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Serial trolls, sockpuppets and Twitter harassment: Why Zelda Williams’s abusers are still online

“Goose’s” avatar, before Twitter suspended the account Wednesday. (Twitter)
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They have pseudonyms, not names.

They deal in racial slurs and foul-mouthed insults, not actual dialogue.

And collectively, they represent some of the darkest, slimiest, most confounding material on the social web: Whenever anyone refers to the Internet’s inability to “have nice things,” or to be “a pro-social” environment, they’re essentially talking about characters like the two who tweeted graphic images and insults at Robin Williams’ daughter, Zelda … both of whom belonged to a shadowy cabal of interrelated, bottom-dwelling trolls who exist primarily to prey upon public figures and their fans.

It’s impossible to call them “people,” because evidence suggests that many of these accounts are sock puppets, or fake accounts, manipulated by one actual person. And that means that, even after Twitter cracked down on Williams’s abusers, both of them are still online.

Case in point? The user @MrGooseBuster also, as of April, owned the accounts @_MrGoosebuster_, @GetCancerPlease, @PleaseGetAIDS, @JacobMiller221, @_MikeStanford_, @Smeagledogg7 and @VommitTosser, according to a video he posted to Youtube. While some of those accounts have been suspended, both @PleaseGetAIDS and @GetCancerPlease are still online.

Meanwhile, both @MrGooseBuster and @PimpStory, the accounts that trolled Zelda, are connected, via an overlapping network of connections on YouTube, Vine, Twitter and the video game platform/social network Steam, to a larger group of other trolls who refer to themselves as “Beasts,” “Keyboard Warriors” or members of “The Militia”: @THE_ELPRESADOR, @Elpresadorjr, @Cornelius_W, @Smokeydogg7, @mangodead and @MilitiaFacts, among many others. All of the accounts have bragged on Twitter about amassing a network of sock puppets, crowed over @GooseBuster and @Pimpstory’s new-found infamy, and engaged in abusive behavior that’s banned under Twitter’s spam and harassment policies — including sending repeat tweets from multiple accounts, tweeting slurs and death threats at individual users, and posting pornographic photos and videos, among other things. (To be clear, while all of these accounts engaged frequently on similar topics, @GooseBuster and @Pimpstory were the only accounts that tweeted abuse to Zelda Williams.)

What’s a social network to do under these circumstances? Twitter has been criticized for making abuse-reporting difficult on victims — something Zelda Williams complained about on Twitter. On Wednesday, Twitter’s vice president of trust and safety, Del Harvey, said she’d be reviewing those policies; a person with knowledge of the changes said Twitter has been working on the revisions for several months.

But addressing the challenge of serial trolls will be profoundly more difficult, from a logistical and technological standpoint. Currently, when Twitter suspends a user’s account for abuse, nothing stops him from opening a new account and restarting that same behavior under another handle. But it’s unclear how Twitter could fix that.

Critics have suggested a handful of of new policies to make it more difficult for serial offenders to make new accounts — things like disabling the @-reply function until a user has a certain number of followers or has been on the network a certain amount of time, or requiring that users register with a credit card number or real name. Advocates have also advanced a “watch my account” feature, which would let users alert Twitter when they’re being attacked so that a company moderator could step in, or an invisible filter similar to the ones e-mail clients use on spam.

All of these options have drawbacks. Twitter has, since its early days, been a champion for free speech, and strict filters or policies could step on that. With half a billion tweets sent every day, it’s also logistically prohibitive, and legally tricky, for the company to pro-actively monitor every piece of content. After all, if Twitter promised to look at everything, it would theoretically open itself up to, say, copyright suits from entertainment industry groups or other legal proceedings.

Of course, the status quo has serious drawbacks, too — as we saw with Zelda Williams Wednesday. And in the absence of better solutions, it’s victims like Zelda who will get pushed offline while the trolls celebrate victory …

… and move on to other targets.

Lt. Keith Boyd of the Marin County Sheriff’s Office said the body of Robin Williams was found by his assistant on the morning of Aug. 11. The comedian and actor had apparently hanged himself with a belt. (Video: Reuters)