On the sad trail of a Twitter troll

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After 84,000 tweets, many of them insults, this local Twitter troll had accumulated fewer than five followers. HyperionPixels/Thinkstock

On more than three dozen occasions over a 12-month span, stories posted on City Pages’ Twitter account received a harsh reply from one man.

An article mentioning the late Sen. Paul Wellstone was met with a clip of Family Guy characters projectile vomiting. After a story about Minnesota DFL House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman calling out a “white male” card game in the House chamber, the user added Hortman’s Twitter handle to make sure she saw his reply: “somebody get their panties in a bunch?”

The troll’s profile revealed an astonishing set of statistics. Since the account opened in 2012, he has tweeted about 84,000 times. As of this week, he has three followers. And I’m fairly certain one is or was a member of his immediate family.

In the age of Trump, there is no more reviled but less understood figure than the Twitter troll. What makes them tick? And why do those ticks sometimes sound like the last few before the bomb goes off?

I’m leaving out this troll’s handle. Think of him as a representative specimen of a breed we deem unworthy of consideration, and never compassion. The study of this one man teaches something about both.

He tweets constantly -- several dozen times a day, sometimes 100 -- often obsessing over a topic or source. In one manic volley, he tweeted 24 links related to the CIA, torture, and terrorism -- all within 10 minutes.

Aside from these frenzied episodes, the user’s other favorite tweet is the insult.

Gov. Mark Dayton’s “meds” are making him “unfit to be governor.” DFL U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar should not open her mouth. U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, whom he both calls “grandma,” should stop talking and retire, respectively.

To the actress Jennifer Lawrence, who’d given an interview on the use of nudity in film, he dredged up her victimhood from a hacking scheme: “We have already seen the leaked iPhone nudes. Not a big deal.”

Michelle Obama’s new book will be good for “toilet paper.” Danica Patrick’s crash at the Daytona 500 was just her being a “typical chick driver.” A photo of the mayor of Los Angeles and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looking handsome is “so gay.” A Macy’s line aimed at Muslims is “terrorist clothing.”

From what well of anger does all this emanate? How is one drafted into a scatter-shot culture war, reporting to the trenches day in and day out, even if no one is paying attention?

I sent a direct message. Would he talk to me about Twitter, and what he gets out of it? “No thanks” came the reply. Further questions -- Why do you tweet so often? Why so many insults -- went unanswered.

I took my questions to another veteran of the troll wars. While Betsy Hodges was the mayor of Minneapolis, her account was routinely set upon by packs of vicious nationalists. She hasn’t spoken on the record since Election Day. Not to the media, anyway. On Twitter, unmoored from the strictures of office or campaign, she has plenty to say.

Hodges started reviewing and rating trolls on a 1 to 10 scale. They get points for the proper use of you’re vs. your. One got a point for having an American flag in their profile picture. Another was praised for “patronizing, faux respect,” and giving Hodges a “diminutive name.”

When she’s not tweeting back at them, Hodges is trying to remind herself that people attacking her “are human, too,” even if they don’t treat her like one.

“Whenever I can remember the pain they have to be in to be unkind like that,” Hodges says, “it helps me be more compassionate, more human myself.” Soon, she’ll just start telling all her trolls she loves them, “because, wow, that is just manifest pain.”

After days wallowing in my subject’s acidity, Hodges’ base humanity pushed me back in, deeper, through Google searches, personal accounts, and public records. Clues churned up enough evidence to convince me of the account holder’s identity. And I think I know what happened.

He went broke. Owed money he didn’t have with a mortgage underwater, according to court filings. He had often been without work and scraped by on unemployment. (If it’s really him behind this account, the troll’s complaints about “welfare” only become bitterer.)

Back in 2012, before his financial upset, our troll was hardly a bile-spewing villain. Throughout the end of that year, five-plus months, he tweeted only 15 times. Each was either positive, fun, or directed at a family member. “Wish you were here,” he wrote to one around Christmas time.

He still tweets at those same family members’ accounts, ribbing them and tagging to alert them to stories he thinks they might be interested in. They hardly respond, or stopped long ago.

I was reminded how frequently the troll tweeted at local sports talker Dan Barreiro and conservative host Rush Limbaugh, trying to get their attention on some topic. Maybe voices on the radio are his only company -- them, or whoever he can bait on Twitter. He’s lonely.

This does not -- at all -- justify calling Muslims terrorists or taunting a young woman you saw naked against her will. But it raises the question of what this man’s mind would be up to if he’d never logged in that first time. Is he everything that’s wrong with Twitter? Or is Twitter everything that’s wrong with him?

I wish he’d write me back. I wish he’d get help. A hobby. An outlet, some new friends. Some way to be heard, to engage this world in a way that looks less like a street-corner lunatic screaming into traffic, and more like a hand reaching out across a table.

I wish he’d delete his account and start over.

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