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‘Troll Hunter’ exposes Sweden’s anonymous Internet haters

Journalist Robert Aschberg takes a more confrontational approach to Sweden’s online hate speech problem

Where there’s Internet, there are inevitably trolls spewing hateful or threatening language — even in Sweden, with its reputation for tolerance and liberalism. But Sweden has one of the highest proportions of Internet users in the world and, like many other countries, has seen online vitriol leave digital spaces with very real consequences. Faced with anonymous online trolls, most people are powerless to stop the abuse.

Enter "Troll Hunter."

The Swedish reality TV show, hosted by journalist Robert Aschberg, tracks down the country’s most vicious anonymous commenters and confronts them about their hate speech face to face. America Tonight visited the Troll Hunter at his home in the Stockholm archipelago and spoke with him about taking down the most repugnant citizens of the Web. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity. Be advised: Some foul language is used.

How did this idea come to you?

Robert Aschberg: It just struck me one day. But the strange thing is that nobody had the idea many years ago. I did some research and saw that this was an issue in the United States 10, 15 years ago, and then suddenly there was no discussion.

What are you looking for? Who are the people? What do they do?

We mainly look for people who are anonymous. What they do is everything from death threats to just harassment of all kinds — giving people hell. And many of these people who are victims, they don't even know who it is.

Tell me about some of the trolls that you've unmasked.

It’s everything from people who should be locked up in psychiatric wards to people who give the illusion of being very, very normal. We've confronted old ladies, for example, who have been harassing other women for, I don't know, some strange personal reason.

Journalist Robert Aschberg, known as the Troll Hunter in Sweden, says he likes confronting people about their Internet bigotry.
America Tonight

They’re bullies.

Bullies, yes. The bullying is now a 24/7 phenomenon. When kids could go to school and then they could leave school and leave the bullies for a while, they can't nowadays.

How do you go about finding them?

We have some youngsters who are very good with computers … They're not hackers, because we don't accept any illegal activities. But they're very good at scanning, searching. They can do code. They can use robots. They can do very intelligent cross-reference systems and so forth. They find something in the text that gives a small part of the puzzle, maybe just [where they live]. And then you have one piece and then another piece, and this could take sometimes a couple of minutes to find out who it is, [or] it could take weeks.

And when you think that you are pretty certain that you know who this person is, what do you do?

I walk up to them with two camera teams and, yeah, the whole works. And then I usually get a receipt.

So when you walk up to someone and you have your camera crews and you have your team with you, what's the reaction?

It differs. Some people start crying and say, "I won't do anything anymore. I will erase everything." And some places, they can't erase what they've put out there. Everything from crying to people becoming very, very aggressive and saying, "If she's a whore, I sure as hell can write that she's a whore" and so forth. So it's a very heterogeneous group, haters on the Net.

You describe it as a really mixed group — everything from kids to little old ladies.

I would say maybe a majority is a very, very loud group of right-wing extremists. You have a group that tends to be very big on the Net doing these hate things, those right-wing extremists. There are not as many as you could think when you watch forums, you watch comments and so on, but they're very, very loud. And they're everywhere.

Aschberg confronts a woman about the anonymous online comments his staff connected to her. She covered her face and walked away.
courtesy Strix Production

And what are their targets?

Their targets are feminists, liberals. Immigration is a big issue. They're often racists, those kinds of things.

But these are people, although they're expressing political opinions, they choose to be anonymous.

Yeah, when they attack women — for example, say a woman writer does something in the newspaper, has a call-in or something — they never actually go attack her politically. She's always a cunt, she's always somebody who should be raped by Arabs or, you know, those kinds of things, sexist attacks.

Does this surprise you that people could be that vile?

Maybe it did, but then, it's part of human nature. You have the distance you have to the victim when you sit in front of your computer. And also there's another effect, when people sit in front of their computers. Self-control seems to, for some people, just blow away. The feelings, the thoughts that they have in the darkest corners [of their brains] are given expression when they sit in front of the computer in the middle of the night.

Tell me about a case that sticks in your mind.

Many cases stick in my mind, but I think that what's most tragic is when kids are hurt. Their parents often don't understand the impact of it, [and] the school doesn't. When they go to the police, some of the police are like, "What is Instagram?" I was giving a lecture to a couple hundred police officers last week. They were working IT crime. They know what they do, but they're not enough. And you go out to a small town in Sweden somewhere, people don't know anything about these things. They don't know what social media is.

In the United States you get into an issue of "What is free speech?" Then, of course, in free speech there are also hate crimes, slander, libel and defamation. So there are things that tip over into the realm of criminality.

Yeah, but there’s never an exact line … You have to keep a living discussion about these things all the time. Otherwise, there are at least three or four documented cases of suicides in Sweden, with young, young girls in these cases. 

‘It’s fairly new in human history – the social media, the Net, everything. It’s one of the biggest inventions since the wheel, with an enormous impact that we haven’t even seen. A lot is going to happen. I think that people, when you get used to it, people will start to act differently.’

Robert Aschberg

Sweden’s Troll Hunter

If we are now living in a society where, because of social media, you can be removed from the person you target, you can see them as completely devoid of humanity and feeling, how do you reinstill civility?

I'm an optimist. It's fairly new in human history, the social media, the Net, everything. It's one of the biggest inventions since the wheel, with an enormous impact that we haven't even seen. A lot is going to happen. I think that people, when you get used to it, people will start to act differently. But you have to discuss it. You have to punish some of the criminals and so forth, but people will get used to it. In the Stone Age, people [from] different tribes met, they started warring, but then sooner or later, they made peace, and that gave them prosperity.

Among the tactics Aschberg employs is serving Internet trolls with damage claims. Here he hands a man a slander claim for about $1,200.
courtesy Strix Production

When you confront someone about their ideology and their writings and when you unmask someone who has posted stuff like this, what do they say to you? Do you ever get them to change their minds?

No, I don't think so. Maybe some of the people who have been harassing other people quit. I had one guy who just fled when I came. He asked me who I am and why I was there. He had been writing, I think, 10,000 very, very racist comments on one of the forums here during the past three years, maybe. It was more or less a full-time job for this guy. And he fled, and then he phoned me and said, "OK, you win." And I said, "We're not competing here. It's not what it's about." And then he said, "I quit. I'll erase everything. I'll never write anything anymore."

And this guy, in advance, had said, "If Aschberg comes to me, I'll put land mines in my garden." So he was very, very tough on the Net. This was a usual phenomenon. They're extremely tough, but then when you confront them, they're like small kids with their fingers in the cookie jar.

So do you think "Troll Hunter" has had an impact on public discussion about the nature of civility on the Net?

To some extent. I'm not saying that I'm changing the world here. I don't want to be too pretentious. But it has been a small part of an important discussion, yes.

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