For whom the bell trolls

We’re almost twenty years on from the publication of one of the internet’s defining artworks. Turning from the screen of his desktop PC, one dog faces another, with the immortal line: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.

The Internet may have had a capital letter back then, but that underlying message hasn’t changed.

Remember Leo Traynor? The Irish blogger, political consultant and writer who was all over your screens in late September with his amazing story of tribulation and forgiveness.

You missed it? In brief: Leo started getting a whole bunch of online abuse – progressing to real-world threats, parcels of hate delivered to his house, and lots of really nasty stuff. The police weren’t interested, so he enlisted a friendly IT whizz to use vague (but legal) means to track down his assailant. Turned out to be the teenage son of someone he knew, so Leo sets up this Agatha Christie-style face-to-face dénouement, only to deliver a lovingly-crafted message of absolution to the weeping youth.

For this act, he was almost canonised by Giles Fraser, and the Guardian was not the only publication to amplify his message with scarcely a glance towards the issues of its authenticity.

Thing is, there were a few odd features to that original story. Three big ones, to my mind.

Firstly, Leo had a penchant for enabling his persecutor’s chosen channel of abuse – the Twitter Direct Message – by continuing to follow new, anonymous accounts that approached him. Wouldn’t you know it, he’d do that, they’d unleash a tide of venom, he’d block, and then he’d do it all over again. “Sometimes two or three times a day,” Leo writes.

Secondly, the inaction of the police in response to reports of serious anti-Semitism and death threats. Given that these were backed up with physical things he’d been sent in the post, this gets creakier as a storyline the more you think about it.

And thirdly, the unmasking – from online traces to the perpetrator’s precise house – was very strange. Yes, one can construct tenuously coherent theories involving the cross-referencing of IP addresses with social network information, Wi-Fi logs and other geolocation, perhaps aided by the geography of sparsely-populated areas. But it read strangely; as if the details had been massaged or redacted in some way.

None of these three things are by themselves impossible, or unexplainable. There’s a line of defence for Leo that says any subsequent weird behaviour on his part can be put down to a wish to protect the anonymity of the child of a friend.

But the conjunction of all these points in the same story – a story pressing all the classic emotional buttons of conflict, tragedy, mystery and resolution – certainly got my alarm bells ringing. And you know what? The story’s out there now. Massively so. And that brings with it other pressures for authenticity and verification that compete directly with that wish to protect anonymity, however laudably founded.

We’ve had the Syrian lesbian blogger. We’ve just had Dave on Wheels. That people with fantastic stories on the internet may turn out to be, quite literally, fantastic themselves should be no surprise to anyone.

A few skeptical voices were raised in Leo’s direction. From systematic interrogation, to more gentle questioning. And then there was this strange business of an eerily similar unmasking only a few weeks earlier, bringing with it a big-P political angle. (If you search, you’ll find another site which has much to say on Mr Traynor, but I am not linking to it for reasons which will be obvious if you explore the site more widely.)

Leo himself went quiet, protected his Twitter account, and blocked me and a few others. A little strange, given I’m pretty sure I’d not tweeted to him directly at any point. But some rallied round. Of course Leo exists! Everyone knows Leo! I’ve met him myself (a while back mind you), said others, in some instances with the simmering anger that naturally accompanies challenge.

Harder questions started being asked: Can the Gardaí confirm he actually reported the abuse to them? Can he be found in the Rathmines phone book? (Or any other directory, phone or otherwise, for that matter.) Given he claims to have a D.Phil, where’s his thesis? Why has no one come forward to offer any independently verifiable biographical detail which might categorically identify Leo as a real person?

Is this what identity really means then? The external verification of biographical details? Well, largely it does, as I’ve dwelled on previously.

But all we see are blanks. At every turn.

So, does Leo even exist?

There seems to be no available evidence. Not for someone going by that name, anyway.

Because for a man who’d apparently been so influential, there are no published articles, no records of speaking appearances, no “political consultancy” reports or client references. Nothing. Just a mostly-wiped blogging history, some social network profiles and contributions to comment threads here and there. Social vapour, really. But tangible footprint? Not so much.

But what does all that actually mean? Is an existence that’s only defined in social media terms any different from, well, from any other definition of a “real person”?

These are questions for the epistemologists and existentialists, of course. I’ve no axe to grind, nor a wish to somehow polarise the world into Leo-apologists and Leo-deniers. (Leo-pards vs Leo-tards?)

So why do I care? This could just be someone who does a bit of blogging under an assumed name. Possibly someone who has perhaps met a few people in real life for a coffee while in the guise of their online persona. For whom the definition of “political consultant” might be “someone who tweets at politicians”, and “writer” equating to “person who sits on the internet all day commenting on blogs”. The name could even be real, but that would suggest certain other embellishments had been made. (Still want to know about that D.Phil, Leo. And maybe more about that extensive education and all that travel. It’s extraordinary that one can get around so much but leave no traces online, isn’t it?)

That’s no big deal. Hardly unique. He wasn’t after money or malice, it would seem. A few minutes of fame as a storyteller that suddenly got wildly and magnificently out of hand, is my reading of it.

Well, it didn’t matter while it was just one man and his blog. But when the tale becomes part of the canon of internet legends, all the while omitting a tiny little detail like the author’s pseudonymity, then its other oddities are cast in a harsher, less forgiving light. If even the existence of the author can’t be verified, what else about the story can be?

Leo’s fable, with its quirks and flaws, has consequences: that people are going to believe misleading things about their privacy or findability. That they might be discouraged from reporting serious crime to an apparently indifferent police force. And that they’re being set an example of behaviour that may prolong their exposure to harm.

Real-world, real-impact consequences. That’s why I’m writing this.

A serious point: probing questioning towards those who write about abuse more often than not turns out to be a Very Bad Thing. Many of the commenters on that Skepchick post point this out. And they are right. But how many strange facets does a story have to have before it does become fair game for deeper investigation? True skeptics should be very careful to avoid placing certain topics beyond question, whatever the surrounding evidence.

Whatever the answer, I think this one has enough to cross that line.

Be a dog all you like. Be whoever you want to be online. But risk harming others through misleading them and you can expect to be called out on it. And if that’s “trolling”, I’m a Dutchman.

Well, I might be. You never know. Proost!

Category: Other


25 Responses

  1. Lee C says:

    Great post. Insightful as ever. I aspire to compose like this one day. L.

  2. Patrick says:

    Thanks for posting this. I was totally taken in Now I feel completely naieve! So much for my sceptical carapace…

  3. Hi there,

    I am a friend of Paul’s. I am also a friend of Fiona Hanley, who has known Leo Traynor as a fellow Dublin social media user since before he was “famous”. I also happen to be a lawyer and journalist.

    Fiona commented on Tracy King’s original post at Skepchick, and she has followed this story closely. She asked today if there was anything I could do to verify Leo Traynor’s identity.

    I explained that the conventional method for checking id is to see a passport/driving licence and/or a utility bill.

    Fiona then put me in touch with Leo Traynor. He emailed me pics of his passport page. The detail of the pics was such that they were unlikely to be fake. For example, the coded part of the bottom of the passport page included his name in the correct manner. The passport was an Irish passport.

    The last name is “Traynor”. The first name is a very close variant of “Leo”.

    I also spoke with this Leo Traynor by phone, and I am satisfied it was the person who took the pics of the passport page.

    This does not absolutely prove the passport exists, or that the story is correct. I am not vouching for anything other than what is in this comment.

    But I am satisfied that the pics of the Irish passport page sent to me show that there is a person with a name very similar to Leo Traynor connected with the blogpost.

    And this is as far as my involvement in this matter goes.

  4. Josie Miller says:

    Fiona Hanley has played a strange role in this saga from the beginning. Although she claimed never to have met Leo Traynor in real life, she not only commented extensively on his story at SkepChick and other sites, she also rallied others to do so.

    In the intervening time period, she appears to have forged a close enough relationship with Leo Traynor that she is now counselling him on how to verify his existence and putting him in touch with lawyers.

    Surely, it would have been simpler just to say, “Oh, BTW, his first name is Joe and here’s his thesis.” Instead, we get yet more cloak and dagger

    I find these latest developments in the Leo Traynor peculiar, to say the least.

  5. CathyBy says:

    “Josie X Miller” has played a very strange role in this from the beginning. From under a pseudonym, this person has insisted, not merely that the story was implausible as others did, but that the author did not exist. This continued even after Irish people stated they knew Leo Traynor personally. “Miller” preferred to believe that instead these were people actively conspiring to shore up the false identity, and tweeted to that effect.

    It has been very interesting to watch one person’s obsessive insistence on a conspiracy theory convincing so many intelligent people.

  6. Josie Miller says:

    It’s rather rich that pseudonymous CathyBy is accusing me of being

  7. Josie Miller says:

    Whoops, fat fingered and sent too early. Let’s try again.

    It’s rather rich that pseudonymous CathyBy is accusing me of being pseudonymous.

    It’s also rich that she calls me obsessed with the Leo Traynor story, which indeed I am, when she herself has tweeted about it dozens of times and published screenshots to proove LT’s Twitter longevity. She too appears to have a strong interst in this story though unlike me she won’t admit it.

    If people find Leo’s existence — or not Leo’s — dubious, it’s with good reason.

    And please don’t play the Irish card. It’s a scoundrel’s refuge especially given the lawyer’s admission above that Leo Traynor is not the person’s correct name.

  8. Brit says:

    Many of the questions asked in this blog were raised in my (unreferenced) post entitled “Why Leo Traynor’s Troll Story Is Almost Certainly A Lie”. Thanks.


  9. rob says:

    Caveat: I admit to knowing nothing whatever about this case whatsoever. And I’m not from Barcelona.

    However I would just like to point out to Josie Miller (above comment 1:20pm) that the lawyer did not say “that Leo Traynor is not the person’s correct name.” He said it was a close variant. Leo is a well known abbreviation of many names in existence (it is not too hard to Google the variants). How many people’s familiar social name equates with that shown in their passport?

  10. Paul says:

    Thanks David. It inevitably feels a little intrusive that such actions arise when looking at a fact like this, which I regret, but it does help to make a few things clearer.

    Let’s step away from the details of the original LT post, and survey a bigger picture (and hopefully avoid the usual spiral of name-calling that blog comments descend into – at least for a while).

    There is a real person called L— Traynor. L—, as Leo, writes the story of a personal experience. These facts are not in dispute.

    But there are some missing areas of detail in that story, and some aspects of the narrative are genuinely surprising. One reading is that L— did some editing of the story before it was published to protect those involved. Another reading is that creativity and embellishment were at play. We cannot tell purely from the post itself. (I do not propose to examine the content of the post in any more detail.)

    The post is published, and republished, and gets a big audience. Some of that audience question the narrative, because of those gaps and surprises, and scepticism in the face of surprise is perfectly natural.

    So not only do we see dissection of the claims in the post, we also see attention paid to the background of the author. If it’s embellished, well, see above for the implication for possible editorial motivation…

    It very natural to check things. If, as here, the author is asserted to be a real person, under their own name, and to be a writer and whatever else, then it would be reasonable to expect some supporting evidence for this online. Not intrusive, not weird, not conspiratorial. Simply a contextual cross-check.

    If the byline said “LT is an alias”- or it were written by, oh, say, @BorisWatch or @gimpyblog (both of whom I read without a clue as to who they are), that would be different.

    But looking for a “Leo Traynor” footprint proved futile. That his real name is different helps to explain that. (I certainly don’t think there’s any conspiracy here.)

    No, the real question that this raises is: what is a reasonable degree of authentication when someone comes forward with a story. A passport check? Um, no, I don’t think so. A phone number to call them back on? Maybe. An email from a domain where you’d reasonably expect a real-ish name to be required? Not bad.

    I don’t know if the Guardian and others did this. Nor am I entirely sure they should have. And what of this doctorate, that LT claims to have? Or, let’s be precise, that’s mentioned at the foot of a letter to an Irish newspaper written by a person who self-identifies as Dr Leo [sic] Traynor BSc, MSc, DPhil from Rathmines.

    Look how quickly it starts to sound intrusive. How a chink of uncertainty in one part can lead to a chain of further investigation. The crowd-on-the-internet abhors inconsistency as nature does a vacuum.

    Maybe it does have a bearing on the original story’s credibility if one or two details of the author’s qualifications and background can’t be verified? Or maybe it’s none of anybody’s bloody business, and the story should be read at face value.

    Perhaps, for very good reasons, a stand-off has arisen between that need for protection of those involved, and confirmation of authenticity, meaning that we know as much about this as we’re ever going to know, and that’s ok.

    I’d welcome thoughts, particularly from journalists, on what triggers them to do further checking, and how they’d go about it? – ideally without the need to reference this particular case in any more detail.

  11. Paul says:

    @CathyBy – I agree with you on the unhelpfulness of conspiracy theories

    @JosieXMiller – courtesy to other posters at all times please. This blog is run as a tight ship.

    @Brit – there is a reference to your post above, albeit oblique and not hyperlinked. As to why I made that choice, I followed similar reasoning to that expressed in the Skepchick post.

  12. Cathyby says:

    Maybe it does have a bearing on the original story’s credibility if one or two details of the author’s qualifications and background can’t be verified? Or maybe it’s none of anybody’s bloody business, and the story should be read at face value.

    That’s a very interesting point – I know when I was discussing this on Twitter it was around that plausibility of various points in the story, which I suppose is “reading it at face value”. I’m studying philosophy so I suppose my instinct is always to look at the argument not who is making the argument.

    But of course it’s not that simple. A story told by someone you know, even if you “know” them online, will always seem more plausible than by someone who you have never heard of.

    But how much background checking is valid to do? I don’t think pseudonymous bloggers should be outted, and I chose not to give my own full name online, so it seems inconsistent to me to demand chapter and verse of everyone else.

    Of course questions of law and harm to others come up. Newspapers also probably should have a higher standard. But when it’s the case of blog posts, is there really anything gained?

  13. Kate Bopp says:

    With regard to “harm to others” – who was at risk? And what sort of harm?

  14. Paul says:

    @Kate – the adverse consequences are those in the post: that someone in a similar position may not report to the police, if they think they’ll be ignored (they’re unlikely to be ignored); that they might continue to engage with online aggressors (contrary to general advice on this); and they will reach assumptions on their physical traceability (or otherwise) which may be founded on an incomplete set of facts, and therefore cause them to behave online in a way which might not be beneficial to them.

  15. EvertB says:

    Having read the above eloquent article it basically boils down to four statements;

    1) Leo Traynor does not exists.
    2) If he does exist he brought it upon himself.
    3) He is setting a dangerous precedent.
    4) People cannot be traced online.

    let me give a quick and to the point response to all four.

    1) The person using the name “Leo Traynor” does
    exist. He walks, he talks and he bitches.
    Whether or not it is his real name has no
    bearing on what happened unless you are
    someone who owns the internet and who has to
    be asked for permission to use a pseudonym
    online. In which case you need to get a life.
    2) Our democratic society encompasses the right
    to do and act as one pleases as long as it
    does not harm others. This include engaging or
    dis-engaging with people, following, blocking
    and what not. Just because you would not have
    acted in the same manner or that you
    disapprove of the actions taken has no bearing
    on the validity of the story.
    3) He is only setting a precedent for people unable to inform themselves
    and make rational, sane decisions. In which case they should not be
    allowed to leave the house unsupervised.
    4) Tracing people online is very much possible. It is not 100% foolproof
    but nowhere was this stated. By using an IP address gained from a blog
    comment or even a website visit and cross referencing this against
    other data freely available online it is possible in a lot of cases to
    find names, addresses, phone numbers, places of work and more. At
    Leo’s request I even blogged about this
    (http://evertb.wordpress.com/2012/09/26/tracking-a-troll/) But no, I
    am not the friend Leo refers to who helped him in this case..

    Most of all though I am surprised about the vehement attacks on Leo. Say for arguments sake that his story was fabricated. So what? It’s the internet and it’s full of lies, half truths and rants of complete lunatics. Only a pedant with a serious case of OCD would feel the need to “correct” these…

  16. Cathyby says:


    My comment was general rather than specific to this case. Where somebody is libelling another, for example, perhaps doing damage to their business or personal life it seems reasonable for them to want to know who is doing this. The recent Reddit case is another such, where the mask of anonymity is allowing others lives (and bodies) to be intruded upon.

    In the Leo Traynor case, none of the above apply. It is a particular account of one person’s experience. If anyone believes that account is not typical they are perfectly free to point out better ways to deal with online aggression, gardai procedures or how IP tracking works. If they believe it untrue they can argue why. I don’t see how Leo’s identity has any impact on any of those points, let alone the type of details about his life that have been requested on twitter.

    It only compounds the irony that the main call for detailed information about Leo’s life is coming from someone who prefers to stay entirely anonymous themselves. Surely logically respect for privacy should apply equally?

  17. Paul says:

    @Evert – good points all. You are welcome to precis the post as you wish; FWIW my precis would be:

    – popular post contains surprises and inconsistencies
    – this makes some pedantic types start reading around the story to work out why this might be
    – the extent of the author’s online footprint appears inconsistent with someone who has a rich and varied academic history, social presence, and as a writer
    – the author protects account, blocks in response to some of these questions, etc.etc.

    all of which are wholly independent of who the actual author is, whether the name is real or pseudonymous. It’s a point of consistency, not identifiability. And that’s what makes it interesting.

    @Cathyby – agreed. and I think here you are supporting the right to challenge an account, which seems reasonable. What’s perhaps notable here is that the challenge has moved from “can you track an IP address” to “can X substantiate Y claim they made” – not because Y is remotely relevant, but because it is a proxy question for “does X make things up”.

    The more I think about this, the more unreasonable such questioning appears, but because the internet is a remote, depersonalising medium one progresses surprisingly readily from hard tests (like seeing a passport) to proxy tests like this one.

    Which is very much the sort of society-meets-technology issue that this blog frantically overanalyses from time to time ;)

  18. Josie Miller says:

    Belated thanks Paul for this insightful and brilliantly written post.

    I can’t see, however, that anything’s really changed since you wrote it.

    Two days ago we had a dodgy story written by a person with a fantastical background who said his name was Leo Traynor.

    Since the big passport reveal, we have a dodgy story written by a person with a fantastical background who won’t tell us his name.

    In both the before and after circumstances, it seems only normal not just to ask “Does X make things up?” but also “Is this story complete bollocks?” and “Can I believe anything the author says about anything?”

    I suspect there’s little truth to Traynor’s troll tale and will remain convinced not-Leo is a fantasist until I see evidence to the contrary.

    Such proof would not, as some have mistakenly suggested, constitute detailed information about not-Leo’s life. Rather it is the type of public information easily available for those who occupy the positions not-Leo Traynor claims to.

    It goes without saying, of course, that the opinion of one unnamed woman on the internet does not compel not-Leo to do or reveal anything. If he feels a need to prove himself, it can only be due to the fact that there are many more people who believe he and his tale are not credible.

    As for my use of a pseudonym, I am quite surprised to see some of the people who have attacked me for writing as Josie Miller, now vociferously defending not-Leo’s right to be pseudonymous. They overlook a crucial difference between us. I have been an out-pseudonymer from the beginning while not-Leo’s yet to admit that he’s not using his own name. And on that meta note, I’d better leave.

    For anyone who’s interested, I can be reached at josiexmiller@gmail.com

  19. victoriascross says:

    I missed this story. Looking at what’s said and not been said, I have this to say :

    Has nobody wondered what Leo Traynor actually did that got so much hatred. Its not enough to say “oh he just got hatred for being Jewish”. Just doesn’t ring true. That happens in the street you just get real life threats, or angry words or what ever.

    To get abused online like this never come out of nowhere. There must be some dispute somehwere, or some published comments or flaming, or something that Leo wrote that kicked off.

    No sign of that I can see. Is strange as the other faces of this story.

  20. […] self-serving deficit manifesto (excellent) For whom the bell trolls What To Do When Republicans Say Crazy, Insane Things An Open Letter to Ann Coulter The Presidential […]

  21. Paul Moloney says:

    “Has nobody wondered what Leo Traynor actually did that got so much hatred.”

    Try replacing “Leo Traynor” with Jews. Then read it again.


  22. Linoge says:

    Great posts, especially “popular post contains surprises” reply.

    Something I haven’t seen pointed out so far – If Leo Traynor is a pseudonym, why write a letter to the Irish times and include all your titles PHD, MSC, BSC and a large portion of your address? I can understand an anonymous person may want to brag about such qualifications at some stage (to readers of their blog), but in a 3 line bridge name suggestion letter?!


  23. Josie Miller says:

    There seems to be evidence that more than one person tweeted under the name Leo Traynor.

    On a couple of occasions, Leo Traynor’s nephew took to Twitter. See a profile here http://favstar.fm/users/Leo_Traynor and the first tweet on this page http://topsy.com/twitter/leo_traynor

    Just before he became an internet celeb, Leo Traynor was saying someone had taken over his account, something he did not mention in his troll story https://www.google.ca/search?q=Earlier+tweets%2C+using+this+username%2C+were+the+work+of+a+juvenile+%26+abusive&oq=Earlier+tweets%2C+using+this+username%2C+were+the+work+of+a+juvenile+%26+abusive&sugexp=chrome,mod=0&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8#hl=en&sclient=psy-ab&q=leotraynor+Earlier+tweets%2C+using+this+username%2C+were+the+work+of+a+juvenile+%26+abusive&oq=leotraynor+Earlier+tweets%2C+using+this+username%2C+were+the+work+of+a+juvenile+%26+abusive&gs_l=serp.12…8944.12294.1.14368.…1c.1.dxbH2dZEwGk&psj=1&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_cp.r_qf.&fp=ffdfa95de834d500&bpcl=36601534&biw=994&bih=490

    Among other things this seems to be a tale of two Leo Traynors. I’m guessing that naughty Leo sent the letter to the Irish Times as a result of the Chris Andrews unmasking.

    See here: http://pages.citebite.com/g6e8y5r5pryq

    All very complicated, isn’t it?

  24. victoriascross says:

    Paul Moloney. Yes there is antisemitism in the world. For seems like no reason often. is just strange to me that abuse becomes online when there is no sign that there was ever any provocation online, like a fight in a forum or a controversial piece of writing or something. The excuse that everything about this story is true because we never question a claim of antiesmitism is not a good one.

  25. victoriascross says:

    Huh? Leo Traynor has an interm – sorry, “nephew” – who is also called Leo who sometimes uses his account and is very rude to people but at the same time has also managed to never leave other traces of himself anywhere on the Internet.

    Fancy the chances of that.

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