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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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood