By T.W. FARNAM
December 24, 2007; Page A6
FORT MITCHELL, Ky. -- In Norse mythology, trolls steal babies and leave their own shape-shifting offspring behind. On the Internet, they just steal attention.
As candidates increasingly use the Internet to build political bridges, their message boards have become homes for trolls, users of an online community who leave messages that are ideologically opposed, off-topic or off-color.
|WSJ's Timothy Farnam delves into the furtive life of an Internet troll. He meets Brian O'Neill, a 33-year-old student at Northern Kentucky University, who posts anti-Clinton comments and links on the candidate's campaign website.|
Brian O'Neill, a 33-year-old part-time bartender and full-time college student, has been marauding on Sen. Hillary Clinton's Web site for the past few months, even though his posts attacking the candidate are frequently scrubbed from the site within hours. Mr. O'Neill turned to Mrs. Clinton's site after being booted from online forums of former Sen. John Edwards, Sen. Barack Obama and the Democratic National Committee.
Although Mr. O'Neill says he isn't familiar with the term "troll," he has been labeled as one -- and not just once. "I thought they were calling me like the, you know, little garden trolls," Mr. O'Neill says, "and I'm, like, 'I'm not a garden item.' "
Mr. O'Neill, who lives in this small town outside Cincinnati, has a "special blogging place" two levels underground at the library on the campus of Northern Kentucky University in nearby Highland Heights. On a break between classes, he sits down at a bank of computers in the back corner of the stacks, places his large cup of nutmeg-seasoned French roast coffee on the table and logs on.
While many of the students browse the social-networking site MySpace, Mr. O'Neill gets right to work posting an unfavorable article from the online Drudge Report to a bulletin board on Mrs. Clinton's site. He keeps looking for disparaging news before finding a link to her personal financial disclosure filing. He adjusts his chair and leans in toward the screen, muttering, "Let's get me some dirt." Grabbing a piece of unlined copier paper left on the desk next to him, he begins scribbling notes about her stock holdings for his next raid.
Mr. O'Neill is hardly alone. Although the number of trolls can't be measured, they regularly haunt online political sites, which have mushroomed in recent years. Technorati, which follows blogging trends, now tracks 40,000 English-language politics blogs. "The ability of trolls to gain attention, to secure an audience, if ever briefly, is much greater than before," says Derek Gordon, a former vice president at the company.
Sites try various weapons to combat trolls. Campaign trolls popped up en masse in 2004 on Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean's Web site. Dean supporters batted them back with a "troll goal," donating money to the campaign's coffers each time they spotted an offending post. The supporters crowed about each sighting, eliminating the trolls' incentive to disrupt.
Most campaigns and individual bloggers invite readers to report offensive comments, and others approve each comment before it appears. At the liberal discussion Web site Daily Kos, "trusted users" can block people whose comments regularly offend members.
Daily Kos has another tactic: the recipe. When a troll attempts to start a conversation at that site, loyalists post recipes instead of engaging them. With so many trolls, the recipes have proliferated -- enough so that Daily Kos compiled a 144-page "Trollhouse Cookbook," including crab bisque inspired by President Bush's second inauguration and "Liberal Elite Cranberry Glazed Brie."
While that approach seems comical, the problem is real. Michael Lazzaro, a Daily Kos contributing editor who goes by "Hunter," says about 10 people are banned each week, but many return by setting up new accounts. One person, easily identified by his writing, has opened more than 100 accounts since 2005, he says. "He basically comments for awhile really nicely and then out of the blue he'll start ranting about women or Jews or something like that," Mr. Lazzaro says.
The Clinton campaign simply yanks the posts of Mr. O'Neill and others. "We have very clear-cut terms of service that we ask people to read before posting to the site," says Peter Daou, the Clinton campaign's Internet director. The terms of service prohibit content that is "harmful" or "defamatory," among other things, and lets the campaign delete comments for any reason. Mr. Daou declined to comment on Mr. O'Neill's posts or the extent of the abuse at the site.
Readers on the Clinton site often take measures into their own hands. "Its nice to see you here on Hillary's sight, [sic]" one wrote to Mr. O'Neill. "It shows your fear that Hillary can win."
Mr. O'Neill, who goes by the handle "thepoliticalguy," doesn't let the comments get him down. "If they think I'm a troll, then so be it," he says, before immediately rejecting this premise. "It's wrong! It's wrong! Where's the freedom of ideas?" He pounds the table. "If you're on a site and you're just agreeing with each other all day, where's the argument?"
Mr. O'Neill has lived in northern Kentucky since he was 6, save for a few years spent in the Army. He worked 12-hour shifts for seven years, he says, keeping baggage flowing underneath the Cincinnati airport.
He returned to college three years ago, where he started to follow domestic politics with newfound zeal. "It's the arguments," he says. "I love to argue."
When he returns to his one-bedroom apartment, Mr. O'Neill flips on the computer and checks Mrs. Clinton's Web site. His comment on her stock portfolio is already gone. His brief disappointment gives way almost immediately to elation. "Wait a second!" he says, jumping to his feet, "I still have the little piece of paper." He retrieves the notes from his backpack near the door. "We'll just rewrite it."
He re crafts the post, and titles it "Hillary Clinton, the Oil, War and Fox News Profiteer." He lists Mrs. Clinton's ownership in BP PLC, Chevron Corp., Boeing Co. and News Corp., despite the fact that the candidate and her husband liquidated their blind trust in April to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest. "So the truth comes out," Mr. O'Neill concludes, "if she is elected, looks like we may spent a couple more years in Iraq, so someone can make more money on there stock dividends and guess what, its not Bush."
Mr. O'Neill's comment is back on the Clinton site in 20 minutes. And off again.