Infiltrating 'The Dark Net,' Where Criminals, Trolls And Extremists Reign

Infiltrating 'The Dark Net,' Where Criminals, Trolls And Extremists Reign

9:25am Jun 04, 2015
Infiltrating the Dark Net.
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  • Infiltrating the Dark Net.

    iStockphoto

  • Jamie Bartlett says that "for good or for ill," the Tor Network is "an extension of human freedom."

    Jamie Bartlett says that "for good or for ill," the Tor Network is "an extension of human freedom."

    Jeff Overs

There's a side to the Internet most people have never visited. Tor Hidden Services, or the Tor Network, is an encrypted, hidden network of about 50,000 websites that can't be accessed with a traditional browser like Chrome or Firefox. Its users include criminals, trolls and extremists.

Author Jamie Bartlett, who chronicles the secret corners of the Internet in his book The Dark Net, likens it to the "Wild West."

"You have anonymous users visiting sites that can't be censored. So anybody with something to hide, whether it's for good reasons or for ill, finds a very natural home there," Bartlett tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

Bartlett first became involved with the Tor Network, which some users refer to as "the darknet," when he was researching the online components of radical social and political movements. Gradually his investigation expanded to include different channels within the darknet. As part of the research for the book, he moderated a trolling group, purchased marijuana on a black market site and studied child pornography networks.

Bartlett says that infiltrating the encrypted world of the Internet wasn't as difficult as he expected: "I found overall that people that live in these darker parts of the net actually want to get their side of the story out, they want to be heard. So once you have their trust, you actually can't stop them from talking; they won't shut up."


Interview Highlights

On using Tor browsers to access the "darknet"

It's called a Tor browser [and] you download it from the net. ... It was originally invented by the U.S. naval intelligence who wanted a Web browser that would allow their intelligence officers to browse the net without giving themselves away. ... It essentially means that when you go online with it, you can go to any website; you can go to CNN.com with this browser, but it bounces your request to access a website via several different computers around the world encrypting and decrypting your request as it goes, which means by the time it gets to the CNN website nobody really knows where that request has come from.

This browser can be used be for anything and more and more people are using it because they care about their Internet privacy. But it's also your key, your way in, to this second, hidden, encrypted Internet which is technically called Tor Hidden Services, some people call it "the darknet."

On how darknet marketplaces work

When you go onto this site, you use your encrypted browser — the Tor browser — you have your Bitcoin, which is a cryptocurrency that allows you to transact with people; it's sort of a form of digital cash that keeps your identity secret. So you have this clever encryption system but it's so familiar when you arrive. You get online, you log onto the site, and you are presented with what essentially looks like an eBay for drugs — so thousands of products from hundreds of different vendors based all around the world, and all those trappings of an e-commerce site. You have your special offers. You have your product descriptions. You have your — crucially — your user reviews of each product that's on offer. ... You scroll through the different options available to you. You contact the vendor, if you so wish. You place an order. You pay with your cryptocurrency. You put your address in, and you wait for your product to arrive in the post. It really is that simple.

On the philosophy that the darknet exists because of individual freedom and privacy

There are certainly those who use the language of libertarianism to excuse themselves from being responsible for their actions. But beyond that, I think there is a very significant number of people who genuinely believe — and indeed this goes back to the '90s when we had a wave of interest in encryption and privacy and anonymity online — that the Internet in some ways was a great hope for libertarians, that it was a place where people could come together, communicate, transact, create communities and identities, entirely outside of the scope of this state. ...

Jamie Bartlett says that

Jamie Bartlett says that "for good or for ill," the Tor Network is "an extension of human freedom."

Jeff Overs

The reality is, of course, with this sort of world view, you are always going to get an incredible explosion, expression, of freedom, ideas [and] activity that many of us would find quite unacceptable. Sometimes that's incredible innovative and interesting, and sometimes it's very dark.

So I guess it's a story about technology in general, really, which is that it extends human freedom, extends human power and people will use that for good and for ill.

On child pornography on the darknet

In this hidden Tor network, sites are very, very difficult indeed to close down because they're very hard to locate. You need to locate the server of a website to shut it down and with the encryption that this system uses, that's very difficult. But there's another side to this which isn't about clever encryption. It's not about distributed images. It's the way that these images are being produced. According to the Internet Watch Foundation, which is a U.K.-based organization that monitors this stuff, about a third of child pornography images are now being produced by young people themselves, people under the age of 18 who are taking photographs or images or videos of themselves and their partners and then sharing them amongst their friends or posting them online. So when you have so many young people that are producing the images themselves, there are pedophiles lurking, collecting those images and then adding them to this sort of warehouse, this distributed system or sharing and storing images. So those two things together make this an incredibly difficult problem to solve.

On how the self-proclaimed Islamic State uses social media

I've seen [ISIS] using what you might consider to be very traditional advertising techniques probably more associated with cool, young advertising and marketing types in Brooklyn than people fighting for Islamic State, but this is the thing: In a way, it's not surprising at all, because the people that are joining Islamic State or ISIS are typically Western men in their 20s and 30s. Is it any surprise that they might take to Facebook or to Twitter or to YouTube to produce glitzy videos, to try to make their content go viral? I've seen them produce videos of guns and cats and all the sorts of strange things you get with viral marketing. ... They'll often post pictures of themselves with guns and then they'll add a cat into it because images of cats tend to do very well on social media; people love cats.

On how hacking groups like Anonymous are taking down ISIS propaganda

My view is, with groups like Anonymous, these are exactly the types of people we need on our side to fight against groups like ISIS. Now, sometimes Anonymous will do things that I don't agree with. But frankly, when you're fighting against someone like ISIS, who are so good in the digital space, you need people who are just as good to try to counteract their influence. I think it's going to be groups like Anonymous that will be far better at doing that than governments.

On trolling

The word "troll" ... actually refers to a fishing technique of dragging a baited line across a surface of water to see what bites on it. That's where the term comes from, not the cave-dwelling ogre.

There are many people who consider that trolling is culture, it's an art form, it's one of the longest standing cultures on the net. And for these people it's, again, a bit libertarian, it's a statement of free expression. It's a statement that we have to be offensive to others if we want to keep peoples' skin thick. If we want to live in a society where we value free speech it almost demands that we be offensive to others. And they see their job as going around and offending other people, often in a very clever, sort of sophisticated way. They're really upset that the word "trolling" has now come to mean essentially anyone that bullies another individual online. They don't see that as trolling; theirs is an art form.

Copyright 2015 Fresh Air. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. There's a part of the Internet most people have never gone to because it's an encrypted, hidden underworld that's home to pornography, black markets, trolls, criminals and extremists. My guest, Jamie Bartlett, reports on that world in his new book, "The Dark Net." As part of his research, he moderated a trolling group, purchased marijuana on a black market site and studied child pornography networks. He started investigating the digital underworld when he was researching radical social and political movements and following Islamist extremists around Europe and North America. Bartlett is the director of the Center for the Analysis of Social Media at the think tank Demos. Before joining Demos, he was a research associate at the international humanitarian agency Islamic Relief.

Jamie Bartlett, welcome to FRESH AIR. Give us an overview about "The Dark Net" that you're writing about.

JAMIE BARTLETT: Over the last few years, I've been very interested in sort of hearing, reading about the supposedly terrible things that people are doing on the Internet. But I always found that I never really got a true sense of what they were doing, why they were there, what these Internet subcultures were like and crucially, I suppose, what the people, who were part of these Internet subcultures - whether it's neo-Nazis or people who share illegal pornography or buy and sell drugs - who they were in real life and what are they actually like. How do they go about their day-to-day existence offline? And so what I tried to do was, through the course of a year or so, immerse myself as best I could within these Internet subcultures, within these shocking hidden parts of the net and try to report on it as objectively as possible, to make no judgments at all and to just shine a light on the sort of the parts of the Internet that most of us may hear about but never really understand.

GROSS: So how does this Internet underworld manage to remain anonymous and hidden?

BARTLETT: This is a sort of second hidden encrypted Internet, which you access with a very particular web browser. You can't get on it with a normal browser, like Chrome or Firefox. And it uses a system of encryption that just essentially means that the people that are on there don't give away their location or really anything about themselves. So they're anonymous on this network. And it's a network of about 50,000 sites, and those sites, because they also use this very clever encryption system, are very difficult indeed to censor. So it's really a sort of Wild West because you have anonymous users visiting sites that can't be censored. So anybody with something to hide, whether it's for good reasons or for ill, finds a very natural home there.

GROSS: So if you can't get on it with an ordinary browser, how do you get on it? Like, could I get on it? Would I need to buy a special something or another?

BARTLETT: You wouldn't need to buy a special anything. It's remarkably easy, in fact. The - it's called a Tor browser. It stands for The Onion Router. You download it from the net. It's just a piece of software, really. And it looks much like any other web browser. It was originally invented by the U.S. Naval intelligence, who wanted a web browser that would allow their intelligence officers to browse the net without giving themselves away. I mean, there's a good reason they'd want to do that. When you go online with it, you can go to any website. You can go to cnn.com with this browser. But it bounces your request to access a website via several different computers around the world, encrypting and decrypting your request as it goes, which means by the time it gets to the CNN website, nobody really knows where that request has come from.

GROSS: One of the most famous sites on the digital underworld is the Silk Road, which is often described as, like, a black market version of eBay or Amazon. You can buy virtually anything on it, including narcotics, marijuana, all kinds of other black market items. My first question is, does it still exist because the founder of it was just sentenced to life imprisonment without parole?

BARTLETT: That's right. Ross Ulbricht was recently sentenced to an incredibly long sentence.

GROSS: He was sentenced - convicted of narcotics trafficking, running a criminal enterprise, hacking, money laundering. You were saying (laughter)?

BARTLETT: Yeah. Yeah, right. That's right - seven counts, I think. And he - his site, the Silk Road, that was the original dark net market, as you said, a sort of anonymous black market that existed on this hidden Internet. That one was taken down in October 2013 after a serious piece of investigation by the FBI. That no longer exists, but here's the thing. The minute that went down, a number of other replica sites turned up in its place. And there are, as we speak, probably between 20 and 25 of these anonymous marketplaces where more or less anything can be bought and sold. So it really is like a hydra's head. The Silk Road has gone, but there are plenty more that have taken its place.

GROSS: Now, you bought something illegal on...

BARTLETT: I did.

GROSS: Was it the Silk Road or one of the other sites?

BARTLETT: Well, it was the Silk Road 2, which turned up within a month of the original Silk Road being taken offline. So it was more or less identical to the Silk Road, with the same sorts of products, the same sort of volume and the same sort of, I guess, customer experience is the best way of describing it.

GROSS: So how did it work? You bought the smallest amount of marijuana that a seller would allow you to buy.

BARTLETT: (Laughter) Yeah.

GROSS: So how do you buy it? How is it delivered to you?

BARTLETT: You mentioned before it's like Amazon or eBay, and it really is. So when you go onto this site, you use your encrypted browser, the Tor browser. You have your bitcoin, which is a sort of crypto-currency that allows you to transact with people. It's sort of a form of digital cash that keeps your identity secret. So you have this sort of clever encryption system, but it's so familiar when you arrive. You get online, you log on to the site, and you are presented with what essentially looks like an eBay for drugs - so thousands of products from hundreds of different vendors based all around the world and all those trappings of an e-commerce site. You have your special offers. You have your product descriptions. You have your - crucially, your user reviews of each product that's on offer. And so, familiar as we are with that type of online transaction, you scroll through the different options available to you. You contact the vendor, if you so wish. You place an order. You pay with your cryptocurrency. You put your address in, and you wait for your product to arrive in the post. It really is that simple.

GROSS: It sounds simple. It also sounds terrifying in one way 'cause you are dealing with a vendor who's totally unknown to you. You're giving your address through this black market site to this unknown vendor. Who knows who they are? Who knows what you're going to be sent in the mail? Who knows what's going to happen with your address?

BARTLETT: You're right. It's not quite as reassuring as when you go on to Amazon or eBay. But you are dealing, of course, in illegal products. But here's the thing about the Silk Road and all of these darknet markets - they're completely misunderstood in my view. Everyone imagines them to be all about the clever encryption and the cryptocurrency, bitcoin. Really, the secret - the trick of these markets is customer service. They are - because of the user review system and because you have choice across hundreds of different vendors, these vendors are desperate - desperate for you to give them five stars out of five and a glowing review because in a world where everybody is using pseudonyms, reputation based on the quality of your products, of your wares, is the only way that you can reassure repeat custom.

And so they've built up this sort of very sophisticated way of buying and selling and trading on the marketplace. You've got to remember that this is a marketplace which is in competition with the alternative, which is hanging around on street corners. And when you do that to buy drugs, you also don't know who you're speaking to, what they're like, what might happen to you. And you don't know what you're getting from them. You know, the problem with buying drugs is that they're very often cut with mixing substances. People don't know the purity. It's incredibly dangerous. On the Silk Road, where you have a competitive market, there is a way for the users to have some kind of quality assurance over the product they are getting. It's not perfect. But for many users, it's actually a far better way of getting hold of their products.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jamie Bartlett, who's the author of the new book "The Dark Net: Inside The Digital Underworld."

When the founder of Silk Road was sentenced - or maybe this was earlier in his trial - he said, I wanted to empower people to make choices in their lives for themselves and have privacy and anonymity. I'm not a self-centered, sociopathic person who wanted to express inner badness. And I think that gets to a very perplexing thing about, you know, these black market sites in the dark net and some of the other sites as well. There's some expression of, like, a libertarian philosophy behind it and about, like, freedom from government, freedom from censorship. At the same time, some of the activities on there are really dark and nefarious and criminal. And I know this is something you've been trying to work through just in terms of evaluating what's going on. And I know your book is supposed to be without passing judgment, to just, like, report - here's what is going on. But did you find that a lot of people have this kind of philosophy that they're either enacting or hiding behind, depending on how you look at it?

BARTLETT: Yeah. And it's difficult with Ross Ulbricht and many of the people in these criminal spaces because it's also easy for them to use that as a justification for what essentially was a sort of, you know, incredible criminal enterprise. So there are certainly those who use the language of libertarianism to excuse themselves from being responsible for their actions. But beyond that, I think there is a very significant number of people who genuinely believe that - and indeed, this goes back to the '90s when we had a sort of wave of interest in encryption and privacy and anonymity online - that the Internet, in some ways, was a great hope for libertarians, that it was a place where people could come together, communicate, transact, create communities and identities entirely outside the scope of the state as it exists.

And the judge in the ruling - the sentencing of Ross Ulbricht said, this is a very dangerous idea. You thought you were above the law. And so for many of these people, that's exactly what this space is - somewhere new, somewhere interesting, somewhere different, somewhere they can create a sort of - yes, something of a libertarian utopia that's empowered by encryption, privacy and anonymity. Now the reality is, of course, with this sort of worldview, you are always going to get an incredible explosion - expression of freedom, ideas, activity that many of us would find really quite unacceptable. Sometimes that's incredibly innovative and interesting, and sometimes it's very dark. And so I guess it - it's a story about technology in general, really, which is that it extends human freedom, extends human power, and people will use that for good and for ill.

GROSS: So what's one of the most surprising things you found being sold on these black market shopping sites on the Internet?

BARTLETT: Well, because they are so competitive, they're always looking for ways of getting a market niche. So recently, one vendor on these dark net markets started advertising fair trade organic cocaine. And they would say, you know, this is not cocaine that has been sourced from a dodgy Colombian warlord. This cocaine has been produced by local Guatemalan farmers - and not only that, they said - not only that, we will re-invest 20 percent of all the profits we make into local education programs. And it just gives you a sense for all their ills, how innovative and creative these dark parts of the Internet can become.

GROSS: It's almost funny. I mean (laughter)...

BARTLETT: Yes, it - well (laughter). I mean, I must admit I found it quite funny when I first saw it. Of course, the problem is you're never completely sure whether that 20 percent really is going to go...

GROSS: Of course.

BARTLETT: ...Into that local education program.

GROSS: I mean, how can you be sure of anything when you don't know who the person is that's selling it?

BARTLETT: Right, exactly. And the great challenge for them has always been how do you combine anonymity with trust? And the way they've tried to do that in these dark net markets is through these user review systems. But - I got to say - there's still some way to go before they can perfect that.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jamie Bartlett. He's the author of the new book "The Dark Net: Inside The Digital Underworld." He's also the director of the Center for the Analysis of Social Media at the think tank Demos. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Jamie Bartlett. And we're talking about his new book, which is called "The Dark Net: Inside The Digital Underworld." And it's about all the digital markets and digital cultures in the hidden part of the Internet, and a lot of the stuff is truly very dark.

A lot of what you found on the digital underworld is pornography, pornography, pornography. It really - it really proliferates there. And what's especially proliferating there is child pornography. Why is child pornography catching on especially in the digital underground?

BARTLETT: It's partly a changing way in which we produce and share information. Back in the '80s, the U.S. government thought that they pretty much had child pornography or child abuse images under control, that, you know, there wasn't a huge amount in circulation and that circulation was dropping in sort of - a number of magazines and images. Certainly, in the U.K. they estimated it to be something like seven or 8,000 images that they knew were circulating. But then came digitalization, and with digital files you can create, copy, share images almost infinitely and at pretty much no cost. And that's meant many, many wonderful things. But it also - it's meant that these types of images have been incredibly difficult - I daresay impossible - now to entirely eradicate from the net. Back in just, I think, 2013, the U.K. police found one individual alone with over 2 million images of children on his computer hard drive. But the problem is this - in this sort of hidden Tor network, sites are very, very difficult indeed to close down because they're very hard to locate. You need to locate the server of a website to shut it down and with the encryption that this system uses, that's very difficult. But there's another side to this, which isn't about clever encryption. It's not about distributed images. It's the way that these images are being produced. According to the Internet Watch Foundation, which is a U.K.-based organization that monitors this stuff, about a third of child pornography images are now being produced by young people themselves, people under the age of 18 who are taking photographs or images or videos of themselves and their partners and then sharing them amongst their friends or posting them online. And so when you have so many young people that are producing the images themselves, there are pedophiles lurking, collecting those images and then adding them to this sort of warehouse, this distributed system of sharing and storing images. So as a result, those two things together make this an incredibly difficult problem to solve.

GROSS: Has all your research into the dark side of the Internet changed your life as an Internet user when you're not investigating - just your, like, your day-to-day online life?

BARTLETT: Not in a very obvious way, but I think certainly it has in some senses because while I was writing this book I started feeling really quite sort of depressed, quite miserable. I found it very difficult to be constantly surrounded by, I suppose, the darker side of human nature. And I really wondered why that was, I mean, 'cause I'm quite a resilient person, I suppose, but I wondered why that was. And I ended up concluding that, I mean, it wasn't because I was being surrounded by what many would consider to be quite dark behavior. But it was simply because I was spending so long in front of a computer screen, a computer screen where my whole world had been reduced to this tiny little box of heroes and villains and, you know, very extreme and exaggerated emotions. And I think I was sort of missing out on all the joys of living life offline, of spending time with my friends or playing sport or going to the movies or whatever it was. So strangely enough - and I suppose in some ways it's quite predictable - the single biggest difference has been that I've always tried to make sure I don't spend too long on any part of the Internet because I realize this sort of effect that it can have on me and many other people. I make sure that I always have at least one day a week where I try and switch off entirely, and it's worked wonders.

GROSS: My guest is Jamie Bartlett, author of the new book "The Dark Net: Inside The Digital Underworld." After we take a short break, we'll talk about trolls. As part of his research, he was briefly a moderator for a troll site. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Jamie Bartlett, author of the new book "The Dark Net: Inside The Digital Underworld." It's about the hidden, encrypted part of the Internet that's become home to criminals, extremists, pornographers, black markets and trolls. Bartlett is the director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media for the think tank Demos.

The dark net, the hidden Internet, is a haven for trolls. You actually got to be a moderator on one of the infamous troll sites. Tell us a little bit about that site.

BARTLETT: Well, I can't tell you what site it was. I'm sworn to secrecy, but there are many people who have a very different view of what trolling is and what it's about. To the rest of us - and actually we've seen Internet trolls, these people that take great joy in abusing and offending and insulting strangers on the net as if it's become a sort of fairly modern Internet culture. But the truth is this has been around for a very long time indeed. In fact, it's been around since at least the '70s, became very popular in the '80s. And the word troll - Internet troll, which actually refers to a fishing technique of dragging a baited line across a surface of water to see what bites on it. That's where the term comes from, not the cave dwelling ogre.

GROSS: I didn't know that.

BARTLETT: And there are many people who consider that trolling is a culture. It's an art form. It's one of the longest standing cultures on the net. And for these people, it's a sort of, again, a bit libertarian. It's a statement of free expression. It's a statement that we have to be offensive to others if we want to keep people's skins thick, if we want to live in a society where we value free speech. It almost demands that we be offensive to others, and they see their job as going around and offending other people often in a very clever, sort of sophisticated way. And they're really upset that the word trolling has now come to mean essentially anyone that bullies another individual online. They don't see that as trolling. Theirs is an art form. And so there are many of these people who you might call them old school trolls who will meet up together in chat rooms, discuss a strategy, decide who to target and then work out often a very clever sort of long-winded strategy for how to cause the most havoc or upset on an Internet forum or a chat room.

GROSS: Give us an example of one of the clever schemes they came up with.

BARTLETT: Well, one individual, who I spent an awful lot of time with in person and who was a member of this trolling community, used to enjoy going into what he considered to be far-right chat rooms and writing comments which were badly spelled. People online cannot stand badly spelled criticism. I don't know why, but it's a real thing. And so he used to go into these chat rooms under - using a pseudonym and then he'd say something like, oh, you far-right extremists. You know, if only you read a little more, you wouldn't believe all of this nonsense about immigrants and all the rest of it. And he'd always make a little spelling error so someone would sort of pick him up on that. You know, you spelled this wrong. You're an idiot. He'd intentionally lower the tone, if you like. And then he would try to lock them in to a detailed conversation about their philosophy where he'd be sort of playing with them a little bit. He'd be using sort of quite sophisticated arguments. He's actually very smart. He's an autodidact. He sort of really understands philosophy. And he'd try and lock them into an argument or a conversation. Now, this happened on one occasion. And this sort of summed up trolling to me because it's partly a serious point and partly just fun. He just did it for the hell of it.

GROSS: It sounds like people looking for a fight who get the fight that they're looking for, and nobody wins. You know, no opinions are necessarily changed, but you get to, like, engage and fight, and that makes you feel good.

BARTLETT: There's something definitely to that. A lot of people are very bored online, and they enjoy butting their heads with people they disagree with. But, you know, that's also quite an important thing. And this guy in particular told me that he's found that actually spending a lot of time arguing - really aggressively and being creative with his insults towards other people - has actually helped him offline. It's helped him become a little bit more assertive. He's actually quite a shy individual.

GROSS: Oh, he's doing this so (laughter) this is great. He needs to learn to become more assertive so he's trolling - terrific.

BARTLETT: But, you know, this is the thing - and it's a fine line. So there are people like him who really do consider it to be something of an art form, but it - of course, there are others who take it to such other extremes. And they will just target and bully completely defenseless, innocent individuals. They'll try to identify them in real life. They'll try to ruin their lives for no other reason than the sheer fun of doing that as they see it. And so trolling...

GROSS: And that seems to be the majority culture of trolling is ruining - like, doing your best to ruin people's lives.

BARTLETT: Well, I think that it's become that. And this is why I said that many of the sort of old school trolls are really frustrated with this because back in the '90s, trolling - this sort of aggressive nastiness towards each other - was something of an art form. You know, if you were good with words and you could insult people in a very clever way, people would flock from all over the net to watch infamous trolls in action. These are very clever people, and those old school trolls would never try to take it offline. They would never try to ruin somebody's life. They'd never try to identify who they really were. This was all about your wits on the net. Yes, it was nasty. Yes, it was raucous, but that was part of the fun. More recently, like I said, it's become shorthand for just really nasty, aggressive behavior - death threats, rape threats, identifying people in real life. And that's the problem, that trolling has become that much wider spectrum. And I asked this guy whether he thought that threatening to rape somebody on Twitter, say, was trolling. And he said no, that's just threatening to rape somebody. That's not trolling. There's no art. There's no philosophy. There's no point to any of that, and he sort of would never do anything like that.

GROSS: But is this kind of radical subculture of trolling, the original artful trollers, were they radically misogynist too?

BARTLETT: There's always been, I think, more than a hint of misogyny, not just within the Internet trolling community. But especially the early days, it really was a sort of boys' playground. And anytime women dared raise their heads above the parapet online, it was - it felt to them like who are you and what are you doing here? And you shouldn't be here. And they would relentlessly bully the women. And - but I think that's a bit of a broader point about Internet culture, especially in the early days when, you know, anytime newcomers arrived to your community, whether it's offline or online, you tend to get a sort of an unwelcome reaction. And that was certain the case in the '09s. And it feels, in fact, even worse now when you look at the way that a lot of particularly famous women who speak politically about stuff often get really badly attacked by trolls, if you want to call them that. But to me they're just misogynistic bullies, and I wouldn't even call them trolls. The reason I actually started this book is that I was on a pretty infamous image sharing board called 4chan. And I saw a terrible case of a young woman's life being ruined by an anonymous mob. And that sparked me into action because she had very foolishly, yes, been posting naked photos of herself on this site. This is a particularly strange subculture where young women respond to requests from people that are watching at home, and they take explicit photos of themselves in response to what the board says, and these people become sort of mini celebrities.

It's a cry for attention. And she accidentally gave away a bit of information that allowed the mob - the digital mob - to find out who she was in real life. And within the space of about 10 minutes they had managed to find who she was in real life. They found where she went to university. They found where she lived. They found her phone number. They found her Facebook account. They found her Twitter account. And they made a sort of horrible montage of all the different photos that she had been sharing with the board. And before she could do anything about it, they had sent these photos to everybody she knew - to her parents, to her parents' friends, to her schoolmates, to her teachers. And I just saw this unfolding. I'm watching it and I couldn't do anything to stop it, of course. And I saw this sort of mob mentality that the joy that they were experiencing by feeling the power they had over this poor, young woman. And I thought the best thing I can do is actually tell this story so that hopefully people will - won't naively go into this without understanding the risks.

GROSS: So you managed to be a moderator on a troll site. How did you find somebody who was able to introduce you to this world, escort you to this site, vouch for you, make you briefly a moderator?

BARTLETT: I'd say at least half of the time spent writing this book was not writing at all. It was persuading them to meet me in real life and then persuading them to let me into their digital worlds. Now, that does take a lot of time and care and promises and cajoling, but, you know, I found overall that people that live in these darker parts of the net actually want to get their side of the story out. They want to be heard. And so once you have their trust, you actually can't stop them from talking. They won't shut up. So as soon as I was sort of initiated and accepted and trusted, people were incredibly open to show me into these - but to escort me into these chat rooms. And, of course, it's often helped that everyone uses pseudonyms and fake names. And so if you pick up a believable sounding pseudonym, you can often fit right in easily enough.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jamie Bartlett. And he's the author of the new book "The Dark Net: Inside The Digital Underworld." And he's the director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the think tank Demos. And he started off doing this work, as we'll discuss a little later, tracing radicalist Islamists who subscribe to an al-Qaida type philosophy. Let's take a short break then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, my guest is Jamie Bartlett. He's the author of the new book "The Dark Net: Inside The Digital Underworld." So, Jamie, you are now Director of The Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the think tank Demos. And the way you got involved with investigating the dark side of the Internet was through trying to track down people who subscribe to an al-Qaida-type philosophy. What are some of the things that you saw radical Islamic groups doing online that surprised you most in terms of how effectively they communicated radical causes and attracted people to those causes - people who otherwise might not have responded?

BARTLETT: Well, when I think about the way that Islamic State uses social media to push their propaganda...

GROSS: And this is ISIS that you're talking about.

BARTLETT: This is ISIS. Sorry, we call them Islamic - well, I think everyone has a slightly different name for them.

GROSS: Yes, I know.

BARTLETT: Yeah, yeah, it's confusing, isn't it? The way that ISIS have used social media so quickly to, I suppose, create propaganda that really works for young people - that's visually appealing, that has very clear messages, that's very well produced, that's very slick. I've seen them using what you might consider to be very traditional advertising techniques probably more associated with, you know, core young advertising and marketing types in Brooklyn than people fighting for Islamic State. But this is the thing. In a way, it's not surprising at all because the people that are joining Islamic State or ISIS are typically young, Western men in their 20s and 30s. Is it any surprise that they might take to Facebook or to Twitter or to YouTube to produce glitzy videos to try to make their content go viral? I've seen them produce videos of guns and cats and all the sorts of strange things that you get with viral marketing.

GROSS: I'm sorry, guns and cats?

BARTLETT: Yeah, so they'd often post pictures of themselves with guns. And then they'll sort of add a cat into it because cats tend - images of cats tend to do very well on social media. People love cats so they'll share it...

GROSS: Wait, even for ISIS, they're going to use, like, a cat in a recruiting video 'cause the cats are so cute?

BARTLETT: They have done, they have done. And the reason they have done that is because of the people they're targeting, which is young - usually young men who have - who are sort of familiar with that sort of content. It's not new or strange to them. It's what they've sort of grown up with, if you like. So it's not surprising at all that they are using social media in a very sophisticated way because it's what they've always done. It's their world. It's what they're used to doing. I think the problem is for the rest of us who haven't grown up with all of that, we find it slightly confusing and aren't entirely sure how to respond.

GROSS: You write that Anonymous, which is a hacking group that often does group hacking for a cause - whether you agree with that cause or not, they have a cause in mind. And you say that they showed - that Anonymous showed that they could be a vital ally in beating ISIS online. What did they do?

BARTLETT: Individuals associated with Anonymous - of course because the way that anonymous works is that anybody can take on the mantle and say they are part of the group - it's this sort of new, interesting, ephemeral, digital identity that people take on. But they tend to be very, very talented at hacking into people's accounts, taking down websites, producing content of their own to spread. And one thing that they have repeatedly done is to try to shut down Islamic State propaganda. So whenever the organization produces propaganda, they often will host it on a website somewhere. People associated with Anonymous will very quickly find it and try to attack the website and remove it. They're often very good at identifying the individuals or identifying who is behind the actual accounts that, I suppose, are supportive of Islamic State, which they can then pass on to the authorities. And my view is with groups like Anonymous, these are exactly the types of people that we need on our side to fight against groups like ISIS. Now, sometimes Anonymous will do things that I don't agree with. And - but frankly, when you're fighting against someone like ISIS who are so good in the digital space, you need people that are just as good to try to counteract their influence. And I think it's going to be groups like Anonymous that will be far better at doing that than governments.

GROSS: So I want to get back to the fact that Tor, which stands for The Onion Network, which is a highly encrypted network - and this is where a lot of the black-market websites are, a lot of their child pornography and other pornography is. This was a network created by the U.S. government largely to help - I think to help people in authoritarian countries communicate and not be censored. So, you know, the same kind of encryption that's helping, you know, the good guys is also helping criminals in their criminal activity.

BARTLETT: That's absolutely right. And you can't have one without the other. This is the great dilemma. It's the very same systems of encryption, whether it's the Tor browser or any of the other systems of encryptions we use. The stuff that the child pornographers use to keep themselves away from the authorities is exactly the same software that's being used by whistleblowers, that's being used by Democratic activists, that's being used by civil liberties groups. And so the great difficulty is how - if you try too hard to undermine those systems of privacy and encryption that are being used by the bad guys because you're only worried about them, you are also going to adversely affect all the people that use it for social benefit. And that's one of the reasons why in the end, we are going to have to work out a way of living with some of this bad stuff. Because the benefits of Internet freedom and of Internet privacy are so enormous - not just in this country, not just in democracies but especially in brutal dictatorships all around the world. And so if we want those people to have protection and privacy, unfortunately it means that some bad people are going to use it for ill as well. But we shouldn't destroy the whole system simply as a result of the behavior of the bad guys.

GROSS: Jamie Bartlett, thank you so much for talking with us.

BARTLETT: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Jamie Bartlett is the author of the new book "The Dark Net: Inside The Digital Underworld." If you want to catch up on interviews you missed like this week's interview about how yoga was popularized in the U.S. or last week's with David Oyelowo who played Martin Luther King in the film "Selma," check out our podcast, which you can find at itunes.com/freshair or wherever you download your podcasts. Coming up, Milo Miles reviews an album by Bassekou Kouyate, a bandleader and musician from Mali. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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