Invaders in My Stream: On Being Cyberstalked

By Monica Torres

The Professional Troll

The summer I turned 25, I was featured in a Breitbart article co-written by the site’s then-editor Milo Yiannopolous. The article itself was laughably bad journalism. I was not contacted for quotes, my college articles were taken out of context, and basic facts about me were wrong (which was not an isolated incident; The Daily Caller later called me “Monica Flores”).

Yiannopolous, who left Breitbart on Tuesday after an interview of him defending pedophilia surfaced online, was once kindly described as a conservative provocateur by mainstream outlets like the Associated Press. He identifies as a “virtuous troll” who is doing “God’s work,” using the protection of free speech to condemn transgender identity as a “psychiatric disorder,” declare his birthday World Patriarchy Day, author “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy”, create the Yiannopolous Privilege Grant, a scholarship to help white men gain “equal footing” with minorities, and to rally his army of followers to harass and humiliate countless people online.

Even now, months later, I find myself using qualifying statements like “not so bad” to minimize the experience because the worst has not yet happened to me. Less than a week after Yiannopolous wrote about my liberal biases, he led a Twitter harassment campaign against comedian Leslie Jones, inciting his followers to barrage her with racist, demeaning, and threatening tweets until Jones quit the platform, saying she was “in a personal hell.” Yiannopolous’ harassment of Jones got him banned on Twitter, but it also cemented his status with the alt-right movement, earned him speaking invitations at college campuses, and led to a reported $250,000 book deal (which was finally cancelled this week, not because 100+ authors had condemned Simon & Schuster for supporting Yiannopolous, not because of his racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic beliefs, but only after the video of him condoning pedophilia had surfaced).

In the aftermath of the article, before I set my Twitter to private, someone with an unknown account reached out to me, saying he wished to rape me. Everything before this had felt like an inconvenient distraction from my time and energy. But in that moment, I felt fear, then a hot flush of shame for letting a tweet scare me.

My employer told me the tweets weren’t a credible threat, but I documented them anyway, putting that tweet along with all the article’s comments that wished me harm, in a folder on my computer entitled EVIDENCE. I was told to remove my email address from my website and LinkedIn, and told to take any mention of clients I worked with off of my social accounts. ‘A way to avoid stalkers or an abdication of my employer’s responsibility to protect me?’ I thought mutinously, as I nodded and did what I was told. I changed every password and added two-step authentication and security questions to my bank accounts, Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Instagram and Tumblr. Friends and colleagues told me over and over that what happened wasn’t my fault, but I still felt like these protections for my safety were punishing me for existing online. As a digital journalist who relies on these social networks for job prospects, making my accounts private hurts my career.

“Don’t worry, we’re keeping an eye on the deep web for any credible threats against you,” I was told. Worried by the lack of structured advice I was receiving from employed security experts, I reached out to my friend Patrick Hogan who had lived through the worst. He gave me step-by-step advice.

Exhibit A.
Document everything. Screenshot tweets, archive e-mails, record phone calls. Anything you receive relating to this needs to become a permanent record. Be sure to note any relevant details like the time you received something or the incoming phone number for a call.

Any time you can report something, do it. I know this isn’t always the most effective, but even if Twitter says no rules are being broken and won’t do anything, that’s ammunition for you.

Escalate this to your employer. I don’t know the contracting situation over there, but you are being harassed because of your job. Your employer has both an interest and a responsibility.

If at any point you feel like your safety is threatened, go to the police. Even just getting it on the record that you filed a report can be helpful.

So I did that.

In “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” Amanda Hess writes what I consider the best and most comprehensive analysis of why the online abuse of women goes unchecked. In her story, Hess recounts how an anonymous user with the handle HeadlessFemalePig set up a Twitter account with the explicit purpose of threatening to rape her and cut off her head. HeadlessFemalePig said he had done 12 years for manslaughter and he knew Hess and him lived in the same state. He promised Hess he would find her, rape her and kill her. When she went to the police, authorities didn’t know what Twitter was. For Hess, the threats she faced as a journalist who wrote about women were viscerally real, but authorities dismissed the internet as a “fantasyland” where threats weren’t real.

In these cases, when the police declines to investigate the abuse, the burden is placed on the victim to determine what kind of threat is immediate and weigh what you can endure.

Hess’ article was written three years ago, and the outlook for women facing abuse on the internet is still bleak. A 2016 Australian study found that 76% of women under 30 face online harassment, which includes “unwanted contact, trolling, and cyberbullying to sexual harassment and threats of rape and death.” The researchers said that online abuse of women was at risk of becoming “an established norm in our digital society.” There isn’t enough research being done on online harassment against women, but in February, Amnesty International began soliciting stories of this nature. 

When women face violent online threats, they are often told to ignore and endure the threats, lest you “feed the trolls.” But, short of deleting your online presence or putting yourself on a social media lockdown, you cannot opt out from the abuse. When tech platforms ignore violent threats and police decline to file reports on them, the message to women rings loud and clear: you are on your own.



The Personal Toll

That same summer I turned 25, in the midst of my public reckoning, I also faced a private one. I broke up with a man after two months of casual dating, and more than five months later, he is still carrying a one-sided text conversation with me(himself). The texts vary in length, mostly coming after the lonely hour of midnight, but all of them have a possessive familiarity that makes me deeply uncomfortable. As Maureen O’Connor explains in “All My Exes Live in Texts,”exes can jump into your pants whenever they want by sending text messages that land in your pocket.” I feel low-key dread whenever I see his name light up my phone. Immediately after I ended things, I let him air his grievances over the phone and in person, hoping it would give him closure. He has persisted. You’re advised not to contact an ex after a breakup because each time the person doesn’t respond, it will feel like the breakup all over again, a sage Redditor explained. This has not been a deterrent for a man willing to disregard all etiquette if it means he can pursue the fantasy of a relationship.

Exhibit B.
You wasted the last /
sorry for letting my emotions take over /
I miss you like hell /
fired two weeks ago /
at the end of the day we are POC. We need to stick together /
hi. /
Yes, I’m drunk on New Year’s eve but /
I really wish /
like hell /
Hey. Can we please talk? /
Okay let’s not then.

His last text was three weeks ago. At what point does an unwanted, repeated contact become stalking? It varies state to state. Colorado defines a stalker as someone who believes “the victim either returns these feelings of affection or will do so if the stalker is persistent enough.” I’d have to prove that my stalker had “strong, unshakeable and irrational emotional feelings” for me. In Vermont, I need to prove “credible threat.” New York penal law, which defines stalking as “the unwanted pursuit of another person,” says at the very least for a misdemeanor charge, I need to prove: “would a reasonable person have been made fearful, based on history, context, etc.?”

I feel unsettled but not yet unsafe. Right now, I put him in between men who come on too strong and men I can legally call stalkers. Both put me on edge, but the latter is the eventuality I am preparing for. I don’t think he’s sent me his last text. I read Christine Stulik’s account of receiving a harassing email by her stalker every single day, sometimes multiple times a day. After Stulik took an acting class with her stalker, he began to send her banal and flirtatious emails. When she turned him down, he persisted. It was when he showed up to where she worked that Stulik finally took action and sought a temporary restraining order. Like all men who disregard boundaries, he treated her No as Try Harder. In one of his emails to her, he said that he would make her the star of his new play if she dropped the charges. When police finally confronted Stulik’s stalker more than a year after his harassment first started, his reasoning was, “She just never told me ‘No.’”

Exhibit C.
Hearing this made my blood boil. Of course I never explicitly said “No” to him: I never said anything to him. I didn’t reply to a single email, even when I wanted to write down every obscenity I was screaming into the computer screen. I wanted to reply with hurtful, debasing language that made him feel as small as his words made me feel. I wanted to write intelligent, biting attacks that made him realize the futility and stupidity of his endeavor. I wanted to confront him to his face as he sulked around the lobby of my work. I wanted to tell him STOP and NO and FUCK OFF—but I couldn’t allow myself to. Because he had the power, and I couldn’t give him any more of it. In fact, the advice I was given by the domestic violence liaison during one of my many visits to the courthouse was to not reply to anything, because any sign from me would only give him reason to continue contact. He was not to be encouraged.

When you lack structured protections from the state and from online platforms, you must make do with your own. Hess lugs around a physical copy of her expired protection order against her harasser each time she travels to do business in his state. When the order expired, he reached out to her, through comments on her articles, emails and occasional tweets“a little reminder,” Hess writes, “that his ‘game’ is back on.” In what is easily the most chilling account on stalking I’ve read, Helen DeWitt describes how a stalker’s “game” became her worst-case scenario. After DeWitt’s stalker was released five months early into the same town where DeWitt lives, she sleeps with a baseball bat. Her stalker had gotten a plea bargain because DeWitt, who had documented every unwanted interaction, had failed to convince as a damsel in distress in her deposition. The prosecutor said DeWitt’s deposition showed an “absence of fear.” Her stalker had broken into her home with a gun.

Here’s what I tell people I don’t know when they ask what happened to me this summer: I am very lucky. Just fine. Could’ve been worse. No worries. (Would a prosecutor say I’m showing an “absence of fear”?)

I am just one more woman on the internet who has to make contingency plans. I think twice before giving men I meet on the internet my number or my address. Even now, I sometimes wonder if I am blowing this whole thing out of proportion, if his texts were benign, if his tweets were just trolling. But I trust my instincts, and with my EVIDENCE laid bare, I feel exposed. ‘Prepare yourself,’ the part of me that doesn’t have to maintain public pretense urges me. At least one of the unwanted men I have encountered online knows where I live.

When I walk home alone at night, I look behind me and I carry mace.