May 30, 2024

CyberPunks, an Apt Name

Mattathias Schwartz’s article in the NY Times magazine serves as a brief peek into the anarchic world of Internet trolls and hackers, people who are generally considered the enemy by business computing professionals like myself.  There’s a freedom, or the perception of it, on the Net that doesn’t exist anywhere else in quite the same way.  Freed from physical limits, we’re able to act out the best and worst in us, usually without consequences.

Schwartz’s trip down the rabbit hole brings Jason Fortuny of "the Craigslist Experiment” fame back into view.  One exchange is telling re the "fluid morality" of darkish Net enthusiasts:

Fortuny spent most of the weekend in his bedroom juggling several windows on his monitor. One displayed a chat room run by Encyclopedia Dramatica, an online compendium of troll humor and troll lore. It was buzzing with news of an attack against the Epilepsy Foundation’s Web site. Trolls had flooded the site’s forums with flashing images and links to animated color fields, leading at least one photosensitive user to claim that she had a seizure.

WEEV: the whole posting flashing images to epileptics thing? over the line.

HEPKITTEN: can someone plz tell me how doing something the admins intentionally left enabled is hacking?

WEEV: it’s hacking peoples unpatched brains. we have to draw a moral line somewhere.

Fortuny disagreed. In his mind, subjecting epileptic users to flashing lights was justified. “Hacks like this tell you to watch out by hitting you with a baseball bat,” he told me. “Demonstrating these kinds of exploits is usually the only way to get them fixed.”

“So the message is ‘buy a helmet,’ and the medium is a bat to the head?” I asked.

“No, it’s like a pitcher telling a batter to put on his helmet by beaning him from the mound. If you have this disease and you’re on the Internet, you need to take precautions.”

So it’s a public service to send web-browsing epileptics into seizure?  Right. 

Another bit explaining Fortuny’s values:

The willingness of trolling “victims” to be hurt by words, he argued, makes them complicit, and trolling will end as soon as we all get over it.

I don’t believe in glorifying the victim unnecessarily – in general the strong deserve to be rewarded for their superior and more extensive efforts – but a moral compass that points due-north toward victims "asking for it" is exactly the sort of Nazi-like nihilism that one would expect to emerge from an ungoverned sub-culture where brute force – technical, in this case – is the sole arbiter of value.

Hacker Weev on squares like me and the threat he presents to us:

“I hack, I ruin, I make piles of money,” he boasted. “I make people afraid for their lives.” On the phone that night, Weev displayed a misanthropy far harsher than Fortuny’s. “Trolling is basically Internet eugenics,” he said, his voice pitching up like a jet engine on the runway. “I want everyone off the Internet. Bloggers are filth. They need to be destroyed. Blogging gives the illusion of participation to a bunch of retards. … We need to put these people in the oven!”

Weev says he has access to hundreds of thousands of Social Security numbers. About a month later, he sent me mine.

Yeah, financial ruin is a threat,  quite a real one to an individual.  At a macro-level Internet crime is trivial, but if your bank account is the one at the mercy of hackers you’re the sheep who’s been cut off from the herd and hamstrung.  Easy pickings, which makes Fortuny’s warning, if that’s what it was, something to take seriously.  Many people can’t defend themselves against online hacks and many who can don’t have the time to do so, whereas the perps have nothing but time on their hands.

It’s not hard to see why blogging infuriates people like Weev – it gives mere mortals the ability to, if not rival the technical chops of the hacker crowd, at least project a presence into the Net space they unjustifiably regard as their own.  Democratization threatens the entrenched elites, IOW, Net-style.

You, the troll says, are not worthy of my understanding; I, therefore, will do everything I can to confound you.  Why inflict anguish on a helpless stranger? It’s tempting to blame technology, which increases the range of our communications while dehumanizing the recipients. … But while technology reduces the social barriers that keep us from bedeviling strangers, it does not explain the initial trolling impulse. This seems to spring from something ugly — a destructive human urge that many feel but few act upon, the ambient misanthropy that’s a frequent ingredient of art, politics and, most of all, jokes.

Schwartz is kind enough to regard trolls as a sort of modern, techy prankster subculture, something that’s true up to a point.  But the root of the issue, as he says, is something darker:  the need to bully, belittle, and destroy.  The hateful acts people perform online have little to do with technology and everything to do with their own souls.  Trolls who don’t dare act the miscreant in the flesh are loosed on the Net with relatively little in the way of constraints.  No consequences = no bounds on behavior and the results are easily seen. 

We have what passes for order in the world because of the rule of law and the power that enforces them. It’s debatable whether that power should be projected onto the Net, however, given authority’s ever-increasing need to monitor behavior.  Again Fortuny has a valid point:  we need to police and protect ourselves in cyberspace so that Uncle Sam, et al, don’t feel the need to do it for us.  It is easy at times to mock the clumsiness of the American system of jurisprudence; however, a view into Weev’s world makes one begin to appreciate the savagery of pure anarchy.

Despite Fortuny’s philosophical riffs on hacking, it’s anything but clear whether the hacker subculture contributes anything of value to society at large.  So long as they keep their little antics out of the real world there’s no reason to interfere with the mischief they enjoy making.

Unfortunately, the fun doesn’t always stop there.  After Mitchell Henderson committed suicide, the trolls eventually wound their way around to harassing his parents at their own home:

The phone began ringing at Mitchell’s parents’ home. “It sounded like kids,” remembers Mitchell’s father, Mark Henderson, a 44-year-old I.T. executive. “They’d say, ‘Hi, this is Mitchell, I’m at the cemetery.’ ‘Hi, I’ve got Mitchell’s iPod.’ ‘Hi, I’m Mitchell’s ghost, the front door is locked. Can you come down and let me in?’ ” He sighed. “It really got to my wife.” The calls continued for a year and a half.

Where’s the redeeming quality in these hurtful acts?

There is none and it proves my point that in the absence of consequence, vile acts become permissible, even laudable.  Say something like that to Mr. Henderson’s face and something bad’s going to happen.  Prank him from a thousand miles away and a troll becomes a temporary quasi-hero, in a sad little way.  That’s the joke.


Marc is a software developer, writer, and part-time political know-it-all who currently resides in Texas in the good ol' U.S.A.

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