It was barely 9 AM and "Assholster” was already at it. The anonymous Twitter user who'd been cyberstalking ReWire.News journalist Imani Gandy for years had created yet another Twitter profile to harass her—their third of the morning. Blocking them was useless—every time she tried, a new profile with a similar-looking handle and the same irritatingly passé Grumpy Cat avatar would crop up to rehash the same inane accusations she’d blocked the user for in the first place. She was getting attacks from profiles like these anywhere from 12-15 times a day, and although there’s no way she can be absolutely sure that it was one person, the similar usernames, identical avatars, and consistent language made it obvious to her that the attacks all had one source.
Like any other day during the four years that Assholster cyberstalked Gandy on Twitter between 2012 and 2016, the user began by hurling racial slurs at her. Then, as the day or week would progress, they’d post increasingly bizarre and rambling tweets insisting that she’d made up her pituitary tumor for attention, and that, despite having never written or said anything of the sort, she was pro-pedophilia. Often, the user would tag her friends and employer in these tweets or respond to theirs, remaining omnipresent in Gandy’s online world.
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“It got to the point where I didn’t feel safe online,” Gandy tells Broadly. “I had horrible anxiety. I would try to laugh it off and play cool on Twitter whenever I got into altercations with him or when he'd call me the N-word, but it really affected me.”
Gandy’s friends and Twitter followers urged her to just “get offline,” but that wasn't exactly an option. As a prominent journalist and the creator of the popular blog Angry Black Lady Chronicles, Gandy was a rising public figure whose outspoken stance on racial issues and reproductive justice was earning her a name as an influential advocate for Black women. Removing herself from the public eye because someone was harassing her would mean giving up not only on her career, but the people to whom she gave a voice.
For the many people like Gandy who rely on consistent visibility, public appearances, and continued engagement with the outside world to do their jobs, this battle between visibility and vulnerability is difficult to fight. Because their work requires them to be in the public eye and consciousness, journalists, activists, influencers, and other public figures can be susceptible to attack from stalkers and abusers, whose obsessions are fed by the consistently updated locations, photos, and social media pages their well-known victims are required to maintain.
Rhonda Saunders is an international stalking and threat advisor, author, and prosecutor whose clients range from high-profile celebrities like Steven Spielberg and Madonna to everyday people whose lives have been derailed by stalking. “Stalkers are delusional,” she explains. “Many of them believe they have a relationship with the person they’re stalking. When they see them on Twitter, on YouTube, or even in public at something like a press conference, they tend to believe the victim is speaking directly to them. In many ways, the more visible someone is in these ways, the more it encourages their stalker to act.”
According to Saunders, the majority of stalking victims close themselves off to the outside world, becoming increasingly invisible in their daily lives in order to stay safe. They tend to disappear from social media, stay home from work, and stop visiting the stores, restaurants, and public spaces they used to frequent. Becoming invisible in this way can completely derail their relationships and careers, but it also helps them survive by making it harder for their stalker to find them.
Stalking victims who are public figures don’t always have the same option to hide. Putting themselves out there is —part of their job, even when doing so makes that job more dangerous.
Stalking is a damaging and disruptive form of harassment that's defined by the National Institute of Justice as repeated behavior (on two or more occasions) that would cause a “reasonable person to feel fear.” According to the Stalking Resource Center, stalkers make their victims feel this way through a variety of both in-person and online methods including following them, showing up unannounced at their homes and work, sending unwanted gifts or emails, using GPS and other technology to track them, posting personal information and rumors about them on social media, damaging their property or belongings, and using threats and hate speech that make them feel afraid.
Roughly 7.5 million Americans are subjected to this kind of harassment each year, most of whom are women and most often by an intimate partner or an acquaintance. A smaller number of stalking victims—20 percent—are targeted by a stranger. This is more common with cyberstalking, the form of stalking that takes place online. Because public figures like Gandy have large social media followings, stalkers don’t have to know their victims personally to harass them—they can make them “feel fear” from anywhere with a WiFi connection.
According to cyberstalking expert, risk management consultant, and attorney Alexis Moore, data on the prevalence of cyberstalking is hard to find because few victims report their harassment, and because it’s difficult for researchers and reporting agencies to keep up with the ever-changing websites and social platforms cyberstalkers use to harass their victims. But we do know that stalking and cyberstalking often overlap—one 2014 study found 19 percent of people who have been stalked in person have also experienced cyberstalking. Another 2011 study of 6,379 German participants found that 40 percent of people had experienced online harassment, while 6.3 percent had been cyberstalked in a manner that lasted for more than two weeks and caused significant life disruptions.
Chase Strangio is one of those people.
A prominent ACLU lawyer and trans rights activist who has represented high-profile clients like Chelsea Manning and Gavin Grimm, Strangio knows first-hand what it’s like to have to stay visible while under attack. It’s his duty to be both accessible and vocal—that’s how he reaches the people he’s trying to help and stands up for the causes he supports. He keeps up an active social media presence, regularly interacting with his followers, updating them with news, and calling out instances of hate and oppression.
As is the case for many trans activists, getting harassed on platforms like Facebook and Twitter is a routine occurrence for Strangio. Most of the harassment he faces mocks his existence as a trans person; people send him hateful messages making fun of how he looks, and telling him that trans people are disgusting and should die.
“It’s draining to read hateful messages, especially when you’ve already spent a lot of your life hating yourself and your appearance,” says Strangio. “It can be easy to fall into the trap of wanting to hide from a world that seeks to exploit all the ways we are taught to hate ourselves.”
Attacks intensify whenever Strangio speaks out against white supremacy or the hypocrisy of the Christian right. When this happens, it’s common for stalkers and harassers to target Strangio offline. He often receives threats on his work voicemail and email, and harassers also regularly call his employer and demand he be fired.
After the 2016 Pulse massacre, Strangio posted a series of tweets denouncing Islamophobic responses to the attack and calling out the connection between anti-LGBTQ violence in the United States and hate rhetoric from the Christian right. The response he got from who appeared to be far-right social media users became so intense that he had to shut down his Facebook. After that, Strangio became much more diligent about not sharing his location and information about his child online.
While incidents like these can be traumatic for victims, it can be difficult to take legal action against stalkers and abusers, particularly when the harassment takes place online. One reason is that filling out reports and filing restraining orders can be prohibitively costly and time-consuming for some victims. Another is that both stalking and cyberstalking usually leave no obvious physical evidence behind, and because of that, Moore says they’re rarely taken seriously by the police, even when a victim has a recognizable face or some clout behind their name.
“Without tangible, physical evidence that a crime has been committed—blood; bullet shells; shattered glass—it's difficult and time-consuming for law enforcement to rationalize dedicating attention and manpower to investigating victims' claims,” Moore explains. “They prefer fingerprints; even a dead body—anything that makes the crime more cut-and-dry.”
Serious online harassment has become so commonplace that the effects it can have on a person’s mental health often go overlooked. According to Towson University clinical psychologist and intimate partner violence expert Christina Dardis, people who are cyber-stalked and harassed online tend to have “significant and unique” mental health effects like depression and PTSD.
Instead of giving threats and abuse from people like Assholster much credit, Moore says there’s a tendency by police and some members of the public to see online harassment and cyberstalking as nothing more than a high price tag for being visible online.Though she was feeling extremely stressed and anxious, that’s why Gandy says she never reported what was happening to her to law enforcement. “What was I going to do?” she asks. “Tell the police some guy was being mean to me on Twitter?”
Dardis also notes that our reluctance to acknowledge just how damaging things like cyberstalking can be is related to how much being online has become an integral aspect of social life . Even if we know it’s hurting us to subject ourselves to harassment, we ignore the effects because disconnecting from the social sphere can severely negatively affect our relationships, ability to do our jobs, and capacity to stay connected to the world around us, she says.
"While some self-protection is wise, asking victims to limit their worlds is not a sufficient response to the problem of stalking and cyberstalking alone."
This was especially true for Gandy. “As a journalist, you kind of have to be online,” she says. “Sometimes it’s better to just deal with it than to let it affect your career.”
For many stalking victims, the mental health effects of “just dealing with it” can be nearly as disruptive as the stalking itself. According to Dardis, stalking victims often feel intensely afraid, isolated, and vulnerable. Panic attacks, a loss of appetite, depression, and PTSD are also common effects. Most victims, be they famous or not, experience these effects in some way or another, but Dardis says they tend to intensify in two cases. The first is when victims aren't believed by loved ones and law enforcement. The second is when victims who rely on visibility to do their jobs have to disappear from the public eye.
“A big challenge with help-seeking for cyberstalking more victims who are more socially or digitally visible face is the frequent recommendation they get to delete their social media profiles, and change their phone numbers and emails,” she says. “While this does make some sense as a self-protective strategy, completely altering your online persona is a major life disruption...Deleting your entire social media presence could limit your social connection and support, and low social support is a risk factor for further mental health issues. While some self-protection is wise, asking victims to limit their worlds is not a sufficient response to the problem of stalking and cyberstalking alone, as it burdens victims for their own victimization.”
In some cases, going entirely offline may be absolutely necessary to ensure a stalking victim’s safety, and sometimes, tailoring your social media presence by removing your personal information and not using your real name can act as an important safety measure. In other cases, however, using one’s online presence to build supportive communities both on and offline can be important for maintaining your mental health during an ordeal like stalking.
That’s the path Gandy chose. Rather than heed her friend’s advice about getting off Twitter altogether, she coped by looking for solace in the same base of fans and supporters that were presumably what drew the stalker to her in the first place. “I got through it by finding my community on Twitter,” she says. “I think it’s harder if you don’t have a following, but I’d advise anyone who’s experiencing what I did to try to find a Twitter crew. It’s the Wild West out there. It helps to find your people.”
This article originally appeared on VICE US.