Editor's note: This article contains graphic language.
Last fall, Lena Chen was sitting in the back of a lecture hall when she heard a girl in front of her mention something about rape.
“Sorry, what did you say?” Chen interrupted.
“Did you know this professor has a rape scandal on the Internet?” the girl replied.
“Yeah,” Chen said. “I’m the girl he supposedly raped.”
Surreal exchanges like this have been the normal course for Chen for more than five years now. It’s the kind of surreality that can exist only in a world where reputations are solidified in Google search results, where anonymity permits new lows of human indecency and where people you’ve never met have seen you naked against your will.
The original sin
On Christmas Eve 2007, during the winter break of her junior year, Chen discovered that an ex-boyfriend had posted intimate photos of her on the Internet. This practice now has a name: revenge porn. Back then, it was simply called scandalous.
Chen wasn’t just an anonymous student. As a freshman at Harvard, she started a blog called Sex and the Ivy, where she wrote about her hookups, self-medication with alcohol, recovery from an eating disorder and crushing desire to be liked. All standard stuff for a college student.
Chen didn’t think it was such a big deal. She didn’t appreciate the fact that she was a teenage girl, talking about sex, while attending Harvard. Her blog set the Ivy League on fire, drawing the attention of national media. Her public journaling took on new gusto. She was majoring in sociology and steeped in gender theory; she thought she was living her politics by offering an uncensored female take on sex.
But that winter day, she became a minor celebrity with naked photos on the Internet. For some, this was righteous comeuppance for the campus harlot. For others it was just great gossip. Classmates and other titillated parties reposted the images around the Web, and comment threads exploded with colorful debate.
Chen wasn’t so shaken by the original sin; the ex-boyfriend was a troubled person, she said. But she was horrified that classmates were reveling in her humiliation. “It was much more dismaying to me that people behaved in the way he wanted,” she said.
She had a panic attack on her flight back to Boston and another one on the way to see her therapist. She was paranoid just being on campus, thinking that the person she sat near in class could be the same person cackling at her anonymously online. Sometimes she found it hard to breathe.
“That was the most traumatizing aspect of it,” she said. “I felt I couldn’t trust anybody beyond my immediate circle of friends.”
Chen didn’t finish a final paper that semester and was put on academic probation. But her saga had only begun. The online tizzy over her explicit photos didn’t fizzle out with the short attention span of the Internet. The ugliest, most vicious side of the Web was unleashed on her — and anyone who dared to associate with her — for a relentless five years, until she left the country.
A few months after the photos were posted, the now-defunct online forum JuicyCampus “outed” Chen’s new boyfriend, a Harvard Ph.D. student and her former teaching assistant, Patrick Hamm. For weeks, there were multiple posts a day about how Hamm had supposedly taken advantage of Chen while she was still his student. In some versions, he outright raped her. This blew up into entire blogs dedicated to “exposing” the scandal, which the anonymous harasser, or harassers, then emailed to Harvard deans and professors in Hamm’s department.
The spelling mistakes and gross language were giveaways that this person likely wasn’t an upstanding, whistle-blowing citizen. But if the goal was to make Hamm desperately uncomfortable around everyone he worked with, it was a thumping success.
Internet doing this as I did on the Internet
doing legitimate things."
Chen withdrew from Harvard the following year. But the online torment continued, and the harasser widened his target. The names of Chen’s and Hamm’s friends and family members were posted online, as were the identities of people who simply “surfed on Lena Chen’s pornblog,” as the harasser phrased it. The harasser also posted the names of their universities or employers, their mothers and sisters, and descriptors like “whitecock gobbler,” "cum-guzzling ho" and “kikeskank.”
Blogging while female
When it comes to being a target of anonymous Internet hate, Chen has some eminent company. Kathy Sierra, a successful Web developer and author, once ran a tech website about software designed to make people happy, called Creating Passionate Users. In 2007, her comment section was overwhelmed with abuse, such as, “fuck off you boring slut … i hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob.” Someone posted her photo with a noose around her neck and a muzzle over her mouth. Her Social Security number was leaked.
“I have cancelled all my speaking engagements,” Sierra wrote on her blog. “I am afraid to leave my yard, I will never feel the same. I will never be the same.”
Another popular blogger, Anita Sarkeesian, started a Kickstarter campaign last year to make a video about the representation of women in video games. On top of the torrent of rape and death threats, someone went to the trouble of making an online game, “Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian,” in which players could bloody her face.
Earlier this year, Emily May, the co-founder of HollaBack!, a nonprofit dedicated to ending street harassment, told Ms. magazine about all the rape threats and comments she'd received, like how no one would bother raping her because she's fat and ugly.
"Once, after reading all these posts, I just sat in my living room and bawled like a 12-year-old,” she said.
Jennifer Pozner, director of Women in Media & News, a group that advocates for women’s presence in the media, says a man even once placed a letter at her real-life door saying he’d “find you and your mom and rape you both.” In female blogging circles, rape threats are now considered something of a "rite of passage."
If the goal is to get these women to stop, there’s evidence that it works. Some female bloggers admit to self-censoring or closing up shop altogether. In 2007, two leading feminist bloggers, Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan, resigned from their jobs running John Edwards’ campaign blog under the crush of harassment. Between 2000 and 2005, the proportion of Internet users who participated in online chats and discussion groups fell from 28 percent to 17 percent, entirely due to women’s exodus, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which “coincided with increased awareness of and sensitivity to worrisome behavior in chat rooms.”
The Google bomb
Over the five years, anonymous Lena Chen hate blogs proliferated, packed full of links to other anonymous Lena Chen hate blogs as well as sexual slurs, the original naked photos and the names of the targets over and over. The names and links were a way to strategically elevate the posts in Google’s search results. It’s known as “Google bombing,” or, in the words of the online vigilantes, “getting googlefucked.”
In 2009, the harassment campaign included a fake news article about how Chen's employer regretted hiring her. There were hundreds of posts on the online forum AutoAdmit alone. In late 2010, the harasser(s) started diligently dissecting everything Chen did on social media in detailed timelines. (“August 27, 2012: Lena Chen, who’s spent the last 2 years posting about her STDs and lopsided tits, and the 30 cocks she remembers suckingandfucking, whines that people only remember her for skank blogging and nude pix.”)
“This person spent as much time on the Internet doing this as I did on the Internet doing legitimate things,” says Chen.
Hamm has paid more than $10,000 on reputation management services to clean up his Google profile. His family name has been dragged around the Internet in such a grotesque and inexplicable way that he says his relationship with his parents and other relatives is “permanently damaged.” After close to six years of dating, most of Hamm’s family aren’t actively trying to get him to break up with Chen anymore. But they certainly aren’t too fond of her.
The harasser appeared to want Chen, and anyone who dared to stand by her, to have Google results so repugnant that it would infect their real lives, thwarting job hunts and sabotaging relationships. It’s possible that the detractor(s) simply wanted Chen to feel so mortified that she’d stop blogging, and the fact that she refused, year after year, provoked them into intermittent torrents of hateful, pornographic rage.
Targeted by association
Miriam Lazewatsky found out that she had stumbled into this dark corner of the Web from her dad. He kept a Google Alert on their last name to track when his research was cited. But when it pinged one day in 2008, it was about his daughter, who apparently, according to some anonymous source on some unfamiliar website, really wanted to be raped.
Lazewatsky had never met Chen, but she had defended her online under a username, and wound up in a heated exchange with an anonymous Chen hater. Her sparring partner somehow uncovered her true identity, and over the following five years went to great lengths to make her life hell.
In total, she says, there were hundreds of posts, claiming she had been fired for watching porn, asked the police to sexually satisfy her while under arrest, and variations on the theme that she was fat and a slut with rape fantasies. When Lazewatsky started graduate school, her professors’ names and emails were posted. Thinking it was her mother, she assumes, they posted the name and email address of her aunt.
Lazewatsky said she’s submitted between 50 and 75 reports to Google, asking the company to take down abusive content, with mixed success. One time, she says, she was told a post on Blogger, the Google-owned blogging platform, was a “personal matter between you and the blogger.”
"The post said, 'this is a fucking slut, she only shuts her mouth when she opens her legs,’ and you’re telling me it’s a personal matter and I need to talk it out?” Lazewatsky said. “That’s like telling the 50-pound kid to talk to the 100-pound boy who’s beating him up and stealing his lunch money.”
Lazewatsky was so desperate to get posts removed from the forum AutoAdmit that she sent a pleading letter to the site’s owner by snail mail. She says she filed a police report, but nothing came of it. Even today, the first page of her Google results includes the blogs “The Miriam Lazewatsky Fatass Chronicles” and “Miriam Lazewatsky FACTS,” calling her a “whiny gossip” with rape fantasies and stretch-marked breasts. Lazewatsky started seeing a counselor.
“A lot of the comments were about my weight, my physical appearance and the fact that I’m not thin makes me worthless as a person and a woman, that it makes me unlovable,” she explains. “This person was shoving them in my face over and over again.”
Forty states have laws addressing cyber-harassment, according to a tally by the National Conference of State Legislatures, which make it illegal to intentionally annoy, terrify or torment a person online. But these laws are severely underenforced, according to Danielle Citron, a professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and the author of the forthcoming book “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace.”
“They have no idea how to turn on the Internet, let alone figure out what this is,” she explains. “... Or often they’ll say, ‘Turn your computer off. Boys will be boys.’ They just don’t get how important it is, so often victims have to educate the officers.”
“There’s no recourse,” Lazewatsky said.
What can people do when they suddenly find themselves the victim of a determined campaign of online viciousness? "America Tonight" turned to victims of online harassment and attorneys who specialize in it to understand what possible recourse exists.
Last year Chen's boyfriend landed a teaching position at Harvard, which reawakened the online beast. Names of Hamm’s undergraduate students joined the pantheon of the Google-bombed.
Chen and Hamm had been to the police before, but this time, they say, they filed a criminal complaint. (As with all the other times, they say, nothing came of it.) A lawsuit was always an option. Websites aren't liable for what their users do, but it’s possible to subpoena for the identity of your online harasser and haul him or her into court on civil charges like defamation or intentional infliction of emotional distress.
But Chen and Hamm didn’t want to spend more time, money or energy on the problem. They just wanted it to go away. Chen spent entire days on the verge of tears, suffered migraines so violent she’d spontaneously throw up, and lost 10 pounds in one month, about 10 percent of her body weight, as she noted on her blog.
“I was completely miserable,” she says about last year. “I wasn’t able to work.”
Through all of this, Chen kept writing. In fact, she had been doing really well. She was publishing articles in national publications and speaking regularly at universities and conferences. She co-founded a feminist pride day that became a national phenomenon, and made a name for herself as a sex and health adviser for adolescent girls. More magazine and the Women's Media Center honored her as a feminist leader. Despite her harassers’ efforts, the real Chen was beating “skank” Chen on Google.
But not everyone targeted by association with Chen, such as her little sister or followers of her blog, was armed with the online clout to do battle. “I had multiple readers contact me saying they were nervous about applying for jobs,” Chen said. “People I didn’t even know in person were being affected. I felt very burned out.”
In March, she quit her blog, quit journalism and quit America. She and Hamm moved to Berlin, where she hasn’t so much as tweeted or owned a cellphone for six months.
After half a decade of trying to fight it, it would seem that Chen had finally admitted defeat. The pugnacious young feminist had been defanged, or, from the perspective of the Internet, annihilated. She doesn’t deny that, but she doesn’t hammer the point too hard either. She’s simply too exhausted.
Lazewatsky, now almost 30, no longer goes to therapy every week, or even every month. She has a tidy paragraph on her cover letter explaining the firings, arrests, porn and rape in her Google search results. In fact, she thinks the harassment helped her confront some of her insecurities. But that doesn’t mean she forgives the culprits.
“I think I can have a happy, successful life without forgiving someone who has consciously chosen to try to ruin me as a person,” Lazewatsky says. “I can take heart that he failed. And I can feel sorry for someone for trying to do this to a human being.”
For a casualty of a half-decade war, Chen is doing pretty darn well. Now 26, she is a Harvard graduate living in Europe with her long-term boyfriend and working on a novel. With a bachelor's degree from Yale and a Ph.D. from Harvard, Hamm isn’t so concerned about his job prospects. But the impact zone of the harassment was much wider than the couple, reaching people they didn't even know. And it would be impossible to tally up all of the private miseries.
“How do you explain a breakdown that you are not sure will ever end?” Chen wrote in April, in the final post before she retired her blog. “You don’t.”