The story, at first, was all too common on Twitter: A user received a threat from an anonymous troll, and Twitter didn't take it seriously.
In this case, the user was political consultant Peter Daou. Last week, he tweeted a video critical of Donald Trump, and an anonymous troll replied: “drown in your own cum while I slide my blade in your neck.” Daou took the threat seriously, and reported it to Twitter. Shortly after, a Twitter representative told him that the tweet is “not violating the Twitter Rules.” So Daou, like many who have faced Twitter’s wall of indifference, tweeted about the situation.
I saw Daou’s tweet, and retweeted it with a comment of my own: "The surprise is how unsurprising this is."
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And then a genuinely surprising thing happened: The troll reached out to me. He was 13 years old, he said, and scared at all the attention he suddenly drew. “I’m afraid that I might put my dad at risk,” he wrote me. And he was hoping I’d pass his apology along to Daou.
Twitter, of course, has a long-festering troll problem. Hoards of anonymous people stalk the platform, seemingly competing to see who can tweet the most horrific things -- racist and anti-Semitic images, rape and death threats, the truly worst of the worst -- to celebrities, journalists, businesses and average users. Why Twitter tolerates this is one of Silicon Valley’s greatest riddles. But every so often, we get small answers to another pressing question: Just who are these people?
Writer Lindy West managed to strike up an exchange with what she called her “cruelest troll,” and he told her this: “I think my anger towards you stems from your happiness with your own being. It offended me because it served to highlight my unhappiness with my own self.” The Ringer dove into troll culture, and found that there are more troll accounts than there are actual human trolls: “They create several, anonymous, low-follower accounts in order to maximize their reach and volume while, simultaneously, obscuring their numbers.”
Now I’ve been given another small window into this problem: Some trolls may not have any emotional connection to the people or subjects they’re trolling. They may just be 13-year-old boys with nothing better to do.
The troll sent me his apology. It read, in part: “I’m 13 years old and I didn’t mean what I said. I’m in tears right now of all the amount of things that are being said right now. … I just said that to get attention and it wasn’t even funny at all and it was just plain out rude and irresponiable.” (Throughout this story, I'm going to quote him without fixing his spelling or grammar.)
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I did pass it along to Daou, who has been dealing with online harassment for, he estimates, about 15 years. This election cycle has created a particularly brutal strain of troll, he says. And although he routinely reports threats to Twitter -- he estimates he’s done it dozens, if not hundreds of times -- the social media company has suspended a troll's account exactly once, he says. That’s one of the reasons he recently announced that he plans to pursue legal action against some of his trolls.
Daou wasn’t particularly curious about the troll who’d reached out to me, but I was. What was going on in this kid's head? Was there anything we could learn from him? So I asked him if he’d trade a few emails with me, and he agreed. I’m going to call the kid Sam, which is not his real name. He says he lives in California. I asked Sam for proof that he was the one who’d threatened Daou, and he sent me a screenshot of the offending account’s settings page, as well as a video of a screen in which he logs into the account.
I didn’t ask for verification that he’s 13, because, if he is, I’m uncomfortable asking someone that age for personal information. But I also think -- and maybe I’m naive here -- that no previously anonymous user would bother apologizing and risking some level of exposure unless, well, they were a very scared 13-year-old boy. It's possible that this is a strange, long con, but I just can’t imagine another motive.
“When I sent that tweet I didn't think it wouldn't be a big deal,” he wrote me. “But when I sent it to him he took it seriously. BUt of course it took it seriously.. But here's the thing. I didn't think. I thought he would just ignore it and move on. But I guess the things that he went through he would've tooken this very seriously. But really I learned that my words matter and I should know who I'm talk talking to and be careful what I should say.”
Sam told me that he’s “kind of politically interested,” but not a Trump supporter. When he tweeted at Daou, he’d spent zero time thinking about who Daou was or what he was talking about -- Sam simply saw the tweet and reacted, mostly for fun. “Sometimes I’ll say random things and people will ignore it,” Sam wrote. I pressed him on it: Why reach out this way? There are many other ways to get attention on Twitter that don’t involve vile language. “I was really insucure and I wanted to show that I was edgy and cool in a stupid way,” he replied.
When he first sent the tweet, he thought little of it. But when Daou shared it with his 28,100 followers, the backlash began. “Then people were replying to me saying that I was a disgusting person and that I don’t deserve to be on twitter,” Sam wrote. “And Like I was calling my friends and freaking out.. I thought they were going to do some serious government stuff to me. Like I was thinking the FBI knock on the door.”
Eventually, he revealed the problem to his dad, who gave him “a serious lecture to think about what I say.” Now he’s grounded: He’s lost access to his phone, and he can’t be on Skype for a while.
How many trolls are like Sam -- just kids messing around, using language they may have picked up from other trolls and repeating it for attention? There’s no way to know, of course. Twitter seems entirely unwilling to shine light into the darkness. But after this, at least, there’s one less account sending nasty things.
Sam says he plans to take a long break from Twitter. And Twitter, it appears, reversed its initial decision: Sam's account is now suspended.