Cyberstalkers

At 8:15 AM March 20, 2013, I snapped an iPhone photo of the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., and posted it to my Google Plus profile along with a brief caption. Less than an hour later and 540 miles away, a woman I’ll call Mary Barth composed a tweet in her Decatur, Ga., home and sent it using an account called “IHeartOakhurst2”: “you’re really going to tell the u.s. senate that you were cyberstalking decatur residents? that’s very brave.”

March 20, 2013 Google Plus post screen capture.
Google Plus post, March 20, 2013

Barth and a handful of other Decatur residents have created more than a dozen Twitter accounts and blogs to quash commentary on gentrification and bias in their community. One of these folks was the first to leave a comment on a February 26 Tikkun Daily blog post I wrote on gentrification’s impacts in Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood. Someone calling herself “Alice Ambergoso” wrote, “Anyone who’s been following this story knows that Rotenstein holds a very personal grudge against Decatur residents,” she wrote “Conveniently, he leaves out the fact that he moved to a MORE expensive and LESS diverse neighborhood when he left Decatur.” The pseudonymous comment writer linked to a trolling Twitter account called “Hateful Historian.”

Machinery atop a razed ranch house. Oakhurst, April 2012. Credit: David Rotenstein.
Razing a ranch house in Oakhurst, April 2012

Gentrification is global and Southern cities, big and small, are not immune to its effects. Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood is undergoing rapid gentrification that is displacing elderly African American residents and reshaping an inner-ring suburban landscape through teardowns and mansionization. I began writing about teardowns and gentrification in Oakhurst in late 2011 and by early 2012 Twitter accounts with names like Oakhurst Villain, IHeartOakhurst (deleted in October 2012), ScottBoulevard, and DavesSphincter began publishing malicious comments, photos of our home, links to our county tax records, animated videos, and racially inflammatory comments about me. The individual calling herself Oakhurst Villain captured the reason for the accounts and the comments in a short-lived 2012 Tumblr blog: “One of the purposes of this blog is to expose the inconsistencies and wrongheaded agenda of David Rotenstein.”

Unlike print media and the civil legal system, the Internet has a low barrier to entry for folks intent on squelching unpopular opinions or writing that threatens to undermine a carefully crafted community image. In the past, it took money to buy advertising space in newspapers or to hire attorneys to file SLAPP suits: strategic lawsuits against public participation. These old-fashioned methods required capital and offered little anonymity. All someone needs now to begin a smear and intimidation campaign is an Internet connection, some creativity, and lots of spare time.

Because civil and criminal laws have not kept pace with technology, there’s little risk that advocates and others caught in the crosshairs of Internet trolls will find relief from targeted online harassment. New York Times writer John Leland reported on a similar situation in February 2013 involving an online squabble over Dead Sea Scrolls scholarship. The case involved cyberstalking and harassment with all parties tarnished in the end. The Times article underscored the difficulty of proving legal cases involving false Internet identities and with getting law enforcement to take seriously online harassment.

Most of cyberstalkers I’ve attracted over the past year remain unknown. Barth, however, revealed information in tweets she sent in 2012 that provided solid clues to her identity. “I lived on Hampton Terrace in ’92,” an account she called IHeartOakhurst tweeted August 30, 2012. In early 2013, Barth viewed my LinkedIn profile almost daily and I connected information in her profile to her 2012 Twitter account. According to Atlanta telephone directories published in the 1990s, the person I’ve called Mary Barth in this article lived at a Hampton Terrace NE address.

IHeartOakhurst tweet, August 30, 2012 screen capture.
IHeartOakhurst/”Mary Barth” tweet, August 30, 2012

I’ve never met Barth, a mommy blogger who founded a parenting Website and who subsequently wrote a book that expanded on the topics covered in her site. Over a three month period in 2012 Barth sent more than a hundred tweets and she published at least two documents anonymously at Scribd.com and at a site called “Hide My Ass.” The Scribd document was titled, “Rotenstein v. Decatur: The Truth.” Both sites removed the content because it violated their terms of service.

Screen capture of a Tweet with link to a document called "Rotenstein v. Decatur: the Rest of the Story." The document's title was changed prior to be removed by Scribd.com in October 2012.
A tweet with link to a document called “Rotenstein v. Decatur: the Rest of the Story.” The document’s title was changed prior to be removed by Scribd.com in October 2012

Barth is not among any of my contacts. To the best of my knowledge, she doesn’t subscribe to my Google Plus stream, yet she appears to check its timeline regularly. She has tweeted within minutes of posts that I have written. I used the timeline to ask her if she’d be willing to answer some questions for this article about her writings. The IHeartOakhurst2 account tweeted an hour after my post, “Top 3 Signs You Are an Online Stalker” along with a link to an ABC news story on cyberstalking.

What Barth didn’t know when she began tweeting March 20 in response to my Washington photo was that my attorney was meeting with a county prosecutor to discuss the online harassment by Decatur residents. As I was working in the Library of Congress, Barth and four other Decatur cyberstalkers provided a live stream for the attorney and prosecutor to see as it unfolded.

iMessage stream, March 20, 2012. Exchange between the author and his attorney.
iMessages with my attorney, March 20, 2013

Despite the stack of evidence — hundreds of pages with more than 4,000 tweets, anonymous blog comments, and a DVD with four animated videos — that the attorney consulted as background to his conversation with prosecutors, there was no basis, in law enforcement’s opinion, to initiate a criminal investigation. “I finally heard back from the DeKalb County Solicitor’s Office,” the attorney wrote in an April 2013 email. “Specifically, I heard from one of their investigators …   It was his office’s opinion that at present, there was insufficient evidence to bring a criminal action against anyone.”

The criminal opinion dovetailed with the opinion I got in 2012 from a civil law firm hired to analyze the online harassment:

Your case is a very challenging one, for many reasons. Usually, our clients discover that defamatory speech, writings and/or harassment cease once the perpetrators are sent a cease-and-desist letter, spoliation letter and/or retraction demand. I am concerned that in this situation, that may not be the case. After spending many hours reading over the tweets and posts of the anonymous poster(s), their writings include statements by them inviting lawsuit and some of them have expressed they have already consulted with legal counsel related to their statements. This posturing indicates to me that standard action may not be prudent in this situation.

Heavy equipment atop a 1940s frame house demolished in July 2012. Credit: David Rotenstein.
Heavy equipment atop a 1940s frame house demolished in July 2012

The Internet blurs the line between protected speech and unlawful harassment. Twitter and other social media companies provide an open platform for hate speech and harassment and there are few tools available to people targeted by users. Twitter will temporarily suspend accounts created by anonymous parties who violate the company’s terms of service but will restore the user’s privileges once disputed material is removed. For people targeted by cyberstalkers and cyberbullies, it’s necessary to navigate a cumbersome help system that requires faxes to Twitter headquarters to confirm your identity and which includes the frequent rejoinder that the best way to deal with abusive account holders is to block them and ignore them.

As more environmental and social justice disputes move beyond the physical public commons and into cyberspace, I wonder how dialogue and effectiveness will be impacted by cyberstalkers and cyberbullies using Twitter and other platforms that provide the digital equivalent of hoods and sheets? This is a question that lawmakers and public policy experts need to answer

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Images: The photos and screen captures in this story were by the author.

David Rotenstein

David Rotenstein is a Maryland historian. He writes about architectural and industrial history and has worked in historic preservation and public history since 1984. He is completing a book on gentrification and housing history in Decatur, Georgia. In a past life he also wrote about music and popular culture for newspapers and magazines.