The 'Canary In The Coalmine' Link Between Terrorism And Trolling

When Melbourne lawyer Josh Bornstein woke up one Friday morning in April 2015, his Twitter feed had gone nuclear.

Thousands of strangers -- including prominent writers such as Naomi Wolf -- were accusing him of racism, of calling for genocide, and of being psychotically deranged. His email inbox was similar. There were death threats.

While Bornstein slept, an article calling for the "extermination" of the Palestinian people had been published in his name on The Times of Israel, half a world away. The catch: Bornstein had never heard of it.

Bornstein went into crisis mode. Managing this sort of situation is his day-to-day life as a top employment lawyer, so he followed the advice he gives his clients: prioritise your health. Don't get too emotional. See a GP. See a psych.

The Times of Israel article, screenshot via The Guardian.

Very quickly, the Times of Israel realised what had happened and removed the article, issuing an explanation. Wolf apologised. However, whoever was behind the troll wasn't finished. The initial 'attack' was over in 36 hours, but the targeted harassment continued for another six months, until October 2015.

"I became hyper-vigilant. I became anxious," Bornstein told 10 daily.

Every time one attack was over, another would begin. The person behind it created a fake Facebook profile in Bornstein's name, set up fake sponsored Twitter accounts calling for the death of all Muslims, even incited ISIS to attack him.

However, when Bornstein's attacker was finally arrested, it was for something else entirely.

Planning A Melbourne Terror Attack

Bornstein's attacker was very busy in the months up until September 2015. As well as Bornstein, the person was harassing prominent Australian woman Mariam Veiszadeh, cartoonist Larry Pickering and campaigner Caitlin Roper.

Under a number of different aliases -- MoonMetropolis, Australi Witness, and European88 -- he was getting work published on Thought Catalogue and white supremacist website Daily Stormer, running a misogynistic subreddit advocating for rape against "whores and feminazis", and making thousands of racist posts in various forums.

A tweet praising the shooters behind an attack in the Dallas suburb of Garland, where two people were killed. Screengrab via Times of Israel.

None of this contributed to his arrest. In fact, if he wasn't caught actively inciting a terror attack, it's not a stretch to say he might still be harassing people he saw as being 'anti-free speech'.

While this was all going on, two Australian journalists, Luke McMahon and Elise Potaka, were trying to track him down, making contact and linking his aliases and trying to put a face and a name to the abuse.

Along the way, they discovered something more sinister: this man was planning a terror attack. Maybe a couple. They couldn't let national security and potentially dozens of lives come before a killer story, so they alerted the Australian Federal Police.

Photo: Getty.

"The cops were very sort of blase about it," McMahon told journalist Ginger Gorman, for her new book Troll Hunting. At this point, McMahon and Potaka were certain their man was a young bloke in Florida. They had a name, a photo, an address.

The police weren't so sure, and when they told McMahon he'd found the wrong guy, McMahon told Gorman he freaked out.

I think I said, 'Listen, motherfucker! Do I have to walk you guys through this shit again? This is him. I tracked him. You're not getting it. I tracked this guy independently. This is him.'

That was July 2015. Unbeknownst to McMahon and Potaka at the time, the FBI was closing in on the same guy.

Using a confidential human source (CHS), the FBI had made contact with Bornstein's troll via social media, speaking to one of his aliases.

The troll began inciting the source to carry out a terror attack on US soil, sending him links to instructions for making a pressure cooker bomb (the same weapon used in the Boston Marathon bombings two years earlier), as well as advising him to dip the shrapnel in rat poison, for maximum damage.

He also claimed to be speaking to another person to carry out a similar attack in Melbourne.

In August, the troll told the FBI source he'd found the "perfect place" to target: a September 11 memorial event in Kansas City.

On September 9, 2015 -- just days before the planned attack -- federal investigators arrested a 20-year-old man from his parent's house in Florida.

The Orange Park, Florida house where Joshua Ryne Goldberg was arrested. Photo: AP.

His name was Joshua Ryne Goldberg, and it turned out the person behind so much pain, hurt and fear was a person "terrified by most human interactions", spending up to 20 hours a day online.

Joshua Ryne Goldberg. Photo: Facebook.

Two years after his arrest, Goldberg pleaded guilty to charges of attempting malicious damage and destroying a building and was later sentenced to ten years in prison.

Goldberg is an unusual case, but he isn't the only troll-turned-terrorist Ginger Gorman discovered in her research.

Another prime example is Junaid Hussain, a British-Pakistani kid who traded online trolling -- under the alias TriCk -- for ISIS, joining the so-called Cyber Caliphate. He reportedly became number three on the Pentagon's "kill list", and in August 2015 was killed by a US drone strike, age 21.

The links between targeted cyber hate and terrorism are unclear, but they certainly exist, says Ginger Gorman.

READ MORE: Ginger Gorman Takes On The Online Bullies

"I would see it as a canary in a coal mine situation," she said.

"I can tell you that no one in the trolling community was shocked by [Hussain]."

She sees parallels in how young men are radicalised into trolling, and also into terrorism. While researching her book she found many young men -- and it was usually young men -- were telling her from about age 11, they were spending hours and hours a day online.

"These young men are very isolated, and not very strong on their own, but in a gang formation, it's different," she said.

Criminologist Clarke Jones, an expert in radicalisation who works with Muslim youth communities, doesn't necessarily agree that trolling is an early indicator of terrorism in the modern age, but doesn't rule it out, either.

READ MORE: The Staggering $3.7 Billion Cost Of Cyberhate Revealed

"There are a lot of people who brag that they're going to take action and want to do something, but not do anything at all," he told 10 daily.

"Their social media platform has allowed them to be a lot bigger than they are, in personality and in action."

It's an area that needs further research, not just because there are certainly some links between terrorism and targeted trolling, but because trolling itself is so detrimental.

The Australia Institute estimated the total cost to Australians could be as high as $3.7 billion.

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