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Maybe Those Anonymous Trolls Aren’t as Anonymous As They Thought

From the midweek edition of the Morning Jolt:

Maybe Those Anonymous Trolls Aren’t as Anonymous As They Thought

You’re up to speed on Trump tweeting that video that superimposed the CNN logo atop the head of Vince McMahon, in an old appearance during a professional wrestling bout where Trump pretended to beat up McMahon, right?

The cable news network decided to go looking for the person who created that video, and apparently that person is mortified at the thought of their actual identity being exposed:

The Reddit user who initially claimed credit for President Donald Trump’s tweet that showed Trump tackling CNN issued an apology Tuesday for the video and other offensive content he posted — one day after CNN identified the man behind the account and attempted to make contact with him.

Reddit user “HanA**holeSolo” first shared the GIF last Wednesday of Trump pummeling a wrestler with CNN’s logo imposed on his face. CNN could find no earlier instance of the GIF. The GIF was later edited into a video with sound and tweeted by the President on Sunday.

On Reddit, “HanA**holeSolo” took credit for inspiring the tweet. Soon after, “HanA**holeSolo’s” other posts on Reddit, some of which included racist and anti-Semitic imagery, quickly circulated on social media.

Now the user is apologizing, writing in a lengthy post on Reddit that he does not advocate violence against the press and expressing remorse there and in an interview with CNN for other posts he made that were racist and anti-Semitic.

The apology came after CNN’s KFile identified the man behind “HanA**holeSolo.” Using identifying information that “HanA**holeSolo” posted on Reddit, KFile was able to determine key biographical details, to find the man’s name using a Facebook search and ultimately corroborate details he had made available on Reddit.

On Monday, KFile attempted to contact the man by email and phone but he did not respond. On Tuesday, “HanA**holeSolo” posted his apology on the subreddit /The_Donald and deleted all of his other posts.

Welcome to what could turn into one of the biggest debates of the Trump era: does an anonymous online troll have the right to remain an anonymous online troll?

A morning Tweet from CNN anchor Christopher Cuomo — quickly deleted — feels more than a little menacing: “Should CNN reveal name of Reddit user who made trump wrestling video? Had a lot of bigoted and hateful material on page and website.” Nice life you’ve got there, fella, shame if something happened to it. 

A little while back, after Trump wrote a tweet that suggested he may have taped his conversations in the White House with former FBI Director James Comey, I argued that Trump’s implied threat was against his own interests. The whole point of “executive privilege” was that the president needed and deserved the most honest, unvarnished advice possible, and ensuring those sorts of honest exchanges meant they had to be kept secret. “Sometimes the right course of action is not the popular one; those who speak to the president may not want their actual perspective revealed to the public.”

Quite a few Trump fans — including those tweeting under pseudonyms! — insisted there was something inherently dishonest about having different public and private positions. I suspect many of those same people will denounce CNN today without recognizing any contradiction in their positions. (I also wonder how many people denouncing CNN today cheered on WikiLeaks after it posted the private e-mails of John Podesta.)

Should the press respect the anonymity of online commenters? I suspect Silence Dogood would argue yes. I’ll bet Richard Bachman could write a terrifying story about a television network dedicating itself to exposing the worst side of you. I wonder if Joe Klein will cheer for CNN in this circumstance.

This certainly looks like major news network utilizing its considerable resources to expose one of its online critics, a rather petty use of those resources. On the other hand, the sense of shame and regret exhibited by the Reddit commenter is pretty revealing. Deep down, a lot of obnoxious online trolls don’t want their comments and behavior associated with their real identity. They know it’s wrong, and it violates their own conception of who they are, and how they want other people to see them. If you’re doing something that would cause you that much personal and professional ruination if it was ever exposed… eh, maybe you shouldn’t do it? (“Maybe just put it in the background there,” as Dr. Oatman would say.)

When I talk to cyber-security professionals, they periodically insist that nothing on the Internet can be made permanently secret. Given enough time and resources, just about anything can be hacked and revealed — even the things you’re absolutely certain are deleted. That online venting had better be worth it, because there’s always that infinitesimal chance that somebody with the knowhow and time might decide to figure out who’s behind that clever pseudonym you chose. Maybe the potential exposure of this one Reddit commenter will be a useful cautionary tale.

In the ongoing discussion of the importance of protecting pen names and pseudonyms, Voltaire, Ayn Rand, Mark Twain, the Red Baron, Pancho Villa, Che Guevara, John Barron, John Miller, Cat Stevens, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, and Jay Gatsby could not be reached for comment.