A very sad case was reported recently in which a young mother, Jayne Pearce, committed suicide after being trolled on Facebook over false accusations of trying to smother a child.
This wasn’t simply a case of trolling, however – it was a manipulative prank in which two women hacked into Miss Pearce’s Facebook account and posted a status update stating that she had just tried to smother a baby and needed to be sectioned. One of the women then took a photograph of the status update and sent it to the police, who arrested Miss Pearce on suspicion of attempted murder. She spent three months in prison before the police were able to establish that the story was false. According to her family, the time spent in prison, coupled with the severe trolling she received on social media as a result of the status update, had a profound impact on her life, and although she was eventually cleared and her accusers were arrested, she died from a fatal combination of vodka, cocaine and antidepressants, two days before she was due to testify against the two women in court.
This was essentially a drunken, immature prank which spiraled way out of control – the two women could not possibly have foreseen that their actions would lead to Miss Pearce’s death and in all likelihood never even considered the fact that she may end up spending so long in prison. The fact that all three women had reportedly been drinking together before the fake status update was posted, would suggest they were on friendly terms – though with friends like those, who needs enemies, as the saying goes. Why they didn’t immediately admit to what they had done, once it became clear that the police were taking the claims seriously, is hard to understand – fear of the consequences and a hope that it would all blow over likely played a large part. They have each since been sentenced to ten months in prison for perverting the course of justice.
The judge in the case stated, “Social media has a great deal to answer for. In this case it was a tool to bring down upon the head of an innocent person the wrath of social media by way of public opinion. Your victim was released, but only from custody. She was not released from the consequences of what had happened to her. She became a changed person.”
Social media is a wonderful tool when used to connect people, to share common interests and updates. But the ease with which people are able to use it to stir up trouble for others, is quite alarming.
The Washington Post reports a quite astounding story in which a Virginia man, William Moreno, was driven to attempt suicide after a sustained campaign of trolling, including death threats, false accusations of child rape and eventually swatting. For those who don’t know what swatting is – it stems from the SWAT tactical response team acronym and refers to making false reports which lead to an armed response being sent to the victim’s home. In this case, an online hacker posted a message from the victim’s account on a popular web forum, saying “I JUST SHOT MY PARENTS NOW I WILL KILL MY SISTER”. This resulted in the man’s parents being woken up at 2.30am by a police negotiator and told to get out of the house and leave their son behind. The son was subsequently tackled to the ground as he left the house, though fortunately not seriously harmed.
In another swatting case, an air force veteran was swatted while live-streaming on an online gaming platform called Twitch – to the presumed delight of the perpetrators, and the horror of many others who watched it, he was seen exiting from the room as his mother called out to him to alert him to the police presence, then returning to the screen a few minutes later, visibly shaken and on the verge of tears, to point out that he had just seen police pointing guns at his younger brothers, and that they could have all been killed. Fortunately he was already aware of the practice of swatting, so was quickly able to suggest to the police that he thought he was being swatted, and the police, also aware of the practice, were soon able to verify that the call which had brought them to the house had been a hoax.
Swatting is more common in the United States than elsewhere, though the first reported swatting case in the UK was in August 2015, when the founder of Mumsnet, and another Mumsnet user, were both swatted in two separate incidents a few days apart using calls to police stating that there was a gunman at the women’s properties. The Met police confirmed at the time that such incidents would typically be recorded as “hoax calls” but as argued in the New Statesman, this type of attack is more akin to a form of stalking, a way of tormenting a victim with the knowledge that the perpetrator is able to find out enough personal information about a victim to be able to target them in their own home.
The ease with which offenders can operate anonymously via the internet, makes it incredibly difficult to track down and prosecute these sort of attacks. Not only are they a huge waste of police time, they are also hugely distressing to the victims and their families, and it’s surely only a matter of time before one of these incidents results in serious injury or death. In fact, according to one witness in the William Moreno case, the alleged perpetrator told her he did it “so that Moreno would make a wrong move and would get shot and killed by the police”.
The sophistication of some of the other schemes that people use to frame others is quite astounding. A case was reported recently in which a California woman, Michelle Hadley, spent 88 days in jail accused of posting “rape fantasy” adverts on Craigslist in the name of her ex-boyfriend’s new wife, Angela Diaz, prompting Diaz to be attacked in her own home. Diaz also accused Hadley of sending her threatening email messages including links to “graphic images of decapitated bodies and aborted foetuses”. Hadley was arrested and put on trial, and was facing spending the rest of her life in prison before being exonerated when it was established that Diaz had posted the adverts and sent the emails to herself, as well as staging the attack at her home in an elaborate scheme to set up Hadley, whom she presumably viewed as a threat.
What all of these cases have in common is the serious sociopathy of the perpetrators. These are not crimes which are being committed for financial gain, but instead they are being committed out of malice and in some cases, a twisted sense of humour and a blatant disregard or lack of consideration for the consequences. The extent to which social media and modern technology enable people to share their most hateful thoughts in complete anonymity, and to take bold actions in the knowledge that their tracks can be easily covered, are arming those who would not previously have had the means with which to perpetrate and cover up such attacks. Our police and justice systems, already stretched with traditional crime, can only ever hope to play catch-up in terms of investigation and prosecution of such activities. And for the rest of us, the continued need to be as careful as possible with our online activities and security, simply cannot be overstated.