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To many people, trolls are the scourge of the Internet. Hiding behind a cloud of anonymity, they post horrendous comments that hurt, offend, and even defame people. But in some cases, the courts, the police, and journalists hunt these trolls, ultimately exposing their real identities.
10 Robert Ambridge
An English Twitterer who used the handle “Old Holborn” quickly became known for his offensive “jokes.” For example, he tweeted a picture of two obese women wearing Liverpool soccer jerseys with a message that said: “this is what crushed the 96,” a reference to the 1989 Hillsborough disaster in which 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death at a match. He also targeted the murder of two-year-old James Bulger with his inappropriate remarks.
Then in April 2014, Old Holborn strongly hinted that Liverpool councillor Jake Morrison was a pedophile. The councillor contacted police. In a statement at the time to The Liverpool Echo, an Essex police spokesman said: “We are investigating the circumstances surrounding an allegation made by a man from Liverpool who had been offended by a series of homophobic tweets, purportedly made by a man last known to be living in Braintree.”
Although the police called Old Holborn an “offensive oik” when they interviewed him, they didn’t file charges against him.
In early 2014, The Liverpool Echo identified Old Holborn as 53-year-old Robert Ambridge, a recruitment consultant and father of six. Ambridge considers himself to be a hero of free speech. If people don’t like his remarks, then he says to ignore him. Ambridge also says that he isn’t evil, just the victim of people’s medieval mindsets. His critics and targets counter that making baseless accusations and defaming a person’s character isn’t free speech, and Ambridge shouldn’t be shielded by that type of claim.
9 Lee Rimell
In the fall of 2011, Frankie Cocozza, one of the contestants on the reality television show The X-Factor, became the target of online trolls on Facebook. Forty-five-year-old Nicola Brookes, whose daughter was a big fan of Cocozza, posted a message of support on Facebook and instantly became the victim of online trolls herself, with harassment that continued for over two years.
At first, the trolls posted Brookes’s home address as well as pictures of her daughter on the Facebook page for Cocozza. Using Brookes’s name and picture, someone also created a fake account on Facebook to send suggestive messages to lure underage children for sex. On another page, Brookes was labeled a drug dealer and a pedophile.
Brookes went to the police, but they didn’t do anything. So she went to court, which subpoenaed Facebook for user information on the trolls. One of the trolls was exposed as Lee Rimell, a police officer with the West Midlands Police. After an investigation, no charges were filed against the officer because the court said that Brookes had engaged with the trolls against the repeated advice of the Sussex Police. Brookes denied that the police ever gave her that advice. In the end, Rimell kept his job, and a note was placed in his file.
8 Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Benjanun Sriduangkaew is an up-and-coming science fiction writer who claims that she is Thai and ethnically Chinese. Since 2012, Sriduangkaew has published a number of short stories in some highly respected science fiction magazines.
In 2014, it came to light that Benjanun Sriduangkaew was also a notorious Internet troll. Sriduangkaew had two outlets for her inner troll to emerge. The first was a LiveJournal account, where she wrote under the name Winterfox for 10 years. The second was a book review blog called This Requires Only That You Hate, which ran from 2011–2013.
The blogger at Requires Hate often criticized authors as hypocritical about feminism and other social matters. Many targeted authors were people of color. Posing as Winterfox, Sriduangkaew also acted the same way in LiveJournal forums. For example, there was a forum called “50books_poc” that was created to promote writers of color. Winterfox launched especially vicious attacks against writers Cindy Pon and N.K. Jemisin. Whenever someone posted a positive review of one of their books, Winterfox wrote nasty responses. She allegedly told one commenter that she should be “raped by dogs.”
Tweeting as Requires Hate in May 2012, Sriduangkaew got into such a nasty argument with a British author that it may have contributed to the author’s attempted suicide. Another woman claimed that Requires Hate stalked and harassed her for six months over the woman’s posts about her recovery from a sexual assault. After being outed, Sriduangkaew shut down Requires Hate but continued to publish short fiction. No one is sure if Sriduangkaew is actually the real identity of the writer or simply another persona.
7 Darren Burton
A notorious troll from the United Kingdom was a Facebook user who went by the handle “Nimrod Severn.” Nimrod’s favorite pastime was finding tribute pages for people who had died. On the page, he often posted the oh-so-clever “rot in piss” as a play on “rest in peace.” Then, if Nimrod thought the situation called for it, he used racist language. For example, after a black man died, Nimrod wrote “rot in piss you filthy n—r” on the tribute page.
As shown in the video above, a journalist from the BBC news show Panorama tracked down Nimrod Severn, identifying him as railroad worker Darren Burton from Cardiff. At first, Burton tried to avoid being questioned. Finally, he admitted that he considers the effect he has on people, although he doesn’t seem to care if he hurts them. He justified his actions by saying that Facebook is an open forum and he’s entitled to his opinion.
6 Charles Fitch
EBay’s most notorious troll is Charles Fitch, who had a YouTube channel called “Ebayisajoke.” According to YouTube, his “account has been terminated due to repeated or severe violations of our Community Guidelines and/or claims of copyright infringement.”
In his videos, Fitch wore a Guy Fawkes mask and spouted conspiracy theories about eBay, mostly claiming that the site was a scam. Fitch became particularly nasty when he trolled specific eBay sellers, especially those running small businesses. When they had auctions, he put in the highest bid, failed to pay, and gave the business a bad review. He also altered pictures of eBay sellers to show them doing awful things then posted the images online.
In 2013, Fitch was tracked down by private investigators hired by Fox 2 News investigative reporter Rob Wolchek. The private investigators identified Fitch through Amazon, where he was selling MP3s of prank calls he made to eBay. The copyrights belonged to Fitch, a resident of Canton, Michigan.
When Fitch was confronted about being a troll, he said that he wasn’t doing anything illegal, just exposing scammers. In fact, Fitch said that he was the victim. After the expose aired, Fitch filed a petition to get a personal protection order (PPO) against eBay seller Joe DeMarco (aka “Hubcap Joe”). In court, Fitch claimed that he was scared and wanted to stop Hubcap Joe from “further writing stuff about me on his Twitter page . . . [and] doing videos.”
Hubcap Joe’s attorney denied that his client had harassed Fitch, pointing out that Hubcap Joe lived in New Jersey and had never been to Michigan. The court found that Fitch was not entitled to receive a PPO.
5 Sean Duffy
Another troll targeted the Facebook tribute pages of dead teenagers. Twenty-five-year-old Sean Duffy—an unemployed man with Asperger’s syndrome who told the court that he spent his days drinking alcohol by himself at his Reading home—began launching his anonymous attacks shortly after 16-year-old Hayley Bates of Staffordshire died in an automobile accident in 2010. On her Facebook tribute page, Duffy crossed out the eyes on Hayley’s pictures and drew stitches on her mouth. Under a picture of flowers at the accident site, he wrote, “Used car for sale, one useless owner.”
After harassing Hayley’s family, he turned his attention to the tribute page for 14-year-old Lauren Drew. She had died from an epilepsy attack at her home in Gloucester in January 2011. Again, Duffy posted pictures to mock the dead teenager. For Mother’s Day, he posted a YouTube video showing a picture of a coffin with the words “Happy Mother’s Day.”
His next target was 15-year-old Natasha MacBryde’s friends and family. Victimized by bullies, Natasha had committed suicide by throwing herself under a train near her Worcestershire home. This time, Duffy created a fake Facebook tribute page labeled “Tasha the Tank Engine.” He also made a video showing Natasha’s face superimposed on the fictional children’s book character Thomas the Tank Engine.
Another group he started was called “Jordan Cooper in pieces.” Fourteen-year-old Jordan Cooper from Washington, Newcastle upon Tyne, had been stabbed to death. Duffy used a bloody knife as Jordan’s profile picture and created a video showing slashes on Jordan’s face.
In September 2011, Duffy received a sentence of 18 weeks in jail for making malicious posts online about Natasha MacBryde. He was also prohibited from using social networking sites for five years. Duffy was charged in March 2012 over a separate case of harassment and given 300 hours of community service.
4 Michael Brutsch
Reddit markets itself as “the front page of the internet.” It is an incredible tool and a favorite website of many people. For those who are unfamiliar with reddit, it is an Internet forum with subcategories known as subreddits. There are over 440,000 of these subreddits covering almost every topic imaginable.
Many subreddits were moderated by a user named “violentacrez” (pronounced “violent acres”). Some of the subforums that he moderated or created included “Pics of Dead Kids,” “Jewmerica,” “Chokeabitch,” “Rapebait,” and his most infamous, “Jailbait,” which featured pictures of underage girls, often in bathing suits. As seen in the video above, Jailbait led Anderson Cooper to call out reddit in 2011, leading reddit to close Jailbait despite its immense popularity.
In 2012, a writer at Gawker tracked down violentacrez, who was identified as Michael Brutsch, a computer programmer at a financial services company in Texas. In the interview with Gawker, Brutsch said that he wasn’t doing anything illegal and was not a pedophile. Shortly after being exposed, Brutsch was fired from his job, lost the health insurance that also covered his disabled wife, and was about to lose his home.
As shown in the video above, Brutsch said in an interview with CNN, “I am to some degree apologizing for what I did. Again, I was playing to an audience of college kids. And you know, when two years ago, when all of this was at its height, the audience was appreciative and supportive of the sort of gallows humor that I put out there.”
Brutsch once received an award from reddit “for making significant contributions to the site.” In 2012, Reddit e-mailed CNN to express regret for giving Brutsch that award.
3 Michael Josef Basl
In March 2012, William Moreno was a student at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) when he received an e-mail that read: “Hello Mr. Misery, this is eesh. You do understand your drama on [Internet forum] Fairfax Underground will get you expelled from VCU, right? Talk to you later William Moreno.”
Although Moreno used the name “Mr. Misery” on Fairfax Underground, which has over 1.5 million users, he had never revealed his real name, his e-mail address, or his status as a VCU student. Moreno, who suffers from depression and a mild form of autism, admits that he made inappropriate comments about 9/11 and child molestation on the forum. In 2012, he was kicked off of Fairfax Underground for flooding the site with messages, but he simply used other names to make his posts. Shortly after he was banned, Moreno received the first message from eesh about VCU.
Then disturbing things started to happen to Moreno offline. For example, when his family was away, someone broke into their house in Sterling, Virginia, and flooded their basement. At 2:30 one morning in May 2014, Moreno’s parents received a call from the police, telling them to come out of their house quickly without their son. The couple did so safely, but officers with rifles tackled William Moreno when he emerged from the house.
He was a victim of “swatting,” in which someone makes a false notification to police to cause a SWAT team to respond. In this case, someone posed as Moreno while posting a message on Fairfax Underground that said: “I JUST SHOT MY PARENTS NOW I WILL KILL MY SISTER.”
By mid-2014, the constant attacks became too much for Moreno, who slashed his wrists with a kitchen knife before dinner one evening. Fortunately, he survived. But the trolling continued. Messages on the forum linked Moreno to crimes like planning to use pipe bombs, molesting his sister, and raping a VCU student. Some Google search results on his name suggested that he was a pedophile.
In January 2015, the Morenos filed a lawsuit against eesh and another unknown user. Eesh was identified as 34-year-old Michael Josef Basl, a military veteran who denied most of the lawsuit’s accusations. However, he admitted to writing the initial e-mail and putting a note on the windshield of Moreno’s car to stop him from visiting Fairfax Underground.
2 Dennis Markuze
In the mid-1990s, a number of avowed atheists and scientists in North America began receiving e-mails from David Mabus. The messages were often profane and sometimes threatened mutilations and beheadings. Although the e-mails started off as partially coherent, they ended as strange and disturbing rants, leading some people to question the author’s mental state.
In January 2011, Mabus joined Twitter, where he continued to harass people. One of his targets was Tim Farley, who runs a website called “What’s the Harm?” After receiving direct threats through Twitter, Farley tried to block Mabus. But he simply continued his harassment with hundreds of new accounts used to threaten anyone who doubted the existence of God.
People knew Mabus was based in Montreal due to some technical mistakes he made. Eventually, an online petition was started to demand that the Montreal police do something about him. After an investigation, the police arrested Dennis Markuze—a man with a history of mental health problems—in August 2011. A year later, he pleaded guilty to eight counts of making threats and received a suspended sentence.
Before the end of that sentence, Farley accused Markuze of more harassment on social media sites. When Markuze was arrested again, he reportedly threatened the arresting officer: “You bitch. The same thing will happen to you like what happened to the [World Trade Center] twin towers in 9/11.”
In May 2014, Markuze pleaded guilty to threatening the arresting officer, harassing Farley, and violating his probation. Months later, Markuze e-mailed the prosecutor to say that he didn’t commit any crimes and was entitled to free speech. That landed Markuze back in court. Again, he was given a suspended sentence because his psychiatrist is fairly certain that Markuze isn’t a threat to society.
1 Brenda Leyland
On May 3, 2007, Kate and Gerry McCann experienced every parent’s worst nightmare. While vacationing in Portugal, their three-year-old daughter Madeleine went missing. Initially, the Portuguese police suspected that the McCanns were involved with their daughter’s disappearance. However, in early 2015, Goncalo Amaral, the former police chief who led the investigation, was ordered to pay libel damages of 500,000 euros to the McCanns for claiming in his book that they faked Madeleine’s kidnapping and hid her body.
Other people agreed with the initial suspicions of the Portuguese police, including 63-year-old Brenda Leyland, who lived in Burton Overy, Leicestershire, England, and tweeted under the name @Sweepyface. In December 2010, she tweeted about the McCanns for the first time. Her Twitter account was rarely used in 2011 and 2012, but she returned to tweet or retweet over 2,200 posts from November 2013 to September 2014. About 19 percent of them concerned the McCanns. Some of the tweets tried to shame the couple into admitting Leyland’s perception of the truth about their daughter’s disappearance.
As shown in the video above, Leyland was approached in late 2014 by a reporter from Sky News and asked why she was using Twitter to attack the McCanns. Leyland responded that she was entitled to do so. She seemed composed when told that a file of her tweets had been given to Scotland Yard. A few days after being exposed on Sky News, Leyland took her own life by overdosing on helium.