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
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The failed French presidential candidates who refuse to endorse Emmanuel Macron

While the candidates of the main left and right parties have endorsed the centrist from nowhere, others have held back. 

And breathe.

At 8pm on Sunday night France, Europe, and much of the West let out a huge sigh of relief. After over a month of uncertainty, scandals, rebounds, debates and late surges, the results of the first round of the French Presidential Election was as predicted: Emmanuel Macron (24 per cent) will face off against Marine Le Pen (21 per cent) in the second round of the election on the 7 May.

While polls have been predicting this face-off for a while, the shocks of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump had thrown polling predictions into doubt. But France has a good track record when it comes to polling, and their surveys are considered some of the most reliable in the world. The irony is that this uncertainty has meant that the polls have never been so central to a campaign, and the role of polling in democracies has been a hot topic of debate during the election.

The biggest surprise in many ways was that there were no surprises. If there was a surprise, it was a good one: participation was higher than expected: close to 80 per cent – on par with the Presidential Elections of 2012 – whereas there were concerns it would be as low as 70 per cent. Higher participation is normally a bad sign for the extremes, who have highly motivated voters but a limited base, and who often do better in elections when participation is low. Instead, it boosts the traditional parties, but here instead of the traditional right-wing Republican (Fillon is at 20 per cent) or Socialist parties (Hamon at 6 per cent), it was in fact the centre, with Emmanuel Macron, who benefited.

So France has so far not succumbed to the populist wave that has been engulfing the West. The contagion seemed to be spreading when the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi lost a referendum on reforming the constitution, but the fightback started in Austria which rejected the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in its Presidential election and voted for the pro-European, former-Green independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen. Those hopes now rest on the shoulders of Macron. After having dubbed Angela Merkel the leader of the free world during his farewell tour of Europe, Barack Obama gave his personal blessing to Macron last week.

Many wondered what impact Thursday night’s shooting on the Champs-Elysées would have. Would it be a boon for Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration platform? Or even right-wing François Fillon’s more traditional law and order approach? In the end the effect seems to have been minimal.

In the second round, Macron is currently predicted to beat Marine Le Pen by more than 60 per cent of the vote. But how does Le Pen almost double her vote in the second round, from around 20 per cent to close to 40 per cent? The "Republican Front" that saw her father off back in 2002, when he received only 18 per cent of the vote, has so far held at the level of the two traditional political parties. Both Hamon and Fillon have called to vote for Macron in the second round to stop the Front National - Hamon put it nicely when he said he could tell the difference between political opponents, and opponents of the Republic.

But not everyone is toing the line. Sens Commun, the anti-gay marriage group that has supported Fillon through thick and thin, said that it will not call to vote for either party – a thinly veiled invitation to vote for Le Pen. And Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a conservative, Catholic and anti-EU right wing candidate, whose 5 per cent is the reason Fillon didn’t make it to the second round, has also abstained from calling to vote for either. It is within this electorate that Le Pen will look to increase her vote.

The other candidate who didn’t call to vote for anyone was Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who fell back on a demagogic position of saying he would follow the wishes of his supporters after having consulted them. But as a spokesperson for the FN pointed out, there are remarkable congruities between their respective platforms, which can be categorised as a populism of the left and a populism of the right.

They in particular converge over the question of Europe. Aping Brexit, both want to go to Brussels to argue for reform, and if none is forthcoming put membership of the Eurozone to the electorate. While Le Pen’s anti-Europeanism is patent, Mélenchon’s position is both disingenuous and dangerous. His Plan A, as he puts it, is to attempt reform at the European level. But he knows fine well that his demands, which include revoking the independence of the European Central Bank and putting an end to austerity (the ECB, through its massive programme of quantitative easing, has already been trying to stimulate growth) will not be met. So he reverts to his Plan B, which is to leave the European Treatises and refound Europe on a new basis with like-minded members.

Who those members might be he hasn’t specified, nor has he explained how he would leave the EU - at least Le Pen had the decency to say she would put it to a referendum. Leaving the European Treatise has been in his programme from the beginning, and seems to be the real object of his desires. Nonetheless, having set himself up as the anti-Le Pen candidate, most of his supporters will vote for Macron. Others will abstain, and abstention will only help Le Pen. We’ve been here before, and the last thing we need now is complacency.

 

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