Troll hunting: a journey to the dark side

You’d have to wonder why Canberra-based journalist Ginger Gorman would head back into the world of trolls. Her story is a well reported one, extending back to 2010 when she wrote a story about two Cairns men and their journey as same-sex parents. In 2012 she learned the men were under investigation as possible members of an international paedophile ring and in 2013 they were sentenced to a total of 70 years jail.

The hatred towards her began then. Her trolls insisted she should have known what was going on behind closed doors, they wanted to shame her.

And then it escalated. She received a tweet that said: “Your life is over.” Her husband Don found a photograph of their young family, a pregnant Gorman, their two-year-old daughter, on the now defunct website of the fascist social network Iron March.

Author Ginger Gorman's new book is 'Troll Hunting'. Photo: Dion Georgopoulos

Author Ginger Gorman's new book is 'Troll Hunting'. Photo: Dion Georgopoulos

“Had I, through the course of my work, put my family at risk?” she asked herself then.

And now she’s asking herself that again. The trolls scared her, rocked her to her core, but they fascinated her too.

Troll Hunting. By Ginger Gorman. Photo: Supplied

Troll Hunting. By Ginger Gorman. Photo: Supplied

“Once the fear died down I really wanted to know who the trolls were, and why you would behave like that, why would you threaten to rape someone, why would send someone you've never met, a death threat,” she says.

In 2015 she started chatting with the trolls, culminating in the investigation published by Fairfax in 2017. The book deal followed. But the book, Troll Hunting: Inside the world of online hate and its human fallout, published this week, almost never happened.

“I sat down with my husband and we were really ambivalent about the book because I knew by that time the trolls could be very dangerous and real-life harm was a significant risk,” she says.

“I was at my laptop about to write back and say thanks but no thanks, but what I did was go back to a folder I’d collected from all the people who contacted me after the story.

“All these cyber hate targets, victims, and I read through their stories, their desperation, their aloneness and the terrible things that had happened to them, people who had lost their jobs, had their careers destroyed, had all kinds of ongoing mental and physical symptoms because of it all.

“I thought I can't say no to them. Someone has to do something. In the end I felt there was no choice but to write the book.”

Troll Hunting is a harrowing book. Gorman forms relationships of sorts, with several trolls. Meepsheep, weev, XT, Australians Mark and Craig, men - and trolls are mostly men - who went on to reveal their world, why they do what they do. Their stories are never easy.

“I tried to call them to account for some of their really crazy ideas about women and their terrible treatment of other people online but at the same time I really did want to understand them.

“If you go back to why they're so angry and why they feel so marginalised and why they want to hit out, part of it is they feel unheard.

“I suppose I tried to go in with empathy and heart, while still holding a critical mind, get into the story in a different way.

“I wanted them to share their story with me because I really wanted to understand how you could possibly behave like that, it was about listening in a really honest way.

“It was still excruciating at times. I felt like I'd been skinned alive a lot of the time.”

Did she find the answers she was looking for?

“Yes and no,” she says.

“I gained some profound understandings but there were some things that made me feel so hopeless.

“These guys are so young. I'm 42, in my head I think about older generations of men, with their chauvinistic views, we defer that’s how they've been brought up. I thought these young guys would be on our side, but their anger is so extreme, their hatred of women in so extreme, that stuff sometimes left me wondering where we go from here.”

One day, while she was holidaying on the coast with her mother and her daughters, she got to thinking about her children, the questions they ask, the guidance she gives, the conversations they have.

“I had been talking to Meepsheep - he's the troll I have the closest and most long-standing relationship with, it's a very deep and respectful relationship even though it’s very volatile - he really made me understand trolls do not fall out of the sky as young white men full of hate.

“They are a product of our society and our communities.

“Trolls told me over and over again, from the age of about 10 or 11, they were left alone online. They were often from impoverished, neglectful families full of violence.

“When I say left alone, really unparented, the internet was their parent, there was no one there to guide them and they are sitting there imbibing streams of online hatred, misogyny, white supremacist ideas, anti disabled, anti-LGBTI, all this stuff from the age of 10.

“There's no adult guidance, no love around them, just violence and neglect. And then they get spat out the other end as trolls.”

The book does much more than tell the stories of the trolls. It tells the victims’ stories too, links cyberhate to real-life crimes, looks at the feeble job social media companies are doing to curb online hatred, discusses the multi-faceted problems faced by law enforcement, talks to academics and experts from all sides of the discussion.

But what strikes me is a real compassion Gorman developed for the trolls.

“I'm a perfect hate match for most of those guys,” says Gorman.

“I'm Jewish, I'm a feminist, I'm left-wing, I'm in a mixed-race marriage, I'm in the media, I tick every single box.

“But these men were often revealing incredibly powerful things, they were revealing their humanity, often they were helping me when they didn't really have to, that was remarkable to me.”

One man she spoke to was an incel; they spoke for a year, she says.

“And one day he actually thanked me for changing his views, he didn't hate women any longer," she said.

“It was a turning point for me. I thought this kind of hatred cannot survive the contact with women, it cannot survive kindness and empathy and somebody really listening.

“I consider myself a feminist and I'm expecting to get some criticism from the feminist community because I've said some of the behaviours of our cohort are almost a justification for the trolls' behaviours.

“It just makes me wonder if we bring our greatest humanity, our greatest empathy, to this problem, without condoning what they're doing, how different would this situation look.”

Troll Hunting: Inside the world of online hate and its human fallout, by ​Ginger Gorman. ​Hardie Grant, $29.99.