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!