On Wednesday, the family of Victoria Soto — the 27-year-old teacher who died shielding students during the Sandy Hook massacre — filed 15 harassment reports to Twitter about the same, relentless troll.
@InternetSheriff, as he or she goes by currently, is a Sandy Hook “truther”: someone who believes, against all the evidence, that the killing of 26 elementary school students and teachers in December 2012 was a “false flag” attack orchestrated to clamp down on gun rights.
There are a surprising number of people who hold this viewpoint, alas. But @InternetSheriff is unique in that he keeps registering Twitter accounts under Soto’s name, where he spouts theories about how Soto’s family was paid off, or Soto never existed, to anyone who will listen.
Most people would presumably agree that @InternetSheriff’s behavior is despicable — made more despicable, even, by the fact that Soto’s family is so painfully aware of it. But though Twitter’s policy explicitly prohibits impersonation, and though Twitter promised special “support for family members of deceased users” after Robin Williams’ death, the account stayed online for almost 24 hours. Twitter suspended that account and three others on Thursday evening, within 15 minutes of receiving an inquiry about it from a Post reporter.
So two years after Victoria died, Soto’s family has taken an extraordinary step to protect her from online defamation, both on Twitter and other social media sites: They’ve filed a trademark for her name.
Trademarking an individual’s name is possible, but not exactly easy: the families of Caylee Anthony and Trayvon Martin both attempted to trademark those names, with some difficulty. Among other things, applicants must show that the name is distinctive — there’s only one person you think of when you hear “Caylee Anthony” — and explain why they’re trademarking the name of someone who is deceased. The second part shouldn’t be difficult: It’s not unheard of to file “defensive” trademarks when a name is at risk of being misused. But there are 681 Victoria Sotos in the U.S., according to public records, and that distinctiveness could be a little harder to prove.
On top of that, even if Soto’s family does succeed, it doesn’t help the families who will follow. In many ways, in fact, trademarking Victoria’s name is similar to getting revenge porn taken down under a copyright claim: They’re both practical, last-ditch resorts, taken only when the more applicable laws and rules won’t work.
In this case, the problems the Soto family is encountering are twofold. First, every time @InternetSheriff is suspended, he instantaneously comes back on a secondary, pseudonymous account — a problem known as “sockpuppeting,” and one that Twitter has absolutely no defense for. From a technical standpoint, these sort of dedicated whack-a-mole style trolls are very difficult to deal with, even with a great deal of moderation.
On top of that, the Soto family has struggled to get the accounts taken down fast enough, apparently due to Twitter’s internal investigation process. After a user files a complaint, the complaint enters a queue where site moderators review it, the better to weed out bad reports and protect the site’s liberal free speech policies. There’s something to be said for those policies, of course — everyone is allowed get a voice online, even if they’re voicing absurd conspiracy theories — but the lack of nuance and discretion on the part of Twitter’s moderators means that many, many abusers fall through the cracks. It’s a point raised persistently by activists and advocates, including Lindy West, whose seminal radio piece on Twitter trolling finally got CEO Dick Costolo to admit the site had a problem.
“I’d like to see Twitter and other platforms develop mechanisms to recognize context and sustained abuse,” West told me last week. “Being deluged with hundreds (or sometimes thousands) of even relatively benign messages … can feel as intimidating as one or two extremely explicit, violent ones. But right now, to Twitter’s moderators, each of those individual messages taken out of context doesn’t register as abusive.”
Soto’s family is learning that the hard way, it would seem: Since Wednesday evening, the official account for the Vicki Soto Memorial Fund, which is managed by Soto’s family and an outside media director, has sent a series of increasingly anguished tweets to Costolo and Nu Wexler, Twitter’s head of public policy.
For almost 24 hours no one responded, until the accounts came down shortly before 5 p.m. today. How long until new ones crop up, well … that’s more difficult to say.