Wednesday, May 28, 2014

How I defeated my internet troll

Last week, I was mentioned in The New Indian Express newspaper, regarding the online harassment I received in the Fall. The article spoke about the kinds of different internet abuse that is faced by women globally for merely having an online presence; and how there is no legal system equipped to deal with such offenses.

I am a survivor of online abuse and I would like to share my experiences and hopefully give support and strength for those who are currently facing it.

I decided to start writing my blog in the Fall of 2012 as a means of expressing myself. I was a busy mum, quite isolated in babyland, going through our intercultural journey, and I wanted to put myself out there and see (if just maybe) there were others that could relate to our situation. I never expected my blog to get a big reader base or to get daily emails from girls all over the world needing help with their Indian boyfriends and inlaws. I didn't even know if there were other people like us...

Fast-forward a year into writing my blog, and my blog reader base had tripled in size and all my favorite bloggers who I had idolized for years were reading my blog. It was a dream come true. And I found so many other couples like us.

Then, in the midst of my growing popularity, the threats started...

It happened once at first, and I was a little disturbed but wrote it off. Then, last September, it started hard. I was getting harassed up for 4 times a day and it continued on like that for 4 months. Nasty, vile messages filled with hate for myself and my daughter, and at the end of every message there would be a link to a fake profile set up in my name with public photo albums of all my pictures stolen from my blog, defaced, with beef chop symbols all over it and branded with the word "slut" or "die bitch".

(An example of the fake profile that was set up in my name, with all my pictures degraded)

Being attacked so many times per day and having to report each one of these to different sites made it feel like a full-time job that I didn't even sign up for in the first place. I already had my hands full with my blog, being a full-time mother, my family life, and work.

Many of the sites I reported it to - for example Facebook has a "report button" to report abuse and harassment - rarely was taken down. It's all "freedom of speech", including when it is sending death threats to women and children, apparently. 

(My pictures defaced)

At first, I was determined to make it stop. To report each and every picture and profile. I asked my friends to report it too. But then, the attacks worsened. The troll could see how many picture views they were getting and literally "got off" on it and the attention they were getting.

I went to the police and I told them I was being harassed. The woman said, "You DEFINITELY have to report it." I was referred to a male officer, and when I explained the situation, he said, "Well, what exactly do you expect us to do?" I was a little shocked. Apparently, you definitely have to report harassment, except when it's online, of course. And then the police officer said, "Well that's what happens when you put your pictures online." Victim blaming at it's finest! Basically the online equivalent to "if you wear a short skirt, you may be raped".


(One of the many messages)


(The troll was pissed that I refer to my hubby affectionately as 'husband-ji'!)


I realized then that it was up to me to figure out how to deal with it. Evidently, not taking death threats "personally" is easier said than done. I was getting exhausted by being abused online and it was really taking it's toll on me. I was scared and frightened that the person would somehow find me in real life. I was scared when I went for a stroll with my daughter, when I went into parking lots, when I left work late, if someone stared at me too hard. I was scared when I looked out my window of my apartment. I bolted my door at night and put my stroller in front of it so I could hear if an intruder were to come in. I couldn't sleep. I woke up to death threats and went to bed with the death threats. I stopped answering my phone because I thought the harasser would somehow find me. 

 I asked husband-ji for advice. I said, "What do I do? Does this mean I should stop writing?" He was silent for a minute. Then he said, "No. That's exactly what you cannot do. They are trying to make you feel scared and hide. So do NOT hide. Keep writing." In that moment, he was my savior...

When I told my MIL, she was completely scared and freaked out. She is very superstitious and believes in the power of drishti (evil eye) and that it can actually cause bad things to happen. She told me not to put any pictures online and "only write about lighthearted topics like recipes". So, I tried that - I wrote my first Indian recipe post which was my famous Kheer recipe that everyone loved. I still got the threats with that recipe, and along with that, the troll said my Kheer "looked like white slut vomit" and that my "whole Indian family hates you and lied to you that they liked it, you stupid bitch". So I couldn't even write a recipe post without getting this kind of abuse.

So, there were two options for me - either STOP writing and hide/live in fear or KEEP writing and stand tall. I chose the latter. I think I chose to be fearless just because I did not want to be controlled by someone else. And also, every message of support and thanking me for help made me feel that I was doing something really worthwhile. That by sharing my story, I helped others in similar situations. Not to mention, it was a way of healing myself.

In the Fall, I got Bacterial Meningitis and was hospitalized, abandoning my blog for 10 days. And in the midst of the harassment, the abuse suddenly stopped. Why? Because I stopped posting; I "went away". It was then that I realized that what husband-ji said was true, and that the harasser literally wanted to shut down my blog. That was the end goal of this troll. And I sure as hell was not going to give them the satisfaction of that.

After I got out of the hospital, I continued writing and subsequently was harassed with every single post. Writing during that time was very healing for me. It helped me get my thoughts together and it also helped my brain recover quicker from meningitis. Coming out of meningitis and surviving, I realized that this troll's words could not and would never hurt me. That all their threats were baseless. I had already survived Meningitis - this troll was NOTHING compared to that.


(After I got out of the hospital, I received this message)

(Wishing my daughter dead after she was sick)


One of the tips people tell you when dealing with internet trolls is to "ignore" because apparently internet trolls "feed on attention". However, I was getting tired of dealing with it by myself, silently. A common trait of an abuser is that they want to isolate you. Nobody knew that I was being harassed so badly, as I deleted all the messages. Online abuse is an invisible form of terrorism that many people do not know about. I decided to reach out to some other bloggers and discovered that a bunch of them were getting harassed in the exact same way, just as badly. So, I decided to go against the advice and write about the harassment I was facing WHILE it was going on. And I got such a great response - I raised awareness, and I heard from a bunch of other women who were previously/currently going through the same thing.

Sometime during this process, I stopped reading the nasty messages. As soon as it said a profanity, I immediately stopped reading it, took a quick screenshot for my records, and deleted it. I didn't let it get to me and I somehow developed really thick skin (which was basically the only positive thing that came out of that experience!)

Then, I stopped getting harassed after New Years, and it stopped as suddenly as it began. Life returned back to normal, and it seemed calmer now that I didn't have to be receiving messages of cutting me up into pieces. The troll grew tired of me and was defeated. The troll realized that I was NOT going to shut myself down and hide. The troll gave up.

But that was just ONE troll, out of many...

Having been through online harassment and struggling to find a place to report it - I can unfortunately tell you that there is no protection for women online. People can legally leave a trail of death threats and harassing messages, and there is nobody to monitor them or shut them down. Not even when it involves threatening a minor child. Women and children are always the targets of these deranged people. Not to mention, the countless teenagers who commit suicide every year over severe online harassment.


So, what can you do? You can SURVIVE...

DO NOT hide. DO NOT live in fear. The goal of these trolls is to stop you from living your life - it is all about control through humiliation. Don't let them control the way you live your life.

Keep documentation. Keep screenshots with dates and times of all the harassment, throw it into a file (without looking at it) and save it for later. You never know when you'll need it.

Internet trolls have very predictable patterns. They often use the same IP addresses and they often attack at certain times of the day. These timings can tell you a lot about your troll - for example, if they attack at 3pm Eastern time - that's after school time. And the more frequently they attack you - the more lazy they get in covering up their tracks.

TRY to report it to authorities. Go to your local police. If you're in the U.S.A, you can report it to the FBI's cyber crimes unit. If your pictures are being stolen and defaced, contact DCMA.

DO NOT stay silent. Tell your friends and family about what you're going through. Reach out to other bloggers and online communities for support. The goal of internet abusers is to ISOLATE you. You never know if one of your friends could know somebody who could help. And you never know if somebody has gone through a similar situation.

And above all - keep doing what you're doing. If you're a writer or a journalist - chances are the reason why you're getting targeted is because you're somehow threatening to them. There are always going to be haters. Stand tall and be fearless in your form of personal expression.


That's my two cents of what I've learned from overcoming online harassment. I hope it can help some of you who are dealing with it right now. And always remember - you are NOT alone!!!

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Dear readers, have you ever been a victim of online harassment? What tips can we give to other people who are going through it? Please share your experiences.

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33 comments

  1. Wow Alex! You endured so much, thank you for sharing the steps to report. I know when I was attacked by one of the people that attacked you I felt scared, confused and horrified. Your article gives a great path for victims to follow. Thank you

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    1. Girl, you and I are united through that, I know you can relate! Although I do wish that there was more ways to report it. This morning I have just read that the creator of #yesallwomen has gotten death threats. It's like, when will it stop??

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  2. Oh god Alex - this is horrendous. The vile misogynistic trash in there made me queasy. I don't know what I'd do if I were in your shoes.

    Thank you for writing this.

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    1. Thanks. It was a lot to deal with but I found my strength during that time. So glad it is not happening anymore. Sometimes people just get obsessed, and obsessions always fade.

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  3. I've not had it as bad as you in terms of a single stalker, but over the years, I've got hundreds of death threats from random people. Somehow, I think it would have been worse if I was a woman. I'm not sure why...maybe I would have felt more vulnerable.

    My wife thinks I'm crazy and has more than once told me she's terrified something will happen to me one day. There have been individuals sending me private mails telling me they know where I live and are coming to kill me. I occasionally post these messages publicly and mock them, daring them to do their worst.

    At some level, I hate bullies and I'll be damned if I'm going to stop doing what I'm doing because some random Internet hero strings together a few words on a computer screen. That's a lot of "bang for the buck" and I'm NEVER going to give in to that.

    However, I HAVE taken basic precautions so that no one can find out where I live. I regularly scan the web to see if my specific details beyond my city are known. I've even chosen to be anonymous on the web host level. I remember some hindu fanatic type once tried to find out where I lived and when he couldn't he got frustrated and asked me why I obfuscated it. It's precisely for these kind of chaps!

    A few months ago, my post on tipping went viral. I have almost 8,000 comments on it now. I don't know, this may sound weird, but I actually like getting insulted and abused by crazy people. It means I'm doing something right!

    I somethings think it's my job to piss the right people off. The losers who think they can shut us up are in for a big surprise if you just laugh at them and open up their comments for public mockery. I've done it before and I will sure do it again. Just thinking of how they want me to shut up makes my blood boil.

    Anyway, here's a tip. Block them by IP instead of by screen name or email ID (at least on your own blog). I do this regularly with trolls who try and change their credentials. I personally use a reverse proxy so I just snip out their IP addresses - poof! No more comments from that guy!

    Stay strong. These assholes thrive on shame and fear. They're Internet heroes, nothing more. Please put up their posts so we can all laugh at them together.

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    1. That is a good idea - you can never be too careful. I really believe though that these freaks will never do anything, they are just pumping up their chest behind their computer screens.
      That is so cool that your post went viral - every blogger's dream!
      Can you block IP's on a Blogger platform?
      I can totally relate with how you feel regarding adding fuel to the fire. During my harassment, I felt more determined to keep doing what I was doing. I'm at the point in my life where I'm not going to be controlled and just don't care what others think.

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  4. Just one other thing - I don't know whether this is specific to me, or if it can be developed, but as a blogger, I have a very thick skin. As in...armor..nothing gets through. Sticks and stones and so on and so forth.

    If words are bullets, my skin is a force field. Rain off a buffalo's back. I could go on with the analogies!

    My wife sometimes gets queasy just reading my incoming mail or some of the comments. I kid you not, but I feed off it. It really makes my day when someone rants off against me. I mean...it's better than coffee in the morning. If it's at night, I get all warm and fuzzy and fall asleep with a smile on my lips if I get a particularly juicy comment.

    Actually now that I'm writing this and saying it out loud, I think I might be a teensy weensy bit messed up :D

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    1. Sometimes though when you read the harassing comments, you just have to laugh! Like once you develop that thick skin, sometimes the comments are just too hilarious. I loved joking about it with the other bloggers who were getting targeted. Like our troll would always comment at 12pm, 3pm or midnight, and we were like making fun that during the lunch hour time, maybe the troll wouldn't be such a lunatic if they had a bite to eat LOL.
      Sometimes dealing with it with humour is the only thing you can do!

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  5. A Victim of Harassment and BeyondMay 28, 2014 at 2:21 PM

    I have only been harassed online through facebook/linked-in and also through text after ending communication with people who have raped or abused me, so I don't know what it feels like to have total randos threatening me, but I do know what it is like to feel scared of bad people.

    I have felt scared in my own home and on my own street because some of my attackers actually do know where I live. I tried to report one of my attackers to the police and the officer basically laughed in my face and then told a third party (mutual friend of me and my attacker) that I had a crush on him and that I hadn't been sexually assaulted.

    I gave up reporting after that, because I couldn't take another person of authority bringing me down like that. I still feel scared sometimes and I feel guilty for not reporting these people because they could be out, right now, attacking again. Unfortunately, the real reason I haven't gone through the reporting system is that I don't feel like I have enough support from family, friends, therapists, and significant others (some of whom have used the "short skirts are asking for rape" thing with me) to get through the emotional trauma of going to court. Victim-blaming runs pretty deep, especially when you yourself are also suffering from a mental-illness, like myself.

    If you were wondering:
    Any sexual activity that isn't preceded by a firm "yes" by all parties is considered non-consensual. In my case, this means more than half of my sexual experiences have fallen under the sexual violence category in some way or form.

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    1. I am so sorry that you have had to go through that. The police are really a joke, they are misogynists themselves. I recently saw a "What would you do?" episode where a girl was getting taken advantage of in a bar and the police officers there were egging the man on. I feel that there would be more law and order if there were more women police officers, but then I'm sure they also get harassed.

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  6. Thank you for sharing this story! I wish there was more that could be done about this, especially in light of the shootings this past weekend in Santa Barbara. Shouldn't threats like this be taken just as seriously as threats in person? Did you hear about the girl that made a joke about a terrorist attack on a plane on Twitter and the authorities took it seriously and went after her. It makes me sad that the authorities seem so reluctant to do anything about this, because in most cases, it would be very easy to track down the troll not matter how anonymous they think they are! Hang in there, you have a huge community of people who support you!

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    1. The Santa Barbara shootings really sent chills down my spine. I read how the killer's mother had found his videos and called the police, and the police came and said he seemed perfectly normal. And then look what happened...
      It's disturbing how people can leave a trail of death threats online and nobody takes it seriously. I feel that there should be dedicated online task forces in every police department.

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  7. Gosh, you are a strong woman! Internet stalking is my biggest fear, and you went thru hell out there. I'm glad you managed to come out stronger and bolder, and you inspire me. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thank you so much. I wanted to write this to shed light on the problem. It was very hard for me to deal with but there is power in telling one's own difficult stories.

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  8. I have not faced any online harassment till now but yes know and feel what harassment feels like, its like you don't have any identity other than being a piece of flesh, you are not human you don't feel pain, you are victimized just because you dared to get out to pursue your studies or career, the same is the situation over here. Changing the route of transportation never helps as you get new stalkers, molesters, gropers similarly stopping what you do will not help just being persistently adamant and focusing into what you do helps really helps.

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    1. They just do not have any boundaries nor consequences. I feel if people had consequences they would think twice before harassing.

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  9. I have gotten rape threats online for, among other things, stating my taste in music openly. HOW DARE I. I am glad you kept on writing despite getting these kinds of messages from trolls. I tend to believe that if everyone likes you, you're doing something wrong. Having haters is a good thing! And honestly, their hate says a lot more about them than it does about you.

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    1. That is so crazy - over music!!!!!

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  10. Alexandra, your stamina and fortitude in the face of such harrassment and threats is amazing! Don't ever stop blogging- what you write touches lives.

    Raina.

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  11. What a cool blog, in fact, what a cool you! I don’t think I have ever come across someone who has embraced a culture so different, so snugly and lived to blog about it. Do you know who Chris Hadfield is? He is the Canadian astronaut guy that everyone loves, including my wife and myself. If you read his book you will find that he was always meant to be an astronaut, one of the most, most competitive professions in the world. His focus, determination and absolute devotion to his calling is what got him there. Now most of us will never be like that, I doubt we would want to be like that but if we can apply even a little of his tao into our lives, it would make all the difference in the world. I guess what I am trying to say is that you’re the Chris Hadfield of intercultural relationships. Or maybe he is the Alexandra of astronauting. In any case, it’s good that you do what you do and I am glad I came across your blog. Damn the trolls. Full speed ahead!

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    1. Hahaha thank you so much, wow! This made my day!
      Also nice to have another local YVR reader!

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  12. Stand tall, girl! :)

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    1. Thanks! Standing six feet tall! ;)

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  13. I'm glad you stood up for yourself and I'm glad that b*tch is gone. I feel the same as you. No one has the right to take our lives away or terrorize us like this. I had to deal with a real life threat a while back that has taken me almost 2 years to put an end to but I've fought for myself and in the end the truth pays off. I just refused to have him take my life from me a second time. It's thickened my skin as well and we need that as bloggers and as women. :)

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    1. I totally agree. The only way we can take the power back is to fight back and not tolerate it.

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  14. Alexandraa!!! I had the same troll, they used to put beef, sl*t and Nazi symbols all over my photos... I got most upset when they were photos of my husband :(.

    I cannot believe that the police officer was so dismissive. I cannot wait for the day when the law catches up with the internet!! I really hope it is soon!!

    I can only thank you for showing this troll who is boss, I was new on the 'scene' when this started for me and it was close to the end for you. If it wasn't for you, I would have had to suffer more abuse.

    I haven't had a troll since this one (thank God), maybe because any comment I get on my blog with a swear word or racist words goes straight to spam (I found that I could blacklist words) which means if I do have a troll, I am not aware of it!! haha.

    I admire your approach so much, your confidence and the fact you kept writing!!!

    I hope you guys are well! Lots of love xxx

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    1. God, this troll hit so many people! Ugh, it was awful but I am glad they stopped and got a real life!
      I am hoping in upcoming years that internet abuse will be taken more seriously. I know there are resources for young teens who are getting bullied, but not yet adults unfortunately.
      I am glad you didn't quit writing :) and I'm so glad I didn't either! Keep calm and carry on, as the Brits say!

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  15. A year late for this post, but I found a good comic to share.
    Meg

    http://www.tickld.com/x/next-time-someone-says-women-arent-victims-of-harassment-show-them

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  16. Thank you for continuing your wonderful work blogging. I am a frequent reader and love the content that you share. You are very strong to face such adversity! Your writing is a great help to others-thank you for all that you do! :-)

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  17. I'm glad you're okay, and still writing! You're a strong and brave woman :) Parts of this post reminded me of my emotionally abusive ex-marriage, no one believes you. Victim blaming takes place and you're left looking crazy or overly emotional when in reality you're reacting perfectly normally to an abnormal amount of bs! As I go through the healing process people have recommended journaling (which I know you've written about) and I may try that out. I used to blog, but now I'm scared to. Not just due to your post, but any form of abuse makes you question your thoughts and self-confidence is crushed so I don't think I'm ready to put myself out there for the world to read about. I admire that you do that!!

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Respectful comments only, please! (That means you, anonymous.)

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