Joshua Goldberg is not Muslim, and he’s not Australian. He is a 20-year-old nerd of Jewish background who until yesterday lived with his parents and sister in a suburban house in Florida.
But under the online alias “Australi Witness”, Goldberg managed to convince even Islamic State jihadists that he was an Australian IS mujahid who once worked for Amnesty International.
Joshua Goldberg is a troll. But he has liaised with IS supporters and called for terrorist attacks against the West. Police who arrested him on Friday morning Australian time said he had recently instructed a confidential source on how to make a bomb.
And even before his recent exploits, Goldberg’s dangerous social media fantasies may have had real-world consequences. An Australi Witness tweet in the lead up to an exhibition of pictures of the Prophet Mohammed in Garland, Texas, in May, urged Muslims to go with “weapons, bombs or with knifes”. Two men answered the call, and were killed by police.
“Australi Witness” praised them as martyrs.
Since July he has fed out a series of bomb threats against various targets, including a synagogue in Melbourne and another in Perth. Most recently, he said he was working with others to direct a “pressure cooker bombing” in the United States.
But Fairfax Media can reveal that Goldberg’s trolling also goes well beyond pretending to be an IS terror wannabe. When Melbourne lawyer, Joshua Bornstein, woke to find a violent anti-Palestinian blog in his own name in the Times of Israel in May, he was subject to global outrage.
That hoax, too, was the work of Goldberg, and he laughed when the finger of blame was mistakenly pointed at white supremacists.
Goldberg has set up a fake account in the name of Australian Muslim preacher Junaid Thorne, and promoted an illusory friendship between Australi Witness and anti-Islamophobia campaigner Mariam Veiszadeh – the intention both times being to smear them.
He has masqueraded as a neo-Nazi blogger called “Michael Slay” on the site Daily Stormer, and as a fictional Australian left-wing anti-free speech activist called “Tanya Cohen”. He’s caused significant harm to anti-sexploitation campaigner Caitlin Roper by setting up a fake account in her name and then defaming transsexuals.
Apart from the thrill of trolling on the world’s most sensitive and politically fraught subjects, Goldberg appears to be driven by a single ideology: purist notions of the right to free speech.
The unmasking of Joshua Goldberg’s began with a chance encounter. In April, a fake Facebook page was set up in the name of Australian journalist Elise Potaka using a picture from her Twitter profile. The imposter used this fake account to send a private message to one of her contacts, Junaid Thorne. Thorne is a young Islamic preacher with connections to IS supporters.
By coincidence, when the Facebook imposter messaged him, Thorne had been chatting to Potaka about a fake Twitter account that had been set up in his name. It soon became apparent, through the language and phrases used, that both were victims of the same online hoaxer.
The fake Facebook account had just one “friend”: “Joshua Goldberg”, and its web address was facebook.com/moonmetropolis.
An online search led to a blog and a series of posts published on American website, ThoughtCatalog. The distinct theme here is free speech, and the strong criticism of individuals and organisations calling for limits on hate speech.
“Personally, I find it nothing less than absolutely disgusting and depressing how people who claim to campaign for ‘human rights’ are so opposed to the most basic human right of all: freedom of speech,” Goldberg wrote in one post.
The only easily accessible information about Goldberg described him as an “American author and columnist”, but he did not appear to have been published by any credible media outlet. Further research showed Goldberg also had a Twitter account, @MoonMetropolis. When confronted via this account, he admitted that he had impersonated Potaka on Facebook and Thorne on Twitter. He claimed he’d had conversations with jihadis who were following Thorne online.
In an act repeated with his other hoaxes, Goldberg lured journalists into his deception. He’d already shopped around screengrabs of these conversations with the “jihadis” who followed “Thorne” to at least one reporter, and the West Australian published an article in April describing how the fake Junaid Thorne account had fooled wanna-be jihadis.
In fact, in the hall of mirrors created by Goldberg, it was him doing the fooling. Not only had he created the fake Junaid Thorne account, he was also playing the part of the “wanna-be jihadis” in the conversations.
Many of his hoaxes were designed to smear people and organisations he perceived as being enemies of free speech. Goldberg told Potaka online it was “pretty stunning” how many jihadis “claimed to be connected with the Human Rights Law Centre … and/or Amnesty International”.
But, masquerading as these jihadis, he was the only one making the connection. One of his personas, “akhi_alaustrali” wrote that he worked for Amnesty, and another, ShamiWitness claimed that he and other IS supporters donated money to the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) because it was “working to outlaw and prosecute anti-Muslim hate speech”.
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