Here’s What Happens When You Track Down Your Online Harassers
Ask just about any writer today if they have ever received hate mail or harassing direct messages on social media, and you will probably need to sit down: More than likely, they have at least a few disturbing stories. And no, many of us are not, per the oft-cited online media rule, reading the comments. These messages flood our personal emails, Facebook inboxes, Twitter DMs, and even the comments of Instagram photos completely unrelated to our work as writers and journalists.
People often find me on Facebook to tell me that I am “a disgrace,” a “wannabe maverick,” or that I should be “ashamed” of myself for what I write. These messages have spilled over into my Instagram comments. One sticks out in my memory. The day after I covered a resurfaced clip of President Donald Trump talking about protestors throwing cans of soup at law enforcement, someone with a private account (since deleted) and no avatar left this under a random photo of mine: “Hopefully a can of soup doesn’t come flying around your head while in the city!!!”
As a journalist, I tend to avoid anecdotal evidence. But lately it seems like every writer I know or am friendly with on Twitter has been subjected to an ever-increasing deluge of hate the last couple of years, especially this one. The more I write about politics, news, and social justice, the more agitated and insulting the messages. I have often wondered who is on the other side of the screen, and whether I would feel some relief or have some sort of revelation if I knew who was typing these threats and insults.
I decided to speak to other writers and journalists who actually did pursue their harassers. Channeling the same curiosity that drove us to become writers in the first place, they put their research and sleuthing skills to a slightly different use. Some found what they were looking for, others didn’t, but reflecting on the outcome, regardless of the results, still brought about similar conclusions.
“I can’t believe this guy is actually a celebrated professor of English”
Arianna Rebolini is the Books Editor at Buzzfeed, and as such, feels that she’s largely isolated from the kind of threatening, toxic attacks leveled at people who cover politics or culture wars.
“I’m lucky in that I have not gotten many angry emails. I think books coverage is pretty benign. I feel very lucky knowing what a lot of my colleagues put up with,” she tells me over the phone. But unsurprisingly, it turns out that even roundups of fall reads and collections recommending writers that aren’t predominantly white men fuel racist and sexist remarks, too. She decided to screenshot and share one such email on Twitter.
“make sure you *always* google the email addresses from threatened men who troll you because you might just find it’s from a professor emeritus,” Rebolini tweeted. The email was in response to a roundup of book recommendations from independent bookstores around the country. The list was diverse and, in total, included more women writers than men. “Are you afraid of books by male authors? Do they bite?” the man wrote in his email. Because he didn’t use a burner email address, Rebolini quickly discovered that the man was a retired educator.
“I was shocked. I can’t believe this guy is actually a celebrated professor of English,” she says now. “This is his field and he couldn’t see the value of a list of book recommendations that is primarily women. [And] it had men on the list, but they were not white men. And I think that was something that was interesting to me, too. He had a very specific idea of what kind of books by men he wanted and didn’t see.”
Rebolini continues: “I think it was upsetting to me that this was someone who’s retired now, but he taught English. In this case, it was satisfying to me to flip the power dynamic. Like you wanted to send something to my inbox that would make me feel little and that would upset me. And it did...This is not anonymous. You’re a person and you’re talking to a person.”
Rebolini’s tweet about the professor racked up thousands of likes and comments, many applauding her for calling this man out. “There was a time when I would have never screenshotted an email and put it out there. But you don’t owe a bully anything,” Rebolini says. “I respect people who don’t want to do that. I respect people who deal with it in their own way, but in this case, it wasn’t punching down. This was a guy who held a lot of power in academia.”
When she was a newer writer, Rebolini also once tried to track down the identity of a man who sent her a “really vicious email.”
“I was shocked by it, so I Googled it and he was a pastor. I would have definitely been too scared to post it, but I emailed him back making it clear that I knew who he was. He never responded.”
Responding or posting screenshots is something Rebolini admits isn’t for everyone. “For someone who is getting really threatening, like, vile, emails, I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, maybe engage with them,’” she says. For her, it is a way to stop the mental loop of wondering about the sender and their motivations. She doesn’t believe they ever expect to get a response.
The teen began sending gifs and images of women attacking and beating up other women
Sara Feigin is a music journalist, photographer, and co-host of music fandom podcast Name 3 Songs. She got into the industry as a teen, as a fan of local pop-punk and emo bands. Like Rebolini, Feigin believes her areas of interest tend not to generate as much vitriol, but she is still harassed for her work. After releasing an episode of Name 3 Songs in which she criticized instances of internalized misogyny from men in bands who bemoan having young women as their primary fans, Feigin found herself on the receiving end of criticism from a lot of angry supporters of the men. While many simply left a dissenting comment, one particular person took it several steps further and began repeatedly posting about and messaging Feigin on TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram. “In total, I probably got about 30 or more messages from them,” Feigin says.
Some simple sleuthing revealed the source of the messages: a 14-year-old girl. “I assumed they were a teen,” Feigin says. “When I went and looked on her TikTok, she was very clearly trying to hide herself. It wasn’t a shocking thing. It was more shocking that a 14-year-old feels the need to attack a grown adult on the internet for not liking something that they like.”
“I thought it could be turned into a teachable moment,” Feigin continues. She tried to set an example of what it could look like to disagree with someone without needing to invalidate them. Feigin responded on Twitter saying that she respected the teen’s opinion, but that she did not hold the same opinion herself. The teen didn’t reply on Twitter, and instead replied to Feigin on Instagram. But because it was a message request, Feigin didn’t see it. The longer she went without engaging, the more menacing the messages became. The teen began sending gifs and images of women attacking and beating up other women.
Feigin doubted that there would be anything gained by reporting the harassment to Instagram. Instead, she contacted the teen’s school, which she referenced in her Instagram bio.
Feigin had a specific motivation for doing this. When she was a teen, in the days of MySpace and Tumblr, she was bullied online. Sometimes it was by strangers, other times by people she knew offline through school or the local music scene. Looking back, she wishes that there was more education in schools about the consequences and effects of cyberbullying and trolling.
“I assume that they have at least one day of class on cyberbullying and why it’s bad,” says Feigin. “The hope in going above her was that maybe someone would sit her down, or her whole grade, and talk about it. I think it’s so important to teach kids that this is not how you fix a problem.” The school never responded, but the girl’s barrage of messages quickly came to an end.
Feigin sees music and pop culture as not all that different from political supporters: “I think it’s important to talk about and acknowledge the toxicity of the internet and fandom culture in general. In some senses, Donald Trump supporters act like Nicki Minaj fans,” Feigin says, alluding to incidents like one in 2018, when a freelance writer—a Minaj fan—critiqued the rapper’s music and received thousands of vicious and derogatory messages on every platform from Twitter to Instagram, and even calls to her personal phone number. When people unswervingly idolize a person or ideal, the ability to hear another person’s point of view is lost. That can happen whether the person on the pedestal is the president or a pop star.
The sender threatened to create a deep fake edit of pornographic footage
Abby Lee Hood has freelanced much of their six-year career as a writer covering everything from gender issues to video gaming. “I’ve gotten singular hate mail from individual stories that I’ve published. It might be one here, one there,” says Hood. “Now that I’ve been writing full time, I’ve definitely gotten hateful messages more often.”
But one piece published about a month ago resulted in hundreds of bullying messages. It was an op-ed about retiring the image of English colonist Sir Walter Raleigh as the face of the World of Bluegrass festival, as part of the broader movement to remove statues and imagery of problematic historical figures.
Two of the resulting threats Hood describes as forms of sexual assault. In one message, the sender threatened to create a deep fake edit of pornographic footage with Hood’s face superimposed over it. The sender, who claimed to have Hood’s home address, sent the message using Protonmail, an end-to-end encrypted email service. Hood hoped to file a police report, but was told that those accounts are untraceable.
In the other incident, Hood was offering other freelancers offering career advice in a Zoom Q&A. A man joined the call and began masturbating on camera (it’s unclear if it was specifically in response to op-ed).
“It involves non-consensual sexual activity. To me, that counts as sexual harassment or assault,” Hood says. “When I’m trying to create a space for people to learn and they end up being assaulted or harassed, that really makes me angry.”
Because the person used a generic account, it couldn’t be traced.
One Facebook message attacked Hood, a non-binary person, for use of gender neutral pronouns. Hood discovered that they shared a mutual friend. “It’s been on my mind, thinking how I might go about contacting that person and saying, ‘Hey, did you know that you’re friends with someone who is violently homophobic and harasses writers?’” Hood says.
“But then,” Hood continues, “What if this friend responds and says, ‘Well, I don’t care that my friend was homophobic, that my friend sent this really threatening message to you. I don’t care that they hurt you’? That makes the situation worse.”
“If you’re a writer, this is going to happen to you. If you have any sort of public platform, this is going to happen to you,” Hood concludes. They’ve made a point of putting their own mental health and state of mind first, advocating for therapy and a strong support system. “My work is available for consumption. My mental health is not.”