Did Debian turn a Developer into a troll?


In Sam Hartman's latest attack on a volunteer, he makes a series of arguments intended to lead us to the conclusion that a single Debian Developer woke up one day and decided to pursue a new career as an Internet troll.

Hartman's claim is bizarre for various reasons.

When you look at Hartman's arguments, they are wafer-thin. Consider this claim:

Without claiming authorship of these anonymous messages, (the scapegoat) quickly expands on the messages in his blogs and goes forward assuming these anonymous claims are true

The volunteer in question is not the only one with a blog. It is not hard to find additional blogs if you only look. A Debian Developer, who is also a former community representative, widely connected in the community, probably knows which anonymous claims have substance or has ways to validate them. Looking at how people use the Internet today, for every one person who writes a blog about a topic, there are hundreds of people referencing the same topic on social media, Reddit and other sites. Being quick to blog about a topic is important for any blogger, especially for those people who are censored from replying on certain mailing lists. None of these tendencies stand out as evidence of wrongdoing, quite the opposite, they are normal behaviour for the majority of bloggers.

By suggesting only one person cares about a particular issue, Hartman is attempting to minimise and invalidate those issues that he doesn't want to answer questions about. The narrative of a single troll and a single scapegoat is very convenient when you want to make some very inconvenient questions about money look irrelevant.

In many cases, apparently trolled or forged messages appeared after the relevant blogs, contradicting Hartman's exaggerated claims. A blog about Debian's diversity problems appeared on Friday, 6 March 2020 but the email about women impersonating Mark Shuttleworth only appeared more than 48 hours later. On what grounds does he claim the latter is from the same person as the former? Hartman appears to be quite wrong indeed.

If you look at all five points in Hartman's blog post, you don't find any evidence to link the points together. How can Hartman expect readers to follow all the way from the first point to the last point and agree with his conclusion, when he did not even try to prove a link from the first point to the second point?

When an email was circulated claiming to prove the identity of Cryptie in FSFE, the Free Software Fellowship blog didn't simply cut and paste the story. It was documented step by step, with links that people can check to verify Cryptie's real name, Amandine Jambert @ CNIL. The Fellowship bloggers also demonstrated it was in the public interest, documenting the privacy vulnerability and cover-up at FSFE.

The Cryptie case is proof that there is more than one person in the free software community who doesn't use their real name. Cryptie's very existance debunks Hartman's one-troll-to-rule-them-all theory.

Hartman knows he has no evidence and he doesn't care. In the twilight of his term as Debian Project Leader (DPL), he is deliberately borrowing from the project's reputation and using his DPL title as the sole foundation for his accusations. He knows some people will be fooled, "if Debian said this, it must be true". If the same baseless accusations were repeated on an anonymous blog account, without evidence, nobody would take them seriously. When a leader uses his title in this fraudulent manner, the name of the organization inevitably loses some of its shine.

If Hartman is actually right and a respected Debian Developer has undergone this metamorphosis into a troll, a competent Debian Project Leader may want to find out why. What has the Debian community done to the person to bring about such a change? For example, could this be the side effect of some unethical social experiment gone wrong, like blackmailing somebody at the wrong time? Former leader Chris Lamb brilliantly decided to introduce demotions to Debian, has it become a self-fulfilling prophecy, demoting DDs to trolls? Or is it something that was inevitably going to emerge from the culture of Debian?

An alternative narrative is that all the trolling in the free software world reflects the lack of leadership, both the personal leadership failures of people like Hartman, the failure to empower people who remain trapped in groupthink, the bullying culture of large organizations and the assassination of principled leaders like Richard Stallman. Under Hartman's term as DPL, Debian has stumbled on through long email threads and another divisive systemd vote, in other words, people put in a whole lot of time and energy but achieved nothing. The narrative of a single omni-troll is a convenient scapegoat indeed, as it is much easier than admitting Hartman's term didn't achieve very much.

When you think about it, there is simply no way a single person, an experienced developer, spontaneously turns into a troll overnight. Not only does Hartman need to prove why we should believe the far-fetched claims he is making, he would then need to explain the extent of Debian's responsibility in creating such a disturbing outcome.