Techdirt's think tank, the Copia Institute, is working with the Trust & Safety Professional Association and its sister organization, the Trust & Safety Foundation, to produce an ongoing series of case studies about content moderation decisions. These case studies are presented in a neutral fashion, not aiming to criticize or applaud any particular decision, but to highlight the many different challenges that content moderators face and the tradeoffs they result in. Find more case studies here on Techdirt and on the TSF website.

Content Moderation Case Study: Handling Trolls Invading A Community (1993)

from the brigade-defense dept

Summary: Before even the World Wide Web existed, Usenet was a popular gathering place for various niche communities to congregate. In many ways it was similar to what Reddit has become today, except that it was not controlled by any single company. Instead there were a number of newsgroups (like subreddits) and various news servers that could choose to carry whichever news groups they wanted.

Each news group was a specialized topic area, so there could be newsgroups for Bob Dylan’s music (rec.music.dylan) or computer languages (comp.lang.lisp). One newsgroup, started in 1990, was alt.tasteless which, as the name suggests, was a newsgroup for sharing offensive content. As its Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) noted:

A newsgroup devoted to tasteless phenomena in all its forms. A place for people with a twisted and sick sense of humour. In alt.tasteless we like to get into the details. We want the feel of it, the smell of it, the stench of it, every little rotten and puss-oozing detail. And then, of course, some rough pictures of it in alt.binaries.pictures.tasteless or alt.tasteless.pictures.

One of the founding members of alt.tasteless, Steven Snedker, told Wired Magazine in 1994 that one of the reasons it was created was “to keep other parts of Usenet clean.” Except, as a classic Wired article notes, that’s not what happened. Instead, alt.tasteless decided to invade another newsgroup: rec.pets.cats, a newsgroup discussing cats. Today, having trolls from a “tasteless” part of the internet “invading” a more wholesome spot is a known phenomena. But the alt.tasteless invasion of rec.pets.cats in August of 1993 may have been the first case.

It began with a fake anonymous posting to rec.pets.cats by a member of alt.tasteless. The subject was “Cats & Dates” and it told a slightly off-color story about a pet cat in heat scaring off dates. Many participants in rec.pets.cats tried providing useful advice, but then others from alt.tasteless started responding with… tasteless responses.

This only began an escalating “war” between newsgroups in which one side (alt.tasteless) clearly held the upper hand. As summarized by Wired, the leader of the alt.tasteless effort was mostly a college student named Constantino Tobio Jr., who went by the evocative name “Traschcan Man” on alt.tasteless.

During the ensuing months, it is safe to say that hundreds of messages passed back and forth. Whenever life began to return to normal at rec.pets.cats, someone from alt.tasteless would post an article there looking for, say, a good recipe for Polynesian cat. Occasionally, someone from rec.pets.cats would try to fight back by posting an article about his or her cute kitty on alt.tasteless. But that only led people like Trashcan Man to respond with their own articles about topics such as vivisecting the cat and having sex with its innards.

Yes, Trashcan Man was right there on the front lines of the war.

One day, a (real) rec.pets.cat person posted an article to his own news group asking whether anyone could suggest a way of keeping a neighborhood dog from harassing his cat. Trashcan Man had a suggestion: Spray it in the face with muriatic acid, a form of hydrochloric acid. Of course this is dangerous - about as sensible as warming a cat by putting it in a microwave oven (which someone had previously recommended).

This situation created something of a crisis on rec.pets.cats, where people were (a) just wanting to talk about cats and (b) worried that someone might actually fall for the dangerous suggestions from the invading users.

Decisions to be made by participants in rec.pets.cats:

  • How do you stop users who are posting to the community for clearly malicious reasons?
  • How can you distinguish bad actors from those who legitimately want to be on rec.pets.cats?
  • Is there any way to prevent the “invasion” from continuing?
  • Are there ways to effectively punish those who began the trolling behavior?
Questions and policy implications to consider:
  • On a system without central control, who handles content moderation decisions?
  • Is it reasonable to leave such decisions up to the users in the community?
  • Can there be open niche communities that will not be ruined by malicious users?
Resolution: One user on rec.pets.cats, Karen Kolling, decided to take matters into her own hands, first teaching the (not always tech savvy) users of the newsgroup how to use “kill files” to block the trolls from alt.tasteless, in an effort to lessen their impact.

Kolling began teaching the cat people how to write "kill files."

On Usenet, kill files are a way to filter out messages from people you don't want to see. Some places refer to them as "bozo filters." With a kill file, you can, say, screen out any messages posted by someone named Trashcan Man, so that when you go through the day's articles none of his will show up. It will be as if they were never written.

"Let's say Joe Smith posted a message to rec.pets.cats, full of descriptions of how he likes to mutilate cats," Kolling explains. "You can set the kill file to get rid of the messages of Joe Smith." And that is precisely what she taught her friends to do. It worked for a while, until alt.tasteless people began "counterfeiting names so you wouldn't know it was Joe Smith," she says.

The battle between the two newsgroups escalated, including personal attacks on Kolling. Eventually, she realized that she needed to get the leader of the attack -- Trashcan Man -- to stop. And she did that by getting his internet service provider to threaten to disconnect him:

Kolling and a few of her Net-savvy friends began contacting the people who provide Net access to some of the more flagrant abusers. These system administrators were at universities in some cases; in others, they ran commercial gateways to the Internet.

"What I was hoping was that the system administrators would just tell them, 'Hey, grow up,' and that would be enough," she says.

Maybe that's what did happen in some cases. In other cases, though - cases like Trashcan Man's - the reaction was more pointed. At the time, Trashcan Man was reduced to buying net access from Panix, a popular provider in New York City. He had had a free account at Columbia, but that was suspended after Trashcan Man planted a thing called a fork bomb on the system, which caused it to crash.

One morning late in the fall, Trashcan Man connected to Panix and got a stern warning from the owner, Alexis Rosen. In e-mail Rosen noted that there had been complaints - again - about Trashcan Man. The tone of the message was clear: Knock it off, or else.

"So I knocked it off," Trashcan Man says, "because I value my Net access."

The Wired story ends by saying things calmed down somewhat after that, with Trashcan Man saying that he’d learned his lesson (though he said he was still “flaming” people -- but just those he believed deserved it). Soon after the article ran in 1994, Trashcan Man graduated from Columbia University. According to LinkedIn he’s now been an engineer at a tech company for more than two decades.

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Filed Under: brigades, content moderation, trolls, usenet


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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 21 Oct 2020 @ 4:13pm

    Censorship!

    Well that was completey uncalled for, everyone knows that the proper way to deal with toxic assholes invading your community with the intent to make it miserable for those already there is to let them stay and fill the space with sewage in the interest of 'balance' and 'letting them present their opposing views', and if the people who had been members of the community devoted to cute pets objected to graphic descriptions of animal torture then that's entirely on them and how dare they try to silence the invaders simply because they disagreed with them!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    'Chips' Tor Tiller, 21 Oct 2020 @ 4:57pm

    OKAY, now state what YOU do here to ME when on-topic and decent.

    Your story is of an extreme by which you hope to place yourself as decent and ordinary, just trying to keep a forum civil.

    I've have over 90% of my always on-topic civil comments "hidden" as you euphemize censoring and disadvantaging viewpoints.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    'Chips' Tor Tiller, 21 Oct 2020 @ 4:58pm

    And the TD classic: Techdirt re-writer Geigner attacking me

    for NO reason, NOT part of on-going discussion, racist-tinged, and Timothy Geigner's entire comment:

    "There are white people, and then there are ignorant motherfuckers like you...."

    http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20110621/16071614792/misconceptions-free-abound-why-d o-brains-stop-zero.shtml#c1869

    1) YOU, Maz, when you finally answered my frequent complaints after several years, called that "a joke". Is THAT the way sites should "moderate"?

    2) Should I be punished because of my viewpoint? That's the actuality EVERYDAY here at Techdirt. I soldier on to let you prove how much you value on-topic civil comments that disagree, which if you had any competence or substance, you'd ignore.

    3) How EXACTLY does Techdirt's "hiding" work? WHO is "the community"? What are its standards? Are there any up-votes possible? How many clicks out of how many readers does it take to "hide" my comments?

    4) And what about the OBVIOUS astro-turfing by Timothy Geigner with his "Gary" sock-puppet, that attacked me thousands of times, clear harassment, then five days after I left, just stopped? Do you pay directly for that, Maz, or just Geigner doing it on his own? With you unable to avoid knowing, it's a tiny site.

    You won't answer with any details.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
      identicon
      'Chips' Tor Tiller, 21 Oct 2020 @ 5:02pm

      Re: And the TD classic: Techdirt re-writer Geigner attacking me

      Link to "Gary", was doing over 2000 comments a year, then 5 days after I left, just stopped!

      https://www.techdirt.com/user/darkflite

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Stephen T. Stone (profile), 21 Oct 2020 @ 5:02pm

      You’ve been trolling this site for a decade because of that insult? Seriously? I was called worse names on 4chan and forgot it within minutes.

      Please seek help for your obvious mental health issues.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        That One Guy (profile), 21 Oct 2020 @ 5:25pm

        'I'm not deranged, look at how crazy I am!'

        Gotta love the own-goal where they just can't help themselves and make it clear even to newcomers that might not be familiar with their brand of batshittery that they are the kind of deranged nutjob that will obsess over a (just under) decade old insult, and like the idiot they are put up a link to it where anyone who actually checks can see the context and the fact that it was explained to them what it actually meant.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
      identicon
      'Chips' Tor Tiller, 21 Oct 2020 @ 5:06pm

      Re: And the TD classic: Techdirt re-writer Geigner attacking me

      left out important point on #4:

      Is there any Administrator involved, or is the "hiding" an entirely mechanical process? You tacitly claim, by NEVER admitting, that there is NO Administrator. That's an obvious LIE, no such system exists that with unerring accuracy censors my comments and NEVER those of fanboys.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 21 Oct 2020 @ 5:47pm

        Re: Re: And the TD classic: Techdirt re-writer Geigner attacking

        No one is censoring you. Get some mental help.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        solidus, 21 Oct 2020 @ 5:55pm

        As a fanboy I can tell you, when we see someone getting all up on their high horse and demanding Masnick DEBATE THEM! ANSWER FOR YEARS OF MISTREATMENT! SO UNFAIR! we clicky-click the red button (because they look like chodes and all they have to share is their whole ass). I don't always agree with the site and sometimes I'm white-hot with rage, but I don't comment unless I'm sure I've understood where they come from, I got something insightful to say, and I know I'm saying it in an understandable way. Otherwise, I live with someone being Wrong on the Internet.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 21 Oct 2020 @ 10:21pm

        Re: Re:

        Hi. I'm a reader of Techdirt to the extent you might call me a fan.

        When I call out trolls and idiots like you I get censored, mostly because footage of third degree burns like the ones you get is genuinely disturbing.

        The reason why you get the treatment more often than I do is because unlike you, I don't think letting copyright enforcers break the law or anally raping blind grandmothers is an effective way to deal with copyright infringement.

        If that gets your mother's panties all twisted in a bunch my advice to you is to stop wearing them.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 22 Oct 2020 @ 8:28am

        Re: Re: And the TD classic: Techdirt re-writer Geigner attacking

        "That's an obvious LIE, no such system exists that with unerring accuracy censors my comments and NEVER those of fanboys."

        Actually such a system exists. See the little buttons at the topmost right corner? Two green, two grey, and one red?

        The green ones are positive judgments. Every user gets to click either once. The red one is a flag which indicates the user deemed the comment to be trolling, untruthful, or unacceptable.

        When your comments get a significant amount of red flags over green positives, your comment is hidden. Vóila.

        I realize that this may be too technical for someone as willfully blind and beset by dunning-kruger as you often are, so let's summarize it to this; Your comments are so blindly obvious everyone realizes who you are by the very second sentence, and after reading that far we already realize the rest of your post will be as flaming a garbage heap as those first few sentences.

        And then the vast majority who read your comments halfway through flags your comments as the irrelevant garbage it is, and everyone coming to the forum later is spared having to watch you squat and shit all over the thread. Nothing more than vox populi, vox dei saying "Nothing decent to see here, folks, 1 out of 10, would not read again".

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Stephen T. Stone (profile), 22 Oct 2020 @ 8:43am

          When your comments get a significant amount of red flags over green positives, your comment is hidden.

          Not entirely true. I’ve seen comments that were both flagged and granted “Funny” status.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 21 Oct 2020 @ 8:41pm

      Re: And the TD classic: Techdirt re-writer Geigner attacking me

      I love the way you're angry about that quote (a pathetic amount of time later), but you prove what an ignorant motherfucker you are every time you whine about it...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Oct 2020 @ 11:30pm

      Re: And the TD classic: Techdirt re-writer Geigner attacking me

      You still haven't figured out the context of that quote? You are preposterously stupid.

      But, really, this is all a good example of what you don't get: context matters. People have no problem with that quote because they understood the context of who Tim was quoting and why. The reason your comments all get reported is because people understand the context of you being a trolling asshole who has vandalized this site for over a decade.

      It's clear that you cannot understand complex ideas, but you might want to start by understanding context.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Oct 2020 @ 7:29am

      Re: And the TD classic: Techdirt re-writer Geigner attacking me

      Should I be punished because of my viewpoint? That's the actuality EVERYDAY here at Techdirt.

      I've had a number of my posts get negative responses, but none of them have ever been hidden that I can recall.

      You aren't being "punished" for your views, you're being "punished" for your attitude and behavior.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 22 Oct 2020 @ 8:34am

        Re: Re: And the TD classic: Techdirt re-writer Geigner attacking

        "but none of them have ever been hidden that I can recall. "

        Possibly because it takes a lot of user accounts clicking the little red "Ew!" button before the comment gets hidden and you might not often try to convert a flaming turd into text and squeeze it into the comment section?

        Baghdad Bob, now, he appears to know no other way of communicating than to sit down, shit in his hand, and start throwing the fresh content at people while screeching like chimp with a cattleprod up its ass.

        It's pretty informative that his tells are so bloody obvious he literally can not squeeze a comment on to this forum without ever TD veteran immediately realizing who it is after the second sentence.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Hieronymous Cowherd, 21 Oct 2020 @ 7:22pm

    wrong on the internet

    Or there's this response https://xkcd.com/386/

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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