The other day I went down a particularly pernicious rabbit hole online. A frequent commenter in a local Facebook community piqued my ire and my curiosity.

For my own safety, I’ll refer to this commenter as Jane Doe. For weeks now, I’ve been observing how aggressive and offensive this individual is within comment threads, trying to provoke others to join in her mean-spirited rants that are more typical of the anonymous missives found on 4Chan. I clicked through to her profile and spent some time scrolling through what can only be described as a cesspool of the worst of humanity.

After weeks of watching people in our community support the disgusting comments of Jane Doe, I decided I needed to share this story. Here is what I discovered about Jane Doe.

She is not a “she” and she does not live here. She is a man who lives over 100 miles away, and the Jane Doe account is one of many, many sockpuppet accounts he created for signal boosting his own blog and multiple associated Facebook groups and Twitter handles. He turns them on and off and rotates them around to avoid being identified, like a game of whack-a-mole. 

The blog and social media communities are vehicles for fanning the flames of hostility toward marginalized groups of people, as well as championing professional trolling. He explains to his fans how to create fake profiles on social media and how to use them to greatest effect.

The real person behind it all is a bigot whose writing is full of the vilest racism, sexism and xenophobia. He brags about being on Google’s blacklist, posting their list of banned URLs with his own proudly highlighted. He enjoys making people turn on each other. He appears to have unlimited time for his hobby.

This man has also inserted himself into many other local, regional and national social media groups in order to sow discord. He baits and dupes people into joining him, and then reports back to his thousands of followers on his “progress.”

He has become a “Top Fan” at CNN and other mainstream media sites where he wields considerable negative influence via an assortment of dozens of identities. Peel the onion, and you find more and more layers. This is a national — indeed, global — problem, and it affects us right here in this little New England town.

It is not a problem that just affects other communities. It is here and it is not going away while we gawk. It is poison to unity and to healthy community dialogue.

Newburyport, we need to acknowledge this problem and we need to take steps to counteract it:

1.) We need to stop taking social media personas at face value. 2.) If commenters are clearly trying to stir the pot, ask yourself why, and consider the possibility that beyond being angry, abhorrent human beings, they might not even be who they say they are. 3) We all — including social media admins — need to research, expose, report and block accordingly. 

Some people wonder why this issue even matters. Facebook Shmacebook! Just scroll on by … unplug… ignore. Here’s the thing: The virtual world may not be your entire world or mine, and it shouldn’t be, but it is exactly that for some of the most dangerous people in America right now.

At least understand how white nationalists recruit followers, organize themselves across vast geographies, and become a cohesive affinity group of ideologically bound individuals who may or may not be living in their parents’ basements, and may or may not be Russian. These people have enormous online followings comprised of other similar faceless and aggrieved lowlifes.

In the old days before the internet and social media, these cowards had no easy way to find each other and work together. Now, they do. If you think it doesn’t matter, we don’t just have a difference of opinion — we have a difference of values.

These are not victimless behaviors. They are the gasoline that gets thrown on fires that burn not only in the virtual world, but in the real one. There is no place for this hatred in Newburyport, or anywhere else for that matter.

Lori Day lives in Newburyport.

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