One Man Troll Army Arrested For Supporting Terrorists: Where's The Line Between Trolling And Terrorism?
from the don't-troll-the-fbi dept
Remember Tanya Cohen? Earlier this year I wrote a story calling bullshit on a long non-sensical rant by “Cohen” in which “she” argued that the US was somehow against human rights and true free speech because it refused to criminalized “hate speech” with hate speech loosely defined as any speech “Tanya Cohen” didn’t like. While some of the free speech crew attacked Cohen’s piece, I pointed out that, to me, it was very clearly satire. There was no way anyone actually believed those statements. Take this one for example:
Anyone guilty of hate speech ? which should carry criminal penalties of 25 years to life ? should be sent to special prisons designed to re-educate them and to instill values of tolerance, freedom, democracy, and human rights in them.
Well, now it turns out that Tanya Cohen may be facing some fairly serious criminal penalties “herself” — and, somewhat ironically, it appears that those charges are based mostly on sending some public web URLs to an FBI confidential informant pretending to be a terrorist. And, of course, “Tanya Cohen” is not Tanya Cohen at all, but rather Joshua Goldberg — who was arrested last Thursday in connection with at least some of his trolling. Soon after that, a larger set of revelations about the trolling came out, suggesting that Goldberg was a one-man trolling army, setting up a huge variety of different accounts saying different things and often pitting one of his own accounts against another.
Some commentators have suggested that Goldberg was an extreme free speech supporter — but it’s difficult to tell if Goldberg believed in much of anything beyond trolling. He seemed to be an equal opportunity troller, willing to troll just about anyone. He set up fake profiles of real people and made them say heinous things. He had personas that were extreme free speech supporters. He had personas that were extreme anti-free speech supporters. He had personas that were white power racists. He had personas that advocated exterminating Palestinians. He had personas that were ISIS-supporting jihadis. It’s that last one, rather than any of the other ones, that now has him facing criminal charges for material terrorist support.
You can read the details in the criminal complaint against Goldberg. Now, to be clear: Goldberg appears to be a world class asshole, and a somewhat obsessive and thorough internet troll (though the Cohen stunt really seemed so ridiculous that I’m still surprised people fell for it). And he also appeared to be playing with real fire. Trying to troll free speech/anti-free speech people is one thing. Trying to troll ISIS supporters is another. Among other things, his “Australi Witness” persona tried to take credit for the high profile shootings in Texas at a “Draw Muhammad” event. Here’s what he posted about “himself” online:
Hello, this is Australi Witness. You might know me for inspiring the attacks in Garland, Texas, where two mujahideen entered an event mocking the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) with intent to slaughter the kuffar in it. When I encouraged the attacks in Texas, my biggest inspiration was the Australian Muslim human rights activist Mariam Veiszadeh, who has worked tirelessly and diligently to outlaw blasphemy against Islam in Australia. Any true Muslim knows that blasphemy against the Prophets of Allah (SWT) is a capital crime which cannot be tolerated under any circumstances, and Mariam Veiszadeh’s work has provided me with a great deal of inspiration. All who defame the Prophet (PBUH) must be crushed. Bill Leak and Larry Pickering will soon meet their demise, as will Josh Bornstein.
The trolling is almost too convoluted to follow, but Mariam Veiszadeh and Josh Bornstein are both real people — but are both people that Goldberg was trying to smear with other efforts, including setting up a fake persona pretending to be Bornstein, and then somehow convinced the Times of Israel to publish an absolutely ridiculous opinion piece advocating for the outright extermination of Palestinians, which didn’t make the real Bornstein very happy.
But, it was those claims of inspiring the Texas attacks that caught the FBI’s attention — and suddenly made Goldberg the target of one of the FBI’s patented “own plots,” in which it sends in a “confidential informant” — either an undercover FBI agent or, more commonly, a ex-con looking for some extra cash from the FBI to be a “paid informant” — to see if it can entice the target to join a totally fake terrorist plot. From the criminal complaint, you see that after the FBI’s “confidential human source” (CHS) made contact with Goldberg (playing the persona of “AusWitness”), it was actually the FBI informant who repeatedly suggested taking things up a notch. And then AusWitness played along, pushing the FBI informant to go do an attack.
Yes. This is some weird shit: it’s a conversation between a renowned internet troll and an FBI informant, neither knowing who the other really is and each working angles to try to get the other to do something, without either one ever realizing the other is playing a really different game. And the end result is a totally fake bomb plot… and criminal charges.
The conversation between the two began with Goldberg as “AusWitness” pretending that he may have accidentally outed a fellow ISIS supporter in Australia, and pretending that he “felt guilty” about posting about the guy on 8chan. The FBI informant consoles Goldberg a bit and then switches the subject:
August 15, 2015 07:27
CHS – I don’t know what else to say ahki.
August 15, 2015 07:33
CHS – Maybe we can put some more irons in the fire bro. I think we’re on the same page as far as ideas go.
August 16, 2015 21:02
AW – What do You mean, brother?
August 16, 2015 22:40
CHS – Sounds like you’re trying to do some planning Australia. I’m trying to do the same here. I have to get some sleep classes start again tomorrow but let’s talk about this more tomorrow night
Notice that it was “CHS” the FBI informant who brings up the idea of starting a plot in the US. The next day, Goldberg does a trolly bit, baiting the FBI informant, by talking about mythical attacks that were supposed to happen and how “hopefully” they’ll be some more attacks on 9/11 this year — and the FBI informant responds:
We could probably figure something out.
Goldberg/AusWitness then asks the FBI informant if he has any bombs, and the informant admits he doesn’t know how to make bombs. That’s when Goldberg/AusWitness sends over some URLs of publicly available websites:
August 19, 2015 06:28
AusWitness – What weapons do you have brother? I can send you guides on how to make bombs if you need help making them.
August 19, 2015 06:29
CHS – I only have the one weapon but I do t think that is what Allah wants for me. I was arrested just before with the one weapon. Guides would be great ahki something bigger than just a gun attack alhamdulillah.
August 19, 2015 06:44
AusWfness – Alight, akhi. I’m gonna send you some bomb-making guides on Twitter soon.
The message sent on twitter contained five URLs to public facing websites. It sounds like the kind of websites pretty much any idiot could find with a quick Google search, and which might help some people create explosives, but (more likely) would lead people to injure themselves trying. From the complaint, describing what was sent:
… five website links that contained instructions on how to construct explosives, including pipe bombs or incendiary devices are listed.
Later, Goldberg/AusWitness did suggest a target (a memorial event in Kansas City commemorating first responders in NYC on 9/11), but again, we’re still in a conversation between a troll and an FBI informant. Still, it turned out that was really enough. Amazingly, at about this same time, some folks down in Australia, who were also being trolled by Goldberg figured out who he was, and got into a conversation with him online, in which he basically admitted to everything, and even talked about his pro-ISIS trolling, laughing off the idea that anyone was actually going to do anything based on his online efforts, saying “these guys are pussy keyboard warriors.” The people who had this conversation with Goldberg passed it along to Australian law enforcement, who shared it with the FBI… just as they were wrapping up their investigation. The FBI, in the complaint, notes that it wasn’t sure if Goldberg’s trolling efforts was really that relevant, and admit they had no idea about it when they began the investigation, but are including it just in case it’s important.
Either way, here’s the crux of the complaint against Goldberg:
Based on the facts and circumstances described above, there is probable cause to believe that Joshua Ryne Goldberg (Goldberg) illegally distributed information relating to explosives, destructive devices, and weapons of mass destruction, namely that on or about August 19, 2015 through and including August 28, 2015, in Clay County, in the Middle District of Florida, Goldberg distributed information pertaining to the manufacturing of explosives, destructive devices, or weapons of mass destruction in furtherance of an activity that constitutes a Federal crime of violence by sending to a person five website links for websites that provided instructions that could be utilized to construct or make explosives, destructive devices, or weapons of mass destruction, as part of a plot to explode a bomb on September 13, 2015 at a memorial ceremony in Kansas City, Missouri that commemorates the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 842(p).
Again, the key part: that he sent five public URL links to an FBI informant.
Once again, no one is denying that Goldberg is a world class asshole troll. Some may feel that he deserves to be locked up for that aspect of his life. But it seems rather noteworthy that at no point was anyone even remotely in danger here. At no point was anyone even remotely connected to ISIS or any terrorist organization involved here. Instead, you had a one-man internet trolling army pretending to be ISIS trying to troll someone else he thought was a wanna-be ISIS supporter in the US, but who actually turned out to be working for the FBI. And Goldberg was never actually a part of the plot. He wasn’t planning to take part in it. He just sent the guy some links to websites about making bombs. The FBI doesn’t say, but it seems likely that those websites are still very much online and accessible.
It’s hard not to cheer on seeing an internet troll get “hoist on his own petard,” but there was no terrorist plot here. There were just two people playing other people online for different reasons, trying to get the other to do something.
Meanwhile, now that we know a little bit more about “Tanya Cohen” — and it similarly reveals that the person who repeatedly kept trying to convince me that “Cohen” was real was… also Joshua Goldberg. One of his many other personas was “Moon Metropolis” and he kept a blog and a twitter feed, in which he pretended to not just be the anti-Tanya Cohen, but to insist to me and others that Cohen was absolutely real and meant every word of “her” crazy rants:
Oh yeah. One more thing: it seems that Goldberg was never really that good in covering his tracks. Just days after my original post, a Twitter user going by @healing_bible and @preacherskidd actually told me that Tanya Cohen was likely a creation of Moon Metropolis… who was really Joshua Goldberg… leading Moon Metropolis to flip out in return.
In the end, it’s quite clear that Goldberg was an extreme internet troll, who engaged in a variety of trollish personas. And, in the end, one of those personas got him arrested and facing some pretty serious criminal charges. But, as nice as it may sound to throw a troll in jail, it’s hard to see how he actually did anything that supported terrorism in any way… unless you consider internet trolling a form of terrorism. And then, you might find someone like “Tanya Cohen” to agree with you. But I’m guessing Joshua Goldberg might not agree. Then again, it might just depend on which persona he’s decided to take on that day.