Staring down internet trolls: My disturbing cat and mouse game
To start with, Mark* seemed unremarkable in the extreme.
He had a full-time job and a girlfriend. And if you happened to pass him on the street or in the supermarket, nothing would grab your attention. You likely wouldn't recall his slightly awkward manner. Outwardly, there was nothing to suggest he was a highly organised, and dangerous troll.
The first time I hit the button on my digital recorder back in 2015, after he agreed to an interview, naivety reigned. I wasn't even afraid.
Before long though, a deep unease was washing over me. Mark was – and is – far more dangerous than I'd imagined a troll possibly could be.
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During that first interview, he revealed himself as a member of a powerful, international trolling syndicate. The group systematically goes after people and tries to ruin their lives. They try to get people fired. They take part in swatting. They try to incite vulnerable people to harm themselves. Mark openly admits targeting people with autism and those with mental illnesses.
"Some people should kill themselves because they're generally pieces of s***," Mark says.
He tells me about trolling rape victims and the Facebook memorial pages of those who have died by suicide. He gives me the example of attacking the page of a young girl who was killed by a train. He tries and succeeds to upset her loved ones by calling her a "train hugger".
"If it's a page of someone who's died, you're going to get an emotional reaction," he says.
For Mark, getting a reaction is key. He talks about it over and over again. He also wants people to feel unsafe online: "Sometimes I just do it to get them to, like, quit the internet."
As a former trolling victim and a journalist, my original aim seemed straightforward. I sought to shine a light under the dark bridges and crevices of the internet.
Once I went looking, it wasn't very hard to find vicious internet trolls. I did what any decent journalist does – reached out to my network on social media. Within a few days, I had names, email addresses and phone numbers of blokes to interview. (Yes, they were all white, middle-class men.)
As I quickly discovered, trolls are narcissists. They want to tell everybody how and why they hurt other people. That's why, without much trouble, Mark had agreed to that initial interview about the havoc he wreaks on the internet.
Over time I come to see Mark as another kind of net; he's like a spiderweb. I am a moth and once I fly into the trap, the sticky threads are glued to my wings. I can't seem to extricate myself.
Regardless of whether I want to stay in contact with Mark, he stays in touch with me. For a while there will be blissful silence. It might last a few weeks, or it might last months. Then a message from him will appear. When it does, a corresponding knot forms in my stomach.
He might be chatty and ask me media advice or rant about free speech. Or he might tell me, the descendent of Jews who fled the Holocaust and other family members who were gassed by the Nazis in World War II, that it never occurred.
"F*** Jews," he'll say to me.
If I don't respond, he'll become irritated and threaten to "f*** up my life." (Or maybe he's not irritated – who knows? It's blatantly apparent that this is all a game to him.)
After nearly a year of intermittent contact, I'm only too aware of what "f*** up my life" could mean. I seek advice from an eminent Australian cyber security expert. The expert has dealt with Mark's type before. He's frank about the danger that I'm in: "Don't name him and don't name his trolling gang. Because if he doesn't like what you write and you piss him or his gang off, they will come after you," the expert says.
Mark poses a credible threat and there's no longer any demarcation of where the journalism ends and the rest of my life begins.
My husband bears witness to the anxiety this bizarre cat and mouse dance produces. After all the damage trolling has caused our family, he wonders why I need to keep reporting on the issue. Why do I need to go so far in?
"Maybe you need to just leave it alone?" he suggests gently.
But something bloody-minded within me can't let it go. My job is to report and trolls like Mark are a risk to public safety. Maybe if I ask enough questions – or ask the right questions – I'll understand this. Maybe if I reveal his game plan, we'll all be safer.
The truth, though, is far less convenient than this and I've paid the price for my idealism. He's hurting other people, and I can't stop him. The more I know about him, the less I understand.
"Because it's funny," he says by way of explanation for the trolling, and it provides him "entertainment".
He says: "I don't really have emotions that much. I have emotions but nothing to do with regretting stuff and that field of emotions [including] sadness."
This unsatisfactory answer leaves the notion of "morals" hanging limply between us.
"I don't think it's morally OK," he says.
"Morals don't come into it. I know everything I do is wrong."
With some hesitation, I contact him to speak on camera. He agrees and meets me on time.
Perhaps because there's a camera present, he's less effusive than normal. He leans back in the chair in an apparent attempt to look relaxed. His answers are short and there's a scratchiness about him.
Before the tape starts rolling and, out of earshot of the cameraman, he snaps: "If I'm going to be anonymous, I don't see why you even need to interview me on camera."
When we first spoke, Mark spent up to 14 hours a week trolling people. These days, he tells me, it's more like 30 hours a week. His psychopathic tendencies are getting worse as he gets older.
"Have you ever read some of my stuff on the internet?" he boasts during yet another interview that we conduct by phone. "I'm one of the biggest narcissists on the planet."
His disregard for the safety of others also stretches to himself. Under the Commonwealth Criminal Code Act, it's illegal to use a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence to another person.
However, Mark is unperturbed by the lawyers who try to sue him or the notion that the police will eventually find him.
"I'm not afraid of it. I'm expecting it one day," he says.
Apparently, this is the exact same reason he wants to talk to me, a journalist. I'm just part of his twisted schema: "This [being interviewed] is for attention for me, really."
When I suggest so-called "digilantism" is on the rise – where women fight back online against trolls – Mark is scathing. And frankly, the advice he gives is chilling.
"That's not the way to do it. For one, if you react against [trolls] and try to attack them, it's giving them want they want.
"I think that is incredibly bad for their safety. If someone attacks you online and then you just decide you are going to fight back against them without knowing what you are doing, that's when it can go into affecting your real life. That's when your actual safety is at risk," he says.
Despite posting revenge porn, telling rape victims they "deserve" it and doxing (publishing personal documents online) women, Mark says he's not misogynistic and actually prefers to troll men.
"I knew you were going to get into this," he says when I press him on the issue, "you've got an agenda".
Sometimes, Mark says, he examines my social media feeds and reads my published articles. On the attack, he asks me: "Do you really believe the s*** you write?"
And then a few seconds later: "You're stuck in your social justice bubble and you can't see the truth.
"There's a big, big culture of cyberhate against men. Especially white men. Like I have less rights than you because I'm white and male."
That's right. In all of this mess, Mark sees himself as a target.
* Name has been changed
WHERE TO GET HELP
* Lifeline (open 24/7) - 0800 543 354
* Depression Helpline (open 24/7) - 0800 111 757
* Healthline (open 24/7) - 0800 611 116
* Samaritans (open 24/7) - 0800 726 666
* Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.
* Youthline (open 24/7) - 0800 376 633. You can also text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email email@example.com
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* Your local Rural Support Trust - 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)
* Alcohol Drug Helpline (open 24/7) - 0800 787 797. You can also text 8691 for free.
For further information, contact the Mental Health Foundation's free Resource and Information Service (09 623 4812).
WHERE TO GET HELP, SEXUAL VIOLENCE
* Rape Crisis - 0800 88 33 00 (24hr service), click link for information on local helplines
* Victim Support - 0800 842 846 (24hr service)
* The Harbour, online support and information for people affected by sexual abuse
* Women's Refuge (Females only) - crisis line available on 0800 733 843
* Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse Trust (Males only), Helplines across NZ, click to find out more
If you are in danger, or are being subjected to sexual violence, call 111.
- Sydney Morning Herald