Earlier this year, I began receiving horrible messages on twitter. This is by no means unique; twitter trolls are legion. People very much in the public domain may receive many perverse and violent-sounding messages. The journalist Caitlin Moran has said that, once she publishes a feature, she may receive hundreds of messages an hour, threatening harm to her; speaking of dreadful things. Twitter itself, however, has admitted that it ‘sucks’ at managing the issue. So what happened to me? It’s not in the same league as someone much more in the public domain, but here’s what happened. I want to write about what I know, how it changed me and what I might pass on.
Twitter is great: vibrant; democratic. You can reach out through it. If you have a problem, you can find help quickly, as it houses, for example, many support groups for those with mental health issues. It can be a huge support to people and it is a vital networking tool. For me, as I seek to establish myself as a novelist, its links with publishers and other writers are brilliant; as a teacher, I can get fresh information fast: from a philosopher or from an exam board!
I am a mother of three, an English teacher and author with a debut novel out in February and an emerging portfolio of other works. But I am also a campaigner. I write to people and pipe up about mental health provision a great deal but – more pertinent to what happened on twitter – I try to change things for the better in our community. Not because I wish to hector or be belligerent; not because I think I am in any way superior in my views to another human being, or because my way is right. But because we can see pressing issues all around us where I live – potential private development on sites that have been used as play areas for generations of children; busy roads by primary schools without low-speed limits and entirely without crossing. I also try to respond to the things others sometimes tell me if they are upset. Things come to me through the work I do and I probably know quite a lot of people locally – so I talk to them. And on a number of occasions, visitors to our town and a few older members of our community had told me that they felt there was a lot of litter about and that it made them feel sad. That was enough for me. I tried to do something about it. These days, if you want to campaign, twitter is a valuable thing. So I went to work on the litter issue and one of the things I did was to get information on twitter, some of it pertinent to local business.
That was Thursday.
On Saturday the messages began. They were repeated many times, sent from accounts all over the world. My address was published at the top of each one. I was told to take down my account or ‘we will come for you.’ The tweets described how I attacked local business.’
So you see, there was immediately something rather geo-specific about this. A friend said, ‘I expect this is an anonymous troll.’ Well, to me, that didn’t stack up.
The tweets kept rolling in from all over the world.
My address and ‘We will come for you. Close your twitter account.’
I sat on this for a day. I was physically sick. That was the intention, wasn’t it? But did I take my twitter account down? No, I did not. I don’t think that responding to threat with a fearful response is a good thing. It encourages a bully, a narcissist, an angry person to do it to someone else. So I didn’t close my account as the threats rolled in, because to have the person behind this get the better of me and, potentially, go on to threaten someone more vulnerable was unconscionable to me.
Later that day, a new wave of nasty messages began, still with my home address at the top. Threats to me when I was out in my home town – referred to by its abbreviated name, which I’d noted local folk only tend to use – were forcefully communicated. I was instructed to ‘look behind’ me and promised that I would be harmed.
At this point, I contacted twitter – my husband having taken screen shots of everything – to start closing down accounts where we could. Twitter would not block the accounts from the first wave, they blocked some of the accounts from the second wave, but not all. And it’s at this point that I realise I have to explain, just in case, that the threat is not from the accounts sending out the tweets. If you are ever the victim of trolling where the same messages are sent from multiple accounts, then you’re likely receiving them from ghost accounts, which are just really platforms through which those courting a social media following, for whatever reason, retweet a message they are given – perhaps through a platform such as one that promises things like this:
‘…a network that will help you grow your social presence. We allow you to look and choose who you want to like/subscribe/follow/view and skip those who you are not interested in.
… increase Facebook Likes, Facebook Share, Facebook Followers, Facebook Post Likes, Facebook Post Share, Google+ Circles, Google+ Post Share, YouTube Subscribe, YouTube Video Likes, YouTube Video Favorites, YouTube Views, Twitter Followers, Twitter Tweets, Twitter reTweets, Twitter Favorites, Ask.fm Likes, VK Page Followers, VK Group Join, MySpace Friends, Instagram Followers, Instagram Photo Likes, Pinterest Followers, Pinterest rePins, Pinterest Likes, Reverbnation Fans, SoundCloud Followers, SoundCloud Music Listening, StumbleUpon Followers and WebSite Hits (autosurf).
We provide the widest and the most spacious choice of social media exchange in today’s world of limitless and infinite internet possibilities. Here are represented all the influential and powerful social networks with their numerous features.’
Note the words, ‘Social Media Exchange.’ There are sites out there where, for five quid or in exchange for retweeting a bit of publicity for someone (bartering), you can send out a message and remain anonymous: you’re hiding behind hundreds of accounts. These sites care nothing for you; it’s possible that the twitter account holders don’t even know what’s being sent from their account if it’s managed by someone else. We know that, because we contacted one; she was hesitant, but helpful. Trolls scare people, after all.
We informed the police with the second wave. Both my husband and I took some time explaining it to the non-urgent line. Social media crime is in its infancy. If you ring up the police, you may be met with a measure of reassurance – as in, the ones that make the threats don’t generally follow through – but also a frank statement that they are limited in what they can do. But we passed the screen shots and – this is the bit I haven’t mentioned yet – slew of circumstantial evidence we had gathered – to the police and they handed it to the local constabulary.
Things went a little quiet, but I could feel how badly affected I was. I was sick again. I would go to sleep and wake with a start. I kept that up for months.
Then the threats escalated further. An anonymous person publishing my home address, all around the world, speaking of the harm that would come to me; writing about local business; offering geo-specific fear. And then the individual said they would take my boys.
‘Close your twitter account or be careful who picks your son up from school.’
Back to the police. At this point, twitter blocked the senders; we had no choice but to inform the Heads of my elder boys’ schools and my youngest’s nursery. The holiday had just started, but schools, receiving my email, rang me anyway. Because with safeguarding you have to be all in. ‘Generally’, as I was told – and as I said above – those who make the threats don’t carry them out. When we are caring for our young, that’s not quite enough, is it? And we now know that a crime had definitely been committed: harassment. More than three of these messages constitutes it. I’d have added ‘malicious intent’ too.
But the police, who then visited me, speaking to the two older boys while they were with me, had to say that there was nothing they could do. They cannot caution without proof and proof is not the same as evidence. Within a few days, we had assembled what follows….
All the screenshots of the threats. There were many. That took a long time, but my husband is a determined man.
Copies of any of my interaction on twitter with a local business (there was only one)
Twitter profile material relevant to the above – such as that championing those against people who ‘moan’ on twitter
Sub tweets from a local account that, unless I was being very dim, appeared to be mocking the fact that I had had my children threatened: we had made some local enquiries. We had to, because of the children.
A letter to the sector commander of our county police, sent by our MP. The sector commander stated that this was beyond the police’s control because these were threats ‘from anonymous accounts.’ That was a misunderstanding of the origin.
A conversation with my husband’s congressman (my children are dual UK/US citizens), who attempted to press twitter to help us. They would not.
Everything you do digitally has, as I understand it, a digital footprint. But, if a person wants to hide, it is difficult to find them. Neither twitter nor the third-party site which, we were pretty confident, had been the source of the original message, would co-operate. I could have tried to push this through a civil court or gone to the press, but I decided I did not want the exposure. This week, I realised we could go no further and yet…….
I have stopped checking the doors during the night
I am not being sick
I didn’t walk alone in my home town for three months. Now I do.
How I feel about my neighbourhood has been compromised. I know that is sad, but I could say that a period of reflection has brought about greater ties with the wider world. I actually think that my troll, because he caused me grief – and I mean that in terms of loss – also gave me a ball of energy to burn. I turned it toward my writing and putting it out there: I got a publisher for my debut novel, guest blogs, a brief twitter conversation on the troll subject and twitter’s inefficiency on it with Jon Ronson (what can I say? I’ve always loved him) and had a second publisher I had set my heart on pick up a poem. It was a poem about change – through pain – told through the metaphor of a sea journey. All very Homeric. But that’s what I was going through: a sea change.
I had approached the task of establishing a forensic link between our lovely local Wiltshire constabulary, the town mayor,
Virginia and Washington with considerable verve.
The litter looked a bit better.
So hey, Mr Troll. I am going no further. Got to consign you to the past, while I’ve made everyone I can aware of what happened. This year, a few things have ended or changed exponentially for me. No, I don’t exactly feel safe in my own community any more – that was your intention, I imagine. It’s a sad thing. I’m not sure if it will change back. But on the other hand, by the time I left my teens, I was alone in the world and I couldn’t be scared because there was no time. I’ve been like that, ever since. I’ve been so ill; I’ve survived. Fear and sadness don’t stop me because I looked them in the face and found I was still standing. You must be sad, too, to threaten me; to speak of my children as you do. To be so angry, but fearful enough to hide. And you should be helped.
But there is fire in my belly and my voice will not be stilled.
Do not do this to anyone else.