A Tabloid Troll and the Conservative MP Patrick Mercer


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11:45 am - May 4th 2012

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contribution by Richard Bartholomew

In January 2009, two articles in British tabloids revealed that “Muslim fanatics” were planning to harm public figures in the UK as a response to Israeli actions in Gaza. The People revealed that the singer Madonna was a target because of her “Jewish links”, while the Sun issued a front page story (since deleted from its website) claiming that Alan Sugar was a “terror target” because he is Jewish.

Both stories relied heavily on postings taken from on-line discussion forums, and were deeply problematic.

The evidence of a plot against Sugar was discovered by Tim Ireland of Bloggerheads to have been planted by Glen Jenvey, who was the person who claimed to have discovered it.

Jenvey’s status as an independent “counter-terror” expert had been endorsed by Patrick Mercer MP, who was formerly Shadow Minister for Homeland Security. Further, Mercer’s office acted as a conduit between Jenvey and the media – Tim has published an email in which a member of Mercer’s staff pitched a (different) story to the People after having “been in touch with Mr Jenvey about a number of things”.

As the evidence against Jenvey piled up, Mercer issued a statement in which he announced that he would be “looking carefully” into “his dealings with Mr Jenvey”. However, he’s been reluctant to discuss the matter since then; instead, he discussed Tim with Nadine Dorries MP, and followed her lead by crying “stalker” to deflect further critical scrutiny (Mercer found this tactic so congenial that he went on to use the same trick against his ex-lover).

Tim’s interaction with Mercer was recently (20 April) raised on Twitter, by someone using the name “Tabloidman” (@tabloidtroll)

@tabloidtroll: @bloggerheads You’re in Private Eye for your little dodgy stunts so often you should be given your own column don’t you think? #hypocrisy

@malcolmcoles: @bloggerheads @tabloidtroll he wasn’t necessarily claiming you were named in it was he? I read it more that your stunts were in it …*

@tabloidtroll: @zelo_street @bloggerheads I was referring to his involvement not naming you insignificant little man.

@tabloidtroll: @zelo_street @bloggerheads God this is boring! Just see his manipulation in the Eye of far right activist to have a go at Patrick Mercer.

Tabloidman has spent the last few months firing off vituperative Tweets against various individuals involved with the Levenson Inquiry; his targets have included Tom Watson MP and Richard Peppiatt, who last year quit working for the Star in disgust at the paper’s standards.

But why did Tabloidman seize on the Mercer connection in the first place? As Tim notes in an interview for the Social Media Show, this is not likely to be an issue that many people are familiar with. This, and other reasons not in the public domain, led Tim to suspect the identity of Tabloidman to be a freelance journalist named Dennis Rice, whose credits appear to include a story about a piece of burnt toast that looked like Osama bin Laden.

As Tim now writes on his blog, he recently asked Rice by email if he was Tabloidman; Rice replied, stating that he was not, and that his “lawyers will deal with anything anyone would be foolish enough to print – alleging or otherwise – that I am”. Earlier, a message had been sent to Tabloidman containing a weblink to a page on Tim’s site. Tabloidman clicked on the link; the IP matched that of Rice’s email.

It’s not clear why Rice would consider being linked to Tabloidman to be damaging to his reputation: he commended Tabloidman on his own Twitter feed, and he has been in communication with Tabloidman about Tim; after a link to Tim’s piece was promoted by Tom Watson, Tabloidman cautioned Watson that

Ricey told me about the loon stalking him. Be careful of the company you keep. (1)

Think Thames Valley Police will want to talk to you. They are currently investigating your (clearly unchecked) source. (2)

Rice has indeed reported Tim to the police for daring to ask him about Tabloidman; he has also deleted his own Twitter feed while allowing Tabloidman to rant on against Tim, both on Twitter and on his own website. These attacks include the claim that Tim has “harassed” Nadine Dorries (a subject I have discussed here) and a deliberate misrepresentation of the IP address issue – Tabloidman states that Tim is claiming to have captured an IP from a Twitter DM, which is of course impossible.

Tabloidman also reportedly claims that his anonymous Tweets attacking people amount to “whistleblowing”, and that his anonymity is therefore protected by law.

Coincidentally, Rice had a “terror target” story of his own, back in September 2008: in an article for the Express (sister paper to the Star), he wrote that Paul McCartney “has been threatened that he will be the target of suicide bombers unless he abandons plans to play his first concert in Israel.”

The report quoted criticism of McCartney from “a number of websites”, although Omar Bakri provided the meat of the piece with a suitably sinister quote. Patrick Mercer also makes an inevitable appearance in the story.


A longer version is at Richard’s blog

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Reader comments


1. Chaise Guevara

OK, interesting article, but this “Mercer found this tactic so congenial that he went on to use the same trick against his ex-lover” is going to sound pretty cold if it turns out that there is truth to the claims.

2. Charlieman

@OP, Richard Bartholomew: “As Tim now writes on his blog, he recently asked Rice by email if he was Tabloidman; Rice replied, stating that he was not, and that his “lawyers will deal with anything anyone would be foolish enough to print – alleging or otherwise – that I am”. Earlier, a message had been sent to Tabloidman containing a weblink to a page on Tim’s site. Tabloidman clicked on the link; the IP matched that of Rice’s email.”

However in Tim Ireland’s blog (linked in the OP), it is written: “Last Sunday, a Direct Message was sent to the registered account holder for @TabloidTroll. It contained a unique URL leading to a page on my website. The recipient visited that URL, and my site, and replied to the DM [direct message] confirming that he had done this.”

Richard Bartholomew presumes that a link was followed by human action; Tim Ireland wrote about a “unique URL”. If an email message is in HTML format, the reader does not have to press on a link to connect to a “unique URL”; many email readers will follow links in the HTML message and connect to a “unique URL”.

This technique is known as a Web Bug. See:
http://whatismyipaddress.com/web-beacon

Web Bugs have been used by investigative journalists and their technical assistants to identify people. This may be justified as “honest journalism” or determined to be intrusion, depending on the circumstances. *1

At this point, I must make it clear that I have no relationship or empathy with “Tabloidman”. I thoroughly disagree with Tabloidman’s antics.

But from the OP, the links within it and from Tim Ireland’s post, I don’t understand what offence Tabloidman has committed. Tabloidman is offensive, he defends things that Tim Ireland doesn’t like and he may have said something that Tim Ireland considers to be a libel. None of those are criminal acts; libel has solely been a civil consideration since 2010.

Tim Ireland gets his defence in early in the linked post at http://www.bloggerheads.com/archives/2012/04/dennis-rice-tabloid-troll/

Tim Ireland wrote: “From the outset, I would like to make clear that I have both a legitimate personal and public interest argument for outing the author of the Twitter account @TabloidTroll (aka ‘tabloidman’) in that the account has been used…”

Unless there is just cause to believe that Tabloidman was involved in criminal activity, the public interest argument does not apply. If Tim Ireland has a “legitimate personal interest”, he is morally permitted to do a bit of snooping; that does not give him a moral right to publish personal data (assuming that the data are accurate) about somebody who adopts the name Tabloidman.

Tim Ireland needs to tell us whether he used a Web Bug.

*1 Personal identification by IP address is very problematic. Without boring you to bits, assume that IP address to human (at a particular date and time) is often true; and that IP address to business/location or home is truer. Without inspecting the network at the location of the IP address at a moment in time, it is impossible to establish a reliable relationship.

Charlieman: we know full well that Tim didn’t use a web bug. His explanation in the linked post is both completely clear, and completely consistent with Richard’s explanation.

Tim sent Tabloidman a Twitter direct message containing a unique URL. This means that anyone accessing Tim’s site from that URL must have picked it up by reading the Twitter direct message that Tim sent to Tabloidman. He then looked at the access logs for his site to see whether that URL had been used – and on discovering that it had been used, he noted the IP address of the computer with which this had been done.

It isn’t possible to plant web bugs in Twitter direct messages, since they are 140 character text-only with no embedded HTML.

Tim then sent an email to Rice, to which Rice replied. When you send an email, the email headers include the IP address of the computer that you used to send that email. Viewing the email headers to Rice’s reply told Tim the IP address of the computer Rice was using, which was the same as that of the computer that was used to follow the link in the Tabloidman message.

No web bugs. Just clueful use of technology.

I’m not sure what your tangent about criminality is here. Tim hasn’t done anything illegal. Nor has Rice. But Tim believes Rice has behaved unethically, by using the Tabloidman account to libel him and to abuse Leveson’s witnesses, and hence has – completely legally – outed Rice’s secret identity.

4. Charlieman

@Johnb: Tim Ireland’s narrative may seem clear to you but not to me — I appreciate your simplification of it.

Tim Ireland wrote in bold: “The IP address of the person who received the Direct Message for @TabloidTroll (and subsequently visited my site) was exactly the same as that used by Dennis Rice to read and respond to my email.” SMTP mail does not have a built-in function to report whether or where an email message has been read; email headers in a response tell us where the response was sent from.

That is a minor point but it shows that IP address tracking is not an exact science and that Tim Ireland’s analysis is not as rigorous as he presents.

Tim Ireland’s investigation is indicative of the identity of Tabloidman but it is not conclusive.

Johnb: “But Tim believes Rice has behaved unethically, by using the Tabloidman account to libel him and to abuse Leveson’s witnesses, and hence has – completely legally – outed Rice’s secret identity.”

The tangent about legality was relevant to establish that this incident is about moral behaviour. Tabloidman appears to be a reprehensible individual who defends invasive press tactics. The trick used by Tim Ireland was legal but deceptive, one that needs a moral case to justify using. It’s the sort of trick that has been used by the press to probe into the lives of citizens. I don’t see, in this case, how its use is justified.

Charlieman: I think that’s a bit pin-head-dancey. Tim knows that the IP address in question was used to send Rice’s response. While there’s no absolute proof that he read the email before responding, it seems like the kind of logical step that can reasonably be assumed.

6. Charlieman

@5. john b: “Charlieman: I think that’s a bit pin-head-dancey. Tim knows that the IP address in question was used to send Rice’s response.”

Good morning, John. I’d say that my critique was no more pin-head-dancey than Tim Ireland’s identification of Tabloidman.

Going back to a point that I made @2, IP address identification is not always concrete.

I have had the same IP address at home for ten years and another fixed IP address for five years before that. If somebody points a finger at me about something from my home IP address, I have to hold my hands up because the words came from me or a close friend. That is concrete.

If somebody presented me with a Charlieman comment and random source IP address plus date, I reckon that I could identify (to myself) whether or not it was me. With the benefit of diaries, I might be able to determine if I was on holiday. That is poor evidence (for or against me) unless somebody does some footwork to locate me physically at that time and to dig out ARP tables. Which may not be reliable.

If the source IP address was a computer at work, I could find out the location of the computer (rooms/floors/building) and on occasions the actual device. I might be able to determine who was using the device at the time (if I had forgotten that it was me). Most of the time, I could not prove whether or not it was me.

Let’s go to the bigger world than my internet jaunts. Just how many people in China access the internet by NAT and IPv4 IPv6 gateways? In the UK how many people use a shared IP address when they dip into the local cafe’s free wi-fi? When ISPs flip-flop IP addresses, how confident are you, John, about who (person) was at that IP address at that moment?


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    A Tabloid Troll and the Conservative MP Patrick Mercer http://t.co/cWhlBFW2

  2. Jason Brickley

    A Tabloid Troll and the Conservative MP Patrick Mercer http://t.co/tmgLVJj4

  3. Dean Reeves

    A Tabloid Troll and the Conservative MP Patrick Mercer | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/ACEfXJvV via @libcon

  4. BevR

    A Tabloid Troll and the Conservative MP Patrick Mercer http://t.co/cWhlBFW2

  5. leftlinks

    Liberal Conspiracy – A Tabloid Troll and the Conservative MP Patrick Mercer http://t.co/KuPbNRIQ

  6. Richard Bartholomew

    A Tabloid Troll and the Conservative MP Patrick Mercer http://t.co/cWhlBFW2

  7. Clay Harris

    A Tabloid Troll and the Conservative MP Patrick Mercer http://t.co/cWhlBFW2





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