I Was Harassed for My Interracial Relationship—So I Tracked Down My Troll

After receiving a string of vicious hate messages online, I took matters into my own hands. Here’s what happened

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A collage with a troll in a phone

(Illustration: Leo Tapel)

One afternoon in mid January, a red little icon popped up on my open Instagram account. I had a message request from someone I didn’t follow. Curious, I opened my inbox and found a stream of sadistic messages from a complete stranger.

“Why are all the ugliest Asian chicks slaves to white guys,” a person I’ll call Dylan wrote. “Remember to keep your head down when you walk.”

As a 25-year-old Asian woman, I’ve received the occasional stare and rude comment for having a white partner, but this was the first time I was targeted online because of my interracial relationship. While my account wasn’t private at the time (and it did feature several pictures of me with my boyfriend), I couldn’t wrap my head around why someone I didn’t know would take the time to unleash hateful messages on me based on an aspect of my personal life.

A hateful message sent via Instagram

(Photo: Courtesy of the author)

Online harassment is a real problem in Canada—especially for women of colour

I alternated between feeling disturbed, isolated and angry when I received hateful messages, but all the while, I wasn’t that surprised, since I’m certainly not the only Canadian who has experienced online harassment.

By now, many of us are aware of the term “troll:” a person who deliberately posts inflammatory, derogative or offensive comments in an online community for the purpose of upsetting other users or provoking an emotional response. Trolling takes many different forms. It can range from a Vancouver-based abortion clinic receiving a series of misogynistic reviews online, to the high-profile case of Iqra Khalid, a Liberal MP who received death threats—including a YouTube video that targeted her—after she tabled an anti-Islamophobia motion.

The most recent report from StatsCan shows that over the last five years, nearly one in five people between the ages 15 and 29 say they have experienced a form of online harassment. And while no one is completely immune from being targeted online, the web is not an equal playing field—especially for women of colour, says Shaheen Shariff, a professor at McGill University’s Faculty of Education and an expert on cyberbullying.

According to Shariff, harassment is often “intersecting,” meaning people that may experience discrimination in real life based on race, gender and sexual orientation, are more likely to be harassed online as well. “Certainly women of colour are targeted, and the LGBTQ+ and transgender communities are also more subject to these forms of harassment,” she says.

Studies back this up. Amnesty International recently found that among women aged 18 to 55 in eight countries across the world, nearly a quarter said they have experienced online abuse at least once. On top of that, 58 per cent said their harassment included aspects of racism, sexism, homophobia or transphobia.

While it’s sadly common for women to be targeted for their race or sexual orientation, it’s not always clear when trolling becomes something more.

When does trolling becomes harassment?

According to Shariff, trolling crosses the legal line into harassment when it involves some kind of threat to the victim that makes them fear for their safety, like a death or rape threat, for example. When trolling doesn’t involve explicit threats and instead consists of behaviour such as persistent racist comments or posting false information about someone online, it may still be considered harassment if the behaviour is having a harmful effect on the recipient, Shariff says. “In some cases, perceived harm by the perpetrator can constitute the same meaning as a threat,” she explains.

For me, the harassment had a negative effect, and as I processed the disturbing messages that infiltrated my inbox, I realized that what unsettled me most about my troll was that he didn’t seem to be using a fake profile. Instead, he appeared to be harassing people from his own Instagram account.

While my troll didn’t have much of a public profile, his account showed that he lived in Toronto. His Instagram followers were made up of university students, female bloggers and several people with the same last name as his—including one who I decided to reach out to.

At this point in time, I didn’t want to give my troll the satisfaction of a response, or a reason to continue his harassment, but a part of me still wanted to hold him accountable in some way. I thought bringing his behaviour to the attention of someone who knew him in real life might make him reevaluate his actions online.

After a quick Google search, I found a LinkedIn profile of Dylan’s uncle. I emailed him a screenshot of the messages I got. Almost immediately, he got back to me saying he would forward my email to Dylan’s father.

A screenshot of hateful messages from an online troll

(Photo: Courtesy of the author)

I sat back and hoped the message got through to my troll. I wanted to erase all traces of him once and for all. But a few hours later, the red icon was back on the top of my Instagram page.

What followed were more angry messages from Dylan, saying he knew I contacted his family. This time I decided to write back, saying it was extremely concerning that he was sending this type of abuse to someone online, to which he responded: “Be concerned all you want. No apology.”

I blocked him, but a lingering feeling of unease carried through with me till the next day. Until this point, I hadn’t told my partner what had happened. But once I reached out to Dylan’s uncle, I did—and Dylan’s response chilled me even more.

Exactly one day after he messaged me, Dylan had aimed a string of abuse at my partner, and his attacks progressed from derogatory to hateful. “You look like you suck d-ck little f-cker” he wrote. “You look gay though really… low t or pretending to be straight?”

With the same message he directed at me, he added, “Keep your head down when you walk.”

Now that he had harassed me and my partner, and didn’t seem like he was going to stop anytime soon, I knew I had to do something more.

What to do if you’re being harassed online

According to Emily May, co-founder of HeartMob, an online platform that helps people report and document cyberbullying, you should always report online harassment to the platform it’s happening on. May also says that it’s incredibly important to document everything, or ask someone you trust to document it for you, so you can prioritize taking care of yourself. “Online harassment can be taken down [from a social media platform] if you or others report it to the platform,” she explains, meaning you should take screenshots and make copies of the messages to keep as evidence. “You’ll also want to keep a record of if and when the harassment escalates.”

But, on top of gathering your own evidence, May says you should absolutely report harassment to the police if you fear for your safety. While taking a trolling case to the police may seem daunting, May says one of the benefits of making an official complaint is that it creates formal documentation. “This will be helpful if the harassment continues or escalates in the future,” she says. If the police decide to pursue your case, perpetrators can be charged, taken to court and face fines or imprisonment time, if convicted. You can also go the civil route, where you can sue a harasser for defamation (spreading false information about a person) or extortion (blackmail), for example, and be compensated if the harassment is proven.

But whatever route you take, you should be aware that Canada’s criminal justice system is still playing catch up. Not too long ago, online trolling wasn’t taken as seriously as offline harassment. “Initially, [the courts] were saying online threats don’t constitute actual threats because those threats can’t be carried out online,” university professor Shariff says.

And although online harassment is now receiving more mainstream media attention, Shariff says our legal system still needs to come up with better ways to address this problem, including providing support for victims—and appropriate ramifications for perpetrators.

“There’s too many cases where I’ve heard about insufficient evidence to move forward,” Shariff says. She adds that while closing a case may simply mark the end of an investigation for the police, it doesn’t address “the huge impact it can have on victims or survivors of any kind of harassment.”

A hateful message sent on Instagram

(Photo: Courtesy of the author)

Here’s how you can report cyberbullying

Without knowing whether I would be taken seriously, I decided pick up the phone and report my troll to my local police.

Within a few hours of filing my complaint, I was seated across from two officers in my home, answering questions that ranged from whether I could have met my perpetrator in real life at some point in time, to how the harassment made me feel. As we went over the series of events that took place since I got my first message from Dylan, an officer snapped photos of screenshots I kept on my laptop.

They explained to me that when online harassment is reported to the police in Canada, they decide whether it could lead to an investigation and in some cases, criminal charges down the line. Much of this depends on whether there is sufficient evidence of harassment, and whether it can be interpreted as form of “criminal harassment,” which according to the Criminal Code, involves repeatedly communicating with a person in ways that make them fear for their safety.

After the questioning, I was given a card with a report number and contact information for the detective who would be in charge of my case. As the officers walked out my front door, one of them told me to keep following up if I didn’t hear back from them.

How my case unfolded

It took a little over a month for my case to be resolved.

During that time, I received a few updates from an officer about how the situation was being handled. Because what my partner and I experienced is considered less severe on the harassment spectrum—but included multiple aspects of hate speech—the most police said they could do was issue a “caution” to my troll, which is basically a warning to knock it off.

The police told me they had been trying to get a hold of Dylan for weeks, calling his phone, contacting several of his family members, and even visiting his registered address twice in one day—but no one answered. Having exhausted these options, the officer assigned to my case was about to send Dylan a formal letter from the Toronto Police as a last resort, but finally got him on the phone one morning.

“Well it looks like the message finally got through,” an officer wrote to me in an email.

Dylan was advised that he could face criminal charges down the road if he continued to engage in harassing behaviour towards anyone. He told the officer he understood, and just like that, the case was closed.

I was relieved something was done to address my troll’s behaviour, and since then, I haven’t heard from him. If anything could come out of this experience, I hoped that at the very least, he would think twice before moving onto someone else.

Online harassment, in any form, can be a dehumanizing experience. Unfortunately, there’s often little we can do when we become recipients of anonymous abuse, except to block, report or just move on. For me, a certain irony came from being able to identify my troll. With no fake account to hide behind, I recognized that beyond the screen, he was a real human being—like me.

And there’s nothing virtual about that.

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