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Online Harassment is More Prevalent, and Taken More Seriously, Than Ever

Gregory Alan Elliott, graffiti stenciller and Twitter troll, has been arrested after allegedly engaging in months of Twitter harassment, highlighting an ongoing problem in our online conversations.

If you have spent any time in Toronto, chances are you have seen street art by Gregory Alan Elliott. His ubiquitous stencils, usually simple, self-attributed phrases like “nice people suck when they’re mean,” are all over the city.

Chances are also high that, if you are at all involved in Toronto-centric online discussions, particularly those on Twitter associated with the #TOpoli hashtag, you have had a personal interaction with Gregory Alan Elliott. By all reports, most people’s interactions, both in person or online, were unpleasant. For some, however, Elliott’s behaviour crossed the line from the repugnant to the criminal. On November 21, police announced that Elliott has been charged with criminal harassment and breach of a Peace Bond [PDF].

While the complainant is not identified in the press release, community organizer Stephanie Guthrie has openly identified herself as the individual who contacted the police regarding Elliott’s behaviour.

When we spoke with her earlier today, Guthrie told us that she asked Elliott to cease all communication with her months ago, but that he continued to harass her online, sometimes directly and at other points by co-opting and posting offensive material in hashtags that Guthrie has created to promote community events, such as the #WiTOPoli hashtag in connection with the group Women in Toronto Politics, and the #TBTB hashtag in connection with the Take Back the Block parties to combat sexual assault. (Disclosure: I have also often found myself included in Elliott’s use of the #FascistFeminists hashtag.)

It was both the intensity of the harassment and the ongoing nature of the attacks that finally prompted Guthrie to go to the police. “For many months I deliberated (often publicly, on Twitter) about how to handle his ongoing harassment. Earlier responses included confronting it directly, explicitly asking him to stop, blocking him, and ignoring him. None of these responses seemed to make the problem go away, and in fact I found it got worse over time.”

Guthrie was invited to speak at an event last week about online harassment and trolling, and she told us Elliott once again began spamming the event’s hashtag with attacks against her and her work. After seeing he had sent dozens of tweets, Guthrie says that “all of a sudden it hit me just how hard this person must be fixated on me in order to be reaching around the block function to get to me via an event hashtag. Up until that point I felt frustration, anger, exasperation. In this moment, I felt fear. That was what made me decide to go to the police.”

Detective Jeffrey Bangild is in charge of the investigation; yesterday he appealed on Twitter for anyone who had any more information or who had also been harassed by Elliott to come forward. He received a flood of responses, and has confirmed that he is in the process of conducting a number of followup interviews.

Activity online, especially harassment and trolling, is often extremely difficult for law enforcement officials to deal with. We are still as a society trying to understand and determine how online behaviour translates into real-world consequences; police and the courts are no different.

This case illuminates a real disconnect that many people feel exists between their online personas and behaviour, and the way that they interact offline. Online behaviour is often seen to count less, or be less severe, because it takes place in a virtual space. Harassment that occurs on Twitter or via email is, however, real harassment, and can be genuinely disruptive to other people’s lives. Guthrie says Elliott’s online approaches have had a real impact on her health, well-being, and sense of safety: “Being harassed online has made me feel completely surrounded, as though there is no escape from it.”

Individuals and organizations are beginning to take online harassment more seriously. As high-profile cases of “cyberbullying” continue to make headlines, the real-world consequences of online behaviour are becoming ever more real, and also better recognized. This is true in the case of Amanda Todd, who committed suicide after a period of concentrated, vicious, and misogynist online attacks. As campaigns of online violence become more frequent and relentless, so the response is becoming more serious in turn.

In light of this still-evolving cultural shift especially, Guthrie says she is “filled with gratitude for Toronto Police and especially the officers I’ve been dealing with on this case, who have a strong understanding of social media and Twitter in particular. They appreciate the seriousness of online harassment and have treated me with respect and dignity. It’s a matter of getting the resources in place (training, devices, et cetera) to equip the actors in our justice system with the knowledge and perspective they need to deal with these cases effectively. I can see the Toronto Police Service is taking these steps, and encourage them to continue in this positive direction.”

Gregory Alan Elliott did not respond to our request for comment.

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