The illusion of anonymity: how easy it is to hunt down a troll?

"Come and find me," said the man who didn't believe it was easy to find people on the net, giving his real name. Twenty minutes later, I knew his address, university and current height and weight.

"Come find me."

Last week, I wrote a feature for a tech blog about the problem of abuse on Twitter. To recap, a number of high-profile women have been on the receiving end of some increasingly nasty abusive messages which have run the gamut from sexist slurs and angry rants to threats of rape and violence. These culminated in a series of messages to the journalists Caroline Criado-Perez, Grace Dent, India Knight and Laurie Penny among others which stated that a bomb had been placed outside each of their homes.

In my piece, I had looked at some of the practical tools that might help people, such as the proposed 'Report Abuse Button' and techniques for filtering out threatening or unpleasant messages and managing a Twitter feed when it is under attack.

The link to my piece that I posted on Twitter got a fair few retweets and I got a lot of feedback. Much was positive, some was less so and I had a few discussions with people who thought that my suggestions were unworkable and one or two who just denied that there was really a problem at all.

One chap in particular took exception to what I'd written. I'll call him Liam, although that is not his real name - he tweets under a pseudonym. Liam tweeted me to say "who actually believes these threats?! How could you put a bomb outside the home of a person you don't know. Just block."

This encapsulates two pretty common reactions to the idea of being threatened via social media. First, it's not real, it is "just words" and, second, the person doesn't really know who you are and can't physically harm you. So you should just block them and move on.

The problem with the latter approach, as I tried to suggest to Liam, is that it just doesn't scale. If you are being harassed by hundreds of people from multiple accounts, as has been the case with people like Caroline Criado-Perez, then blocking becomes more than just a chore. As Caitlin Moran put it, "If a woman is getting fifty of these messages an hour, blocking all the abusers becomes something of a thankless, full-time job."

As for the former - well, that is just wrong, isn't it? We live in public now and it could be possible for someone who wanted to carry out a threat of violence to find their victim in real life. I put this to Liam and we went back and forth for a while. "Where do I live?" he asked at one point.

I conceded that it would be more difficult to find someone like him. People like Stella Creasy and Laurie Penny tweet as themselves and have fairly public lives whereas with him there wasn't even a real name to go on.

He replied simply, giving me his real name and adding: "Come find me."

So I did. Because I realised that I was taking a lot of this on faith - the idea that we all traceable and that the dividing line between the internet and the real world is illusory. Mostly, however, I did it because he was being a cocky so-and-so and I thought it might be funny.

It took around 20 minutes. In my next reply to him I told him the town where he lived, the first 3 characters of his postcode, where he went to university and - I was showboating here - his current height and weight.

He went a bit quiet.

A few hours later he came back to me to admit, somewhat sheepishly, that I was correct and that he probably had too much information online. He has since blocked me and I can't say I blame him, really.

So, how did I do it? It was surprisingly easy. I should stress that I am not any kind of hacker. I work in and write about IT and the internet and I know my way around a UNIX box but I didn't have to breach any firewalls or tweeze open any private data vaults. At no point did ASCII characters reflect off my glasses in a darkened room while I chugged Red Bull and typed MANUAL OVERRIDE. Everything I found out about Liam was on the open web.

Facebook was the obvious starting point. I searched and then narrowed down the fifty-odd people in the UK of the same name using a process of deduction, based on other details from his Twitter feed - mostly to do with the kind of music he liked and some concerts he tweeted about attending. I also made a couple of lucky guesses that I was able to confirm by a kind of triangulation with the odd mention of him on other websites and some forum posts. His height and weight came from his rugby team's published player stats. (He's a big lad, so I definitely won't be paying him a visit.)

There was a point where I realised that I could have found out more. By paying for credits on a reverse directory site I could have found out his exact address. Doubtless, if I had been prepared to break the law and had the necessary skills I may have been able to retrieve much more personal data. Equally, if I had the law behind me and could get a court order then I might not even have needed his name to find who he was.

I was surprised by what I was able to find out but it did confirm to me that although the kind of physical threats that people like Criado-Perez et al have been getting have so far turned out to be all bluster, there is a genuine reason to be concerned that someone who is determined enough could carry them out in person.

That sense of anonymity that we feel online is largely an illusion. It is really little more than the anonymity of the herd - the sense that because we are part of a mass of people it is just too much bother for someone to seek us out.

I had no intention of travelling to [place redacted] to meet [name redacted] or to otherwise act on what I found and I was careful not to put anything too personal in my reply to him where someone else might read it.

It is likely that the quarter-wits currently sending poison-pixel messages to journalists and campaigners via social media have no plans to carry out their threats either, but this doesn’t mean that those threats have any less an impact on their targets. Even the fact that a troll or a stalker can dig up personal information about you could be very intimidating.

The one positive, perhaps, is that the police can use their greater resources to achieve the same ends. As several of the trolls tweeting threats of violence and sexual assault have discovered in the past week, it is foolish to assume that an online persona leaves no trace in the real world.

Troll. Flickr/aka Jens Rost, used under Creative Commons
Photo: Pablo via Creative Commons
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Is Lithuania still homophobic? My girlfriend and I held hands to find out

The Lonely Planet guide warned that for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

It’s midnight somewhere on the greyish outskirts of Vilnius, and my girlfriend has just burst out laughing. Our Uber driver starts laughing too. Nonplussed, I scan the oppressively functional Soviet-era architecture we’re driving past for literally anything funny.

Then I see them. A series of panels above the stairway to a basement bar; photos of topless blonde men with glistening six packs. This is – as is usually the case – either a tribute to the most homoerotic scenes in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, or something deliberately gay. And 99 out of 100 it’s the latter, this being no exception.

Soho Club is the most out-of-context gay venue I’ve ever seen. It sits on a poorly lit street on the edge of Lithuania’s capital, almost as if it’s been plucked out of the city centre and dumped there.

Given the staunchly Catholic and formerly communist Baltic state’s uneasy relationship with its LGBTQ community, this wouldn’t be particularly surprising.

According to the Lonely Planet guide to the Baltic States for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

Homosexuality was only decriminalised here in 1993. And, any legislative victories aside, a 2009 poll found that attitudes amongst the population were much the same as the pre-1993 days. Eight in ten respondents considered homosexuality to be anywhere between a perversion and a disease. 

Such a gay-hostile place probably seems like an odd choice for a romantic getaway with my girlfriend, on my birthday weekend. Then again an itinerary like ours, which includes a visit to the both the Museum of the Victims of Genocide, and the Holocaust exhibition at the Jewish museum, is hardly "gondola ride in Venice" or "Eiffel Tower at sunset". This is a stark, ex-Soviet, mostly-raining introduction to being gay outside of the liberal London bubble. Which is to say: dreamy.

Having said that, Vilnius’s cobbled old town is beautiful and, compared to other more mainstream Eastern European capitals, decidedly less stag night-y. Same-sex couples, it turns out, can be drawn to a city for features other than its queer nightlife. 

On the short walk from Vilnius’s central train station to our Airbnb, we passed a mural of Donald Trump smoking a spliff and giving Vladimir Putin blowback. A definite tribute to the gay kiss between the USSR's Brezhnev and East Germany's Honecker depicted on the Berlin Wall.

It was hard to tell what this said about the area’s attitude towards queers, but it was on the side of a bar that’s blasting out Black Lips and full of Lithuanian hipsters in their twenties. Say what you like about hipsters, they are not known for gay-hate. It was difficult to imagine anyone in there giving much of a shit about our sexuality.

At the Airbnb, we were greeted by one such Lithuanian hipster. She was about 20 and seemed a little nervous speaking to us, even though her English was near fluent.

The flat – an immaculate new build – was decked out in Ikea classics. Like the bar with the homoerotic Trump/Putin mural, anywhere with a Malm just seems to radiate gay-friendliness. It’s both sterile and PC. Like the Lib Dems, or a free sachet of lube.

Our host gave us a brief lesson in how to work the flat, before saying a polite goodbye. We’d just started unpacking when there was a knock on the door. It turned out the host had done a 180.

"One last thing," she said, "Do you need an extra duvet, or are you… sharing the bed?"

OH GOD, I thought. This is it. This is the kind of shit you read about. You never do read about anything good.

"Yeah, we’re sharing," I said, feeling both – I hate to say – embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship, and embarrassed about being embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship.

"OK, cool. No questions!" said the host, before disappearing into the afternoon at the speed of sound.

"No questions," I repeated, "Hmm."

Just to be clear, no, this wasn’t exactly a hate crime. I’m also reluctant to judge a 20-year-old from a very religious country for – well – judging us. And anyway, maybe "no questions" meant "no judgment". Who am I to… judge?

We’d been in Lithuania for about an hour before my girlfriend and I decided to really test the water and hold hands in the street. Mostly, we were starting to wonder if we were being xenophobic by assuming Lithuanians were probably homophobic.

This, I suppose, is the point at which bigotry really starts to eat itself. Unfortunately though, almost the moment we held hands, a group of...shaven headed individuals, who wouldn’t look out of place in a modern day pogrom, walked past, staring us down as if we’d stopped there for a spot of mid-street fisting.

I made brief eye contact with one of them as I let go of my girlfriend’s hand as fast as a bottle of water at airport security.

"Oh," I said to her, when – as far as we knew – Vilnius’s only out homophobes were at a safe distance. "Yeah…" she said.

There are parts of the world – Uganda, Russia and, most recently, Chechnya –  where both socially and legislatively speaking, things are actually getting worse for queer people. But, the overarching narrative is "it gets better". Visiting anywhere with less good attitudes towards The Gays than I’m used to feels like a step back in time.

I wonder, in terms of acceptance of, say, two women holding hands, which decade in London is reflected in 2017 Vilnius. The 80s? The 70s? I’ve only been gay in London since 1989. And back then – as far as I know – I wasn’t a particularly dykey baby. 

So began a weekend-long game of political PDA. We walked through the cobbled streets of the old town, admiring baroque churches and wondering if we were allowed to be a couple near them.

Without a strict set of rules, every stranger’s glance is open to interpretation. My interpretation being, "Let’s just not make a scene, OK?", my girlfriend’s interpretation being, "Stop being paranoid and xenophobic. No one cares."

In the evening, as we sat in a busy restaurant eating zeppelins (remarkably dense Lithuanian potato dumplings, not airships) we spotted – lo and behold – what we (homophobically?) thought might be another gay couple.

Two men in their twenties stood waiting for a table. They had professionally shaped eyebrows. One of them had earrings. In Nineties terms, they were gay as fuck. At a dumpling joint in Vilnius, at ten at night, who the hell knows? And, more to the point, why the hell should they care? Well, when your relationship has been reduced – via queer invisibility – to a handholding battle, you’re kind of desperate to find another same-sex couple.

"Are they…" I said.

"They must be," she said.

"Should we…?"

"NO."

I’m not even too sure what I was asking we "should" do (speak to them? Buy them drinks? Demand a gay tour of Vilnius?), or why I was shut down without finishing my sentence. Whatever we should or shouldn’t have done, we didn’t.

But back to Soho Club. The car stops and we leave behind our bewildered and slightly too amused Uber driver. Tentatively, as if approaching an ancient Egyptian tomb by lamplight, we walk down the stairs past the muscle man panels.

The complete silence – not even interrupted by passing traffic – doesn’t exactly say "buzzing" or… "Soho". Inevitably, almost, the bar is closed. In fact, it’s arguably the most closed bar I’ve ever seen. We’ve turned up, ready to party with Lithuania’s finest gays, at a giant lead box. What’s more, we look around us and realise we’ve strayed into Murder Town.

On our way to the nearest bus stop, we pass a life-size fiberglass cow devoid of any explanation, and a lit-up poster that looks startlingly like an ad for dead babies. The streets get wider and desolate-er until we’re at a petrol station, holding hands out of pure fear. On my part at least. If this is Vilnius’s gay scene, I’d like to give it some kudos at least for quite strongly resembling a David Lynch film.

Having somehow not been sawn into pieces and turned into outsider art, we find ourselves back at Vilnius airport the next day. While idly internetting on her phone, my girlfriend notices our Airbnb host has reviewed us as guests.

"Leonore and her friend are very friendly people!" she wrote.

In all fairness, I have shared beds in Airbnbs with friends. And whether or not someone is tiptoeing around my sexuality like a puddle of something that may or may not be wee, it’s always nice to be considered friendly. And to have "friends".

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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