality. The reality is a lot more dangerous than that.”

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