sad scared young woman victim of online harassment and cyberbullying. looking at smart mobile phone

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For influencers, online stalking is a real-life threat

'I can't live in fear like this.'

 

Claire Waheed

IRL

Posted on Jan 18, 2024

Those in the public eye are no strangers to the privacy-threatening situations that can come from overzealous fans. 

In August, a clip of singer Reneé Rapp’s interview with Drew Barrymore went viral after Barrymore’s known stalker charged the stage where the interview was taking place ominously saying, “You know who I am. I need to see you at some point while I’m in New York.” 

The talk show host and musician were escorted off stage, and culprit Chad Michael Busto was later arrested for showing up at Barrymore’s Southampton residence. These celeb-status figures have the resources to protect themselves from the consequences that come from being a public figure.

But for the average social media creator, the uncomfortable scenarios that can occur with devotees of their content are hard to deal with. 

In the comment section of a known TikToker, you may see users calling them endearing names; “bestie” or “girly” that give a sense of camaraderie between a social media creator and one who consumes their content. 

Another quick search of “stalker storytime” on the app will garner a multitude of videos of creators explaining how their online life led to real-life safety issues. In July 2021, a man showed up at the house of TikToker Ava Majury with a gun after repeatedly harassing her online and was then shot and killed by Majury’s father. 

Chloe Crawford is a fast-growing social media creator with over 151,000 followers on TikTok. Her satirical content centers around her “future trophy wife” videos and also includes college tips and tricks of her campus, Clemson University. 

Crawford’s social media persona resembles a big sister or close friend sharing helpful advice, showing the uninhibited and sometimes rocky life of a college student and comical, trendy videos showcasing her humor. 

But Chloe Crawford isn’t real; the creator made up the name after a viewer relentlessly stalked her online, at home, and on campus.

In 2021, while going live on TikTok, the then-sophomore received text messages from a random number giving answers to questions she posed to watchers of the TikTok live stream. 

The number started to text more asking about her day and such, then things started to escalate. It became apparent the person was not a friend playing a prank when texts started to reveal she was being watched, messaging things like, “I love your red leggings.” The stalker also sent repeated personal information about Chloe to herself, including the address of her parents’ new house.

“I turned my light off to go to bed and I got a text like, ‘Good night, sleep well,’ from this number,” Crawford said. “And then it happened for the next two nights. I’m not somebody that’s on a routine, like I’m a college kid. These were at varying times, so that’s when I was like, OK, I’m scared.’”

After giving the stalker a chance to come clean, Crawford and her roommate went to the police station and attempted to track the I.P. address, unfortunately revealing it to be a burner phone with no lead to who the culprit could be. To preserve her safety, while keeping her social media as a platform to build community, Crawford changed her number and her full name on all platforms. 

“The deal was that I would have to change my name on all accounts, like any possible way to find me online,” Crawford said. “Even in classes I go by Chloe Crawford now.”

A South Carolina law firm describes first-degree harassment as following a victim around or surveillance of the victim. Stalking is a pattern of unwanted communication that strikes fear.

Police were stationed outside of her former apartment or remained on speed dial for weeks. Still an open investigation, the offender was never caught. Crawford says she saw the situation as a parasocial obsession that turned into intimidation tactics. After dealing with the police, Crawford was roofied at a bar, a second terrifying incident she thinks may be related considering her small college town.

“I personally think it was related just because it’s so rare for that to happen in Clemson, but obviously there’s no way of really knowing,” she said.

The concept of “parasocial relationship” has entered our everyday language.

Though it is not a new phenomenon and has been around since the mid-1900s, a parasocial relationship is a one-sided emotional attachment to a public figure. Parasocial relationships don’t just include the typical celebrity but social media influencers, online personalities, and more.

A parasocial relationship involves intention and consumption. How often are you thinking about this person, how long is spent consuming this person’s content, and what is the intent of following this person’s actions online?

“There is a difference between a parasocial relationship and a parasocial interaction,” psychotherapist Dominic Canova said. “An interaction is just like, it’s 11:00 and I have The View on, and my parents walk through. They acknowledge that Whoopi is on the screen and they keep walking. A parasocial relationship is, I know David Muir from World News Tonight is coming on, and I may actually go on TikTok or go on his Instagram page and start looking stuff up.”

Canova, who goes by Doctor Domenico on social media and has a private practice and a doctorate in psychology, credits the rise of these relationships and the coverage around them in recent years to the sheer amount of platforms and entertainment mediums out there to consume. However, more recently, the public had to turn to social media for leisure due to the writers’ and actors’ strikes putting scripted content on hold. 

“I think why we saw an increase in the last six months with this even more was because we had the SAG-AFTRA and the WGA strike going on,” Canova said. “We’re still not going to get content till next spring at the earliest, so I think that we were even more dependent on social media for entertainment and for value than we ever have before. When you have an explosion like that you’re going to get both sides of it and that’s where you unfortunately get the stalking, the hate speech, and the targeting in that way.”

Crawford’s decision to change names is a prime example of Canova’s advice of changing social media handles to something inventive, a “modern-day stage name.” Social media is a big part of life and community for the modern young adult. After dealing with anxiety after the ordeal, Crawford took a magnifying glass to the structure of her content to keep it true to her style, but optimal for safety.

“After a while, I was like, ‘Look, I can’t live in fear like this,’” Crawford said. “If somebody wants to hurt me, they’re gonna hurt me at the end of the day. So, on one side, yes, I definitely think I’m more aware of what I’m posting. I start, I look at my posts now like, ‘Hey, if I were a bad guy, what could I gather about her from this post?’”

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*First Published: Jan 18, 2024, 12:49 pm CST