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This article was published on January 14, 2010

When an Anonymous Troll is Revealed.

When an Anonymous Troll is Revealed.
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Former CEO of The Next Web. A fan of startups, entrepreneurship, getting things done faster, penning the occasional blog post, taking photos Former CEO of The Next Web. A fan of startups, entrepreneurship, getting things done faster, penning the occasional blog post, taking photos, designing, listening to good music and making lurrrve.

forum_trollsIt all started with a supportive post titled “The Tycoon’s of Tomorrow“, one of a series of posts discussing young UK entrepreneurs, their stories and their ambitions for greatness.

This specific post was about TechFluff TV’s Hermione Way who also happens to run a rather successful video production company called Newspepper. All good and well, that is, until the comments.

Now if you’ve spent more than ten minutes of any blog, YouTube video or in fact any site that permits anonymous commenting, you will have noticed some of the filth that many commenters come out with. Often it’s completely incomprehensible, other times it’s pure vile and frankly a test of human will not reply to. In this case however, one persons comment stood out, not because he left his name – no he chickened out of that one – but because the attack on Way (and others) was personal, very personal.

The commenter seemed to know the ins and outs of the tech scene in London, had met Hermione in person, knew a number of other UK techies well enough to name and degrade everything they were doing or had done in their careers.

Rather than respond, Hermione begun what turned out to be a relatively short mission to reveal who he was. Thanks to a security glitch at Disqus, which we’re not going to reveal here, it’s actually pretty easy to discover the real email address of an anonymous commenter. Via the email discovered, it lead to what appeared to be his name, “Howard Hughes”, at least that was the Facebook profile that appeared after a Facebook search using that email address. However the profile was clearly a fake, it had only 28 friends, the majority of whom were attractive females and photos that made him look like your average “good guy”.

It was going to take a little more digging to find out who this “Hughes” really was. It didn’t take long. A search of the email address he’d used revealed a few forums he had commented on, again using Hughes but signing off with his company name. He also mentioned that people should try out a particular web design company and to tell the company that “Declan” sent you. Once they had the company name however and confidence that Declan was his real first name, it was plain sailing. A £1 payment to companies house (UK company registrations) and voila, a detailed document with his name, address, date of birth and more.

Of course, once that was revealed, it was game over and this Declan has already lost friends who were unaware of his “true feelings”. Frankly some of the content found was deplorable, disgusting in fact and enough to ruin any persons life if made public, so we’re not going to do so.

There are two key points to take from all of this however are….

One, privacy is truly to dead. It might be hard to accept, but if you do anything online, irrespective of what you decide to call yourself, you can be revealed. Be it a forum, a company database, a social network or a random comment on a blog…something will give you a way. Which brings me on to the second point…

Trolls, either stand by what you say, or don’t say anything at all. It’s pathetic. Whatever itch you need to scratch, urge to purge, lock it up. No matter how random a name you’ve selected, no matter what bit of software you think you think has masked your IP address, you can still be caught.

And before someone mentions the use of “free speech” as an argument for this, slandering people anonymously, particularly where that slander has direct consequences is crossing the line. People seem to be happy to disconnect the online world and offline world went it comes to written, and in this case personal, attacks. This has to change.

The quicker everyone realizes that there are real people at the other end of online attacks, the better the overall online community will be.

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