WASHINGTON – The insults and violent threats had been appearing on her screen for weeks when Amanda Kleinman decided to fight back.
She scrolled through hundreds of aggressive messages, searching for the one that troubled her the most. Her online accounts had been inundated since “Pizzagate,” the viral fake-news conspiracy theory that linked Hillary Clinton to a nonexistent child sex-trafficking ring. Because Kleinman’s band had performed at the Washington restaurant at the center of the bogus claims, she, too, was being called a pedophile. Conspiracy theorists had publicized her address, sent messages to her employer and threatened her with words so vile that there is no printable euphemism to describe them.
She had called the police. She had talked to the press. She had ranted on social media. Now it was time to tattle to their mothers.
Click. She landed on the Facebook profile for the most vile of her harassers. Click. She was viewing his friends. It took only a few minutes to find the woman she was looking for.
“Dear Lamia,” she wrote. “I wanted to know if you have a son named John?”
For people targeted by Internet “trolls,” the absence of a clear solution is often the most frustrating part. If you retaliate by speaking publicly about your plight, you are likely to make yourself a bigger target. If you stay quiet in hopes that the stalkers will move on, you may feel like you’ve let the trolls silence you. Kleinman was tired of this lose-lose situation.
“I have never met John and it makes me terribly sad,” she wrote to his mother. “I only tell you in case this is your son and maybe you should speak to him.”
Kleinman’s alternatives were, she felt, limited. Social-media platforms are typically reluctant to punish trolls for fear of violating free speech. On Twitter, for example, users can block a troll; but that only means the troll’s comments will be removed from their timeline, not from Twitter completely. Victims can file complaints that might get a troll banned from the platform. Yet even as one disappears, dozens of others may pop up, like a nightmarish game of Whac-a-Mole.
People being harassed can alert the police, but law enforcement has struggled to identify and prosecute anonymous online harassers. Of the millions of people who were stalked and harassed online between 2010 and 2013, only 10 cyberstalking cases were filed in federal courts during that time, according to a review by “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace” author Danielle Citron. These situations nearly always involve not one harasser, but dozens or even thousands threatening or spreading a false rumor about their victim.
“Every single individual who promotes [the rumor] is part of the problem, but none of them are actually criminally responsible,” explained Mary Anne Franks, the legislative policy director at the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, which advocates for laws to protect online victims.
Franks said there is no “one size fits all” approach for dealing with trolls, but she doesn’t recommend trying to reason with them.
“There is nothing you can say to them that won’t give them more to work with,” Franks said.
Satirist Vic Berger learned that lesson shortly after “Pizzagate.” Berger rose to Internet fame by creating bizarre videos about the presidential campaign for the online video network Super Deluxe. He started a Twitter feud with Mike Cernovich, a social-media personality known for spreading false rumors about Clinton and her supporters during the election, along with the false theories about Comet Ping Pong, the pizza parlor in Northwest Washington. As Berger mocked him on Twitter, his followers also engaged, and Cernovich claims they tweeted offensive images at him. So in return, Cernovich repeatedly accused Berger of being involved with a pedophile ring.
Berger tried reporting him, but Twitter wouldn’t shut down his account. He tried calling out Cernovich for inciting death threats against him. But the attacks just became more heated.
“These guys do sort of know how to work the system and bend-not-break the rules, so it’s really difficult,” Berger explained in an email. “After awhile you just get sick of looking at that kind of sick/hateful/negative content and you just kind of have to move on for your own mental health.”
After a man armed with an assault rifle stormed Comet Ping Pong to “investigate” the Pizzagate claims in December, Berger realized that it was entirely possible for the threats against him to become real. So after calling lawyers and the police, he quit Twitter, at least temporarily, until there is some sort of resolution to Cernovich’s attacks.
“It sucks to have to sort of ‘back down’ from a guy like that,” Berger said.
Backing down might be an effective solution, but it’s a wholly unsatisfying one. And so comes the urge to reach through the Internet abyss and – metaphorically – smack the trolls back.
After a troll impersonated her dead father on Twitter, writer and activist Lindy West penned a powerful essay arguing that the Internet treats women like “subhuman garbage.” The next day, a man claiming to be the person who created the fake account wrote her a heartfelt apology and donated $50 to the cancer hospital that treated West’s father.
Brianna Wu, a video game developer who spoke out about sexism in the industry during 2014’s “Gamergate” controversy, tried Skyping with one of the thousands of people who had threatened to kill her. The troll, a woman, wanted to apologize; Wu wanted to understand why she had acted the way she did. They talked at length, but Wu ultimately felt like her harasser got more out of it than she did. Now, she doesn’t respond to any of her trolls.
“Part of you becomes so damaged, you don’t feel anything when someone says they’re going to rape your corpse,” Wu said.
Kleinman, meanwhile, is still hopeful that there’s something she can do to fight back. The trolls know her as the flamboyant musician who dresses up in a red ski mask and blond wig to perform in her electronic rock band, Heavy Breathing. But by day, she’s a college counselor – who can’t help the urge to reach out and educate.
She said, “Maybe 70 percent of these individuals, if I had them one-on-one with me for a week, or once a day for a month,” then maybe, she could get them to stop acting how they do.
Instead, she makes screen shots of each of their threats and saves them to a folder for documentation as the police recommended. She makes sure the alumnimum bats she recently purchased from Target are within reach in her home. She goes to band practice – Heavy Breathing has scheduled a show at Comet Ping Pong for January. They have considered canceling, but they don’t want the trolls to think they’ve won.
And she waits for her worst troll’s mother to respond. For all she knows, the woman hasn’t even read her message. But it made her feel better to try something. “Sometimes,” Kleinman said, “it’s just symbolic.”