Six years ago, Australian journalist Ginger Gorman became the target of online trolls. The trigger was an article she’d written three years prior, which resurfaced when her interview subjects were convicted of child-sex offences against their son in 2013.
The turn of events horrified Gorman, but she was even less prepared for the vitriol unleashed against her and her family. The attacks ignited Gorman’s curiosity about cyber-haters – who are they, what motivates them, and how can we deal with them?
Gorman’s book, Troll Hunting: Inside the World of Online Hate and Its Human Fallout, is a compelling account of what she uncovered after five years of research.
In the following extract, Gorman casts back to the events that sparked the trolling, which at its most extreme included a death threat.
My tiny, second daughter was born on a boiling day in the middle of January in 2013. In the following months of endless patting, rocking and all-night feeding that arrive with a precious newborn, I became the subject of an orchestrated online hate campaign.
Three years earlier, back in 2010, I had been ABC Local Radio’s Drive presenter in Far North Queensland, based in Cairns. By June of that year I was also heavily pregnant. While waiting for the birth of my daughter, I thought about how easy life was for me. I’d never been routinely discriminated against. Not like the people I knew who were LGBTIQ+.
Research showed that if you were gay, bisexual or transgender, you were more likely to experience disadvantages including depression, violence, homelessness, drug addiction and suicidal thoughts. This seemed to me an important, untold story. So I wrote an open letter to Far North Queensland’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community asking for people to come forward with their stories.
As part of the interviews I compiled for this project, I found myself on the doorstep of a lovely home at Kewarra Beach, in the northern suburbs of Cairns. At the door I was met warmly by Peter Truong and Mark Newton.
Newton and Truong introduced me to their gorgeous five-year-old son. His name was written in wooden letters on the wall and his toys were neatly stacked away. He was told to go off and watch a DVD while I sat between his two dads on the couch and set up my audio recorder.
The two men then proceeded to tell me in great detail about how they had longed to become fathers and, after a difficult journey, ended up having their son via a surrogate mother in Russia. Newton was the biological dad.
At length, the men explained how hard it was to get their son into Australia. They told me Australian customs quizzed them for hours at the airport. At a later date, police checked whether the couple had suitable equipment to raise a child: a bed, clothes and bottles.
At this point in the interview I was compelled to ask, “Do you think there was a suspicion that this must be something dodgy? There must be some paedophilic thing going on here?”
Newton replied: “Absolutely. Absolutely. I’m sure that was completely the concern.” Both Newton and Truong smiled at the absurdity of the idea they might somehow be suspect. ‘We’re a family just like any other family.’
After the formal interview we went outside with their son. Like any young child, he was shy at first. After a while he opened up. He smiled and chatted and urged me to come and see his baby chickens. This is the moment that plays over and over in my mind like a home movie: the four of us are in the yard, the chicks cheeping loudly and running loose.
I snap several pictures of the boy holding a baby chick up under his chin. Peter is holding a fluffy chick too. The boy stands between his two fathers. All three of them are beaming.
In February 2012 I learned that Mark Newton and Peter Truong were being investigated by the United States Postal Inspection Service and the Queensland Police as possible members of an international paedophile ring.
I hoped it wasn’t true, but suspected it was. Dread encased me.
On Friday, 28 June 2013, Mark Newton was sentenced to 40 years in prison in a US court after pleading guilty to conspiring to sexually exploit a child, and for conspiring to possess child pornography. Peter Truong also pleaded guilty for his crimes and was sentenced to 30 years’ jail. (Prosecutors claimed their ‘son’ was actually purchased from his Russian mother for $US8000 [$11,300] and was not biologically related to either of them.)
Within 72 hours of Mark Newton being sentenced, I started to get scores of hateful tweets, mostly from people in the United States calling themselves conservatives. They were responding to the article I’d written two years earlier, which was still online.
My trolls insisted I should have known what was going on behind closed doors. They wanted me shamed.
Ginger Gorman (@freshchilli) sang praises of gay men who paid surrogate to birth boy to be used for sex. SHAME HER!
@freshchilli pedophile collaborator
@freshchilli You need to add pedophile enabler to your twitter bio. #Justsayin
Other trolls claimed the ABC pulled the article from their website to “cover up what they did”. The real reason was simply compassion: Queensland Police requested the ABC take the article offline to protect Boy1’s identity and the broadcaster immediately complied.
Late one night, not long after the trolling began, I read a tweet that said: “Your life is over.”
My husband Don and I quickly realised that location services were turned on for my Twitter feed and you could just about pinpoint our house on Google Maps. That night we both lay awake in bed wondering if our children were in danger.
Six days after Newton was sentenced in 2013 came the second frightening moment. Don found a photo of our family on the fascist social network Iron March. The now-defunct website carried the slogan “Gas the kikes” on its homepage.
In the photo posted on Iron March, I was pregnant with our second child, and my older daughter, who was two at the time, was sitting on my husband’s shoulders. It’s a strange feeling to see that photo, taken with love for our family Christmas card, in such a hateful location. Had I, through the course of my work, put my family at risk?
One commenter called me a “bitch”. “Look at the f—ing beak on it,” another poster wrote.
My mother’s parents were Jews who fled the Holocaust. Some of our family members were gassed at Auschwitz. Yet despite the clear threat, there was no way to know if these people meant actual harm. We just had to sit and wait.
This is an edited extract from Troll Hunting by Ginger Gorman (Hardie Grant Books). Some parts of this text originally appeared in an article written for the ABC. Troll Hunting is available now in stores nationally, RRP $29.99