How Trolls Hack Twitter to Silence the Rest of Us

Hello, my name is Patrick S. Tomlinson (formerly @stealthygeek and @patricktomlin1, both of which are now suspended). Some of you know me as a science-fiction author. More of you probably know me as that one guy who wrote the abortion thought experiment that went viral last October.

In today’s social media environment, being politically outspoken and possessing any measure of reach and influence paints a target on anyone’s back. Media figures, celebrities, and creatives are all too familiar with the firehose of targeted harassment and trolling that comes with the territory of daring to voice an opinion, especially women.

Over the years, I’ve received innumerable suicide demands, several dozen death threats, had my private information doxxed five times, a DDoS attack on my website, and on one memorable occasion, a white supremacist came to my door hoping to intimidate me, only to be educated in my enthusiasm for firearms. Don’t judge a book, guys.

I’m hardly alone.

Trolls on the Loose

Trolling and online harassment is nothing new, but in the years since GamerGate, it’s taken on a more organized and frightening tone. Threats of physical and sexual violence have grown beyond cyberspace and entered the “real world.”. The practice of “Swatting,” wherein online trolls use a person’s doxxed address to make a false report of a hostage situation or other deadly threat to local police has already resulted in the death of an innocent man in Wichita, Kansas over a Call of Duty game session.

Many celebrities have been forced from various platforms by the vitriol of toxic fandoms, perhaps most famously Daisey Ridley, John Boyega, and Kelly Marie Tran of the rekindled Star Wars series bowing out of Twitter because mouth-breathing, waifu pillow-hugging, straight white man children couldn’t cope with a female Jedi, a black hero, and an Asian female character who wasn’t deliberately sexualized to appeal to their adolescent fantasies.

Other high-profile individuals have weathered these storms and come out all the stronger. People like Brianna Wu, one of the first women targeted by the GamerGate brigade pushed through the death threats and people literally live-streaming driving to her house. Today, she has eighty-thousand Twitter followers and is gearing up for her second campaign to join the House of Representatives in 2020 on a platform that rightly emphasizes her experience in tech and how it relates to security and privacy in the Digital Age (although, Brianna, if you’re reading this, gun insurance is still a dumb idea).

In response to these online terror campaigns, almost all social media platforms have either adopted or drastically expanded their reporting systems with the hopes that their vast communities would be able to police themselves and remove bad actors before another crisis occurred.

The problem is, while their intentions were laudable, the sheer, insurmountable volume of traffic on sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram meant these reporting systems are largely on-your-honor arrangements on the user side of things, and almost entirely automated on the in-house side. It’s up to users to report tweets or posts that may or may not violate an arbitrary standard set by the platform’s Terms of Service, which range from the wild west to draconian. Once reported, it’s no longer eyeballs, but algorithms viewing the posts and making the call on what is and is not appropriate.

And while these algorithms are quite good at identifying offending key words or phrases, they’re severely limited when it comes to understanding context, allowing the cleverer trolls and harassers loopholes you could drive a windowless panel van through. For all its promise, AI today is about as bright as a jar of pig knuckles.

But, more worryingly still, is the opportunity for abuse of the reporting system itself. Trolls use the very weakness of the algorithms’ limited reasoning to launch coordinated mass false reporting attacks against their critics and targets, often organized in secret on another platform. These attacks work similarly to a DDoS attack on a website, swarming the software with a multitude of false reports, often generated by multiple sock-puppet accounts, in order to present the illusion of public outrage or offense over a tweet or post where none exists, triggering an automated punitive response by the platform’s enforcement algorithms.

This weaponization of the reporting system by bad faith actors contributes to harassment and increases the toxicity of online communities by forcing out the trolls’ most effective critics, making these platforms even more dangerous for genuine users, not less.

The Worst Sort of Attention

Recently, exactly this situation happened to me. On Friday the 14th, I was informed my verified twitter account with more than thirty-eight thousand followers had been suspended, permanently, for “targeted harassment,” consisting of a single tweet directed at a pro-Trump troll account spreading victim-blaming and propaganda in the wake of Trump’s conspiracy theory regarding the three-thousand Americans who died in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.

Now, I freely admit that my response was crass and provocative. It was typed in genuine anger at someone trying to legitimize Trump’s pathetic attempt to shift the blame for his disastrously incompetent response to what became the worst natural disaster in our nation’s history onto his victims. Yes, his victims, as the vast majority of the people lost to Maria died weeks or months later due to completely preventable causes related to the absence of electricity, clean water, food, and medicine. All things that a competently run relief effort would have provided in time. Maria killed dozens. Trump killed thousands.

But while my response was obviously tactless, it was just as obviously hyperbolic and metaphorical. It doesn’t violate the ToS in any meaningful way. So what happened? For that answer, we have to go back to more than a week before the suspension to a random reddit thread.

Fair warning, in the screenshots and tweets to come, there will be a prodigious amount of homophobic language used, because much like the grunts of more primitive primates, anti-gay slurs seem to be the only way these troglodytes can communicate with each other. Anyway…

…as stupid as this is going to sound, the whole issue came about because people on an Opie and Anthony subreddit thread were mad I said I’ve never personally found Norm Macdonald funny. Random, I know, but here we are. From then on, my account was deliberately targeted for harassment and mass reporting attacks, including at least four fake accounts all run by the user on the above thread who bragged about being “on my sixth account.”

https://twitter.com/roe_dead
https://twitter.com/DeadRoe
https://twitter.com/dead_roe
https://twitter.com/CumiaRoe

The “Dead Roe” theme, incidentally, relates to another Twitter user, Joe Cumia, who had his account suspended for a variety of reasons. This particular troll reveled in attacking him, and started these accounts with their corpse themes to mock Cumia’s mother who passed away earlier this year. Yes, you read that right, someone started multiple twitter accounts to taunt another human over his mother’s death. That’s the level of depravity we’re dealing with here.

Which relates to the next “tweet” that was sent via my website.


This tweet is a fake, turns out it never existed. It was photoshopped and sent to me and several others by the same trolls who got my account suspended in the hopes I would falsely attribute it to Mr. Cumia and go on the attack against him. And while a quick perusal of Mr. Cumia’s public statements and behavior prove he and I are already natural enemies, he is innocent of this. It was just another component of the troll’s targeted harassment campaign. A campaign they celebrated publicly only moments after their false attack succeeded in suspending my twitter account.

As you can see, it is hardly credible to believe these fine gentlemen were concerned with making the platform safer for other users. Instead, their purpose was to silence one of their ideological opponents so their white supremacy and homophobia could spread unimpeded. And Twitter’s reporting algorithms rewarded their efforts. But it doesn’t end there. Cyberbullying of this nature is all-encompassing. Trolls dedicate hours of research to find their targets on every platform and swarm them from every flank, hoping to throw people off balance and intimidate them into overreaction or withdrawal.

For my part, this group of cyberbullies continued to press their attack on my YouTube channel…

…on Twitter itself with an impersonation account that stole vacation pictures from my Instagram in order to falsely accuse me of pedophilia…

 

…and with fake 1 Star ratings on my most recent book’s Amazon reviews.


 

And before anyone accuses me of sour grapes over bad reviews, just stop and look at the 1 Stars. They all came in two waves of 48 hours, which just happened to coincide with me calling out white supremacists on social media. None of them are verified purchases, and none of them contain any details that would indicate they’d actually read the book. If you want to see what an average distribution of unmolested reviews looks like, just look at ratings of the same book on Goodreads and Audible.com.

Amazon is only the most visible and popular of the various rating systems, so it’s the trolls’ most obvious target for this sort of attack. Amazon knows fake reviews are a problem, but outside of high-profile examples like Secretary Clinton’s most recent book WHAT HAPPENED, they’ve done virtually nothing to defend the integrity of arguably the world’s most influential literary ratings system, again relying on pig-ignorant algorithms to do the heavy lifting of deciding which reviews are genuine.

And yes, I realize I’ve opened my Goodreads and Audible ratings up to attack from the same people who went after my Amazon ratings, because this post will certainly get shared around among them. They have nothing else to do with themselves. But when they go after my books on those platforms, it will only prove the point. These people are not brilliant tacticians. They continue to believe Reddit threads are somehow invisible to the public, for example.

In review, my Twitter account was suspended because a computer program was tricked into believing I was trying to silence someone’s voice by a pack of abusive, homophobic trolls whose transparent and admitted goal was to silence my voice. If they did it to me, they can do it to anyone. And remember, as bad as all this was, it’s not half as awful as things said and done to women on social media who dare to speak out. By now, many of you are probably wondering what you can do to protect yourselves from this sort of overwhelming, organized attack from deliberately malicious and dishonest people. I have some suggestions.

Armoring Up

First off, don’t put all your eggs in one social media basket. In retrospect, this was my biggest mistake. Twitter was far and away my most successful platform, so that’s where I focused the majority of my time and attention growing my audience. But that left my social media presence exposed to a single point of failure. In recent months, I’ve started trying to diversify my web presence beyond Twitter into other forms and media, such as Instagram and launching a YouTube channel with original content.

But these efforts turned out to be a beat too late, and now I’m starting over basically from scratch. My best advice, especially for aspiring creatives, is to use your social media presence to drive your audience to a platform you alone control. In my case, it’s my author website, blog, and an email subscription list that should be going live alongside this article (Subscribe!). That should be the home base for everything you do. With it, you will build up a core group of fans and supporters that can’t be taken away by any troll or algorithm.

As far as what Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc can do, I’ve got suggestions there, too. First, appeals should be heard before punitive actions are taken, not after. Twitter’s system of offering either a 12-hour lock or an appeal process that can take days incentivizes users to just take the lock instead of fighting back, even when in many cases the reported tweet is utter nonsense. I fell for it on a couple of occasions when I knew my tweet was in the clear, but didn’t want to be cut off from the service for an unknowable number of days while my appeal worked its way through the system. Twitter’s been my primary source of news and networking for many years now. It was just easier to delete the ‘offending’ tweet and log off for half a day than to fight back. That shortsightedness came back to bite me, as each of those locks counted against my account in the most recent suspension.

Secondly, when it comes to permanent suspensions, that’s not something that should be done without direct human involvement. Automated systems just aren’t capable of weighing all of the various inputs and context in this dynamic, multi-platform social media environment and rendering a fair decision that takes not only the words, but the intentions and motivations of all the various players into account.

Only human beings can accomplish that, ideally several of them in committee to account for the natural biases and passions of their compatriots. Without such measures, you leave yourselves and your tens of millions of users beholden to the tyranny of a loud, unscrupulous minority of trolls who use your well-intentioned rules as a cudgel to beat the decent majority into silence or submission.

And Jack, I hate to say it, but do you want Nazis? Because that’s how you get Nazis.

As for the obsessive cyberstalkers who just combed through all 2300 words of that looking for some new angle to attack me, well…


 

UPDATE, 10/10/18:

Well, they’ve struck again. This time they got Chuck Wendig locked up for five hours. Also, my new Twitter account, @patrickstomlin1, has been permanently suspended as well for evading a ban, which I knew was coming eventually, but I had hoped to hold out just a little longer. Really, Twitter is an amazing platform run by either morons or people desperate to avoid any sort of accountability for what they’ve created. Not mutually exclusive, I suppose. Anyway, it’s more important than ever for you to subscribe to my email list in the box above. I promise a minimum of Viagra promotions.

Leave a comment



Jess Ungaro

3 months ago

Love the pineapple. This superbly written article exposes the cracks in the system that most people consider safe. The internet isn’t just for cute kitties any longer.

Patrick S. Tomlinson

3 months ago

The internet is barely a place for people anymore considering how much of it is automated.

A True Fan

3 months ago

Nice expose, Patrick. You nailed ’em good.

Remember when you and your awesome wife had a great time in Orlando while an army of obsessed trolls shit their brains out because you’re better than them at every aspect of existence? Good times.

PS: You are to standup comedy what you are to masculinity. Sterling examples of both.

Patrick S. Tomlinson

3 months ago

Aw, why thank you, little buddy.

Patrick S. Tomlinson

3 months ago

P.S. You know I can edit your posts here, right?

Scott Smith

2 months ago

LOL. Nice. Do another post where you show the original. I can only imagine what infantile comments “A True Fan” made. Just found your new account via Jim Wright. I lost my original account as well. People don’t like being told to get a head start on the rapture, apparently.

Marie Whatley

2 months ago

That’s the kind of stuff people go after you for, Patrick .

Patrick S. Tomlinson

2 months ago

Yes, telling the truth is what people go after me for. A lot of people really hate it.

Joseph Cumia

3 months ago

Thank you for this thought-provoking article. I’m sorry this happened to you.

Brian Gilgore

2 months ago

I too have been the victim of online bullying. Godspeed Mr Tomlinson.

Joe Cumia

2 months ago

What a fantastic, thoroughly sourced and researched article.

Patrick S. Tomlinson

2 months ago

Why thank you, Joe.

Patrick S. Tomlinson

2 months ago

Ah yes, they’re just being ironically homophobic and anti-sematic. For the lols.

Fuck right on off outta here with that bullshit. People who drop “faggot” with the same casual frequency as normal folks say “dude” are not being ironically homophobic, they ARE homophobic, full stop, and are perpetuating a culture of shame, abuse, and violence against the LGBTQ community.

Angela Case

2 months ago

People are dicks. What kind of piss-ant do you have to be to hide behind your computer and attack someone? Although in your case someone showed up at your house so I’m glad you gave him a shock. If he’d showed up at mine he’d have probably been shot as I have a young child and I’m a psycho if I think you’re going to harm him. But back to the point at hand, I’m sorry that this happened to you. On the up side I’ve never heard of your books until Chuck Wendig mentioned you in his blog post today and I am always game for new to me authors. Yay for me! Keep up the good fight.

Patrick S. Tomlinson

2 months ago

Oh you should see the emails they’ve been sending me from burner accounts. Spoilers, they think I should kill myself. Lovely people, so glad Twitter is emboldening them. Anyway, thanks for the comment, and I hope you enjoy my books. You can find links to all of them on my home page.

Jen Ponce

2 months ago

I’m so sorry this has happened to you. It’s downright annoying that the orange thing can tweet out any threat it likes without consequence and everyone else is left to swing.

dick dickerson

2 months ago

[Moderator edit] I made a very sexist remark directed at you because I am emotionally immature and sexually inadequate. I apologize for being a misogynistic piece of trash.

Dick in pats Ass

2 months ago

[Moderator edit] I’m a homophobic little man child terrified of my own sexuality and constantly humiliated by my poor performance with women. I’ve only ever made myself cum, and even then, I’m usually crying with shame.

Patrick S. Tomlinson

2 months ago

Wow, little buddy. Sorry to hear all that, but it’s really more information than anyone was looking for here.

Laura Anderson

2 months ago

Wow. So sorry you’ve had to deal with this. On the upside, you gained a new reader. 🙂

Patrick S. Tomlinson

2 months ago

Woot!

Brett Douville

2 months ago

Love the post, found it via Wendig’s blog. I miss when social media was a fun place I hung out with new and distant friends, and not the garbage mess it is today.

Signed up for your email, in solidarity, etc. Note: in the “Subscribe” box my email turned up in white foreground on white background text, which seems unintended. #bugreport

Patrick S. Tomlinson

2 months ago

Thank you, we just noticed this bug. Hope you love the books. STARSHIP REPO is coming out next May and it’s ridiculous.

Elowen Edwards

2 months ago

Sorry to hear all this, and I’m certainly going to take your advice to heart. Scary stuff! But I’m going to check out your books because someone who pisses off nazis so much is probably an author whose work I’ll enjoy reading 🙂

Patrick S. Tomlinson

2 months ago

I think that’s a safe bet 😉

Nana

2 months ago

Shit like this is why they come after you, Pat. Just take the loss and walk it off.

Patrick S. Tomlinson

2 months ago

That’s a no, little one. Why don’t you and the rest of them find something to do with your lives instead of being slobbering douchetrons? Because the problem here isn’t with me and other people trying to make the internet and the world a better place. It lays squarely with you.

Terry Clifford

2 months ago

I’m glad someone had the guts to stand up to that Nazi subreddit!

Jarvis

2 months ago

[Moderator edit] I am an enormous failure and my fathomless jealousy of your accomplishments consumes my every waking thought.

Patrick S. Tomlinson

2 months ago

Awww, little buddy. It’s okay. Don’t worry about what I’m doing. Instead, go find something you’re good at and put your time into making it the best it can be. Maybe someday after a lot of effort and practice, you’ll have accomplishments of your own to be proud of.

Raney Simmon

2 months ago

I’m sorry to hear you’ve had these experiences. I never heard of you until I saw Chuck’s post, but I think because of this post, I’ll be following you now too. I can’t wait for the day social media sites like Twitter actually decide to get their act together. Makes me really glad that I only use Twitter for promoting my blog posts and an occasional retweet of something I find interesting.

Patrick S. Tomlinson

2 months ago

I fear it’s going to take government intervention and regulation to actually get the job done. As a free-market conservative, that’s not how I want this to go down. But at the same time, Twitter, FB, etc have shown themselves not only to be incapable of self-correction, but appear utterly resistant to even trying.

Thanks for following. Grab a book if you like.

Your books are for fags

2 months ago

[Moderator edit] I’m terrified of my own penis and use homophobic slurs to mask my crippling insecurities.

Patrick S. Tomlinson

2 months ago

Admitting you have a problem is the first step. Good for you.

Sam Quirin

2 months ago

I don’t know, man. This is a tough one. Regarding bullies; on the one hand you would want all of us to enjoy unclipped speech (online or in person) yet on the other you want to be able to live your life free from such rapscallions. I wish I knew the balance. Genuinely, I do. I would tell you if I knew the solution. Thanks for the food for thought!

Miss Daniels

2 months ago

LOL These moderator edits are cracking me up! I also ended up here from Chuck’s blog, and I just wanted to say you have a new fan in me too! Keep fighting the good fight

Patrick S. Tomlinson

2 months ago

Thank you, and you’re welcome 😉

Nana

2 months ago

[Moderator edit] I’ve spent the last four weeks shitting my brains out with rage over your continued success and popularity. It’s a defense mechanism I use to avoid any sort of self-reflection that would lead me to consider why I spend so much time trying in vain to ruin strangers online with vulgar attacks and childish behavior, when I could direct that time and energy to improving myself and elevate my place in the world. I’m afraid to face the fact my hatred of you is only a way to transfer hatred of myself. Deep down, my self-loathing dictates that I don’t deserve happiness, but my anti-social personality disorder means I don’t think anyone else does, either.

I just wish my parents had hugged me one time.

Patrick S. Tomlinson

2 months ago

Yikes. That’s a lot to unpack, little guy. Sorry?

Rebecca Stormcrowe

2 months ago

Dude. I am sorry.

Patrick S. Tomlinson

2 months ago

Don’t be sorry for me. I’m doing just fine. My Twitter presence was largely political and translated only loosely into book sales. That simply wasn’t why most people followed me there. This will ultimately have negligible impact on my success as an author, reputation, or future prospects. If anything, it’s made me even more well-know in the circles that matter professionally.

Be sorry for the trolls, who have to sustain their fragile egos on whatever perceived misery they can inflict on people more successful than themselves. It’s a sad existence, with no endgame or tangible payoff.

fartpoop22

2 months ago

[Moderator’s edit] Hi Patrick, just wanted to let you know I have to lie extravagantly about my life because if the truth ever got out about my circumstances, I’d disappear from the internet entirely, despite the fact I hide behind anonymity because I’m an abject coward.

Patrick S. Tomlinson

2 months ago

We know, “fartpoop22.” We know.

Karen Demedeiros

2 months ago

Jfc sorry this happened to u. Actually missed your snarky takes. Had to come searching SMH.

Patrick S. Tomlinson

2 months ago

Glad you found me.

Todd Hillier

1 month ago

[Moderators edit] Please sir, I haven’t seen my dick in three years. I don’t know what’s become of it.

Patrick S. Tomlinson

1 month ago

If you love something, set it free. If it comes back to you, it’s yours.

Mistah chikin

1 month ago

I somehow found this through a cat’s Tweeter, and am so glad I did! The commentary from the moderator edits had me crying. Bravo moderator. I signed up for mailing list and followed a cat Tweeter

Patrick S. Tomlinson

1 month ago

I will try not to disappoint.

Bill Aschenbach

1 month ago

Holy shit I’m so sorry to read this. I hadn’t seen a tweet from you in a while and thought “I know I hadn’t posted something to get myself blocked, what the fuck is going on?”. You are a voice for good, please keep using your skill with words to fight for that.

Sherry Frost

1 month ago

It’s a jungle, and I’m not confident that I have what it takes to navigate it. I miss you on Twitter – I’ll subscribe as soon as I hit “send” here.

Patrick S. Tomlinson

1 month ago

Thank you!

V. R. Craft

3 weeks ago

That sucks! I went looking for your Twitter tonight, couldn’t find it, and ended up here. Sorry the trolls got the best of you. I hope you one day find yourself back on Twitter because I used to love your account.
Anyway, I went looking for it because I wanted to tweet to you how much I’m enjoying reading Gate Crashers! I had a pretty surreal experience yesterday. I got to the part where the alien species tries to dim their sun instead of making lifestyle changes to stop global warming, and it was literally a few hours after I read an article saying scientists had more or less proposed…the same thing (in real life). I wanted to ask you, as an author, does it flatter you when you kind of predict the future (hopefully not all of it), does it annoy you when real life people copy your ideas, or do you just hope we can do SOMETHING to stop the planet from melting down like Donald Chump when he finds out someone has bigger hands than him?

Patrick S. Tomlinson

3 weeks ago

You’re the third person to mention the sun dimming thing. Quite a coincidence, but I wrote that scene something like eight years ago. It wasn’t exactly planned out. The idea of dimming the sun, either through injecting dust or sulfides into the upper atmosphere, or through physical sunshades in orbit, is an old one. IIRC, it was first proposed as a way to cool Venus to prepare it for terraforming. It has since been kicked around the scientific fringe in geoengineering circles as a way to control AGW here going back twenty years or more. It’s only being mainstreamed now because of how dire the situation is becoming. I can’t take any credit for the concept, I just put my own little spin on it, and tried to point out the law of unintended consequences could be very, very bad when applied on a planetary scale. As you can probably guess, I’m not in favor.

I’m glad you’re enjoying GATE CRASHERS. Tweet about it anyway, and be sure to tag @torbooks. STARSHIP REPO is coming out in May. It’s completely ridiculous. Throw it a preorder if you care to.

Tony Pastapun

2 weeks ago

Ran across this after trying to find your twitter (only looked ’cause I found a screenshot of one of your tweets), and I’m honestly thoroughly disgusted by these trolls, especially since I’ve recently had quite good experiences with users of an admittedly much different subreddit. Just goes to show that no matter how many good people are out there (like the folks that helped me out on r/DnD), there’ll always be more than enough jackwads to balance them out.

On a more curious note, which of your books do you think would be the best introduction to your work? I’ve been a bit farther behind on reading and other related hobbies than I’d care to admit for far too long, and I’m trying to get back into the swing of things.

Patrick S. Tomlinson

2 weeks ago

The truth is there are lots more good people out there. They’re just quieter that the handful of complete assholes that get off to ruining things for everyone else.

As for my books, I have two series in print at the moment. The first is more sci-fi mystery/thriller and starts with THE ARK. The second is straight up sci-fi comedy and begins with GATE CRASHERS. Take your pick, they’re both fine choices. And thanks for looking me up.