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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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism