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Internet warriors: inside the dark world of online 'trolls'

The Guardian logo The Guardian 12/03/2017
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Norwegian filmmaker Kyrre Lien began researching online commenters on Christmas Day 2014. “I became fascinated by how much hate and ignorance people were writing in the comments section of a news site,” he says, “so I began looking at people’s profiles, trying to work out who they were. Many seemed quite normal. They had families and looked like nice people, but the comments they were writing in a public space were so extreme. There was a disconnect.” And so began Lien’s three-year journey into the lives of some of the internet’s most prolific online commenters, now the subject of a documentary, The Internet Warriors.

Lien’s research took him across the world – from the fjords of Norway to the US desert – meeting people of extreme, “often illogical” beliefs: the racists, the homophobes, the slut- shamers. Lien initially researched 200 potential subjects. Half said no when he approached them. It was then a process of elimination: “To find out what their motives were, who they were, and why they held the views they did. In a way,” he says, “I became an investigator.”

Of all the ‘haters’ he be found online, one type eluded him. “I contacted many, many misogynists, as I wanted to try to understand,” Lien says, “but none would talk publicly, which itself is interesting.”

What did Lien learn through the making of the documentary? “That many, many people are lonely – they feel society has left them behind – and that a lot of those I met are former victims of bullying themselves,” says Lien, “but ultimately, I learned that people are able to change, that we are works in motion. We can’t close our eyes and pretend that they don’t exist if we want to change the way we debate and communicate online. It’s important to listen to these voices now.”

‘I am against all immigration’: Robert Jackson, 50, steelworker, England

‘F*** Islam and dont you ever stand up for that evil religion’

Comment to a Facebook post about Islam and terrorism

Robert Jackson and his wife at home © Provided by Guardian News Robert Jackson and his wife at home Robert Jackson and his wife at home. Photograph: Kyrre Lien for the Guardian

Robert Jackson spends hours every day commenting online. Recently he wrote that Tony Blair should be hanged. “I stand by that,” he says. “I’d gladly put the rope around his neck. He’s a traitor to his people.”

Jackson’s primary concern is immigration: he believes Britain will “fall apart” under the weight of refugees. “I really don’t care where they are from, or which war they are fleeing.” What makes it worse, he says, and the reason he is particularly angry at the government, is that it cost him so much to bring over his Thai wife. “I had to pay thousands to get my wife here from Thailand. Her visa only lasts for six months, and then she has to go back. And then we have to do the same thing all over again.”

‘I slutshame celebrities’: Ashleigh Jones, 21, student, Wales

‘That b**** has really f****** p***** me off. F*** YOU, YOU TIRED ASS SHOWGIRL GO BACK TO PARTY CITY WHERE YOU BELONG’

Tweet directly to Lady Gaga

Ashleigh Jones in her bedroom at home in Cardiff. © Provided by Guardian News Ashleigh Jones in her bedroom at home in Cardiff.

‘I’m honest and brutal. I don’t sugarcoat anything’: Ashleigh Jones in her bedroom at home in Cardiff.  Photograph: Kyrre Lien for the Guardian

Ashleigh Jones would not describe herself as a troll. “A troll is someone who is ruining the discussion, and that’s not me.”

Jones’s commenting style is “honest and brutal. I don’t sugarcoat anything,” she says. She uses Twitter as a sort of daily diary, a place where she can express how she is feeling each day. “Like when I tweeted to Amy Schumer: ‘I would say Amy Schumer is a c*** but you have to be smart to be a c***.’”

She herself is very used to receiving abuse in return for her inflammatory comments. “But that doesn’t bother me,” she says. “I have a lot of sex so I can’t be that ugly.”

‘I believe Israel was behind 9/11’: Scott Munson, 49, activist, California

‘Would our government stage this to try to scare people into gun control?’

Comment on a story about the shooting in San Bernardino

Scott Munson in his garden in California. © Provided by Guardian News Scott Munson in his garden in California. ‘I’m a truth teller’: Scott Munson in his garden in California. Photograph: Kyrre Lien for the Guardian

Scott Munson describes himself as “a truth teller”. He considers this to be his full-time job, particularly when it comes to sharing “information about 9/11 and gun control”.

Munson says he is “convinced that the US government is trying to control us all”. It’s also clear to him that “Israel benefitted from 9/11. We had more than 3,000 Israelis not showing up for work and then Israelis dancing after the attack – it’s obvious that it was a nation that gained from that event.”

He is no stranger to abuse himself: “When I write online that Israel was behind 9/11, people call me bad names, like stupid, dummy, moron and Neanderthal.” But he believes that’s because he’s telling people truths that are difficult to hear. “That’s the process – many are in denial, but then I help them see. It’s uncomfortable for them to find out that our government is killing its own people.”

Every day, Munson shares his “truth” with his 5,000 Facebook friends and his special email list of 23,000, people. “I’m also on LinkedIn,” he adds.

‘I want to be free to carry a gun’: Nick Haynes, 42, truck driver, Pennsylvania

‘Voting for Hillary is the same as killing ur own children! Get ready for civil war if she gets in. Hillary supporters will be 1st 2 go!’

Tweet before the US election

Nick Hayes at home in Pennsylvania. © Provided by Guardian News Nick Hayes at home in Pennsylvania. ‘I hope they arrest Hillary’: Nick Hayes at home in Pennsylvania. Photograph: Kyrre Lien for the Guardian

When Nick Haynes was younger, he got into frequent “arguments” with the authorities. At 16 he ran away from home and says he hasn’t looked back since. He’s now lost contact with his family altogether. “It’s been four or five years since I last even talked to my father,” he says.

Today Haynes continues with his arguments, but this time it’s on social media. He says he tweets: “About 57 times a day.” He adds: “I debate because if I don’t say anything, people who are against the Second Amendment and people who spread lies will win the arguments. If I don’t fight back when somebody claims something, then they will win every time.”

He watched the US election with his three daughters and son. “I told them what I believe: that Clinton has raped this country. I hope they arrest her.” Now Trump’s won, he says: “It’s the first time since 9/11 that I feel our country is back on track, back where it belongs.” His children agree with him.

‘I think homosexuals will ruin Russia’: Alexandra Velichkevich, 51, student, Russia

“Shame on the European world!!! Damn, the f****ts are all around!!!!”

Comment on story about a homosexual US ambassador

Alexandra Velichkevich in her apartment near St Petersburg. © Provided by Guardian News Alexandra Velichkevich in her apartment near St Petersburg. 'We’re worried our beloved Russia will be influenced by the homosexuals’: Alexandra Velichkevich in her apartment near St Petersburg. Photograph: Kyrre Lien for the Guardian 

From her apartment near St Petersburg, Velichkevich believes she is fighting for Russia. Her fear is that her country will be taken over by “Gay Europe”. Her 75-year-old mother debates online alongside her. “We’re very worried that our beloved Russia will be influenced by the homosexuals in Europe and the US,” and destroy it with their “crap homosexual culture”.

She wants to make it clear that she doesn’t see LGBT people as her enemy, but that they have “a defect.” Furthermore, she says: “They should stop showing off all the time. They’ve ruined that flag for me. I really liked the rainbow before, but I don’t any more.”

‘I want to bring back colonialism’: Kjell Frode Tislevoll, 42, retail clerk, Norway

‘The behaviour displayed by muslims, proves thatt it was wrong, to end colonialism, thatt it should have continued, to keep the muslims under control, ’cause we in the western world is a more civilized version of humanity, that’s why we should be baby sitters for the muslim countries, so bring back colonialism’

Comment when 14 people were killed in a suicide bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan

Kjell Frode Tislevoll in his dining room in Norway. © Provided by Guardian News Kjell Frode Tislevoll in his dining room in Norway. ‘My issues with immigration are going away’: Kjell Frode Tislevoll in his dining room in Norway. Photograph: Kyrre Lien for the Guardian

Kjell Frode Tislevoll used to spend hours debating online. “Like when I commented on an article: ‘What we need in Oslo is a sidewalk for those with dark skin and a sidewalk for those with white skin. That way, we won’t be attacked or mugged.” He got 20 likes. Eventually he decided to apply a filter on Facebook, so he’d no longer see posts about immigration.

But things are changing for Tislevoll. Last year, a refugee reception centre was built in his home town, and he slowly found he was becoming “less sceptical of immigrants”. It coincided with the arrival of a Muslim man at work. “He’s OK,” he says, “so my issues with immigration are going away. If I met my former self in a discussion forum now, I’d probably get into an argument with him.”

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