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At the electronics Stack Exchange site, Electrical Engineering, we have been plagued by a particular user for a while. (I am not a moderator there and haven't reached the 10k reputation level which allows me to see deleted posts.) I and many other users have been witnesses to the postings by a troubled/troublesome user who creates numerous sock puppet accounts to continue attacking other users.

We recently had one of our highest reputation users mysteriously delete his account. This person was frequently the target of the troll. Whether the high rep user felt threatened, or was simply tired of the troll, or deleted his account for other reasons, we do not know.

The moderators are doing the best they can with the tools they have to disallow access by the troll, but inevitably there are times when the troll gains access by posting semi-lucid answers, and eventually starts to attack users again.

My question is this: Does Stack Exchange Inc. (the parent company) have legal means to determine the identity of and pursue legal action against a user who continues to create trouble, issue threats, and generally degrade the quality of a Stack Exchange site? If so, what needs to happen? Do the moderators need to simply make a formal request? Does Stack Exchange have a legal team that can investigate?

I think I speak for many users at Electrical Engineering when I say we are tired of dealing with the problems that have arisen from one individual, and earnestly request that it be given some serious attention.

  • You people have options, too. Bullying is illegal in US, Canada, European Union and so on. It can be prosecuted if you are willing. And if he uses punishable threats, you don't even need a lawyer on your own, police and public prosecutors have obligation to take care of it if you report. Exact laws depend on where exactly you live, where lives your troll and where are the servers, so I can't really be more specific, not my area of expertise, I just know who to call ;) – Mołot Sep 16 '13 at 7:18
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    Are you looking for help with one individual user, or are you looking for a generic workflow on how to treat such behavior? – Time Traveling Bobby Sep 16 '13 at 7:24
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    The best option it has is to nuke accounts on sight. And for you as a community to ignore the user. Any legal hassle might just be that; a hassle. – Bart Sep 16 '13 at 7:25
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    Our moderators have instructed users to flag the troll posts as spam, which helps get them downvoted, removed and bans the user (apparently). The problem is that the user continues to create new accounts (we've discussed banning IP addresses) and it's difficult to catch. Sometimes the posts will be visible to users for many minutes or hours before action is taken. @MNight We are looking for help with one individual user (I've emailed the SE team) but also would like to know the workflow for future reference. – JYelton Sep 16 '13 at 7:31
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    @JYelton: For help with the user itself, I think the chain You -> Electronics.Meta -> Mods -> SE-Team would be correct. But we love to give generic advice. :) – Time Traveling Bobby Sep 16 '13 at 7:43
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    The answer below seems good news. It's really frustrating they keep making new accounts. I actually feel sorry for people like that, they have mental issues, likely social problems, and sadly usually not their fault (born with it). If however they're just some sh17 h34d then I have no sympathy. – James Sep 16 '13 at 7:44
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    @James: I don't think that such trolls have "real" mental issues they were born with. Those people are exceedingly rare on the internet. I think these trolls are just kids with a bad childhood (bad as in "sit here alone in front of the TV while mommy goes shopping"). As far as I know, in-born mental issues mostly manifest themselves in the real world (torturing small animals instead of annoying people on the internet f.e.). On second thought, this maybe belongs on Cognitive Science. – Time Traveling Bobby Sep 16 '13 at 8:00
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    @M.NightDemonbobby Since you mentioned CogSci: What is the psychology behind trolling? – yannis Sep 16 '13 at 10:24
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    We now do know why David (the high-rep user referred to in the question) left. See meta.electronics.stackexchange.com/a/3089/4512 – Olin Lathrop Sep 16 '13 at 14:04
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    -1, if they've done nothing illegal, there is no reason to do any more. It is ridiculous to suggest that a simple troll should be "prosecuted". – user7116 Sep 16 '13 at 14:40
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    @user7116 From the answers and comments below one can gather that in certain cases we're talking "death threats", which certainly goes beyond "a simple troll" I'd say. – Bart Sep 16 '13 at 15:07
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    @Bart: then they can remove qualifying statements like "create trouble" and "generally degrade the quality of an SE site," and leave it at "issue threats". The former two are nuisances that require exactly 0 legal intervention. The latter requires legal intervention. – user7116 Sep 16 '13 at 15:56
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    Without examples it seems it would be pretty difficult to say. Did any of the tolls actions constitute true threats? Perhaps they made terroristic threats. Maybe just plain old harassment. As an aside I wonder what we would think of a Q/A where lawyers were debugging a network problem. – Some Helpful Commenter Sep 16 '13 at 16:46
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    I am not privy to the specific threats, I leave that up to the moderators. I am aware through conversation on the site that there have been threats of some form or another. At least serious enough to warrant this post. – JYelton Sep 16 '13 at 17:03
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    10k+ users on EE.SE can still see the deleted posts by the Troll, which include specific comments maligning David K's personal and family life. Those deleted posts need to be permanently deleted, if possible. Also, some of us have the troll's home address and personal email address, which he revealed in a link he posted, I would be happy to share it in private if that helps shut him down permanently. – Anindo Ghosh Sep 17 '13 at 6:12
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Update (10/30/13)

This has been implemented, and is now live in testing (and, actively mitigating the very impetus for its design).


The person responsible for this is 'that guy' in don't be that guy. He's the guy that lost a chess game years ago and returns to the park every day to throw the pieces around while everyone else is trying to play. He's the creepy neighbor that does just enough to get under your skin, but nothing that warrants involving the authorities.

Put simply, this type of person is the worst kind of toxic element that a community will face, and I fear that we've let down the awesome EE user that left, the EE community at large, and the EE moderators working day and night to keep this person out. We let them down by not giving them more powerful tools to stop this sort of thing, simply because it's a very hard problem to solve.

The good news is, we might have solved it. We think we have a way where increased, more aggressive network-wide self defense should not deter users that we actually care about from participating on our sites. It's not hell banning, it won't prevent anyone from actually reading the site and it doesn't dip into anything some might consider evil like browser fingerprinting. We're not going to provide great detail as to how the system works, but I can say that doing more with the signal that we get from our moderators was an important first step.

There's more work to be done, this isn't exactly a trivial change but it is a problem that has received the utmost top priority in the community team. If someone crossed the boundary from creepy pain in the ass to likely felon making threats, we have legal means and resources at our disposal to handle that.

It's these fortunately rare, yet unfortunately intensely unstable people that don't actually break any laws that are so difficult to deal with. Remember, honey badger don't care - so that honey needs to be sour. By making this sort of activity excruciatingly frustrating for these people, we can do just that.

The time to getting this out is actually yesterday, and it's going to get my undivided attention this week. The takeaway from this is, we care very deeply about this problem and we're working on it right now.

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    I'm glad to see this is getting serious attention not at least. Unfortunately, this problem has been going on for over a year, and it looks like you're a couple days too late to retain at least one high-quality user on EE.SE. – Olin Lathrop Sep 16 '13 at 14:15
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    @OlinLathrop My hope is he'll return. This is a very hard problem to solve, and I don't think it can be fully solved. I want to be clear, we have been scrambling for months to deal with this better, and have implemented a series of changes leading to something that could put a dent in this. A lot of analysis between steps was needed, and a lot of people need to sign off on something that can touch what this touches. While it's taking longer than we hoped, it has been brewing for quite a while. – Tim Post Sep 16 '13 at 14:18
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    If/when you seem to have it working and TS is not regularly getting thru, please let us know. I can send a message to David to let him know meaningful changes have been made and that the environment is different now. Of course I have to believe that myself first. – Olin Lathrop Sep 16 '13 at 14:20
  • Browser fingerprinting isn't "evil". SE records metadata about requests, such as IPs. Is that evil? Okay, so then we have a point, in your opinion, that exists somewhere between recording a request's IP and a "fingerprint" based on other metadata freely provided by a user's browser where we are now doing something "evil". Where is that point? If it exists, you can find it. And you can stay on the "good" side of it. – user1228 Sep 16 '13 at 15:17
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    @Won't recording an IP and being able to uniquely identify a browser across accounts, and quite possibly across domains are entirely different things. I was going to put 'evil' though (emphasis on non-scare quotes), worth it? I can't identify you by your IP, at least not accurately. I can, however, be reasonably sure that hash of a bunch of characteristics about your browser and OS is you, and that makes quite a few uncomfortable. – Tim Post Sep 16 '13 at 15:25
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    @Won't: the problem here isn't that these folks are hard to identify - it's that by the time we've identified them we're stuck shutting the barn door after the horses are gone. We're working on systems that can shut the door when the horses start walking toward them, so to speak - based on whatever heuristics equate to "walking toward the door" for such abuse. There are some preliminary systems in place right now, and we're working on better ones - the goal being one that can keep the door open as much as possible while slamming it shut at a moment's notice in response to anything suspicious – Shog9 Sep 16 '13 at 15:41
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    That a single company could definitively identify me when I'm on their site does not bother me at all. What does bother me is when companies pool their data and construct a dossier of my online personality, and make judgments based on that. That's just creepy, and it gives those companies leverage which they should just not have. – Robert Harvey Sep 16 '13 at 15:49
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    Eh. The idea that you should keep a spanner out of your toolbox because it is supposedly evil (according to the anti-spanner coalition, I guess) doesn't seem like the best plan. Nor is just having a toolbox with only a spanner in it. Which is why I'm working on a framework to punch people through the internet. You guys can beta for me. – user1228 Sep 16 '13 at 16:47
  • Did it work? (He said hopefully) – T.J. Crowder Sep 8 '14 at 18:34
  • Likely felon - How are you able to determine someone's probable legal status? – The forest of Reinstate Monica May 9 at 7:25
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SE has stated that they would provide all information necessary to law enforcement in cases of death threats against users, or in certain circumstances initiate legal actions themselves.

But it is probably far more complicated for issues that are not as severe as death threats. Trolling is not necessarily illegal (and this varies a lot in different jurisdictions), so I don't think that legal actions are the best way to proceed in this case. There is also the difficulty of actually determining the person behind this, which might be impossible as this user uses a lot of proxies. Depending on where the person lives it might also be very hard or impossible to initiate any legal action.

SE is also working on some new measures against spammers and trolls, I think it is reasonable to wait until those are implemented to see how effective they are. I think technical measures are better than legal ones for all but the most serious cases. They scale much better and act a lot faster.

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    "has stated that" [citation needed]. :P At the very least because now I'm curious – Bart Sep 16 '13 at 7:30
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    @Bart I can't cite the original, it was in the moderator-only chat room – Mad Scientist Sep 16 '13 at 7:30
  • Ah, fair enough. – Bart Sep 16 '13 at 7:35
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    I'm acknowledging the 'has stated' - as it was stated, just not somewhere visible. I reiterated this on Math Overflow, but you'd need 10k rep there to see it. Relevant quote is Suffice it to say, we don't tolerate it [death threats] - and our full cooperation is afforded to investigate it. – Tim Post Sep 16 '13 at 10:02
  • Thanks for that @TimPost. Good to know. – Bart Sep 16 '13 at 10:29
  • For the <10kers on MO, you can stick cache: in front of @TimPost's URL (in Chrome, at least) to see the full post. – Doorknob Sep 16 '13 at 21:59
  • @Doorknob: (That’s actually a Google thing.) – Ry- Sep 16 '13 at 22:47

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