|Why Leo Traynor's Troll Story Is Almost Certainly A Lie|
|Written by Staff|
|Thursday, 27 September 2012 07:46|
Internet trolls are the latest obsession of the British media - and a Dublin-based blogger has provided them with the ultimate account of vile online abuse.
In an article originally published on his personal website and which has gone viral after being republished by The Guardian, The Daily Mail, The Irish Independent and others, Leo Traynor describes in detail a shocking hate campaign waged against him and his family over the course of three years.
Mr Traynor is an enthusiastic user of Twitter, describing himself as a "Writer, crossword compiler, political consultant & facilitator. Ex media monkey & press officer. Spiritual tourist. Unapologetic curmudgeon", and his story is disturbing in the extreme. I encourage you to read his original article - but here's the abridged version.
In July 2009 Traynor began receiving abusive direct messages to his Twitter inbox. The first called him a "Dirty fucking Jewish scumbag", and a string of abusive messages from new accounts followed - two or three times a week, and sometimes even two or three times a day. His Facebook account was hacked, his blog was spammed, and he received a torrent of highly disturbing emails. They contained images of corpses, concentration camps and dismembered bodies. Traynor's wife joined Twitter, unaware of the abuse suffered by her husband. She inadvertently revealed that she was married to Leo. She too received a torrent of abusive direct messages.
Then things turned particularly nasty and threatening. Traynor received a package at his home address. It was a Tupperware lunchbox, filled with ashes - and a note which read "Say hello to your relatives from Auschwitz". He reported the awful delivery to the authorities. Two days later, however, things got even worse. He opened the front door to find a bunch of dead flowers - with his wife's Twitter username attached.
Later that same day Traynor received a horrendous death threat via a direct message on Twitter: "You'll get home some day & ur bitches throat will be cut & ur son will be gone." Traynor, devastated by the abuse and terrified for his family's safety, reported the threats to the authorities. They were sympathetic, but said there was nothing they could do. Another threatening tweet arrived, reading "I hope you die screaming but not until you see me piss on ur wife."
Traynor decided to take matters into his own hands. With the help of an "IT genius" friend, he baited the troll until his IP address could be identified. The IP address led, shockingly, to the house of a friend - and the troll was revealed as the friend's teenage son. The story ends with Leo and his friend agreeing to meet, the son in tow but unaware he's about to be confronted over his vile abuse; in a dramatic final scene Leo presents the damning evidence, delivers a stern warning to the youth but generously pledges that he will not press charges, and then shakes the hand of the stalker who's been abusing and threatening him and his family for three years.
It's a highly disturbing but ultimately redemptive tale, and if true Mr Traynor fully deserves the online outpouring of sympathy and respect he's received.
There are, however, several highly questionable aspects to the story.
The Twitter abuse
You can only send direct messages on Twitter to people who are following your account, as explained in the Twitter Help Center:
To receive direct messages, Traynor would therefore have had to be following his abuser's accounts; as he makes a point of mentioning he was doing. It's definitely not unusual for people, perhaps out of politeness, to follow accounts that follow their own. The big question though is why, after the initial abuse, did Traynor continue to follow accounts newly following his own - thus allowing direct messages to be sent to his account?
Continuing to follow unidentified new followers after only the first couple had sent hateful messages is perhaps understandable. But why continue to follow accounts - up to two or three times a week and even two or three times a day - when doing so would simply enable the sending of more vile messages? And why did he continue doing so not only on his main Twitter account, but also via a second that was being similarly targeted - '@LeosClue'?
Why, when she joined Twitter, did Leo not take the obvious precaution of warning his wife to keep their connection secret? It was especially unfortunate that Mrs Traynor revealed their relationship on Twitter in the most overt way possible, by declaring herself "The long suffering wife of @LeoTraynor" in a status update.
Why did Mrs Traynor follow accounts that followed her own - unusual behaviour for someone new to Twitter - and continue following them, even after receiving seriously abusive direct messages in which she was called "a whore"? That Mrs Traynor continued to reciprocally follow new accounts is apparent because after blocking an initially abusive account, she received a "torrent of abuse via DM" - which could only have come from a second account that she'd followed.
Traynor claims that he eventually made his Twitter account private, before finally closing it. His account has been reopened - hence the announcement in the intro to his article - and you can see it here. He must have reopened his Twitter account extraordinarily soon after closing it because of the abusive messages - Twitter's Help Center explains how "Accounts are permanently deleted 30 days from the date they were deactivated. After 30 days, deactivated accounts cannot be reactivated."
It's odd that after what Traynor had been through, he decided to return to Twitter so quickly - within 30 days. He must have decided to reopen his account and return to Twitter in much less than 30 days, actually - 30 days minus however long it took to identify and arrange the meeting with the teenager, and write his article (he'd closed his account with the arrival of the "die screaming" message, remember - prior to his friend positively IDing the troll, and obviously prior to the showdown with him).
Traynor also appears to have radically changed the way in which he uses Twitter, since his return. He currently follows less than 200 people, whilst he has well over 3000 followers. If he was still following every account that followed his own - as he did during the period of abuse, thus enabling the sending of innumerable hateful direct messages from multiple troll accounts - he would now be following a similar number of people to those following him. Over 3000.
It seems odd that Traynor would change his Twitter behaviour in such a fundamental way after the cause of his online persecution, the teenage stalker, had been exposed and prevented from carrying out any further abuse.
The reports to the authorities
Traynor claims that he made two reports to "the authorities", who he does not name, but who were presumably the police. He made the first report after the disturbing receipt of a box of ashes and an abusive note.
This shocking delivery revealed that the troll knew the Traynors' home address.
He made the second report after finding a bunch of dead flowers outside his door, and receiving an explicit death threat via a Twitter direct message - from an account he must have been following, remember - that very same day.
In response to the second report, the police were apparently "polite and sympathetic", but "there didn't seem much that could be done".
If this is true, then serious questions need to be asked about the conduct of the police in Ireland. What was happening to Traynor went far, far beyond trolling. The abuse had not only taken place over an extended period of time, causing significant distress, but it had also escalated into direct and credible death threats, as well as threats to kidnap a child.
The abuser knew where Traynor lived, placing him and his family in real physical danger. It even appears that the stalker personally visited the Traynors' house.
Whilst Traynor says he found the Tupperware box in the post, meaning it could have been mailed to his home, we have to assume that the stalker delivered the flowers himself. Being asked to deliver a bunch of dead flowers would probably raise eyebrows at the post office or courier service. Traynor was in his house when the flowers were left outside it, because he describes opening his front door to discover them. This suggests they were not delivered by courier or some other professional service, because if they had been, and Traynor had simply missed their knock, wouldn't they have left the flowers with a neighbour, rather than lying outside his door?
A stalker prepared to personally deliver such distressing material to their victim's home address is obviously disturbed, and a clear and present danger to those they are threatening.
The abuse was also specifically racist in nature. The stalker attacked Mr Traynor for being Jewish.
Are we really to believe that the police politely dismissed the pleas of a clearly distressed man, who'd suffered racial hatred and explicit death threats, issued by an apparently sociopathic stalker who'd visited his home and threatened his wife and child?
The authorities supposedly contacted by Mr Traynor clearly need to explain why his reports were not investigated, and clarification is needed as to whether things will be handled differently in future, should they receive similar complaints. If Traynor's account is true, then anyone living in Ireland should be very concerned about how their complaints might be treated by the police, should they be unfortunate enough to be harrassed by a stalker.
The IP address
Mr Traynor explains that he decided to take matters into his own hands, and that:
Traynor baited the troll to post more abuse, allowing his friend to identify the abuser's IP address.
To those with limited knowledge of IT, the idea of establishing someone's home address from their IP address sounds plausible.
It is, however, impossible. Legally impossible anyway, without the internet service provider's assistance - for which you would need a court order. A court order would compel the ISP to release personal details of the customer suspected of a crime.
An address could in theory be leaked by a corrupt employee at the ISP, and the information could feasibly be stolen by a hacker - but such methods would certainly not be legal.
At best, an IP address will give you a rough idea of the area in which the internet user that you're trying to track is located. You can generally ascertain their town or city, though even this is not guaranteed to be accurate.
Many people have pointed out that it is impossible to determine someone's home address from their IP address, without a court order and the assistance of the ISP. In response Traynor has added a footnote to his original article, as well as making a public tweet, directing people to this blog post which is entitled 'Tracking a troll'. Traynor states that the method used by his friend to track the abusive troll was "almost identical" to the one described in this post.
Unfortunately for Mr Traynor the blog post does not, as he seems to think, prove that you can establish someone's home address from their IP address. The article only serves to confirm what has already been described - that the best you can hope for if you have someone's IP address, is the internet user's rough location.
Please follow the advice given in 'Tracking a troll', and try the method for yourself. I did - and apparently I live in a field next to a motorway, miles away from my house. How did Traynor's friend manage to pinpoint the culprit's house? We do not know exactly, and he appears very reluctant to enlighten us. We shouldn't expect an explanation from his IT genius pal any time soon either, because he apparently does not want to be identified.
(After publication of this article, the author of 'Tracking a troll' added this note to his blog:
The late addition of this note to 'Tracking a troll' only confirms what has just been explained in this article - that an IP address does not enable you to identify an individual's home address. An author whose article was specifically referenced by Traynor as 'proof' of his home address claim, has had to admit that the method given in his article does not actually allow you to identify someone's home address. Whilst the author continues to suggest that it is indeed possible to find a home address from an IP address, he declines to tell us exactly how - because, even though the method is legal, it apparently has to remain secret!)
Perhaps Traynor only tracked the IP address to the troll's town or village, and has embellished the story for dramatic effect. Why then does he continue to insist that he used the IP address to determine a home address?
If tracing a home address from an IP address is legally impossible, how could he possibly be so sure that the abuse came from a computer at his friend's house? The stalker could have been absolutely anyone in the town or village. And even in the impossible event that he'd established a home address from an IP address, how could Traynor be so sure that the abuse was perpetrated by his friend's teenage son? The friend himself could have been responsible, or a friend of his friend, or a friend of his friend's son, etc. If the family were using an unsecured wireless connection, a complete stranger could have sent abuse via their address.
Wouldn't a tech-savvy teenager capable of hacking into a Facebook account, and making online death threats, be very careful to hide their tracks by disguising their location through the use of a proxy server anyway?
The article's dramatic denouement is also very odd. It seems improbable that the teenager's father, when approached by Traynor with serious allegations about his son, would not first check the story out before agreeing to a covert meeting and the unceremonious presentation of highly disturbing and previously unseen material. Surely he would have first questioned his son, or visited Traynor and reviewed the evidence, before agreeing to the unverified and incredibly serious allegations being summarily presented in front of his family?
Why was the father "not surprised" to hear about his son's behaviour - and why during the phone call is it implied that the son's constant internet usage is the reason the father accepts his son could be guilty? Many teenagers spend inordinate amounts of time on the internet, but it's a poor reason to suspect someone of being a sociopathic stalker. If there were other more compelling reasons for the father believing Traynor's allegations, why did he not express them during the call? We can assume he didn't mention any because if he had, Traynor would likely have included the reasons in his written account of the conversation, instead of the detail about the son's excessive internet usage.
Apart from raising questions about the truth and accuracy of Leo Traynor's story, wider issues are highlighted by the reception of his article. Having reviewed The Guardian's comment thread, it seems that at least 90% of respondents simply accept Traynor's extraordinary story at face value. The few who have questioned suspicious elements have been criticised for doing so - as I'll no doubt be, for writing this article. It's worrying that highly emotive personal narratives, dealing with controversial issues such as anti-Semitism, seem by many to be unquestionable, and somehow above criticism or scepticism.
The mainstream media have also been exposed. The Guardian and other newspapers have apparently republished Traynor's article without seeing any kind of evidence corroborating his claims. This is perhaps unsurprising. It is, after all, a powerful story that was guaranteed to attract internet traffic, especially as outrageous tales of horrible internet trolls are the media's and reading public's latest obsession.
Disgracefully, moderators at The Guardian website even deleted comments that questioned Traynor's article. They were, apparently, against "community standards". I read the comments before their deletion, and they were entirely non-abusive in nature. So much for the liberal Guardian's dedication to free speech and journalistic inquiry.
Please feel free to leave a response to this article, in the comment section below.
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