Question: My name is similar to that of a person accused of “upskirting” women in the city where I live. I have never used my phone to take sneak photos up ladies’ skirts, but an online anti-harassment group named me as the culprit! I am now getting unbelievable, threatening hate emails and tweets. It’s freaking me out—what can I do?
Answer: That is scary, but there are some measures you can take to try to set the record straight and protect yourself.
The online phenomenon of individual bloggers, Twitter users, and activist groups targeting known or suspected perpetrators of certain crimes (especially sex crimes, bullying, and assaults on young women) has grown in numbers and influence in the last few years.
Because cyber avengers, even those acting in groups, are very loosely affiliated and operate in an unstructured, independent manner, it is perhaps inaccurate to refer to them as part of a movement. Cyber avenging launched in response to certain high-profile harassment, rape, and bullying incidents that had tragic repercussions for the victims. The “hacktivist” group Anonymous and its off-shoots drew public (and official) attention to, among other incidents, the rape of an intoxicated teenage girl by high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio, in 2012.
As you have learned the hard way, online activists use the internet to unearth personal data on people they are targeting. Once the data is found, the avengers post it in tweets, blogs, and on social networking sites. Other people who share the activists’ outrage at the incident can then join the campaign of shaming, berating, and otherwise punishing the target.
However, an unregulated form of street justice can easily devolve into vigilantism. Just one of the many problems with vigilantism is that, as your situation illustrates, self-appointed amateur investigators make mistakes—mistakes that are then disseminated as fact on the World Wide Web.
The activists who are targeting you are engaging in harassment. Many states have outlawed cyber harassment. If these cyber vigilantes take certain steps (particularly those with “real life” repercussions), they may even be stalking you under your state law. Report the matter to the police and find out what they can do.
You may want to respond as a stalking victim does, by changing your email address, social network site data, Twitter handle, phone number, and other contact information.
You may also consider investing in the services of an online reputation management (“ORM”) consulting firm. These firms may be able to advise you on measures to take to restore your good name. It will cost you, of course, as these firms are private companies that charge fees.
A privacy rights attorney with experience dealing with online breaches (and, at this point, any privacy lawyer who has practiced for even a few years will have such experience) may have some advice for you, too. You may have a defamation case if you inform the activists that they have the wrong guy and they persist in accusing you of the mischief.