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"School of Moral Philosophy" - inscription at the Boldleian Library, Oxford
Image Source:
Ben Robinson

My life in Social Media: Trolling and Response

Author(s):
Dan Kaszeta

Part I: The Trolling 

The publishers of this article, the Integrity Initiative, found me through social media, mainly my Twitter account (@DanKaszeta). In the 6 years I’ve had an account, I have accumulated a small degree of notoriety on Twitter. But I have also been the target of a ridiculous amount of abuse. I’ve been asked to write about my experience. The majority of this abuse has been on Twitter, but some has been by email (my name is unique so I am not too hard to find online), and some of it has been in the comments sections below online articles I’ve written. A few were even in fake reviews of my book on Amazon. There’s two parts to this article – the abuse I received and my response to it.

The Abuse 

I was not much of a social media user. I had set up my Twitter account mostly to promote my book. I had fewer than 100 followers. I had a LinkedIn account, which I mostly used as a way to file contacts. I was a Facebook refusenik, a course of action that now seems wise, given the company’s widespread issues.

My Twitter account suddenly went crazy after the August 2013 Sarin attack in Syria.

Eliot Higgins, who at the time was working under the nickname “Brown Moses”, was running a well-regarded blog and Twitter feed analysing the on-going war in Syria. Eliot asked me for advice on chemical warfare issues, and I had been helping him out. Very soon after Assad’s August 2013 chemical attack, as my follower count rose dramatically, I started to receive abuse.

It was clear that my technical analysis of chemical warfare attacks in Syria was triggering certain individuals and possibly certain organizations or states.

The following catalogue of abuse is not meant to make you feel sorry for me. I’m well beyond being upset about any of this stuff. It has made me a stronger person. The aim is to highlight how vicious state-sponsored trolls and real people who join in can be when you challenge their lies and dogma. There are several categories of abuse that I experienced, and you can see them used against others in an attempt to undermine and distract from the real issues

“Unqualified”

A whole strain of abuse centres around the theme that I am somehow unqualified to comment on chemical warfare issues. The thrust of the argument is that because I did not get a degree in chemistry, I somehow cannot know anything about chemical weapons. It is now 2018. I finished my first degree in 1991. To argue that I cannot know something in 2018 because of what I may or may not have studied between 1987 and 1991 assumes my learning, education, and training ceased 27 years ago. Since that point I have had an enormous amount of specialty training and years of experience. The idea that an officer in the US Army’s Chemical Corps is ‘not qualified’ to talk about chemical weapons is an absurd proposition. Furthermore, very few chemists learn much about chemical warfare agents in degree courses. To be honest, I’ve only needed a moderate amount of theoretical chemistry, a comparable amount of biology, and some physics to have a career in CBRN defence, which relies heavily on applied knowledge rather than theoretical knowledge. A few good hard weeks of schooling gives enough chemistry for a useful career in my field. The absolute irony of all of it is that the majority of the accounts telling me I was unqualified were anonymous, and therefore one could not judge whether they were any more or less qualified than me. I suspect the former.

Racism and anti-Semitism

These are time-honoured calumnies, but their usage immediately paints the user as a narrow-minded bigot. I’ve been trolled for being Jewish (based on the odd assertion that all surnames with a K are Jewish). I’ve been trolled for being Estonian. (I do not, to my knowledge, have a single drop of Estonian blood.) I’ve been trolled for being a Lithuanian. This much is partly true, in that half of my family tree comes from Lithuania. But saying I’m a bad person because of my descent is just bigoted. I’ve been trolled for being Polish, and even had to argue the fact that I’m not with an account that insisted I had to be. However, given my ancestry in the hinterlands of the old Polish-Lithuanian Rzeczpospolita, I cannot categorically rule out a Pole (or Belarusian, or Jew, or Tatar for that matter) in my family tree 6 or 7 generations back. But the point is, even if I were 2% Polish, what does it matter? Using someone’s ethnicity as an insult makes one a bigot.

“Your father was a Nazi”

My father was born in 1942 in Detroit, while my grandfather was making components for weapon systems that were killing Nazis. My other grandfather was busy. He was in the Pacific fighting the Japanese. I think we can dismiss this one as gratuitous abuse. Oddly, some of the people claiming I must be Jewish also resorted to the Nazi claim, either not caring about the intellectual consistency of their position or subscribing to a reductionist viewpoint wherein one or the other must be true.

“Russophobe”

The classic used against anyone challenging Kremlin lies, straight from Putin’s lips. Many of my tweets and articles have been critical of the Putin regime and its policies and decisions. This does not make me irrationally afraid of Russians nor does it make me racist against Russians. Unbeknownst to most, I lived and worked in Russia for a bit. I studied the Russian language for 3 years. I read practically every word of Tolstoy, Dostoyevksy, and Solzhenitsyn, some in the original Russian. I read the entire New Testament in Russian. I studied Russian history in detail. I made Russian friends. This is not the sort of thing an anti-Russian racist or Russophobe does. One can have the firmly held, fact-based belief that Russia is under the wrong management without bearing racist views about Russians.

“Wetback”

I’ve had trolling telling me to “go home” – the insinuation being that where I live and work (London) is somehow not my home. I had an entire rash of trolling that referred to me as a “wetback” – an offensive epithet for illegal border-crossers from Mexico to the USA. It’s not just racist to call me a “wetback”, it is also a category error.

“Traitor”

I am, indeed, a US citizen by birth and a UK citizen by naturalisation. I hold both passports. I now consider myself both British and American. Some trolls have taken offense and think that I should have simplified, reductionist view of my identity. Some have accused me of being a “traitor.”  Some have an out-dated or incorrect understanding of citizenship and nationality laws. The reality is, however, that real life is more complex and nuanced. There are many thousands of US-UK dual citizens, including (until very recently) the prominent ex-Mayor of London Boris Johnson. 

“Faked your CV"

Some trolls alleged that I had somehow, somewhere misrepresented my career or education. My full CV is not widely available online, so it was not always clearly what CV they were going off of when I receive such abuse. An account called @DanKaszeto (now suspended) was set up to push the fraud and faked CV theories by pretending to be me and making odd claims. 

“Stolen valour”

I served in the US Army. My active service was brief but I spent many years as an officer in the Army Reserve and then in the National Guard.  A common trolling tactic online has to been to accuse military members or veterans of “stolen valour” – i.e. accusing someone of claiming service that they didn’t do. I do not claim to have ever gone to war. My military service was modest. “Stolen valour” is more like claiming to have been a Ranger or a SEAL or Special Forces, or having a Silver Star. I’ve only ever claimed to have been a Chemical officer. Nobody ever claims to be a Chemical officer who wasn’t. It’s not the way to get respect at a veterans’ convention.

Fat shaming

An entire account (@fatzeta – now suspended) was set up to tell me I’m too fat. I admit that I could lose a few pounds. I’m nearly 50 and not thin. But to claim I’m obese is a bit much.

Disability

One account accused me of having unspecified learning disabilities or mental disorders.

“You are a paid shill/fraud”

Those who get paid money to produce content for authoritarian regimes claim that others who challenge or debunk them are being paid by their adversaries – this is a distraction from the facts. Those in the West who take the side of these regimes or are just mad assume anyone who doesn’t agree with them must be paid by the CIA/MI6/NATO/the Zionists/alien lizards. So they say I am pretending to be a chemical weapons expert either because I’m being a “fraud” or because I’m a bit strange. 

So, the canard that myself and others get paid to tweet things gets circulated by these accounts because their limited world view cannot accommodate the idea that people tweet things because they believe in them.

One-track minds

Some trolls are fixated on a particular subject. In the case of bots, their algorithms may only be one-subject deep. I have received abuse based on the fact that if I tweet about X, I therefore cannot tweet about Y. I call this the Gary Lineker tactic. Mr. Lineker tweets about many things above and beyond the football for which he is rightly famous. However, he gets an insane amount of abuse telling him to stick to football.  In my case, I literally tweeted about cheese and got abuse for not sticking to chemical weapons. Some even thought I was engaging in secret coded messages!

Stay on target!

People who throw this abuse may just be the kind of odd, damaged person who gets their kicks out of being anonymously nasty to strangers online. But many of them are paid by the Russian state or other regimes to try and distract from crimes like invading countries and using chemical weapons. Others appear to be real people who hate the West so much they would ally themselves with such vile regimes as Putin’s or Assad’s.

Our task is to remain focused on the facts, and rise above this low-grade behaviour.

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