This is a difficult post to write – the most difficult one I’ve ever written, in fact. And my mouse is poised over the ‘Post’ button as I sit here thinking… You shouldn’t really have to share this kind of thing with the world, because ideally it shouldn’t happen. But, after much reflection, I can see it’s the only way of ensuring that I can get on with my life properly and put a particularly distressing episode behind me – an episode not of my own making, but one that is giving me sleepless nights, keeping me from Twitter and email, and – well – simply making my life miserable. The fact that this post has taken an entire day to write, and now totals over 5,000 words (I know – but please give it fifteen minutes, if you can), should give you a good idea of how much it has affected me.
It’s also a kind of liberation, a setting straight of the records and a chance for others to see that life doesn’t have to be the way it is, that bullies don’t win – and that you should treat people with respect whilst ensuring that they do the same to you. You shouldn’t have to put up with vile rumours being spread about you online or off – it’s not right. You know that, and so do I.
[ a note before I start ] If you are being bullied online, check out this page for legal information and advice: http://cyberbullying.us/blog/advice-for-adult-victims-of-cyberbullying.html . Also check the local laws in your country and the country of the person harassing you – you’ll surely have contacts or can ask someone for a suitable recommendation. Note also that it is illegal to harass, victimise, threaten, bully or blackmail people on Twitter, by email or any other electronic means. Tweets, emails, etc. which display this behaviour are just cause for launching a criminal investigation and can lead to criminal prosecution. If this is happening (or has happened) to you, you should seek legal advice. December 17th this year is Anti-Bullying Day – maybe you can help someone? And, having said that, here’s my story…
What would you do if you received a flurry of emails from someone, one of which said they hoped you had a massive stroke and then died slowly and painfully from terminal cancer whilst recovering in hospital? What if the same person tried to blackmail you into talking on the phone? What if the same person threatened to make your life a misery everywhere you go? What if that person defamed members of your family that they had never even met? And what if they were spreading malicious gossip about you to people they meet at conferences and events? What would you do? How would you feel? If you’re ready, here’s the punchline right at the beginning – and, before you go elswehere, can I just make entirely sure that you understand that this is real, not some kind of pastiche – this is happening to me, and it could equally happen to you one day.
My name’s Gavin and I’m being bullied online.
There, I said it – and at first glance it may seem a little humorous that a man in his mid-forties would claim such a thing, but that’s the plain truth of the matter. It might even seem a bit shameful to you, and you may be tempted to turn away now and go somewhere else for your news, but I urge you to read this because it may be useful to you at some point in your online life. And, if you read the article linked above, you’ll see I’m not alone. My apologies also to those of you who have been tempted over here because you’re expecting the usual diet of iPad, iPhone, SL and technology-related fare.
But, you see, this is serious. So serious that today I am on the verge of going to the police to have them investigate the following charges: stalking, cyberbullying, defamation of character and blackmail. I suspect I may have your attention now…
In fact, I’ll go a little further than simply saying I’m being bullied – I’m being bullied, stalked and blackmailed online, and I have the documentation to prove it. So vitriolic have been the attacks that I’ve been forced to print out nearly a year’s worth of email and Twitter messages and lodge them with my lawyer, just in case something happens. When you receive emails hoping that you will soon have a heart attack and then get diagnosed with terminal cancer whilst recovering in hospital, you have to wonder if that person really means you any physical harm as well…
And the person in question hasn’t just chosen me over the past year (though I understand I’ve been the recipient of the nastiest materials) – several people have (unbidden) asked me what they’ve done to attract the sort of attack that they’ve suffered, and I can’t really understand it. Two people have been forced off Twitter by this person and so it goes on. And silence reigns because nobody wants to break it and, perhaps, attract more attention. That’s how bullies thrive – we know this from the playground. The difference, of course, is that it’s easier online because it’s harder to know what’s going on, and it’s more difficult to break the silence. And, of course, unless you have a lot of good friends, it’s hard to know what’s being said about you. Fortunately, I do have such friends (and I do know what’s being said), and I also have a large folder of evidence that refutes each and every shred of the vile story.
But I’m not prepared to suffer in silence anymore, so I thought it might help some of you if I told my story – it might also act as a salutary warning to some of you, too.
When I first met this person online I thought they were fun to talk to – similar interests, similar annoyances (mostly) and we spent quite a bit of time chatting, mostly on Twitter. You know how it is when you enjoy someone’s conversation? And of course as you spend more time chatting to someone, the more you reveal about yourself and your life. You do this quite naturally, it’s normal to share thoughts and experiences with people you trust. And I’m one of those people who does trust others online, as I try to be as lacking in suspicion as I can, both online and off. And mostly that works for me – I’ve met plenty of good people online and some of them are now very good friends in real life. In fact of the hundreds of people I’ve met online in the past fifteen years, only two have turned out to be, shall we say, difficult.
And so I joked and laughed and shared my life with another of my online friends.
But at some point this person decided that they’d fallen for me, and that was when things went very, very wrong. Despite the fact that I informed them immediately that I was sorry, but I didn’t share those feelings, the emails and DMs kept coming. Could we meet? The answer to that was ‘no’, because I was aware that a meeting would only inspire some kind of hope that this would bloom into something it was never going to be. Didn’t I realise that I was simply in denial? Again, the answer from my side was ‘no’. And even the classic ‘your words say ‘no’ but everything else says ‘yes” – and there’s an excuse that men have been using for years. To find myself on the receiving end of that was extremely alarming, to say the least. And still I said ‘no’.
Then the nastiness started.
I was told I was wrong to have led this person on. I never did, of course – sure, we laughed and joked and shared conversation online, but there’s a huge difference between that and actively expressing a sentimental interest in someone – and there was none, there never was. I can say this quite assuredly, because the same person, in a moment of clarity, admitted by email that they had misinterpreted the signs, and admitted that it had all been in their own head. I even got an apology for what that is worth. It’s all in the paperwork sitting in my lawyer’s office.
I was told I was a serial online predator, leading innocent victims on and then dropping them at the last moment – and so on, and so forth. And this was where I made my first mistake – by continuing to engage with this person. And so, for the past few months, I have been subjected to a barrage of ‘hot and cold’ emails: some of them tell me how lovely I am and how I’m just not seeing what’s in front of my eyes. They tell me that we were meant to be, that I feel the same things, that if only I would just admit it to myself, then the world would be alright.
There was a time when I tried to ignore things, but somehow – and this is how it all happens – you always think that you will be able to reason with someone. Tell them you’re sorry – but they were mistaken. Ask them to simply try to get over what they feel and get on with their life, to give you back yours. But of course, you simply make it worse. Because they thrive on the attention and the answers. And, I suspect, if you’re responding, there’s always a glimmer of hope, no matter how faint it may burn.
And each time I make it clear that there is nothing to talk about, and then the other kinds of emails arrive…. they call me a ‘ f*****g toad’, a ‘liar’, ‘a bully’ and much, much worse… It’s worth noting that this name-calling has become progressively worse, more violent, couched in increasingly aggressive terms and tones. A family member, who is currently not well, has been attacked in an email to me (presumably guilty ‘by association’?) they accuse me of leading people on and – more recently – they wish me to die in agony in a hospital bed. There have been professional insults, too – and plenty of snide remarks online, and people have been told the sad tale of woe, of how the ‘f*****g toad’ supposedly acted.
I’m just lucky, I know, that none of my real friends or professional contacts would believe a word of it – they know me properly, and well. One or two of them have heard the stories, of course, and passed that information back to me. And I thank you for your concern, and I appreciate that you give it no credence, because we have history, shared lives and shared work and we know the value of real friendships too well to pass them over on the back of malicious gossip. That, to me, embodies all that is good about my dispersed network of friends. When we hear stories about friends, I suspect we all naturally judge the storyteller and work out the potential veracity of their story against what we know of the person being talked about. In many ways it’s a classic tussle, and my good friends have proven this point amply in the past few weeks. Again, my sincere thanks. And my thanks to those who have provided legal advice, too, on how to deal with this.
It’s worth reiterating, at this point, that I have ample material in plain black and white, all safely tucked away for a particularly rainy day – ample enough to show that the real story is considerably different. That I am sincerely being stalked, bullied, blackmailed, maligned, defamed and a whole lot more. As is my wont, I’ve helped this person with a job application, I’ve edited an article for them prior to submission and I’ve provided technical support on occasions. You’ll think me stupid, that all I’ve done is encourage them – but those of you who know me will know that I rarely say ‘no’ to a request for help. Though I’m now revising that modus operandi. And, as a result of all this, I now look suspiciously at every friend request on Facebook and every follow on Twitter. Nobody should have to live like this.
So, here’s the question. How much would you take in similar circumstances?
This last week has been hell, and the final straw, and that’s why everything is with my lawyer – including the admission of blackmail which arrived last Friday. I was being ordered to have a phone conversation with this person, to ‘apologise’ for my behaviour – something I was not willing to do, because I wasn’t responsible for any of the pain and suffering this person claimed to be enduring.
My blackmailer made it very clear that this is what would happen if I failed to pander to their demands: photos of some of my DMs would be published online, perhaps even emails, who knows? Despite the obvious problems with the legality of such a course of action (and possible criminal action on my part) you do find yourself checking those DMs and emails to see what you might have said to your ‘friend’ over a year. But then you realise that actually, it’s not important. Anyone who you consider a friend knows you well enough to know that you’re an affable sort of person, friendly, helpful, hard-working and the rest. You volunteer and help out, you always answer queries from people and help where you can, you do your work to the highest standards you can… Certainly you’ve made some mistakes in your life, but who hasn’t? Anyone worth calling themselves a friend of yours wouldn’t pay attention to this kind of despicable behaviour, and so you begin to relax and think about the situation a little more clearly. So, why did I let it go on so long (and why do you)?
The answer. my friends, is simple. We live in fear of people sharing the information we shared with them, with other people. It’s like your own potential personal Wikileaks Armageddon. But life doesn’t have to be like this. I’ve seen friendships survive the odd argument, disagreement and throwaway line. I’ve seen them survive more than that. As I have been forgiven for making the odd rude or hurtful comment, so I have forgiven. This is part of being an adult – of respecting boundaries and learning how to act when we cross those boundaries.
So, looking through the DMs and emails, I can see we’ve had the odd laugh over someone’s behaviour online, over other aspects of people’s lives – as you do – but there’s nothing I wouldn’t say to those people face-to-face, given the right moment, and nothing I haven’t already written in my blog at some point. I don’t muchly care either if anyone ‘discovers’ I’ve indulged in ‘cyber sex’ in Second Life at some point in the past six years – I’m open to discussing that with anyone and everyone – I mention it here, because I happened to mention it in passing once to my bully, and I’d hate to think they might feel that was a useful weapon against me, because it’s not. You’d be hard-pushed to find someone who hadn’t indulged in a bit of ‘cyber sex’ in Second Life at some point in the past six years. At one point it was the only thing to do (apart from gambling), and almost part of the Terms of Service – and even if you haven’t, I’m betting you’ve had a ‘saucy’ conversation with a partner at some point when you’ve been away – perhaps on Messenger or elsewhere? I never had one of those with my bully – I include it here to remind you all that these things can be quite normal and are no reason to succumb to blackmail. The rest is simply chat – the kind you have with someone you consider (however erroneously) a friend.
When my blackmailer ordered me to get on the phone and apologise, I decided to take matters into my own hands and that’s when I went to a lawyer and committed everything to his safekeeping. The tone of the blackmail email was extremely disturbing, threatening. An email full of ‘you will’… threats and orders. Not an email from someone who believes (as they have stated in so much of the correspondence) that they made a mistake in their understanding of our friendship. No, this was an email of violence and extortion – and frankly, it scared the living daylights out of me. I’ve re-read every single communication I’ve had this with person and I’m fine with it all. I never led them on, I never promised anything and I never went back on that promise. The rest, as they have so clearly admitted time and time again in the barrage of emails, was imagined or ‘interpreted’. I’m sorry they thought that was reality, but it wasn’t – and I never said it was. Not once.
And so here is where I’m at with all this. I’m shocked, I’m disturbed… to be honest I’m a little bit afraid. How far do people who do this kind of thing go? What will they do to get what they believe is theirs, or what they believe they deserve? And, perhaps more than anything, I’m completely abhorred that someone would treat another human being the way I have been treated recently. I’m saddened that people feel they can trample over other people, saddened that they would violate the normal rules of human communication and respect. I’m finding it hard to put into words exactly how I feel, but perhaps you’re getting the idea by now?
My blackmailer is free to do whatever they like, of course, within the bounds of the legal system and their own moral code. Before they do that, however, I would urge them to re-read the emails they’ve sent me over the past months – the threats, the apologies, the recognition of their misinterpretation of the nature of our friendship, the blackmail threats and the rest. To stick them all in order and read them as they will look to an outsider – then decide how the police, their employer and anyone else will interpret them. How will the six emails in a day look – half of them sweetness and light, half of them threatening and full of menace? What will that say to people?
If they do decide to break the sanctity of private conversation then they may get a short-lived buzz, but the long-term result will almost certainly be that nobody will have anything to do with them anymore, and nobody will certainly ever trust them again. Conversations may well be reduced to work or factual statements, if there are any at all. Perhaps there will be no more acquaintances and no more friends, either online or off. At conferences and events people almost certainly won’t want to be in their company, and they certainly won’t want to be talking when they’re near, just in case. They’ll potentialyl be reducing themself to a social pariah, shunned at every opportunity. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy, but sometimes you simply can’t reason with people..
That may not be important to them – this is what they’ve told me, and I have to believe them. I also have to believe, then, that they will do anything to legitimise their illegal and threatening behaviour over the past few months, so I’m forewarned, and so is my lawyer. The evidence I have gathered will find its way to everyone I know and everyone they know. The blackmail confirmation email and all the threats and the vile rumours will find their way to the police, and the entire dossier with its disgusting contents will find its way to their employer. The same will happen should I succumb to the much desired heart attack and fatal cancer that is wished upon me from a distance. I won’t be bullied not even when I’m dead…
My friendships and reputation will survive anything that can be thrown at them (real or invented) – the big question is, will theirs? Will their job survive when it’s discovered that they’re being investigated for potential stalking, admitted blackmail and unsavoury emails about my dying in agony, and defamation of a family member? Will they be able to live with themself after that? I know I will, and so will my circle of friends. How much do they want the ‘revenge’ they seek against someone who has consistently simply told them that they did not want further involvement aside from professional courtesy?
And of course, if this person does go ahead and posts some of this ‘private communication’ and by any chance you feature in any of it, needless to say I’d take it with a pinch of salt if I were you – because I suspect a large part of it definitely won’t be worth the paper it was never written on (eletronic or otherwise). It may be pointless to reiterate, but someone who wishes you a long and painful death from cancer, someone who blackmails you and insults your family and someone who defames your professional reputation is probably not the best person to trust. Those of you who know me, have met me or have worked with me will know that. Anybody else, well, I’m afraid I can’t really help you decide what is right and what is wrong – you’ll just have to use your common sense and your best guess at who you’d rather trust. That’s the best I can do, I’m afraid. This is an adult world, and we must all accept our responsiblities and work out the rules of polite social behaviour.
Either way, I ask of them simply one thing: to stop contacting me, stop digging away at me in public spaces online, stop digging away at my friends, and stop spreading their vile distortion of reality to people they meet. I urge them to find a new hobby and simply enjoy life, their job and the friends they have. Is it worth wasting so much time and effort over someone they have said, in writing, they would rather see dead or dying in agony? Life is too short – I hope they move on, enjoy the positive and simply throw the negative away, because inevitably the negative will become like the cancer they wish upon me, and ultimately, it will destroy them.
And, if you, dear reader, are still reading this far down… Life has changed… we interact with many hundreds of people online who we don’t really know. Sometimes we take that conversation private – perhaps in DMs and perhaps into Skype chat or more. The big question is, do we know who we’re talking to? Do we feel confident that what we share with that person is going to go no further? In short, is that person really a friend, or merely an online acquaintance? Would we tell the same things to the person on the supermarket checkout, and – if we did – would we then regret it? Gossip has always existed, of course, but now we share our lives and our thoughts so much more easily than ten years ago.
Perhaps you’re in a similar situation to me? Perhaps someone is bullying you? Perhaps you’re wondering if you should accept the next friend request… Do we all really need to live this way? Somehow, I suspect we don’t – I’ve taken the first step here, perhaps you’d care to join me in condemning every single bully, online or off? Perhaps you’d like to see a better world, where people don’t do this kind of thing because they think they can get away with it. I know I would. I’ve had fifteen years online with a whole host of amazing people, and I’d hate to think that one person could make that trust crumble, could tear down the fabric of pretty much all the good I see in technology for people and for professional development. Perhaps some rest will bring some clarity – I’d just hate to think the world is like this, generally.
You’ll notice I’ve been very careful in this post not to name names, or even to give a hint of who that person may be. I’ve shared a few necessary bits of information to set the scene and give you enough background to understand what’s happening to me, but I’ve been careful not to break the vow I make to anyone I interact with online: and that vow is simple – if we communicate privately, by email or by DM, then those conversations are private and will remain so to my grave.
If only everyone else appreciated the human dignity of that (not to mention the legality of breaking it) then life would be a much simpler place. I’m going to finish here, but just to recap, I’d like to reiterate that nobody (regardless of age, status, etc.) deserves to be bullied or blackmailed online. You don’t have to take it lying down, and you don’t have to suffer it in silence. I’m outing myself here as a victim of that (still, mercifully, heart attack and cancer free) situation. I will not take this lying down any longer.
And as for my current legal situation, I repeat:
I am simply calling for my bully to stop contacting me by any and all means (email, Twitter, phone, etc.), stop digging away at me in public fora, stop mentioning me on Twitter, etc. and move on with their life without any involvement (direct or indirect) with me. If this does not happen within the next calendar week, if either my private or professional life continue to be dragged through the mud online or in face-to-face situations, if any of my private communications are shared online then I will instruct my lawyer to put into action the steps needed to launch a criminal investigation into online harassment, blackmail, coercion and threats to my wellbeing, as well as the insults to another member of my family. I will push for a full investigation and for bans on any and all social networks, perhaps even limits on Internet access to ensure the future safety of others (my lawyer assures me that this is well within the bounds of legitimate requests from a victim who fears violence – either physical, or mental – online or off), and I will ask for every stone to be turned over, for everyone who has been a victim to come forward and speak up, for once and for all.
The real positive here is that I am guilty of nothing more than conversing with someone I called a friend – whereas the ‘friend’ has crossed the line into criminal behaviour. And that’s how you sort out bullies – not by ignoring them, but by letting them hang themselves and then taking the evidence to the people who can do something about it.
I don’t expect anyone to actually comment on this story because it’s a difficult one to comment on, particularly when it’s a man writing (because this sort of thing doesn’t happen to men, right?) – but you may, if you have something to say, because frankly I’d love to know I’m not alone in this. I mean, I know I’m not because people talk to me online, lots of people. I know other victims, I just don’t know anyone who’s written about this in such open and frank terms.
I will not get into any discussion whatsoever with anyone as to the identity of my blackmailer, and won’t tolerate any speculation on this page (or in any other form of communication) as to who it might be. Despite all that has happened, I believe that they deserve the right to remain anonymous within my online community and my online life and within the community that we share. This anonymity disappears, however, the moment I decide enough is enough (i.e. one week from today if I spot any more of the same behaviour online, or any other ocurrences are referred back to me by my friends and colleagues) and hand everything over to the police. The same applies if I hear that somebody else I know is suffering anything like the same treatment from the individual in question. In perpetuity. That’s my final offer.
If you DO have a story to share, please do so in a civilised and thoughtful manner, with no names and no ‘clues’ and nothing that could identify any of the people involved (apart from yourself, obviously). Tell your story so that we can all learn from it, but please keep it legal, moral and ethical if you do. I will, for this post only, be moderating comments on this blog – I apologise for that, but I believe it’s necessary. Hopefully normal service will be resumed soon and I’ll be back to my usual annoying posts about luddites and all the rest. I do so look forward to that day after the past few months – and especially after the past week or so.
And to everyone else on Twitter, this blog and in my circle of friends – thanks for all the good times, which far outweigh this one bad period in my life.