Most of us are quite familiar with the term “Internet troll,” and some of us have, at one point or another, encountered them somewhere along the web. But never had it occurred to me that these troublemakers congregate in secret groups.
During the last elections, my Facebook feed became a flame war. People who had known each other forever were suddenly fighting incessantly and, in many cases, unfriending each other. The constant bickering between donkeys and elephants caused me to lose interest in social media. Even my favorite writer’s group had devolved into a perpetual debate about Trump and Clinton. Wanting to escape the doldrums of political bickering, I began exploring various humor-related groups. Then, someone I hardly knew added me to a closed group, Adult Fun, where the content consisted primarily of morbidly obese women posting bathroom selfies in their mismatched underwear, attracting hundreds of lewd comments from unabashed, thirsty guys promising to satisfy them in unspeakable ways. Many of these comments bordered on absurdity. Taking the piss out of these douchebags would have been petty of me, but, well, the temptation was too rich to pass up. For the next few days, I racked up the laughs.
The post that reeled me was made by a woman named Erica and went something like this: “Porn is cheating. If you’re in a relationship and watch porn, you’re a piece of shit.”
My impulse was to let her have it. A funny yet vicious diatribe outlining her fallacy. I was about to begin typing when I paused, gave her post a second look, then perused the comments section. Instead of defending her claims with vehemence, Erica was batting away her attackers one witty reply at a time. She was trolling.
While hundreds of members dogpiled her, I began to lay cover fire by arguing for her point and agreeing with her many ludicrous claims. Knowing my way around a decent punchline didn’t hurt. During this virtual melee, a message request appeared in my inbox. It was from her.
“Dude, you’re hilarious. Why have we never crossed paths?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “The Internet is a big, scary place.”
“Do you troll?”
“I have the perfect group for you. It’s secret. You’ll love it.”
It bears mentioning that, up until this point, I had no idea that secret groups exist on Facebook. You cannot search them, cannot take it upon yourself to request membership. You must be invited by a member, then approved by either an admin or moderator. I was auto-added to this group, Savage Central, by Erica, who was its creator and head admin.
“By sheer happenstance, I had stumbled upon a gladiator school for trolls.”
The very first post I came across was by someone with an almost too common Muslim name. The post went something like, “All Western men are cuckolds. You work hard to support women who, in turn, go out to nightclubs and fuck guys named Chad. In my country, we keep women where they belong: in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant.” In the thread, while reading the crossfire between content creator and a bunch of American women, and while laughing the entire time, two things became abundantly clear: 1) the OP (original post) wasn’t serious, nor was it taken that way; and 2) most of the commenters were familiar with one another. Nearly every post on the feed was like this. One person would create an incendiary post; the subsequent thread would become a dumpster fire. By sheer happenstance, I had stumbled upon a gladiator school for trolls.
Most of us are quite familiar with the term “internet troll,” and some of us have, at one point or another, encountered them somewhere along the web. But never had it occurred to me that these troublemakers congregate in secret groups. It’s difficult to adequately describe how appealing I found the repartee and dark humor, the unapologetic flirting. This was a scene thirsty for sarcasm and edgy content. A testing ground for jokes and writing samples. For the first time in a long while, Facebook felt interesting.
Around that time, a pair of online articles made their way through the scene. In each, the writers—outsiders—made sweeping generalizations about why trolls…troll, positing that all trolls are sociopaths suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. To be fair, I’m not a psychologist (neither were the writers who made these claims), but it doesn’t take one to understand that it is irresponsible to attach a psychological profile to, or make a wholesale diagnosis of, an entire subculture without first taking necessary steps to support one’s claims. It is also utterly ridiculous to claim that tens of thousands of people are all motivated by the same thing. While being added to various secret groups, what I saw was a microcosm of social media. Your garden variety trolls who want little more than to piss off others; single mothers and bored housewives recruited from groups like Mommy Wars; military men and women stationed around the world without many entertainment options; attention whores willing to drop nudes for likes; those, like me, who aren’t mean-spirited, but have a penchant for dark humor and roast comedy. I began to see the sociological value in digging deeper and then writing an investigative journalism piece.
To protect my identity, I created a fake profile—among trolls, these are called socks. Anonymity is a luxury not often preserved, but then, the plan wasn’t to stick around for too long. For my new sock, I chose the name David Kelley. The profile picture I went with was an image from American Psycho, a subtle nod to the novel’s author, Brett Easton Ellis. Much like the novel’s narrator, Patrick Bateman, David Kelley would prove to be id personified. But, instead of killing coworkers and prostitutes, I would use wry sarcasm and my abilities as a writer to ingratiate myself to thousands of trolls. The results far surpassed my wildest expectations.
Aside from creating content that regularly attracted a thousand or more comments, I began posting content by proxy, which is to say, I would ghostwrite for others. Before long, David Kelley became a lightning rod. Initially, some trolls would test my moxie. Without fail, I would drag them up and down the threads, punishing them with punchlines and complex thoughts, all while sprinkling expletives over a bed of SAT words. Within a couple weeks, I was asked by Erica to be a moderator of her group. Two weeks after that, she bumped me up to co-admin. As my popularity rose, I became privy to some of the politics and feuds within the trolling community.
A group of us, about two dozen, would go out on organized field trips, which we would advertise in our group of 3,000 trolls. We would target an array of groups. Pro-Trump groups. Debate groups. Forums with names like White Girl Fetish. We’d spend a week flooding our target with requests to join, then, at a coordinated date and time, some of us would raid their feed with ridiculous posts while others started arguments in various threads. Meanwhile, we would laugh and share screenshots in group chat. And that was what it was about, really: the laughs. Some people enjoy triggering those who take social media far too seriously. The ominous reputation, I began to see, was mostly a façade. These weren’t monsters out to steal your credit card information or hack into your computer; even if they wanted to, they didn’t possess the ability.
(Followers began printing, of their own volition, I Am David Kelley T-shirts.)
Stories of my exploits in normie groups began to permeate the subculture. My notoriety as David Kelley quickly got out of hand. Within these secret groups, one’s popularity can be measured by fan signs. A fan sign is when someone takes a selfie while holding a sign with someone else’s name on it. Sometimes they’ll write the person’s name on their body. I began receiving unsolicited fan signs daily with slogans like “I love David Kelley” or “David Kelley is Bae.” In return, I would reject these offerings, insisting instead that they recreate them with the phrase: “I am David Kelley.” Since the vast majority of these people didn’t know what I looked like, much less who I really was, they bought into my desire to make David Kelley less about me and more about the group; an abstraction. Creating an I am David Kelley fan sign soon became a rite of passage, an inexplicable trend.
Things then took a turn for the bizarre.
One night, some guy decided to go live, in front of several hundred viewers, while tattooing I am David Kelley on his leg. The following day, someone else created a Facebook group called The David Kelley Fan Club. Fan signs became exceedingly risqué. I’d be lying if I said this all wasn’t a bit intoxicating.
I had become more popular and better received than the woman who introduced me to the subculture. At her behest, one of our moderators, an active-duty Marine named Jonas, began to advertise our group in a large, rowdy forum called Marines United. Once word spread that Savage Central boasted several hundred active female trolls, the marines bombarded us with membership requests. Some of these soldiers were hilarious. But others, their idea of trolling consisted of posting pictures of dead babies and bestiality. Disgusting images. Some of them were into sharing other people’s sex videos. Once we began removing their content and booting the offenders, our admin/mod team became targets. They began posting our profiles in Marines United, calling for “fire missions,” which amount to disrupting one’s personal life with incessant harassment. Their primary focus was on Erica and her boyfriend, who, at one point, had been an admin of Marines United. The threats ultimately led to the two of them quitting all trolling groups, but not before leaking my true identity. Soon after Erica’s departure, a reporter was contacted, a whistle was blown, and Marines United became embroiled in a nude-sharing scandal that made its way to the Pentagon. The group was shut down amid an investigation that included “89 persons of interest.” Court martials were handed out. General Robert Neller was grilled by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).
As the lone remaining admin of Savage Central, I wanted to distance myself from Erica and her various beef with other trolling groups, and from these military guys. So, I created a new group, one that would serve as an engineered environment, a participatory community predicated on activity. I dubbed this new group Dorsia—named after the uber-exclusive restaurant in American Psycho. The phrase Purge the Lurkers became our mantra; every two weeks, I would boot members who weren’t active. The day after these purges became known as The Flood, as they were the only times we would add new members. This created an air of exclusivity, a hive mind. To foster activity, I concocted a slew of events within Dorsia. For example, Friday Night Fights was a weekly roast battle featuring two selected members who would spend one hour trying to outdo each other before a revolving panel of judges handpicked by yours truly.
By now, my actual Facebook profile had been all but abandoned. I, by way of David Kelley, had become completely sucked into this immersive subculture. Friends began sending me texts asking if I was okay, asking if my reclusion was due to a new manuscript in progress. The few times I attempted to explain this investigative project, I was met with either raised eyebrows or open skepticism—reactions that would change to interest the moment I showed them my phone. It occurred to me that it would be wise to save screenshots as proof of this endeavor.
“It occurred to me that it would be wise to save screenshots as proof of this endeavor.”
A cursory scroll through the feed in Dorsia would yield dozens of active posts, most of which would reach a thousand comments within an hour. Oftentimes, the traffic was so insane that the Facebook app couldn’t sustain the level of activity; member’s biggest complaint was that, while in the middle of threading (bantering in the threads), the app would temporarily crash on them. This became a great source of pride for many of us who had grown accustomed to laughing, trolling, roasting and getting to know each other. Daily interaction fosters connection, which, in turn, cultivates solidarity. So, as one might imagine, I forged numerous ties and even a few friendships. Several people agreed to be interviewed. What I was most interested in learning was their motives; the reasons as to why they group. The answers were as varied as the people themselves. The common thread, however, was loneliness and escapism. Whether it be a Marine stationed in Iraq or a single mother from North Carolina, we all have an innate need for human connection. And that’s what was happening in Dorsia: members were pushing past pixels and developing bonds with like-minded people who otherwise would have remained passing ships in the night.
One of my moderators, a Jersey native named Joey, spent much of Dorsia’s existence traveling the country, meeting and partying with more than a dozen fellow members and collecting We are David Kelley group fan signs. Another member trekked from Oregon to Dallas to visit a self-confessed sugar baby for a couple weeks. While he was there, they went live in the group one night and had sex.
My reputation landed me on the radar of numerous old-school trolls. Some of these edgelords wormed their way into Dorsia, some as friends, some as foes. To be fair, their interest typically had less to do with me than with what I had created.
“To dox someone is to search for and post their personal identifying information on the Internet.”
One such troll, Trent Kable, became a friend and frequent collaborator. Over the course of my study, he was generous with his time, spending countless hours making impressive videos for my group events, and filling me in on the finer, darker side of trolling on the Internet. According to him, he has played a hand in multiple celebrity death hoaxes—the most recent being Marilyn Manson. He once created a support page for Ke$ha, this while she was undergoing public struggles with Sony and her former producer, Dr. Luke. Posing as her new management team, Kable would create content extrapolating deeper meaning from Ke$ha’s hit songs. For every five legitimate posts about her, he would drop one piece of disinformation. The page has since been removed by Facebook.
When I asked what motivated him to create such a page, he said, “Because most people are fucking idiots.”
Within the trolling subculture, doxing is a common practice. To dox someone is to search for and post their personal identifying information on the Internet. Mostly it’s an intimidation tactic. Kable was considered a master at this. As a computer programmer and coder, he had earned a reputation for having the kind of skill set many trolls only portend. Having established a vast network that extended into the dark web, he has long since leveraged these connections to hunt pedophiles. He claims to have been responsible, directly or indirectly, for over 70 arrests. His fake fan pages were funny, and his videos were captivating—but this was something altogether more riveting, something meaningful to explore.
Shortly after expressing my desire to help in any way possible to bring pedophiles to justice, I was made co-admin of a support page for Stormy Ledbetter, a 30-year-old pastor’s daughter accused of sexually abusing a 10-year-old boy. Initially, I was confounded by this; why would he create a support page for this woman?
The answer was simple: to lure child molesters from the shadows.
What Kable and his brethren (dubbed The Hurt Locker) had not bargained for was Kolby Rushing, the father of the abused child, making contact and establishing a dialogue with the admin panel of the support page. He indicated that Stormy, while guilty, was not the primary abuser, that the real culprit was Stormy’s adopted father, Claude Ledbetter—who, aside from being a pastor in Oklahoma, was the chaplain for the Pauls Valley Police Department. Rushing shared a recorded phone call between himself and Stormy in which she painted pastor Ledbetter in a sickening light. Rushing also insisted that to avoid a PR nightmare, the local police had swept Claude Ledbetter’s possible involvement under the rug. Kable urged Rushing, who had grown discouraged, to keep pushing the issue. A few weeks later, FOX affiliate KXII News 12 broke a story revealing that Garvin County Sheriff Larry Rhodes said his office was investigating the pastor. Perhaps a small group of trolls had been indirectly responsible. It felt like a victory.
During my time in the subculture, not all encounters were positive. The longer I stuck around, the more crap I saw. And the more people I interviewed, the more horror stories I was exposed to. After the death of her husband, an Australian named Ashleigh suffered the indignity of seeing candid, grotesque photos of his car crash plastered in various groups. Her nudes were posted all over a once-popular trolling group called Sin City. All because of a spat with a fellow troll. She spoke candidly of the experience, pointing out that, within these circles, so-called friends turn on one another, mercilessly, only to later reconcile their differences. When I asked why she would still have anything to do with any of these folks, she replied, “Sometimes it’s easier to play nice. It’s all about getting a reaction from someone. If you take that away, they move on.”
There were also stories of blackmail. Families and significant others being harassed. The trolling subculture, like any other, has bad apples. People willing to disrupt your life for no reason other than a visceral need to project their self-loathing. I, myself, was doxed several times. One would think that after the first time seeing my personal information posted for public consumption, I would have hightailed. But, no. I stuck around a few months longer than originally intended. I did, however, leave all groups other than Dorsia, which had become home for several hundred members. While copycat groups were erected and dismantled—sometimes within a couple weeks—Dorsia had become a hub, a stable place where people could count on quality content and creativity.
But the mounting negativity coupled with the fact that I had learned everything I needed for this article made my departure an inevitability. Once the luster had worn off, all that was left was the bleak realization that these secret groups, the trolling, it is all a form of escapism. I wasn’t exempt. Personal and professional woes made it quite easy for me to disconnect from real life and to sink into this virtual world—this, despite understanding that I was only there for research purposes. Everyone involved has their own motives, their individual purpose, and they all group for different reasons. Yes, some want to make strangers mad. There are those who simply enjoy sophomoric humor. Some love watching cyber-drama unfold in the threads; it can feel like a cheesy soap opera at times. But, for others, it’s about something else; it’s about interconnectivity, a way to escape loneliness. On some level, we can all relate to that.