Online harassment has completely taken over Melody Hensley's life.
As an atheist and feminist activist, Hensley said, she was a target for "atheist misogynists" and men's rights activists. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which on Thursday prevented her from leaving home to go to an unfamiliar place.
Hensley wants to know the identity of the man who she claims is behind a two-year harassment campaign on Storify against her and numerous other women.
To generalize, the Internet is a pretty shitty place to be a woman. Regardless of your beliefs or interests, you’re routinely attacked with hateful messages and threats for little reason other than being female and writing your thoughts online. Death threats and rape threats are commonplace.
Bullies use a variety of tools. They hurl slurs on Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook. They attack on comment sections and YouTube videos. They use spam- and abuse-reporting options to silence opponents. There are other, more subtle weapons.
Storify is an endlessly useful tool for presenting nuggets of information from across the Web in a cohesive package. The Daily Dot frequently uses it. It allows anyone to curate public information, including any public tweet. But where do you draw the line between chronicling conversations for the public interest and using it as a collection tool for harassment?
An anonymous Twitter user, ElevatorGate, is allegedly using Storify to harass atheist, feminist, and transgender women. He's captured thousands of tweets and conversations using the tool.
ElevatorGate took his name from an incident at the 2011 World Atheist Convention in Dublin. There, a man propositioned a woman named Rebecca Watson at 4am in an elevator. Watson—a skeptic, blogger, and public speaker—felt uncomfortable and declined his invitation for "coffee." She recalled the incident in a YouTube video, pleading with men not to proposition someone alone in an elevator in the early hours.
Now, Watson has a cadre of bullies sending her threats. Even so, she says ElevatorGate has been stalking her for years. He used Twitter, a blog, and YouTube to share dirt he found on Watson, make up lies, and leave insulting messages on her videos, she told the Daily Dot over email. This was before he got to Storify.
"Either he was simply obsessed with me with no endgame in mind or else he was actively trying to scare me. Judging by the fact that he has moved on to harassing other outspoken feminists, I'd say the latter," she said.
It's not clear when he started adding Watson's tweets to Storify, since she's deleted most of the notifications, but it stretches at least as far back as August 2012.
Watson said he kept his sights on her for several months before targeting her friends. She didn't realize the extent of his activity because she had blocked him.
Twitter recently suspended the @ElevatorGate and @GraniteBench accounts, though it's believed ElevatorGate has others. Twitter's move hasn't stemmed the Storify tide despite repeated pleas for him to stop.
He's posted 6,700 articles, or collections of online content, on Storify. Some are drawn from the atheist and skeptic communities. Many, if not most, relate to women.
One explanation for ElevatorGate's mass Storifying is that he's creating a vast Twitter archive. Twitter only displays your last 3,200 tweets publicly. While you can download an archive, it's more difficult for others to view your older tweets.
ElevatorGate uses Storify to "obsessively compile the tweets of women he is stalking," according to blogger Ana Mardoll. Those tweets, Mardoll says, include details about the women's favorite foods, lives, and pet photos. ElevatorGate would often send email notifications to many of the women whose tweets he captured.
A key concern is that bullies can use his collated information to build profiles of targets. Watson knows her harassers share information, for instance.
ElevatorGate, however, styles himself as an "investigative journalist." Some say ElevatorGate does not stalk or harass women; he merely collates tweets or uses Storify satirically. Another suggested the "feminist blog-o-sphere collectively confuses citation and quotation with stalking and hatred."
ElevatorGate often slaps his targets' tweets on his blog, and seems to poke fun at them by Storifying Twitter accounts satirizing "angry feminists." He claims his opponents want Storify to shut down his account because "it is embarrassing for them." His targets claim his actions have damaged their lives.
Hensley, executive director of the Center for Inquiry in Washington and organizer of the Women in Secularism national conference, spoke out early on when ElevatorGate targeted Watson, a friend of hers. Hensley said her PTSD was a direct result of his harassment, along with a cybermob of more than 400 people, including men's rights activists.
"I was being Storified every single tweet by ElevatorGate and still am to this day. This has been going on for nearly two years. I know I'm constantly being monitored," she told the Daily Dot. "[ElevatorGate] spends all day and all night doing this. I'm quite certain he doesn't have a job. He's definitely obsessive."
Danielle Paradis first had a Storify notification after she started tweeting with Hensley. She said his behavior "amplified" after she asked him to stop. In one Storify, he collected all the tweets she'd favorited and labeled them "boring."
Paradis uses Storify herself to "collect a hashtag for education technology a topic that I study, or I have used it to document harassment. It is a different thing to just start watching someone's Twitter and collecting what they say all the time."
For a time, she occasionally protected her tweets. However, as a writer, she uses Twitter for sharing her writing and kicking off conversations. "The ability to do that is reduced when you lock your account," she said.
Meanwhile, Ellen (who asked us to withhold her surname) suggested ElevatorGate "got a rush" harassing women through the fallout of the Dublin incident and turned to the feminist community. She told the Daily Dot she received notifications after he Storified a conversation where a friend wished her luck on a job interview. Since then, he's targeted dozens of her friends, many of whom are scared and were stalked in real life.
At a broader level, Watson says she receives insults and threats every day. "Despite the fact that I can deal with it better than most, it's very difficult," she said, noting she's had prescription medication for anxiety and depression.
I've had to live every day knowing that there are people out there who are absolutely obsessed with me, who hate me so much that they spend hours each day blogging, tweeting, creating new social media accounts, Photoshopping my pictures, drawing pornographic images of me, making albums about how I should be murdered, and trying to get me fired from the podcast I do for free. When I'm able to find out their identities (sometimes they don't even hide them), I often find they have a history of domestic violence, stalking, or in the most recent case, "indecent liberties with a minor."
The women targeted by ElevatorGate clearly feel he is harassing them. They are uncomfortable knowing their conversations are monitored. Storify is taking a hands-off approach, the women claim.
Initially, Storify CEO Xavier Damman suggested those who did not want to receive notifications from ElevatorGate simply turn off all their email notifications. One person pointed out this was akin to never answering the phone when just one person was making harassing calls. Damman later suggested ElevatorGate was abusing the notification system, and the company halted notification emails from his account.
He noted Storify "should" have a block button and has plans to create such an option, but he pointed out that his company has a small team and it may take time. Stopping ElevatorGate's notifications was a "momentary solution."
Damman suggested there was nothing to stop ElevatorGate from writing blog posts and quoting public content (such as tweets). He offered a Voltaire quote about free speech. But critics continue to argue that Storify has no obligation to provide ElevatorGate with a platform.
Meanwhile, an individual who emailed author and blogger John Scalzi suggested ElevatorGate is violating Storify's terms of service by enabling others to stalk and harass women. The person also called out Damman for including ElevatorGate's Twitter handle in a conversation about the issue. This apparently alerted him to what was going on and he "stepped up his harassment of the women."
On Friday afternoon, Storify launched a tool to report abuse.
We take claims of abuse seriously and have added a "Report Abuse" link in our site footer, also at http://t.co/TcAJIYREuL— Storify (@Storify) August 16, 2013
In a phone call, Damman and Burt Herman explained that it's something they said they should have had already, but this situation has given them more impetus to pursue it. There's also talk of a tool to customize notifications.
The company wants to show the community that its listening and cares. But there are no plans to introduce a way for someone to block a specific user's media from showing up in a Storify.
It's complicated. Storify's terms of service address users adding harassing text to their stories. This isn't the case; ElevatorGate does not often add original text, other than titling his compilations of other users' tweets—titles like "Morons think 'moron' is ableist" and "'Feminists' describe atheist men as rabid dogs; charming."
The women we spoke with don't know much about ElevatorGate's true identity. According to his bio, he lives in England and is the "father of skepticism." Friends of Watson's who investigated think he worked at an Apple store at one point. There are suggestions he stalked and harassed women before Watson's initial video.
"Anonymity allows people like EG to continue to harass without real-life consequences," Watson said. "If that identity was made public, he'd probably stop or else risk being fired or possibly his mother would stop buying him Kit Kats and Pokémon cards."
Hensley, for one, wants to know who he really is.
"I know he doesn't want his name out there. He's been doing this for so many years and feels invincible. Getting his identity out there, I think, would scare him," she said. "If he were indeed from England … I would like to see if it were possible at all for someone in England to do a civil suit against him because I know he's hurt so many lives."
Photo by Gideon Tsang/Flickr