The terrible task of documenting abuse
Some number of years ago, a man who’d first found me from my posts on Quora started messaging me.
Please pardon me for some fuzziness of recall in this account — I could trawl through digital history to find specifics, but I think the emotional truth of the story comes through without them, and as you’ll see, part of the story is the difficulty of experiencing and re-visiting the trauma.
It began innocuously, with a vague, generic professional inquiry in a Quora private message. I didn’t respond. He messaged a few more times. I still didn’t respond; why would I? I didn’t know this person, and increasingly I was nervous to even acknowledge receipt of his messages as things escalated. He became more frenetic, threatening, and sexually explicit, demanding that I call him, meet him. He created accounts on Twitter to harass me, a whack-a-mole game as I’d block them and he’d set up new ones. On Facebook, he wrote deranged status updates about me, set them to public, and paid to promote them. He collected photos of me from the Internet and put them in a Facebook album, again, set to public — for what purpose, I don’t know. With physical threats in the mix, I worried about my safety. My employer was a matter of very public knowledge, the location of our office well-marked on Google Maps and brightly identifiable in real life by the company logo above the lobby doors. I let office security know to watch out for him. My home address was not so stupidly obvious to find, but it would be no difficult task for him to tail me home on my daily commute. I alerted the front desk of my apartment complex as well, though they shrugged off my concerns. For weeks, stretching into months, I lived in fear. Online, I had to keep an eye on all my social accounts as well as his; offline, I was constantly scanning, assessing threat level.
I didn’t know what to do. Someone told me I needed to be on record, at least once, telling him to stop. I carefully composed a Facebook message to that effect, sent it and blocked him. He didn’t stop. Someone else told me I should document everything and file with the police, so there’d be an official record with law enforcement.
So I forced myself through the painful process of documenting everything. Well, not everything; that would have been too much. Just enough to put together a report. And I’d already blocked and reported some of his accounts, which meant I couldn’t access some of the data anymore. For what did remain, the dread of opening those inboxes, clicking through his profiles, viewing the close-up permalink pages for his public posts to grab the URLs, being forced to see and experience the abuse again—it ate at me. I had to settle the emotional turbulence before I could even get started. But it’s not like bracing yourself to jump into the ocean for a swim, where the cold sting of the initial plunge recedes and then it’s fine, you keep moving and it’s fine. The task of collecting evidence of abuse and harassment exacts a psychological toll that only gets worse. It’s a weight on your mental health that only grows heavier. It’s not made any easier by the sheer tedium of the process. I had to screenshot everything; manually track platform, format, timestamp, and permalink metadata (“private Facebook message on <mm-dd-yyyy, hh:mm>, <url>”, “Twitter @reply from @<handle> on <mm-dd-yyyy, hh:mm>, <url>”); rename the files and organise them in folders; compile a timeline of activity in spreadsheet and plain text formats; highlight the most alarming messages; build the narrative for the bored San Francisco Police Department officer who’d show up at my apartment to tell me I was fussing over something that was harmless. “Most likely nothing will happen,” he said. “Let me know if something does.” I wanted to scream in frustration. I didn’t want anything to happen. That was the point. But at least I’d done the job of documenting the abuse in case anyone ever needed to see a paper trail.
This is far from the only example in my own life where I’ve had to take on the terrible task of documenting abuse, though it’s at least distant enough in time that I can suppress my unease in describing it to a public audience. I also have multiple ongoing situations right now; it’s a bit terrifying to even allude to them here, much less discuss them.
One thing that’s marginally better this time around: I get to use new tools that we’re building at Block Party to make the process that little bit easier. Putting aside the minor emotional scarring I get whenever I scan my harassers’ accounts for threats, being able to test our latest watchlist and documentation features has been an absolute delight. The process of adding users and tweets to my Lockout Folder for evidence preservation is buttery smooth—no more Dropbox folders titled “harassment”, stuffed full of tweet screenshots that I have to zoom in and out of when I’m searching for something, no more Notes files listing out permalink after permalink with manually annotated dates and timestamps. Once an account is on my watchlist, Block Party collects future mentions from them and alerts me to their activity. It’s exhausting to have to manage this problem at all, but at least the tools are getting better.
Screenshots of Block Party’s watchlist tab with “Add Tweet” functionality to save evidence and keep an eye on troublesome users.
In the saddest hilarious way, SFPD failed spectacularly at even filing my report. When I first showed the officer everything on my laptop, he tried to scribble down the abusive content on his long yellow legal pad, a futile task when there were dozens and dozens of messages and digital multimedia to log. I offered to email my documentation instead, and he gave me his email address to send it over. The next day, I got his reply: “Sorry, I can’t see the pictures you’ve included, I don’t have Internet on my email.”
I still don’t have the full details on what happened afterwards. From what I gleaned second-hand through private sources, my harasser did in fact have a history of assault in addition to a history of bipolar disorder. There may have been a restraining order at some point. His threats to someone else were serious enough for the police to confront him and force him to check himself into a mental hospital for help. He tried to contact me a couple times afterwards, the most recent after I’d started Block Party. He’d looked me up and seen I was working on solutions for online harassment. He was apologetic, surmising correctly that it was because of him and people like him that I’d chosen to dedicate this next chapter of my career and life to working on this problem. He offered some advice: Create accountability. If I had known there’d be accountability for my actions, he said, I wouldn’t have done those things. That’s the ultimate solution for harassment. Stop people from doing it in the first place.
We’re still a far cry from creating systemic accountability. That’s a hard problem that extends beyond the digital platforms that enable abuse, to a society where laws and law enforcement are rotted with institutional racism and misogyny, fail to protect those most at risk and marginalised, and are hopelessly out of date when it comes to technology. But one small step towards creating that accountability is making it easier to document abuse and show the receipts, and we’ll start there.