Leo Traynor, Anti-Semitism, and the Sticky Problem of Facts
When someone tells an extraordinary story, it is likely to be believed if it resonates with expectations and biases. Anti-Semitism exists (I outlined some of my own experiences here a while ago), and Twitter stalkers exist (indeed I’ve also had one of those). The extraordinary story that previously-unheard-of nice guy Leo Traynor told on his blog went viral overnight and has since been published by The Guardian and others [edit: see footnotes for additional notes on this].
Leo told us about three years of anti-semitic hate waged against him and his family, from threatening Twitter DMs to, eventually, dead flowers and ashes left on his doorstep. If you haven’t had a stalker, it’s hard to know the exact sort of blinding fear that such actions put into you, but as many internet users have some residual paranoia from hearing stalker or bully horror stories, it’s not hard to empathise with Leo Traynor. And indeed, the twist in the tale, that his stalker was the teenage son of a friend, served to cement that empathy. We all know that such teens exist, right? The papers are full of them. It could have happened to any of us (or any of us Jews, perhaps). But then BAM! Our empathy is subverted. Leo Traynor doesn’t beat the kid to a bloody pulp as I imagined myself doing. He doesn’t report a potentially dangerous fascist to the police. He forgives the kid over a tearful coffee and leaves him in the hands of his parents and a therapist. What an amazing guy.
So, an amazing act of forgiveness from a persecuted Jew. Traynor as Jesus, even. Too far? Definitely, but if the Traynor story isn’t a modern day parable I don’t know what is. And like the story of Jesus, if you (and I don’t mean me, because I failed to do this) dig a little, the facts aren’t there. The claims are there, but there isn’t any evidence to support them.
Why is it important? Several reasons, the most basic of which is ‘service to facts’, I guess. Y’know, that whole tell the truth ethics thing. For me, though, the story needs to be verified because it is a very nasty example of anti-semitism. The all-too-real, all-too-frightening anti-semitism that most Jews experience. The law declares it a religious hate crime, victims just know it as hate. Hate for your ‘blood’, hate for your cultural identity, hate for your history, your big nose, your family, your traditions. Religion is a small and sometimes irrelevant part of it. It is also one of the last acceptable forms of hate, brushed under the carpet, a lurking motive (as per the 9/11 stuff) that many, especially in Britain where there are few Jews, seem embarrassed to mention. Us Jews, still being victims, banging on about it. It’s not like it’s the holocaust again, right?
So, if (big if) Leo Traynor’s story isn’t true, and he invented anti-Semitic hate crime, I want a word with him. The word will be WHY? When the facts are out I’ll revisit that why if it’s necessary.
The other issue is that the story feeds neatly into growing paranoias about social media, online bullying, and privacy. These are real and genuine concerns but often distorted or exaggerated by the media for sales/scaremongering purposes, and faking a stalker, if that’s what happened, would be worse than the Daily Mail.
So, as the victim of anti-Semitic hate crime and also online (and offline) stalking, I have an interest in knowing if Leo Traynor’s story is true.
Alright, tricky bit here. Some excellent questions about Traynor have been raised by a blogger who also appears to be a 9/11 conspiracy theorist. I did ask him to clarify but he was vague. Although I personally don’t think that changes the validity of the questions, it is problematic to promote to such a site, and may inadvertently give credibility to his other theories, which we most definitely don’t want to do. I’m also very aware, having had dealings with it, that the 9/11 conspiracy movement is fuelled in part by anti-semitism, so to err on the side of caution I’m asking my own Traynor questions here. It is important to give credit to the original, though, so the link is here if you would like the context for yourself.
At the time of writing, Leo Traynor has set his Twitter account to private, so unfortunately we can’t see whatever he has to say about all this, but hopefully he’ll clarify soon. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, remember. So, here are my questions for Leo Traynor, preceded by quotes from his story. You may think it’s overkill. Perhaps it is, but I really need to know if there is a fascist stalker out there in Ireland or not:
My account was followed by a fairly innocuous looking one which I followed back and within 10 minutes I had received a Direct Message (DM) calling me a ‘Dirty f*cking Jewish scumbag‘. I blocked the account and reported it as spam. The following week it happened again in an identical manner. A new follower, I followed back, received a string of abusive DM’s, blocked and reported for spam. Two or three times a week. Sometimes two or three times a day. An almost daily cycle of blocking and reporting and intense verbal abuse.
Why did you continue to follow back new followers if this kept happening?
I didn’t mention it to my wife. Didn’t see the point of worrying her. But then she joined Twitter to see what it was like and grew to enjoy it.
If you’d been getting two or three abusive messages a week, why didn’t you warn your wife before she joined Twitter?
She received a DM stating ‘Your husband is scum. A rotten b*stard and you’re a wh*re.‘ She laughed it off.
Can you post a statement from your wife confirming this?
We got to the point of not accepting new followers at all and then one day my wife received a torrent of abuse via DM and on the timeline that was so vile she’s never been on Twitter since – which is a real shame as she has so much to share and is far more interesting than I am.
Can you confirm that your wife had the same habit of following back those who follow her? Also is her account still active? If so, can you link to it so we can see the ‘on the timeline’ public abuse she suffered?
I received a parcel at my home address. Nothing unusual there – I get a lots of post. I ripped it open and there was a tupperware lunchbox inside full of ashes. There was a note included ‘Say hello to your relatives from Auschwitz‘ I was physically sick.
Do you have a photograph (of the box and the note, not the sick…)?
Two days later I opened my front door and there was a bunch of dead flowers with my wife’s old Twitter username on it. Then that night I recieved a DM. ‘You’ll get home some day & ur b**ches throat will be cut & ur son will be gone.‘
Do you have a photo of the flowers or a screen shot of this (or any other) DM?
I got on to the authorities again but, polite and sympathetic as they were, there didn’t seem much that could be done.
Which authorities? If you could tell us which station you reported this to we can confirm whether a police report was received and ask why they did not take any action. It’s VERY important that the police investigate threats like these.
My Twitter account was deactivated
How long was it deactivated for? My understanding is that Twitter deletes deactivated accounts after a while.
It transpired that the abuse had emanated from three separate IP addresses in different corners of Ireland. Two of them were public wifi locations but the third….
The third location was the interesting one.
The third location was a friends house.
As IP addresses are not house-specific, can you confirm how the address was found? The one you link to in your blog states that additional ‘breadcrumb trail’ data is required, for example tracking via a user’s forum activity etc. How did your friend arrive at the home address, in detail?
I showed The Troll’s mother and father screengrabs and printouts of his handiwork.
I showed them pictures of ashes and dead flowers.
Can we see them?
Those are my questions. Part of me wants the story to be true because damn you forever if you made up something so awful, but equally it would be comforting to know that there really isn’t a teenage Nazi lurking somewhere in Ireland ready to wage a three-year hate campaign if his parents take their eye off the ball. So, let’s see the evidence, and put this thing to rest.
Edited to add: I wrote this in haste so really should have included a personal message to Leo, if you read this, which is that I’m very sorry for any additional stress that these questions will cause, and that I hope you understand that anti-semitism, police inaction and online stalking are issues which have wider implications, rather than this being some amateur ‘sleuthing’ for the sake of it.
Edit 2: I’ve been asked to include a comment I wrote on Rebecca’s follow-up story which outlines my concerns about the Guardian’s lack of fact checking (which I’ve talked about on Twitter a bit but clearly didn’t include enough of here). Also, had the Guardian not reprinted the article I wouldn’t have seen the Guardian Watch blog which had reprinted the original set of questions and confirmed to me that at least two other people had issues with the story. As I mentioned at the time on Twitter, I wrote the piece very quickly as the original link was spreading fast and people wanted a neutral one. So it may not have been the best-written piece in the world, more than happy to acknowledge it could have had more detail. My comment from 2nd October is below:
I’ve had far more people say they too have unanswered questions about the story than have said they don’t think it’s OK to question it, but it’s absolutely the case that had it not been in the Guardian, I wouldn’t have written my post. What someone puts on their blog, viral or not, can easily be contained there, and the story has a comments section. But once it’s on the Guardian and other mainstream media, titles which have a readership and weight of authority that no blog does and therefore a huge responsibility to fact-check, it’s a different issue. Martin Robbins and others (including Gimpy) have complained publicly many times that Comment is Free is not fact-checked (neither are Guardian opinion columns I believe), even when they make factual claims, although I do not know if Leo’s was an exception to that.
As I stated in my article, I am extremely sorry for any additional hurt asking questions may cause, but I think when it comes to extreme anti-Semitism, fears of social networking, police inaction, and the possibility of a perpetrator still being at large, it is important to verify the story.
The other very important motive here is that the original blog post asking questions was on a website which many people did not want to promote, though they did want to share the questions. I wanted to provide a platform to enable that. I didn’t include many of the original guy’s questions that I didn’t think merited attention.
If I was the only one asking questions I would have just tweeted them.
I also notice that I’ve received abuse merely for asking these questions. I would say that if that’s your tactic for defending the story, you’re not helping change my mind about questioning victims.
I think it’s far far more likely that Leo’s story is entirely or partially true than that he simply made it up, but for the reasons given I think there’s a responsibility to provide evidence along with Guardian copy.
Yeah read that article and had concerns myself. Knowing that the guy’s a 9/11 conspiracy theorist actually now makes me realize why. A lot of his article feels like nitpicking and he made 2 erroneous nitpicks in that A) couriers do leave packages at the front door/ porch all the time and rarely at a neighbors without prior instruction to do so, and B) being able to hack into someone’s Facebook account doesn’t mean you also think to use a proxy to do so. A teenage hacker may not be so forward thinking.
Thank you for this. I too have been tweeting my scepticism about Leo Traynor’s story for days. And I also refused to interact with Resist Radio due to the disgusting anti-semitism on his site.
I will go you one further concerning this fable and says I do not believe the previously unheard of Leo Traynor even exists.
He is a complete creature of social media. How does a writer have no writings or books (other than a newish blog, a journalist or ex-journo have no bylines and a DPHIL have no papers or thesis?
I think Leo Traynor is the latest version of the Syrian lesbian blogger phenomenon.
Here is an archive of Leo Traynor on Twitter.
I would like to see the Internet figure out who he really is.
After reading this, I’m confused as to why you chose to have a less-than-charitable reaction to his story. I don’t really see you offering up reasonable flags requiring skepticism of it, nor do I see what value he would get out of telling a fib (if he had no idea the story would blow up so much). When I read it last week, nothing jumped out at me as questionable.
One could read his story and wish/hope it was true, but not accept it as actual truth with no corroborating evidence. The questions asked are reasonable. It is an extraordinary story after all.
It’s not an extraordinary-sounding story to me at all and the post honestly reads very suspicious to me, rather than reasonable.
Hmm. You know, this post feels rather like the hyper-skepticism that gets applied to women’s stories of harassment. Really, nothing in his story is particularly hard to believe. It may or may not be correct — as is the case in all first person accounts. But I don’t see any particular reason to grill him with questions demanding proof of his story.
Yes it could seem like that if the harassment of women was an uncommon or extraordinary occurrence, which it’s not. This level of stalking, while more common these days, is not as common as women being objectified, groped andn otherwise harassed because of their gender. Also the questions are reasonable and politely asked. She’s not posing the questions with the assumption that he’s lying.
I didn’t mean to suggest that the two things (harassment of women and online stalking) occur with equal frequency. I certainly would never suggest that harassment of women is uncommon or extraordinary (having experienced plenty of it myself).
It just really felt like the same sort of hyper-skepticism was being applied here. What about Leo Traynor’s story stands out as extraordinary? The Twitter harassment? The harassment moving from him to his wife? The sending of items to his house? Or his forgiving response?
I have never experienced true online harassment (other than a very few brief glancing blows). But I’ve read enough stories — here at Skepchick, at FtB, and from other sources unconnected to the atheist/freethought community — that I don’t find the claims extraordinary.
That doesn’t mean the story is true. But what is the reason for demanding proof? When should we demand proof of personal stories? While the questions posed are not worded rudely, the act of posing them implies suspicion of the story. When the story is one of personal trauma, meeting it with unnecessary suspicion seems unwarranted and unkind.
My apologies. I wasn’t clear enough. :)
Hyper-skepticism of women’s descriptions of their harassment is not necessary because many, many women are harassed every single day since forever. It is very common.
Questioning Mr. Traynor’s story is not hyper-skepticism, because even though we’ve heard of many incidences of online stalking, it is not a normal occurrence in many people’s lives. It is not common.
Suspicion of someone’s account of an uncommon experience is not necessarily impolite. If Tracy started from the premise, “This guy is a liar and I demand he prove his story!” that would be impolite. Asking for more information and corroborating evidence in order to form one’s opinion as to the veracity of an extraordinary claim is basic skepticism. To not do so is to accept that all people are telling the truth at all times.
I completely agree this can seem like hyper-skepticism, I just don’t think it is based on the reasons I outlined. YMMV, of course. :)
I had the same reaction. At first I thought this article was a parody of said responses to complaints by women about harassment.
This is pretty disturbing. If the story is true I hope whoever has been harassing Leo Traynor is caught.
The one thing that really twigged for me is the comment that he kept getting DMs. I haven’t used twitter all that much, but I’m pretty sure that I could only ever DM someone that followed me, so if this guy is blocking people and keeping a small follow list, how in the world was this troll able to keep DMing him?
“The extraordinary story of previously unheard-of nice guy Leo Traynor.”
Twitter is a big place. Leo Traynor is not ‘previously unheard of’. I have never met Leo but he is well-known and highly respected on Irish Twitter. He is shrewd, highly intelligent and well-informed on Irish politics. The horrible afternoon Ronan Kerr was murdered, it had been years since any Provo murders and I think everyone just went into shock. We didn’t know if it was going to trigger the end of a precarious peace in Northern Ireland. In my opinion anyone over forty still has a healthy fear of the IRA and all who sail in her wreckage. It takes some personal courage to publicly condemn republican sectarian terrorism and Leo was one of the first off the block. He was eloquently furious about it, he started the notinmyname hashtag which quickly went viral and a blue twibbon campaign. It was a loud and stern message to Kerr’s murderers that Ireland had no stomach for their worldview.
Leo talked a lot on Twitter about the nasty trolling at the time. He and I had a conversation about it (I think it was DM, not certain) and I wondered if his troll was a republican sympathiser, perhaps because the Irish Presidential election campaign was on. Anonymous Sinn Féin supporters would search for tweets criticising Martin McGuinness and rebut with varying degrees of menace.
“So, an amazing act of forgiveness from a persecuted Jew. Traynor as Jesus, even.” Leo didn’t frame his forgiveness as Jesus-like or amazing. That came from others who commented on his blog. Yes, it was noble and compassionate of him but he was clear that his stalker was the child of a family friend. Loyalty to friends runs deep. Without belittling the experience of anti-semiticism which not being Jewish I know nothing of, if one of my friend’s children did that to me, and I felt assured they were now on top of it, that it wouldn’t happen again and that the boy would get therapy, I think I would have done the same. I wouldn’t want to be the person who ruined the future of the child of a friend of mine.
“Why did you continue to follow back new followers if this kept happening?”
Leo makes clear in the blog that he baited the troll to draw him out and discover his identity. Why didn’t Leo shut down his social media altogether? Because the troll already knew who he was in real life, had his home address and had made death threats to him and his family. So it was important to discover who the troll was.
When someone follows me on Twitter I look to see who our mutual followers are, that’s how I decide whether to follow them back. Whenever I’d check in the past while (I can’t remember how long), the one person who would almost always be following them already was Leo Traynor, even if the person appeared to be new to Twitter with few followers. I assumed Leo just did auto follow back but in hindsight I’m guessing he followed ‘strangers’ back to bait DMs as part of his long effort to discover the identity of the troll. In fact he says so on his blog.
“Do you have a photo…?” and the other questions requesting proof.
Leo had a blog with a relatively small audience of a few thousand on Twitter who knew he had been hounded off social media by some particularly sinister troll. When he came back recently he wanted to tell his story.
Why isn’t he publicly on Twitter now furnishing international bloggers and journalists with evidence?
Perhaps because he didn’t think his blog would be anything but happy news of the morning on Irish Twitter (and it WAS happy news, everyone was delighted to see him back and through his ordeal).
Perhaps because he has made a promise to his friends to protect the anonymity of their son. Perhaps that is more important to him than verifying his experience to people who are now wondering whether he is a liar. It must be a painful position.
You’re not the first UK person I’ve seen to ask questions about the veracity of Leo’s post, to be fair it is an extraordinary account. And it’s perfectly reasonable to expect the Guardian (who re-ran Leo’s blog) to fact-check. But for what it’s worth I haven’t seen a single person on Irish Twitter question Leo’s integrity. In so much as you can know a person through their on-line persona, Leo Traynor is one of the most honourable people on Twitter and that was my opinion long before he published his post.
Leo and I aren’t particularly close on Twitter, we’re not Facebook friends, he didn’t answer my tweets about the blog, we haven’t discussed this and he isn’t following me now that he’s back on Twitter with a protected account. But personally I believe him, I wish he and his family the very best and I hope his lovely, witty wife @Mrs_T comes back on Twitter.
Fiona, there appears to be no evidence whatsoever that anyone called Leo Traynor exists outside of social media.
In this letter to the Irish Times, which praises another famous forgiver, he says he has DPHIL http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/letters/2012/0822/1224322660872.html …
He also says here he went to Nuffield/Oxford and Sheffield http://friendsofgplus.com/friend/108745413579513709888/Leo%20Traynor
I tried to verify this but the Unis can’t give out info about a person without the permission of that person.
They did tell me they can only get around this if Joe Blow says publicly, “I have a DPHIL from Oxford” when he doesn’t. Then, they can say, “Actually, no he doesn’t.”
Given that this story has now blown up, Irish Times could probably get the info based on fact he claimed to have a DPHIL in their newspaper.
Now Josie, not only do John McGuirk and Catherine Halloran exist, they also exist on Twitter as @john_mcguirk and @popcornhack and John and Catherine exist regularly on Irish television, radio and press. Happily for you however you do not exist except on a Twitter account specifically set up to impugn the integrity of Leo Traynor and continue the trolling of a fine person who has evidently had more than enough from anonymous trolls already.
Well put Fiona and of course Leo’s Twitter account is now protected. Imagine the trolling he would get from some on here if he left it public again. Leo’s piece was never intended to go viral and was targeted at his twitter friends who shared it around and it hit all the right spots with many on social media & spread from there. I don’t know Leo personally but have been following and regularly conversing with him on twitter. He does indeed exist. Ask any media person or journo on twitter in Ireland and they’ll more likely have followed him.
I wonder wh Leo Traynor didn’t ask these powerful media figures to help him out when the police were so cavalier about death threats and hate crimes.
Why does fiona’s comment appear before John McGuirk’s and Catherine’s? How did she know they were about to comment?
Probably has to do with the comment approval policy for new posters. If you haven’t posted before, I think the comments go into a moderation queue, and might get approved in random order. But the comments that are replies to other comments get listed after them rather than in posting order. Also, deeper replies are usually indented more, but sometimes the indentation seems random.
If you hover your mouse over the date on a post, its comment number and the comment number that it is a reply to both appear in the pop-up link. There might be a few bugs in this system, though. One of your comments, if I’m reading it correctly, appears to be a reply to itself!
I don’t think there’s any nasty conspiracy of insiders going on, I think all 4 of you are new to this site, since I’ve been reading it regularly for a couple of years now and don’t recall seeing your names before. I don’t think anyone has an inside track to be able to comment on a comment that none of the rest of us have seen yet.
I really hope this story is all legitimate and above board because I really hate it when people deliberately promulgate false stories, even when they do it for the best of reasons. We have enough mythology pretending to the truth in the world. But hopes aren’t proof of anything.
Catherine is just Catherine (no link) in her own post and Catherine Halloran to Fiona.
Josie, as it happens Leo is a friend of mine. Meeting him on thursday for a coffee.
If you want, I can poke him with a stick to make sure he’s not a hologram?
We’ll need photographic proof of the poking John ;)Unless you too do not exist and are part of my sometimes odd imagination. Get Vincent Browne to poke you just to be sure next time you’re on #vinb
For the record, Leo Traynor does exist. I know him. I have met him. He is a human being and a great person.
Like others I thought this was a parody of responses to women’s stories of harassment.
It’s one thing to be skeptical of Traynor’s story, but your framing this as some jesus/social media invention ala the Syrian lesbian without doing an ounce of homework is remarkable.
Our empathy is subverted. Leo Traynor doesn’t beat the kid to a bloody pulp as I imagined myself doing. He doesn’t report a potentially dangerous fascist to the police. He forgives the kid over a tearful coffee and leaves him in the hands of his parents and a therapist. What an amazing guy.
This is pretty much what any parent and friend of the kid’s parents would do.
Jesus like would be to do that for some adult you don’t know.
Josie X Miller, I find it highly ironic for someone who set up a anonymous Twitter account 3 days ago and has posted 186 tweets about him and only him (so far) to complain about “lack of evidence”. As I’ve already told you, if you care to look, there is such evidence. I found it in minutes. If you can’t find it, either you’re an idiot or you simply do not want to find it.
“He doesn’t report a potentially dangerous fascist to the police. He forgives the kid over a tearful coffee and leaves him in the hands of his parents and a therapist. What an amazing guy.”
Leo is a nicer person than I am. Therefore, he could not possibly exist.
Is this what the Skepchick “community” has been reduced to these days?
Paul – it’s not about being nice. I would define nice as pursuing the issue with the police to ensure it doesn’t happen again, or raising awareness of police inaction to help safeguard other members of the Jewish community. I’m sorry if the tone offended you, though.
Well, holy crap.
OK, almost every question being asked of the alleged Leo isn’t very good evidence that this is made up, even if photographs or other collaborating evidence would be helpful. Indeed, it does almost look like Leo is being asked to trudge up a Sisyphusian hill here. Also, a photograph of a tupperware container of ashes isn’t proof of anything.
But there are three bits that do make me think you may be right Tracy:
1) The IP address thing.
2) The apparent lack of any evidence that Leo exists at all.
3) The simple fact that once you say that this could be a hoax it suddenly feels and sounds to me like a hoax. In fact, I can imagine this story sitting there on the SNOPES web site some day.
(Hey, has anyone checked Snopes for this?)
The question I had ( http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2012/10/01/leo_traynor_troll/ ) was this: Did Leo’s troll have other victims? If this story is true, it was not Leo’s place to allow other victims hanging, to not find out that their stalker was this kid, etc.
And now, I’ll add that to the list above. 4) If Leo is so cool, he would have understood that. If Leo was cool, knowledgeable of this kind of harassment and antisemitism, he would not have left the other potential victims hanging.
This post makes no sense. Traynor was not arguing about anti-Semitism or pointing to himself as a victim of hatred of Jews. He was talking about how a vicious troll turned out to be not only someone he knew, but the teenage son of a friend, who thought it was OK to harass his parents’ friend and neighbor in this way because it was “a game”. He did not act Jesus-like – and incidentally, my jaw is dropping that you think that’s a great label to slap on someone Jewish – he insisted that, instead of criminal prosecution, the boy get actual counseling to figure out why he behaved so abominably.
Out of this, you pick out the boy’s anti-Semitic comments, which were pretty much obviously meant to be trolling rather than a clear expression of ideology, and insist we question everything about the story lest we fall prey to overblown fears of anti-Semitic hate crimes.
And yes, this is very much like picking at women’s accounts of harassment. We KNOW that trolling and online harassment happens in real life, frequently. We KNOW that anti-Semitic comments and threats are something trolls do (whether or not they are, in their heart of hearts, actually anti-Semitic).
I don’t get it. You seem to be applying caution about jumping to conclusions that something is a hate crime in a situation that’s totally orthogonal.
Well, while the Traynor story could certainly be a lie, I have to say that the conspiracy-theorist’s blog sounded utterly unconvincing. The only remotely good point he made was that Traynor would have to be constantly re-following new followers to allow the stalker to dm him. Other than to lure out the stalker, it’s difficult to see why this would be done.
But as regards the police complaint thing and the IP address thing?
That’s just how the police works. In full seriousness I think I’ve heard two separate news stories just this week about tragedies occurring because of the high threshold which needs to be cleared before the police steps in regarding stalkers.
And the rabid herd at 4chan routinely ferrets out personal information about anonymous creeps in a matter of hours. Though the legality of it may be questionable, doubting that it can be done just makes you sound about 75-years-old.
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