Nicki Minaj's Barbz have quite the reputation online: They are not a stan group you want to cross, as YouTuber Kimberly Nicole Foster discovered firsthand recently. “Nicki is so clearly a horrible person,” Foster tweeted earlier this month. “Negativity sticks to her like glue. Idk if we've seen this before.” The tweet exploded with over 20,000 likes and 2,000 retweets. In the days that followed, Foster said she received an overwhelming number of threats from Minaj’s fans—so bad that the 33-year-old plans to file a lawsuit for online harassment against some of her detractors. “The messages became more threatening and dark, and then it started to be, ‘We’re gonna find you. I’m gonna kidnap you, I hope you get raped,’” Foster told The Daily Beast.
But can you actually sue anonymous fan pages for harassing you online? There are two main categories of harassment, legally speaking. Criminal harassment is when someone threatens someone else with a crime (rape, murder, etc.), and in those cases, it’s up to police departments and the state to press charges—or not. To that end, Foster said that she turned over screenshots to police and even reported the threats to the FBI—and because stalking is a federal crime that has evolved because of the internet, credible online threats can be punishable by jail for up to five years.
And then there’s civil harassment, where a victim can sue for damages when the harassment is discriminatory—such as if someone repeatedly threatened Foster because she was Black, or a woman. “First, we have to discuss whether online harassment is even actionable,” said Daniel Powell, a managing attorney at Minc Law, a firm that specializes in online harassment and defamation. According to Powell, if an attack is neither criminal nor discriminatory, that speech is ultimately protected by the First Amendment—including the identity of who said it.
“Whenever you unmask someone who is using a pseudonym online, you are intruding upon their anonymity of speech.” —Daniel Powell
Just last month, a court ruling in a copyright case on Twitter upheld the right to be anonymous online. “Whenever you unmask someone who is using a pseudonym online, you are intruding upon their anonymity of speech,” Powell said, referencing the First Amendment. Though Foster told The Daily Beast she plans to gather phone numbers, profile names, and IP addresses as evidence, sites like Twitter won’t release an account’s IP address without a subpoena. To get that subpoena—which she’d need to unmask the Barbz in question in order to sue them—Foster would have to make a specific accusation of discrimination. That’s not necessarily what Foster is alleging, though.
I asked Powell whether Foster might have more luck showing a pattern of online harassment. In 2018, Wanna Thompson was met with similar wrath after tweeting critically about Nicki Minaj—if the same stans attacked both Thompson and Foster, might it help Foster’s case? Powell said that’s a matter of character versus habit: “You can’t say someone is guilty of speeding now because they were caught speeding two years ago. But habitual behavior would be admissible.”
Where does Minaj fit into all of this? Foster said she wasn’t planning on suing the rapper, and it doesn’t sound like she’d have much of a case if she tried. Back in 2018, Minaj did send Thompson a disparaging DM, and her account liked tweets that attacked Foster. As to whether this might be seen as a further sort of provocation, Powell said, “Nicki Minaj could easily argue that a like constitutes nothing other than her opinion, which is protected.” So: Most likely not.
For Foster, the odds of winning a harassment suit against the Barbz aren’t clear. But even if she simply manages to file a suit, it might set a moral standard that not every person is willing to take harassment lying down.
Kristin Corry is a senior staff writer at VICE.