Micah Loewinger: This is On The Media. I'm Micah Loewinger. This week saw the conclusion of the campaign to shut down one of the internet's most toxic forums, a site you've probably never heard of.
Clara Sorentti: We did it. We, actually, did it. So many people have tried for so long to do this, and we, actually, got Kiwi Farms down.
Micah: That's Twitch streamer, Clara Sorentti, AKA Keffals, celebrating the takedown of Kiwi Farms and its founder, Joshua Moon, earlier this week. Before it was taken offline, anonymous users on Kiwi Farms spent the month of August targeting her for being a trans woman and for speaking out against anti-LGBTQ laws. Stalkers repeatedly doxed her and her family members and left them threatening voicemail messages
Automated Voice: Saved message. 1:31 PM.
Stalker: Well, your personal information got posted all over the internet, and I'm just letting you know that someone special asked out for you. Don't worry. Nothing that is going to happen. It's just a friendly reminder. Have a nice day.
Micah: Harassment campaigns against trans people, journalists, influencers, activists, sex workers, all sorts of people became the site's raison d'etre after it was founded in 2013.
Ben Collins: It's a way to archive every movement of people they deem to be a lolcow.
Micah: That's NBC's, Ben Collins, who wrote about Keffals and Kiwi Farms last week.
Ben: Lolcow was, generally to them, a trans person. They were going after people who were frequently private citizens, they archived their every movement. Their every address. People lived their lives in actual terror. Josh Moon came from imageboards, places like 4chan and 8chan. He was in admin at 8chan, which is one of the moderator functions, but sometimes they get paid there. He worked with Fred Brennan who created 8chan in Philippines.
Micah: You mentioned that recently they've sharpened their gaze specifically on trans people. They would also go after sex workers, any person online that they perceived as morally not to their liking, for some imagined reason they would target. They would almost turn it into a game, it seems like.
Ben: Yes, it was an alternate reality game. The way I always viewed it was that, Kiwi Farms was a library where the turret on top. Basically, it was a place to collect everybody's information. Say like, "This is where they live. This is where they're going to go. This is where they've been. This is their family. This is where they work. How can we go to the top of the steps and deploy this weapon?"
When they did use the turret, they would do things like call a trans person's boss and tell their boss that, "This person's a pedophile. Why are you employing a pedophile?" Try to get them fired from their job. These are people, usually private citizens. They did not know what was happening. Sometimes they didn't know that Kiwi Farms was behind this. That was one, one of their tools they used to harass people. Other times they would, obviously, swat them.
The end game is to use the state to try to terrorize or murder someone by calling in a false report, and that's what swatting is. These people were using various different weapons, atop this library they had built that was constantly being updated. That was the difference between 8chan or 4chan and Kiwi Farms. 8chan or 4chan, those self delete after two or three days. There are other sites that archived them, but it's not searchable. It's not easy to find this stuff. Kiwi Farms was a database for all the perceived enemies on the far-right.
Micah: There were consequences to these types of doxing and swatting attempts. At least three people have committed suicide after becoming targets of Kiwi Farm harassment campaigns.
Ben: It's impossible to know how many people, actually, did commit suicide. A lot of these people just leave the internet. They try to make it so these people cannot have a life on the internet. They try to make it so anyone who associates with these people in real life, not just the internet have consequences, they are swatted or targeted themselves. They did this anonymously for years and years.
That's why this week, when Kiwi Farms started to crumble, people started sharing their stories in public about how this may have saved their life, because they could start doing things in public. Again, without constantly being worried that someone was going to find them and kill them.
Micah: Why exactly did Clara Sorentti, AKA Keffals, The Twitch streamer become a target? Is it just that she was a public-facing trans person? What exactly put the target on her back?
Ben: She had become a popular Twitch streamer. Over the course of the time, she built an audience. She also became someone who would reply to people on the far-right on Twitter and try to get them ratioed or made fun of, basically, by a lot of different people. That got her in IER of Kiwi Farms user base, but this happened very quickly. Somebody, a couple days ago said that Keffals speed ran gamergate. This happened so quickly. She went from being the target like everybody else and being in this state of despondent, that this will ruin her life to killing the website in a month, which is pretty remarkable.
Micah: This all started in early August when members of the forum began doxing her, posting her personal information online. It really escalated when she was swatted on August 5th.
Ben: Yes. On August 5th, police came to her door and she from her bedroom had to respond to these police officers who had their guns drawn on her about accusations that she was planning to shoot up the local City Hall in London, Ontario. That's because someone sent in police tip that she was going to do that. She had to leave her apartment and she took her cat with her.
Once she got to the hotel where she was staying in London, Ontario, she took a picture of her cat. There was a picture of bedsheets because the cat was on the bed. Kiwi Farms users found her hotel based on just what the bedsheets looked like in her hotel room. Then they started doing all that there. They sent her tons of groceries and pizza and started attempting to swat her at that hotel as well.
Then she thought, "I'm in grave danger here. I have to get out of this country." She flew to Northern Ireland, Belfast. By using the picture of a doorknob in the background of a stream she did from Northern Ireland, they figured out where she was. Then within hours, someone was outside of her home in Belfast with a picture of themselves in a note card saying they were from Kiwi Farms
Micah: Until Keffals, it seemed like there was a conundrum for journalists, for extremism researchers, for victims of Kiwi Farms about what exactly to do, how to respond because it was a pretty obscure website. The potential for driving traffic, new users to the site was pretty high just by covering their harassment campaigns. What do you do if there's no coverage, there's likely going to be no possibility for accountability, but if you do cover it, you're just feeding the flames.
Ben: Yes. You don't want a Streisand effect this, right? Part of the issue is, with anyone who was targeted, was that Kiwi Farms would index first on Google if you search their names. They had very good Google SEO. If you're an employer looking at someone's name and you open that up and that's what you see, you're not going to want to associate with that person anymore.
That is the scary part of this whole thing, is that they use the data centers that we have, the massive amount of data collected by these private companies as a weapon. By the way, this happened with Clara. Her Uber account was hacked and then they had access to her every movement. They had access to where her friends and family lived, where she got Uber Eats from all that stuff.
Micah: They used it to send her groceries.
Micah: yes. When you hear one of these nightmare scenarios that you really are reminded just how much documentation there is on you at all times, thanks to voluntarily giving your information to apps and websites constantly.
Ben: If you're buying something from a website where things seem like a little bit too cheap, that data is probably being sold somewhere. Also, you probably haven't logged into Uber since like 2014. Most people have downloaded the app, right? If you're doing that since 2014, your password was probably like password or something. Like there was no anthesis.
Micah: I see, logged in. I see.
Ben: Logged in, physically logged into Uber. No one has signed you out. You've been logged into that account since, since you had very insecure passwords. That's probably how they got in there to begin with.
Micah: One woman I follow on Twitter who is a sex worker and a New York based academic. She was talking about how you hear these horror stories and you say to yourself like, "Oh, well, I'm great at OPSEC. I'm a privacy-minded person. The people who are doxed it's because they made a mistake at some point and they revealed too much about themselves."
This woman was saying that whoever doxed her on Kiwi Farms says that they spent over 50 hours looking at her tweets for information about weather, history, wherever she was living. Then compared this to weather histories around New York, and compared this against a list of New York based college professors. That is some extreme stalking behavior that no normal person is going to have any foresight to anticipate.
Ben: That woman isn't a political firebrand that woman isn't like Donald Trump or something. That woman is some person, and all it takes for you to get their ire is to disagree with them in some capacity.
Micah: How did Keffals fight back? What did she do that was so successful?
Ben: Because she had the ability to leave her home and flee twice, by the way. She had a fan base that was fighting back, creating this hashtag campaign to try to get them dropped from Cloudflare, which was this service that basically allowed Kiwi Farms to remain online. Because she had that large fan base who were themselves an army, themselves trying to fight to make somebody else's life hell. She was able to fight back.
Micah: Part of her savvy seemed to come from knowing how to communicate with journalists. She set up dropkiwifarms.net. A lot of her followers went there. They helped get the hashtag, #DropKiwiFarms trending on social media. There was really one company in particular that they needed to convince that Kiwi Farms was a serious problem and that's Cloudflare.
Ben: Cloudflare provides DDoS protection. If your site is flooded with lots of traffic or even a modicum of traffic at this point based on how large the web is, it helps, basically, organize that traffic so it doesn't go down. There are not many service providers that offer this. Cloudflare know how to do it really well, and they're the number one provider.
Micah: They help support something like 20% or more sites on the internet, basically. They're everywhere.
Ben: That's why when 8chan was dropped from Cloudflare a couple of years ago, they really didn't survive it. They had to rebrand. They'd do all this other stuff. Even their rebrand is not an easily accessible website. Cloudflare for weeks resisted this. They initially just did not respond to anyone. They couldn't tweet anything without being inundated with stuff, so they just delete all their tweets.
They put a statement, I believe it was last Wednesday. Basically, it was this big manifesto about how "we have to leave up speech we don't agree with", all this stuff. I think it took them a lot of coverage including potentially our story, which just identified how many people have died. How many people are an immediate danger to understand the threat here? Our story came out Friday, then by Saturday, they pulled down the site saying there was an imminent threat to human life.
Micah: That wasn't new.
Ben: It was eight years old. They buck to peer pressure. That's really what happened. They realized the press wasn't going to get any better once more people were aware of what the website was. That's really all it was. Once people, actually, looked at the facts here of what this website existed to do, more people would be aware that they were hosting an anti-trans terror website.
That's the thing is like, the conversation about this stuff has to catch up to the reality we're living in. Because otherwise, we're going to live in a very dystopian panopticon where everyone's move is watched. Everyone's Instagram post is looked into in the background. If they say something that is viewed as unacceptable, currently that is affecting trans people, but that can affect the right.
Micah: I was about to say, doxing was an art perfected by the anti-fascist of old.
Micah: This is instrument that can be used by anyone for any political purpose.
Ben: That's exactly right. That's what I've been trying to say for a very long time now. I really hope it gets through at some point. What's the best way of putting this? There is this large collection of data on the internet that targets specific people, and you can use it to target anyone. Right now you have an option. You can take down this site that exists to harass people and uses extra legal ways to harass people.
Frequently illegal ways to harass people, these people do it without consequence because there are no good ways of finding them. Those places can exist and be armies, and then, the speech of regular people in this country, citizens of this country is quashed because they can't fight the army. Right now we have more self censorship because they are afraid of living their lives.
They're afraid of doing normal stuff, taking a picture of themselves at Disneyland or something, than the criminals are of stalking and harassing and attempting to murder people with swatting that they disagree with. The speech implications here are not, "Should this website be up or not?" It should be, "Do people get to live their lives on the internet? Do they get rights to speech that only armies have currently on the internet?"
Micah: What do we do? How do we mitigate this dystopic current moment?
Ben: These providers have to stop playing footsy with crazy fascists. They have to realize, do they protect individual citizens? Do they protect the rights of people on the internet or do they protect gangs and malicious and online troll armies? I don't know if you can have both. That's the most immediate solution because it's a free market solution. Everybody loves that.
Then, there are laws. You can pass data protection laws that make it so you can't just trade around this data broker stuff. It would make journalist lives harder. It will make it so, figuring out if the guy who gave you a quote and event is who he says he is. Right now we can look up their phone number and be like, "Does that match?" It would make our lives harder, but it would make it so dark data broker sites, places that sell data on top of the goods they sell.
If you can ban those data brokers from making that public if it's collected without people's consent, it's a really good way of stopping this data collection. It's not going to prohibit at all, but you can at least make a dent here and just make it socially bad that you are stalking people out of the country and trying to get them killed with the use of police violence. Don't consider that speech.
Micah: Ben, thank you very much.
Ben: Thank you so much.
Micah: Ben Collins is a reporter covering disinformation, extremism, and the internet for nbcnews.com. That's it for the midweek pod. Tune into the big show this weekend. One of my favorite reporters is in the guest host chair. You won't want to miss it. You don't want to miss it.
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