Troll Hunting

This commentary was carried on the website on 3 May 2018 following the debunking by New Zealand Police of malicious online rumours relating to Clarke Gayford, partner of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.


Police Commissioner Mike Bush gave a commendable performance as Big Billy Goat Gruff today. He head-butted a troll and knocked it off the bridge.

The commissioner’s highly unusual move in dispelling ugly rumours about the Prime Minister’s partner, Clarke Gayford, was a necessary step to stem viral online slander that had reached alarming proportions.

Mike Bush may have put paid to this particular social media troll. It was dealt a body blow by his unequivocal statement and by the subsequent disclosure that at least three mainstream media investigations failed to substantiate any of the rumours. However, just as there was more than one troll in Norwegian folklore, social media has spawned an unedifying number of malcontents who use its anonymity to poison with inpunity.

This particular troll did not act alone. Rumours about Mr Gayford spread with astonishing speed, helped on their way by blind political prejudice and by otherwise intelligent people posting veiled social media references to  “the story about Clarke Gayford” to signal they were in-the-know.

Trolling of this sort exists in the same environment as fake news. It has a life because some people want to believe it is true and are prepared to set aside their cognitive functions – and their ethical principles – to make it so. Then they feed it to other like-minded individuals as fact.

The ‘success’ of the attack on Mr Gayford will encourage further trolling. It may not be aimed at Prime Minister Ardern – the real target of this attack – but other public figures are equally vulnerable. Their vulnerability lies not in any skeletons that may exist in their closets but in the unfortunate reality that there need be not an iota of truth for a rumour to take flight.

But how many times will the police commissioner be willing to play the Big Billy Goat Gruff? He is unlikely to make a habit of it so what others means do we have to deal with these attacks?

The Harmful Digital Communications Act – the so-called Cyber Bullying Act – was not designed with politicians and their partners in mind but could it be used to hold trolls to account? It would not be a simple process.

More often than not trolls hide behind the anonymity that social media so readily and unquestioningly affords them. How can you bring proceedings under the Act if you do not know the troll’s identity?

And the original troll is only the beginning of the process. A rumour’s ‘success’ will be judged by how far and how wide it travels. That requires the willing partiipation of others to act as receptors to ensure viral spread. The origin of the rumour may be difficult to track.

Should there be a specific criminal offence to stop direct or indirect troll attacks on politicians? No, we should not go down that path. First, there is no compelling reason why we should protect politicians against malicious rumour but not the rest of the population and secondly, such a measure would effectively resurrect the offence of criminal libel which was abolished in 1993 (except for a provision directly relating to elections).

Our existing civil and criminal remedies would be sufficient if we were able to readily identify those who create and spread malicious rumours.

Anonymity has some useful attributes on social media: It facilitated communication in repressive regimes during the abortive Arab Spring, and it allows the vulnerable to be more open in discussing their problems. However, those attributes are outweighed by negative effects that expose unedifying aspects of human nature.

Social media providers – who can trace every byte that passes through their servers – should be required to demand identifying registration.

Then a court order could reach behind the rocks and extract the trolls by the scruff their hairy necks.

Dr Gavin Ellis is a media commentator on RNZ’s Nine To Noon programme.

7 thoughts on “Troll Hunting

  1. “Social media providers – who can trace every byte that passes through their servers – should be required to demand identifying registration. Then a court order could reach behind the rocks and extract the trolls by the scruff their hairy necks.”

    A few things.

    Firstly, as it is, social media providers may be able to trace every byte, but still not know the identities of those behind troll profiles. That’s because trolls -and their polar opposites such as freedom campaigners- can take extreme measures to hide their identity. A chain-of-events might look like this: someone dons a hat and a scarf and a big coat, finishing with a pair of sunglasses. They purchase Amazon or other online gift cards using cash, identities hidden from any surveillance cameras. Once at home, or a net cafe, they convert cash cards into bitcoins online and use bitcoins to pay for a VPN outside of the Five Eyes orbit (or 14 Eyes for that matter). Under cover of that VPN, they download TOR and maybe even TAILS for extra anonymity. Then, doubly covered, they set up emails and social media profiles via the dark web, including on mainstream social media sites as Facebook, which is also on the dark web.

    All, then, that the social media site gets is bits and bytes from an anonymous account, via an anonymous VPN, via an anonymous TOR network. This is no great secret, and I very much doubt I’m adding to the sum knowledge of global criminals or terrorists by writing as much.

    Yes, diligent sleuthing by police and other agencies can uncover profiles, especially if someone makes a mistake, or a VPN leaks. But trolls are rarely alone. Groups form naturally around shared online communities e.g. the loathsome male supremacist lot. Groups also develop unnaturally, such as in state-backed troll farms e.g. US, UK and Russia. Or, human traffickers, pedophiles, drug and gun runners, also seeking to cause confusion and dissent.

    Secondly, demanding identifying information may actually increase the number of trolls, because time and again, social media and all sorts of others all the way up to the CIA and NSA have been hacked at one time or another, will hundreds of millions of personal details leaked online, and used as “proof” of identity in one objectionable scheme or another.

    Thirdly, loss of the Privy Council and a less than stellar track record of our still new Supreme Court suggests a judiciary with significant flaws, including being open to political pressure, such as was seen with Kim Dot Com and during the Urewera raids.

    Given all that, I’m not sure I can support the contention that action against trolls ‘outweigh’ the public interest in having access to anonymous accounts. If what you suggest was implemented, we might never have learnt of the dirty politics exposed by Nicky Hager, or the Panama Papers leaked to the ICIJ?

    1. You make some good points Jason and I accept that there are ways trolls can hide. Nonetheless, it annoys me intensely that they are able to act with impunity when there are laws that constrain the rest of us. I agree that there is a balance to be struck and we do not wish to see freedom constrained in other directions in an attempt to control trolling. Investigative journalists use VPN and the dark web to keep their messages and material confidential and that MUST be able to continue. I do not pretend to by a techno-wizard but perhaps, rather than making all online accounts traceable, there is a way in which responsibility can be sheeted back to the social media providers to ensure that VPNs and other forms of identity obscuring cannot be used when posting to their sites. I continue to believe in the concept of rights and corresponding obligations. As far as free speech is concerned, it comes with responsibilities.

      1. Apologies Mr. Ellis, I completely missed your reply, at the time of reply.

        Like you, no techno wizard, at all.

        Just read quite a bit to confuse myself, from my more learned betters e.g. academics, hackers, journalists reporting on academics and hackers etc about what has worked against trolls in various jurisdictions, and not worked in others.

        “…it annoys me intensely ..”

        Agreed. To the point of fury, in my own case. Sheeting home, though? That just pushes the censorship barrier away from a desire towards verity, towards profit motives i.e. risk aversion?

        “As far as free speech is concerned, it comes with responsibilities.”

        Absolutely. But in an era where technology regards censorship as an information error, we may find that the responsibility rests ever more heavily upon those least able to bear that responsibility – already overloaded journalists, forced to winnow truths from fakery and myriad fable.

        Rather than force providers into truth telling roles, an economic orthodoxy may have to be sacrificed and public subsidy provided to fact-check, trolls or otherwise. Via charters of editorial independence, a la public media trusts as suggested at White Knights.

      2. I agree wholeheartedly with charters and, of course, trusteeship, Jason but I also think that social media providers should be classified as publishers, which would place upon them the same responsibilities as on other media. Why should they have a free ride? They collect the money but share no responsibility in the process.

      3. “Why should they have a free ride?”

        They shouldn’t !

        Social media networks especially Google and Facebook have fearsome influence, so my suggestion of public subsidy was geared towards political realities, rather than preferred outcomes?

        For example, France has shown that political will can be developed to implement content taxes, and that goes towards an already admirable environment of strong public support for news media. Is the French example perfect? Far from it, given structural integration between media and, for example, arms manufacturers.

        But I ..think we’ve got a much better shorter-term chance of pushing for some sort of content levy, one that publicly funds independent fact-checking. Rather than starting with trying to prod Zuckerberg et al into more ethical decision-making that benefits society as a whole, not just investors.

        Longer term, a levy might also help pay for some legislative lobbying, to reassert the rights of journalists and news media to a fairer share of the proceeds as you suggest?

  2. Yes! Someone do something about the viciously nasty trolls on un-moderated Social chat sites like! I have thought of ways to shame and make these trolls known, I know of a person/chatter on that site who could see your IP address and freeze you -put you on hold so no one would reply to your text chat…But the Governments of the world,and a certain President of the U S A at the time, who said that in New Zealand etc it was illegal to troll online, didn’t do anything to stop these nasty cockroaches! I will if I can but my hacking or ethical computer penetration skills are extremely lacking.

  3. sometimes trolls put their real pics and country location on their profiles,.IP’s can be seen, many are required to be seen,on many social chat sites. If you use an IP address hider,VPN or Proxy, you can be refused entry onto a social chat site.

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