BuzzFeed doxxes the Hurricane Sandy twitter troll

This time, the critics are silent.

Yesterday, one twitterer with a relatively sizeable following was single-handedly responsible for a number of false – and some might say dangerous – rumours about Hurricane Sandy.

@ComfortablySmug has a little over 6,000 followers, enough to get a heavy head of steam behind the rumours he started. BuzzFeed's Andrew Buchanan collected them all together in a glorious montage of lies:

(Interestingly, at least one of his tweets – the claim that the MTA had announced that subways would be closed for the rest of the week – was false at the time but has since gained a kernel of truth. New York's Mayor Bloomberg told press that it could be four or five days before the subway system was back up-and-running.)

Just some random Twitter troll, right? Well, maybe not.

BuzzFeed's Jack Stuef did some detective work based on images that Smug had tweeted and found out his real identity:

@comfortablysmug is Shashank Tripathi, a hedge-fund analyst and the campaign manager of Christopher R. Wight, this year’s Republican candidate for the U.S. House from New York’s 12th congressional district.

FEC documents show Wight has paid Tripathi thousands of dollars this election cycle as a “consultant.” @comfortablysmug has been a vocal supporter of Mitt Romney and posted tweets suggesting he attended this year’s Republican convention. He’s listed here by a local Republican group coordinating volunteers for a Romney phone bank. He’s 29 years old.

What's interesting about the unmasking is that it hasn't drawn anywhere near the condemnation that other examples of "doxxing" have. When Adrian Chen revealed the real name of ViolentAcrez, the erstwhile moderator behind Reddit's jailbait and creepshots forums, it generated hundreds of column inches (well, mostly online – column pixels?) discussing the morality of his actions.

The debates are still going on weeks later; Danah Boyd wrote in *Wired* yesterday that:

More often than not, those who use these tools do so when they feel they’re on the right side of justice. They’re either shining a spotlight to make a point or to shame someone into what they perceive to be socially acceptable behavior. But each act of outing has consequences for the people being outed, even if we do not like them or what they’ve done.

This raises serious moral and ethical concerns: In a networked society, who among us gets to decide where the moral boundaries lie? This isn’t an easy question and it’s at the root of how we, as a society, conceptualize justice.

Similar debates surrounded Predditors, a tumblr dedicated to linking the pseudonymous accounts of people who posted creepshots to their real identities, and the inaccurate doxxing by Anonymous of a man they accused of harassing Amanda Todd to her death.

In each case, the reaction has been tempered by the extent to which the outing is seen as "journalistic". Predditors is run by an anonymous group, who publish doxxes which, while performed in an extremely similar manner to the detective work Stuef applied in unmasking ComfortablySmug, do not conform to "best practices". They offer no right of reply, do not check with the accused before publishing, and take aim for what many consider to be relatively minor infractions (many of those featured are not even prolific contributors to the subforums). As a result, it is this site's policy not to link to the blog.

But even Chen, who followed all the guidelines, faced criticism from Boyd and others. The general attitude was that this constitutes vigilante justice; that the unmasking can only be happening for punitive reasons.

But why no similar reaction for the outing of Tripathi? After all, in both cases what the trolls did was unbearably prickish, but limited largely to words. It's possible to argue that Tripathi's trolling was closer to the archetypal "shouting fire in a crowded theatre", and thus had physical consequences; but it's also possible to argue that ViolentAcrez, who was active for years more and far more prolific, contributed to a culture which nurtured attitudes certain to result in harm in "the real world".

The distinction lies in who Tripathi was revealed to be. Like it or not, anonymity in politics is truly dead. If you have any link to any political party, no-one is going to defend your right to be a pseudonymous dickhead on the internet.

At the end of the day, though, Tripathi is still being punished for his actions; and BuzzFeed is not, yet, a judge. Whether the same people who lined up to attack Chen will take potshots a Stuef, though, seems unlikely.

ComfortablySmug's twitter homepage.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt