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CYBER BULLYING: Is a bully behind a keyboard worse than those in the real world?
In 2012, I was on maternity leave. My tiny daughter was born on a boiling hot January day.
A month later, amid the endless patting, rocking and all-night feeding of a precious newborn, I became the subject of an orchestrated online hate campaign.
I had learned that two men I had previously interviewed for a series on ABC Local radio – Mark Newton and Peter Truong – were being investigated by the United States Postal Inspection Service and the Queensland Police as possible members of an international pedophile ring.
I hoped it wasn’t true but thought it probably was.
Now, we know the full horror of those crimes. And let me say right from the outset that the real victim here isn’t me or my family. It’s Boy 1, the child who was abused by these men from the time he was just two weeks old.
Even now, I think about him often. The only people he ever knew as parents are criminals who are now in jail. How will his life turn out?
By June, Newton was sentenced to forty years in a US prison for conspiring to sexually exploit a child, Boy 1, and also for conspiring to possess child pornography.
And that’s when the online hate campaign against me really started. I immediately started to get scores of hateful Tweets, mostly from people in the United States calling themselves conservatives.
One particular man, who I will not gratify by naming him publicly, really had it in for me. He incited his thousands of followers to “shame her, shame her”.
They followed his lead and a torrent of abusive and demeaning Tweets rolled in day and night. They were quickly followed by a number of revolting blog posts.
I was labelled a pedophile lover and enabler, “incompetent,” a “dimwit” and a propagandist for the gay rights movement.
Although all of that was hurtful, journalists have a thick skin. To an extent, I could throw it off.
It got worse though. There were two really frightening moments.
The first was when I read a Tweet that said “Your life is over”. At that point, my husband went back to my Twitter feed and realised I had Location Services turned on and you could just about pinpoint our house on Google Maps.
That night, we both lay awake in bed wondering if our children were in danger. After some frantic internet searching, my husband worked out that there is a way to strip the geo-location data off all your Tweets retrospectively.
The second frightening moment was when we found a photo of our family on what-I-can-only-describe-as a “fascist” website. In the photo, I’m heavily pregnant with our second child and my older daughter, who was two at the time, is sitting on my husband’s shoulders.
The picture was obviously taken from Facebook. The website called me a “bitch” and also derided the way I look. Again, because this is a Nazi hate website and my mother’s family is Jewish, I wondered if my two little girls were in danger.
It was a sickening feeling.
All that happened three years ago and things look different from a distance. Over time, curiosity took hold and I started to do some research into my oppressors.
Who were these trolls? What did they want?
Firstly, I realised that most trolls are not normal people at all. They are sadists, narcissists and psychopaths. Somehow, it helped to know this. (By the way, I did say MOST, not ALL.)
I tracked down a couple of vicious online trolls and gladly spent a long time talking to them. One guy, let’s call him Mark, told me he’d say absolutely anything to get a reaction. Mark didn’t care how the person felt. He was just looking for their “weakest point”.
To me, that was a revelation. All that hate, seemingly directed at me, wasn’t personal. It was just a search for the weakest point.
Secondly, so many women (and a few men) have been trolled or “doxxed” to a much greater extreme than my experience. My fear seems to pale in comparison. For example, if you don’t know about it already, check out the so-called Gamergate controversy.
And thirdly, all of us with an online life need to be smarter about it. We need to educate ourselves about online privacy and cyberbullying. What practical and mental tools will we be able to use if it happens to us?
Occasionally, the Newton-Truong story gets mentioned in the media again. And, again, I get trolled on social media. It’s not pleasant but, when it happens, I simply block the troll and get on with my day.
I’ve got some way to go on this learning journey but I’ve certainly taken the first steps.
Feature image of cyber bullying keyboard courtesy of Shutterstock.
As first published on ABC Open Drum by Ginger Gorman.