Online and objectionable?

The Internet enables people to operate online, anonymously. When this capacity is used for damaging activities, what should be done?


I’m a fan of being able to communicate online without revealing your identity. This is because I’ve known so many whistleblowers who are subject to serious reprisals. As soon as they go public, they are cut off from further information, and the reprisals divert attention from the issue they spoke out about. Leaking anonymously is usually a better option, reducing or eliminating reprisals, while the leaker can remain on the job and, if necessary, leak again.

Leaking can be done in various ways. The Internet makes it easier. Setting up a Yahoo email account at a public library is one option. Another is using encryption, including the Tor browser to hide web activity.

Then there are dissidents in countries where speaking out against the government can lead to dismissal, arrest, imprisonment and torture. Encrypted communication can be a vital tool for campaigners who are up against a repressive regime.

However, online anonymity can be used for other, less noble purposes. I was reminded of this by reading Jamie Bartlett’s book The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld. Bartlett, a researcher at the think tank Demos, knew about nefarious activities on the Internet and decided to investigate further. He pursued unfamiliar corners online, tracked down individuals who are involved, met them face-to-face and learned about how they operate.


The Dark Net is a fascinating account. It is engagingly written and addresses a series of important topics, including trolling, racist organising, child pornography and illegal drug sales. Bartlett doesn’t try to force his views on the reader, but rather encourages thinking about the pros and cons of online anonymity.


Trolling involves entering online discussions and seeking to cause trouble, upsetting people by making rude comments or trying to disrupt an entire discussion. Trolls may see success, from their viewpoint, as provoking an angry response.

Bartlett, as well as telling about cases of trolls who were exposed and prosecuted, was able to meet with a self-identified troll and discuss his motives and methods. Trolls may be quite ordinary people offline, but online they morph into nasty personas, sometimes taking numerous identities. They may pretend to adopt views contrary to their own and infiltrate forums in order to discredit them, for example pretending to be a racist making really objectionable comments.

Internet troll

Trolling has been around ever since the early days of computer-to-computer interaction, the precursors of the Internet. It is fostered by what’s called the online disinhibition effect, which means that when you are separated from people in time and space, you are more likely to behave without the usual restraints that apply when talking to someone face-to-face.

Bartlett entered the notorious /b/ board of the image-sharing website 4chan, where participants, almost all anonymous, vie with each other in making ingenious insults and outrageous statements. When a teenage girl entered for the first time, she was seen as a legitimate target. She was encouraged to post revealing photos of herself. Board regulars managed to determine her offline identity (“dox” her) by using cues in the background of her photos, and proceeded to send her photos to her parents, her classmates and friends.

This was what /b/ calls a “life ruin”: cyberbullying intended, as its name suggests, to result in long-term, sustained distress. It’s not the first time that /b/ has doxed camgirls. One elated participant celebrated the victory by creating another thread to share stories and screen grabs of dozens of other “classic” life ruins, posting photographs of a girl whose Facebook account had been hacked, her password changed, and the explicit pictures she’d posted on /b/ shared on her timeline. (p. 20)

Alarmingly, these trolls see nothing wrong with harming people. She deserved it, they think, because she was so foolish. But, as Bartlett notes, trolls can cause severe damage to a person’s life, even causing them to commit suicide. And it’s all done anonymously. Only very seldom is a troll held to account.


Another use of the Internet is for circulating pornography, for which there seems to be an unending demand, with porn sites constituting a good proportion of what’s on the web. However, the traditional porn industry is not thriving. The reason is the availability of webcams, enabling a huge increase in self-made sex displays.

Bartlett made contact with a successful online performer, Vex, met her in real life and attended one of her shows, watching her (and, on this occasion, two other women) perform using the site Chaturbate. Watchers can sign in for the show and express their appreciation through payment of Chaturbate tokens. Bartlett watched a particularly lucrative show.

I ask Vex why she thinks she is so popular. “Traditional porn tends to be standardized and unrealistic,” she replies. “I guess I’m a real person in a real room.” This view is one put forward by Feona Attwood, professor of cultural studies at Middlesex University: “It’s a better kind of porn: somehow more real, raw, and innovative than the products of the mainstream porn industry.” (p. 171)


Something more disturbing is the availability of child porn on the Internet. It is hidden well, using encryption, but there is lots of it. Bartlett tells how child porn was in decline in the 1980s, seen by law enforcement as a low priority. The Internet provided a huge boost to the availability of child porn, with interest piqued by “gateway” images of older teenagers, gradually leading to interest in images of younger children. This in turn stimulated greater supply, itself made easier for dark-side entrepreneurs.

Bartlett met “Michael”, a seemingly ordinary middle-class man, who started watching more pornography in his 40s, with an interest in youthful bodies, and gradually moved from legal to illegal pornography. Then he was caught, and his life upended.

Bartlett provides a lot of context, quoting various sources and authorities, for example noting that the perpetrators of most sexual abuse continue to be family members and that evidence about the connection between watching child porn and becoming an offender is “inconclusive”. He also met with British police who specialise in tracking down online child porn so it can be shut down and the producers and users prosecuted. The British teams have been fairly successful in closing down British operations, but there are numerous offenders in other countries, and in many of them the police don’t care or are bribed not to interfere.

Anonymous commerce

It is now possible to buy and sell goods using anonymous digital currency, of which the best known is bitcoin. Libertarian-oriented programmers pour enormous energy into designing digital currencies that enable anonymity for sellers and purchasers, at the same time providing records of transactions.


Bartlett purchased some marijuana online using a prominent drug-sale site, Silk Road 2.0, that offers a wide variety of pharmaceutical and illegal drugs. He didn’t use his credit card, of course, but rather bitcoin. He did use his home address, but he could have used some other address. Only after receiving his gram of marijuana through the post did he go online to note this, so the seller could receive the payment, which had been put in escrow. Sellers are rated by buyers, just like on Amazon, providing a trust-based system in which everyone is anonymous. The site takes a small commission, but no taxes are paid. Indeed, as Bartlett discovered, avoidance of taxes or any other government control is a key motivation of the programmers designing anonymous currencies.


Bartlett also delved into the disturbing world of websites providing support for anorexics. Many of these provide assistance and encouragement to overcome this illness, but some, the so-called “pro-ana” sites, provide a different sort of support: to become ever thinner. The Internet has enabled anorexics to interact with each other, to share pictures of their emaciated physiques (and say how attractive they are), to tell about their diets (how little they eat in a day) and their struggles against eating, and to encourage each other to maintain dietary discipline for the goal of thinness. Although anorexia predated the Internet, the pro-ana sites provide a new source of encouragement for dangerous weight loss and thus a continuation or accentuation of the illness.



Bartlett, through his tour through dark parts of the net, highlights negative aspects of online anonymity. He entered this world recognising the positives, especially the capacity to organise against repressive governments. However, even when examining the less positive areas, such as child porn and pro-ana sites, he maintains an admirable suspension of judgement, in part because he is genuinely impressed by the complexity of the issues. None of the areas turned out to be as one-dimensional as he anticipated.

Jamie Bartlett

Spy agencies do not like online anonymity. In the US and Britain, they have been pushing for encryption systems to have backdoors so the agencies can read anyone’s email. They argue this is necessary for tackling terrorism, with child porn offering a useful supplementary argument. However, the case for backdoors is fundamentally flawed, because terrorists are not going to use an insecure system. What the agencies really want is to maintain surveillance over citizens.

An underlying assumption in the contest between spy agency agendas and their opponents who defend civil liberties is that online anonymity is a key to enabling abuses. However, while it might seem on the surface that online anonymity is central to trolling, racist organising, child porn and the sale of illegal drugs, perhaps this attributes too much to the communications medium. After all, the postal system and the telephone are used by terrorists, criminals and paedophiles, but this does not mean governments should have the capacity to open all letters or listen to all calls, especially because such a capacity will enable more crimes, by the government itself, than it would prevent.

For each questionable use of the Internet, it is worth exploring a range of options for challenging the underlying social problem. Concerning the sale of illegal drugs: instead of trying to shut down online operations, a different approach is to decriminalise drug use and to introduce a range of measures to reduce the harmful effects of drugs. Specialists on challenging racism, anorexia and child pornography also can offer alternative pathways. The problems are in the “real world”, not just online. It is easy to point the finger at the Internet, the medium of communication, but more challenging to go to the roots of the problems.

Brian Martin

Ted Mitew comments:

There is a noticeable stratification in access to real anonymity both in terms of the carrying layer and the destination:

[1] most people access the net through a layer of zero anonymity or pseudo anonymity at best, and their destination is not anonymous either;

[2] a small percentage access the net through a layer of high anonymity [VPN] and their destination may be somewhat anonymous (for example, members-only forums);

[3] an even smaller percentage access a completely different and highly anonymous network (for example, I2P) through an anonymous layer (VPN).

Groups 2 and 3 are not going to be affected by any government efforts to regulate anonymity, but ironically it is those two groups who have the know-how and will to defend anonymity.

An orchestrated attack on a PhD thesis

Judy Wilyman, an outspoken critic of the Australian government’s vaccination policy, undertook a PhD at the University of Wollongong. She graduated in December 2015.

On 11 January, her PhD thesis was posted on the university’s digital repository, Research Online. On the same day, anticipating an attack on Judy and the thesis, I posted a document titled “Judy Wilyman, PhD: how to understand attacks on a research student“, which turned out to be remarkably accurate in characterising the nature of the attack, which commenced within 24 hours.

The attack included a series of biased articles in The Australian by journalist Kylar Loussikian, numerous hostile blogs and tweets, a one-sided Wikipedia page, and a petition. Never before have I heard of such an outpouring of rage over the award of a PhD in Australia.


As a sociologist, this phenomenon is fascinating in its assumptions and motivations. I am hardly a neutral observer: I was Judy’s principal supervisor at the University of Wollongong, and quite a bit of the outrage has been directed at me, my supervision and my research. On the other hand, I have considerable inside knowledge, enabling insight about the claims being made.

Given the volume of hostile commentary about Judy’s thesis, it is not possible for me to undertake a comprehensive analysis of it in a short time. Therefore my observations here are preliminary. Rather than try to provide detailed evidence to document my generalisations, I merely illustrate them with a few comments made by signers of the petition against the university and the PhD. Down the track, I hope to provide a more detailed response, including to some of the treatments that address matters of substance.

SAVN attacks

The outrage over Judy becoming Dr Wilyman can best be understood by studying the operations of the group now calling itself Stop the Australian (Anti)Vaccination Network or SAVN. Since 2009, SAVN has been attempting to censor and discredit any public criticism of vaccination, using misrepresentation, ridicule, complaints and harassment, as I have documented in a series of articles. SAVN’s agenda has been to cleanse public discourse of dissent about vaccination. Judy Wilyman has been one of SAVN’s many targets.


Judy had been under attack by SAVNers for several years. Therefore, I and others at the University of Wollongong correctly assumed there would be a hostile response to her graduation. Consider two hypotheses for how I and university officials would behave in this situation.

Hypothesis 1. We would push through a sub-standard thesis.

Hypothesis 2. We would take extra care to ensure that the thesis was of requisite quality and that all university processes were followed carefully. This would include sending the thesis to technical experts and choosing external examiners of high standing.

To me, it beggars belief that anyone would believe hypothesis 1, especially given that outsiders lack information about the operation of university processes. Yet in practice it seems that many outsiders, based on limited knowledge, assume that the thesis must be no good, my supervision was inadequate and the university was derelict.

The rush to condemn the thesis and the university can be understood this way: opponents assume it is impossible to undertake a scholarly critique of vaccination policy (or at least impossible for Judy to do so). Therefore, they condemn everyone involved in the process.

Furthermore, opponents do not acknowledge that scholars can differ in their evaluation of evidence and arguments. Instead, in various scientific controversies, including the vaccination debate, dissident experts are subject to attack.


Within media studies, there is a well known and widely discussed view that mass media do not tell people what to think, but are quite influential in determining what people think about. The articles by Kylar Loussikian in The Australian apparently were highly influential in getting a lot of readers to think about Judy Wilyman’s PhD. Their agenda was set by the mass media yet, as noted within agenda-setting research, few readers realised their focus of attention had been so influenced.


Associated with media agenda-setting is the significance of framing, which is about the perspective from which people see an issue. Loussikian’s articles framed the issue as about shortcomings of a PhD thesis and the credibility of the student, the supervisor, the examiners and the university. This frame was adopted by most (though far from all) commentators.

It is an interesting thought experiment to consider the likely response to a differently framed set of articles about the thesis, in which the central issue was an attack on academic freedom by SAVN over a number of years. However, The Australian was unlikely to adopt this frame. Indeed, a couple of years earlier, an Australian journalist had adopted SAVN’s agenda against Judy.

Assumptions about scholarship

Many of the attackers seem to have assumed that scholarship and criticism of vaccination are incompatible. How else could they justify condemning the university? An alternative view is to support current Australian government vaccination policy while accepting that it can be subject to a scholarly critique.


SAVNers for years have proclaimed that there is no debate about vaccination, by which they mean that there are no valid objections to the dominant view. To acknowledge that a scholarly critique is possible is to accept there is something to debate. Apparently this possibility is so threatening that it must be met by denigration and abuse.

Looking at the thesis

In “Judy Wilyman, PhD” I anticipated the sorts of attacks that would be made. This was not difficult: I simply listed the methods that had been used previously. Here’s what I wrote in a section titled “What to look for in criticism”:

When people criticise a research student’s work, it is worth checking for tell-tale signs indicating when these are not genuine concerns about quality and probity but instead part of a campaign to denigrate viewpoints they oppose.

  1. They attack the person, not just their work.
  2. They concentrate on alleged flaws in the work, focusing on small details and ignoring the central points.
  3. They make no comparisons with other students or theses or with standard practice, but rather make criticisms in isolation or according to their own assumed standards.
  4. They assume that findings contrary to what they believe is correct must be wrong or dangerous or both.

The attacks on Judy’s research exhibit every one of these signs. Her opponents attack her as a person, repeatedly express outrage over certain statements she has made while ignoring the central themes in her work, make no reference to academic freedom or standard practice in university procedures, and simply assume that she must be wrong.

My preliminary observation is that most of the hostile commentary about the thesis exhibits one or more of these signs.


There have been numerous derogatory comments made about Judy, me and the university, most without providing any evidence and many based on misrepresentations of the thesis. Proponents of evidence-based medicine might ponder whether it is legitimate to condemn a thesis without reading it, condemn a supervisor without knowing anything about what happened during the supervision process, and condemn a university without having any information about the operation of university procedures. (Tell-tale sign 1)

Some of the opponents of the thesis have referred to comments made by Judy in other contexts. Likewise, questions have been raised about some of my other research. This is the technique of attacking the person in order to discredit their work. (Tell-tale sign 1)

When raising concerns about a piece of research, the normal scholarly route is to send them to the author, inviting a reply, not to immediately publicise them via journalists. An alternative is to submit them to a scholarly journal for publication, in which case many editors would invite the author to reply.

Alleging there are errors in a piece of work does not on its own challenge the central arguments in the work. For this, addressing those arguments directly is necessary. Very few of the critics of Judy’s thesis have addressed any of its central themes. (Tell-tale sign 2)

The intensive scrutiny of Judy’s thesis on its own does not enable a judgement of its quality, because it is necessary to benchmark against other comparable theses. None of her critics has attempted a similarly intensive scrutiny of any other thesis, much less a set of theses large enough to enable a fair assessment of her work. Experienced examiners have assessed many theses, as supervisors and/or examiners, and are well placed to make the required judgements about quality. This is in stark contrast to outside critics, many of whom lack any experience of thesis supervision or examination. (Tell-tale sign 3)

Why is there such a hue and cry over Judy’s thesis? Many theses tackling controversial topics or taking non-standard positions are published every year. Many of the critics of the thesis apparently believe no thesis proposal critical of vaccination should be accepted at an Australian university, and that for such a thesis to be passed necessarily reflects adversely on the university. The thinking behind this seems to be based on the assumption that criticism of Australian government vaccination policy is dangerous and should be censored. (Tell-tale sign 4)

I care. I believe in freedom of thought and speech, however this unscientific bullshit has to stop. It’s endangering lives — Kate Hillard, Broome, Australia

The net effect of these techniques is striking. A group of campaigners, with a well-established agenda of attacking critics of vaccination, sets out to discredit a thesis. Disdaining accepted scholarly means of critique, they feed material to a journalist. They take sentences from the thesis out of context and assert they are wrong, going public before offering the author an opportunity to reply. They ignore the central themes of the thesis. They show no awareness of scholarly expectations in the field, instead asserting the superiority of their own judgements over those of the examiners. Based on this charade of intellectual critique, they then condemn the thesis, the student, the supervisor and the university in an orchestrated campaign.

The role of expertise

SAVNers and quite a few other commentators state or assume that vaccination policy is a scientific issue, rather than one including a complex mixture of science, ethics and politics. These commentators then jump to the conclusion that only scientific experts are qualified to make judgements about vaccination policy. There is a contradiction in their discourse, though, because few of these commentators themselves have relevant scientific expertise, yet they feel entitled to make pronouncements in support of vaccination. So their assumption is that anyone, with relevant credentials or not, can legitimately support vaccination policy but no one without relevant scientific expertise is entitled to criticise it. They ignore the significance of policy expertise.


This is a familiar theme within scientific controversies: critics of the epistemologically dominant view are dismissed because they are not suitably qualified. There is another way to look at policy issues: all citizens should be able to have an input, especially those with a stake in the outcomes. This participatory view about science policy has been well articulated over several decades, but few of those commenting about Australian vaccination policy even seem to recognise it exists.

Many opponents of the thesis and critics of the university have declared this issue is not about academic freedom but about academic standards. This claim would be more convincing if these opponents had ever made scholarly contributions about academic freedom or if they were not making self-interested judgements about their own behaviour. Their actions show their agenda is suppression of dissent.

The SAVN message

What is the implication of SAVN’s campaign against Judy Wilyman? And why do SAVNers and others continue to attack the University of Wollongong despite lacking any concrete evidence of any shortcomings in the university’s processes? There is one underlying message and two audiences. The message is that no university should consider allowing a research student (or at least an outspoken research student) to undertake a study critical of vaccination.

The first audience is the University of Wollongong. The second audience is other universities, which are being warned off critical studies of vaccination, or indeed of any other medical orthodoxy, by the example being set by the attack on the University of Wollongong.

There is also another message, which is along the lines of “Don’t mess with SAVN. We will launch a barrage of abuse, ridicule and complaints, and use our connections with the media and the medical profession, to assail anyone who crosses us.”

The original reason I became involved in the Australian vaccination debate is that I saw SAVN’s agenda as dangerous to free speech. If adopted more widely, SAVN’s approach would stifle discussion on a range of issues.

I am therefore buoyed by the support I’ve received from my colleagues, including senior figures, at the University of Wollongong, who believe in the importance of open debate and of scholarship that challenges conventional wisdom.

It is apparent that academics and universities need to do more to explain what they do and to explain the meaning and significance of academic freedom.


See also my other writings about attacks on Judy and her thesis.