Family’s life destroyed by online troll

July 22, 2015 2:00 pm

 

The
Moreno family’s lawsuit says their son was accused of rape on a forum
and mass bombing threats were posted under his name. Photo / Washington
Post

Sharon and Richard Moreno were awakened by a phone call from a police
negotiator around 2.30am last May. He told them to get out of their
home immediately and leave their adult son behind.
Officers with
rifles greeted the couple on their front lawn in Sterling, Virginia, and
tackled their son William on the porch. They had been drawn by a
chilling post attributed to William on a popular local Web forum: “I
JUST SHOT MY PARENTS NOW I WILL KILL MY SISTER.”
The Morenos say
in a lawsuit that the post was a hoax, part of an unrelenting campaign
of harassment by “trolls” on the forum, Fairfax Underground, that turned
their lives upside down and drove William to attempt suicide.
Trolls
are the bane of online forums, games and comment sections, sowing
discord with inflammatory remarks and needling other users for laughs.
Most are content to cause trouble on the Web, but in the Morenos’ case,
the lawsuit says, the attacks made the unusual leap from cyberspace to
the real world.

Malevolent trolling has raised increasing concern in recent
years. “RIP Trolls” deface Facebook memorial pages to dead children. The
white supremacist site Daily Stormer has deployed a “troll army” to
target a Jewish British politician and a Muslim activist in Australia.
And angry trolls viciously attacked a video game designer and other
women at the center of the much-publicized “Gamergate” saga, sending
them dozens of death and rape threats and promising a mass shooting at a
speaking event.
Many sites are trying to tame the problem.
Twitter has rolled out lists of troll accounts users can share, and
YouTube revamped its comment moderation to play down trolling. Some
sites, like Popular Science, have done away with comments altogether.

Reign of terror

Fairfax
Underground was founded on the idea of creating a zone of unfettered
free speech on local issues, but that idealism has sometimes given way
to a darker reality. Trolling on the forum has resulted in a criminal
conviction, a bomb scare, reports of stalking and more.
The
Morenos’ lawsuit claims that William was accused of rape on the forum
and mass-bombing threats were posted under his name, his parents’ house
was vandalized, he received death threats, his car was broken into, and
his mother’s job was put in jeopardy. A Fairfax Underground user swore
out a charge against William that he called false. (He was acquitted in
court.)
“It was a reign of terror,” said William, 32.

William Moreno, 32, at the home of his parents, Sharon and Richard Moreno. Photo / Washington Post
William Moreno, 32, at the home of his parents, Sharon and Richard Moreno. Photo / Washington Post
It’s often difficult to know who is carrying out the
harassment because most Fairfax Underground users are anonymous, but the
Moreno family filed suit in Fairfax County against a Richmond-area user
named Michael Josef Basl, known on the forum as “eesh,” and a second
user whose identity is unknown. In a separate case this month, Basl was
convicted of posting explicit photos of a woman to the site. He is
appealing the case.
In an interview, Basl denied posting the
threats that led police to the Morenos’ home, and he called the lawsuit
“frivolous.” He said William Moreno and other users have a grudge
against him.
“I’m not responsible for the vast majority of the
stuff in the lawsuit,” Basl said. “They make me out like I’m a sinister
person. I’m not.”
However, a fellow Fairfax Underground user
testified in court this year that Basl told her he was behind some of
the attacks on the Morenos, including the “swatting” incident – or
falsely summoning a police tactical team. Basl testified that her
account was untrue.
“He said, ‘I did it so that Moreno could make a wrong move and get shot and killed by the police,’ ” Monique Wells told a judge.

Hello Mr. Misery, this is eesh

William
Moreno logged onto his e-mail in March 2012 to find a strange message.
At the time, he was a student at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“Hello
Mr. Misery, this is eesh,” it read, according to the lawsuit. “You do
understand your drama on Fairfax Underground will get you expelled from
VCU, right? Talk to you later William Moreno.”
The salvo was the
opening of a two-year campaign against Moreno and his family. William
said the message struck him like a bolt because he had never revealed
his e-mail address, that he was “Mr. Misery” on Fairfax Underground or
that he attended VCU. Someone was tracking him.
William Moreno
said he discovered Fairfax Underground three years earlier. He has a
mild form of autism and suffers from major depression. His parents said a
Web forum was a natural fit for someone who finds it painful to
socialize in the real world.
Mr. Misery displayed quirky humor
but also contributed offensive comments about child molestation and the
September 11, 2001, attacks. Moreno said those posts were not serious,
but he earned the ire of some users.

The Moreno family say their lives have been torn apart. Photo / Washington Post
The Moreno family say their lives have been torn apart. Photo / Washington Post
Fairfax Underground is a freewheeling digital watercooler,
where more than 1.5 million users with screen names like “friskydingo”
discuss everything from teacher salaries to pornography. The site is a
deep well of information about Northern Virginia, and its users have
broken , but conversation is often raw and laced with racism,
sexism, personal attacks and bogus claims.
“When you run an
online forum, you are no longer totally in control,” said Cary
Wiedemann, who founded the site in 2004. “Fairfax Underground has taken
on a life of its own.”
Michelle Drouin, an Indiana University
psychology professor who studies technology, said the anonymity and
connectivity of the Internet have created a “sadist’s playground.”
“People
that want to distress other people can now do it in the comfort of
their own home,” Drouin said. “It has less repercussions than harassment
offline, and the Internet allows for this emotional distance between
the harasser and the victim.”
Mr. Misery was banned from the
forum in January 2012 for flooding it with messages, but William Moreno
continued to post under other usernames. A couple of months after the
ban, the lawsuit says, Moreno received the e-mail that referenced VCU.
Eesh threatened to take Moreno’s posts to school officials.
Basl
has testified in court that his username is “eesh” and admitted in
response to the Morenos’ lawsuit that he sent the e-mail. Basl also
admitted that he placed a note on William’s windshield to deter him from
using Fairfax Underground.

Break-in

Eesh
is one of the most prolific posters on the forum, and other users
described him as flamboyant and a self-appointed sheriff of the site.
Basl, 34, said he is a military veteran and a community college student,
but declined to offer other personal details.
The harassment
began to escalate in December 2013, according to the lawsuit. Someone
broke into the Morenos’ home while they were away and flooded the
basement. The lawsuit says eesh posted a message the same day, saying he
was coming to Sterling to see William Moreno. Basl denies any role in
the vandalism.
Despite the break-in, the online harassment
remained unknown to William’s parents – until, Sharon Moreno said, she
was going through a security-clearance review for her job as an
intelligence contractor.
Sharon Moreno recalled becoming
increasingly puzzled as an investigator asked her about a party she
could not remember. Finally, the woman told her to look at Fairfax
Underground.
Sharon Moreno said her jaw dropped. She said someone
purporting to be a 13-year-old girl wrote in a message that William had
raped her during a party at the family’s home. The Morenos say the post
was another hoax.
Sharon Moreno was required to undergo a
polygraph test, but she said she was so anxious about the post that she
could not complete it. She eventually got her security clearance
renewed.
By mid-2014, William Moreno said, he was growing
increasingly despondent about the online attacks. While the family was
preparing dinner one night, he took a kitchen knife and attempted to
slit his wrists. He was rushed to the hospital.
The harassment
only increased. In October 2014, the lawsuit says, a picture of Basl
pointing a revolver at the viewer was posted along with a message: “You
can run but you can’t hide, Miz.” Basl denies making the post.

‘I will show you NO quarter’

Messages
appeared on the forum saying that William wanted to carry out attacks
with pipe bombs and that he had raped a VCU student, according to the
lawsuit. A post showed up under his father’s name, saying he had
witnessed William molesting his sister. Then, an anonymous poster
threatened to ruin William’s reputation in Google search results.
“I
will show you NO quarter. . . . Your parents are old and defenseless,”
the message read, according to the lawsuit. Moreno said Google searches
for his name began to turn up references to pedophilia.
The
Morenos filed their lawsuit in January. Less than a week after he was
served, Basl went to a magistrate and swore out a charge against William
Moreno. At trial in April, Basl testified that Moreno had made death
threats against him in phone calls and in forum messages.
But
Monique Wells, another Fairfax Underground user, testified that Basl
admitted to her that he had sent the death threats to himself. “He was
proud of it,” Wells said.
A judge acquitted Moreno.
Both Moreno and his mother have sought counseling.
“He keeps saying over and over again, ‘Our lives are ruined,'” Sharon Moreno said of her son.
Where to get help:
Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youth services: (06) 3555 906
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (4pm to 6pm weekdays)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
The Word
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
CASPER Suicide Prevention
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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