The Interview: The psychology of online abusers

Journalist Paula Todd on online abusers, the joy they get from hurting others—and the rise of adult cyberbullies


Paula Todd (Photo by Cole Garside)

Paula Todd, the author of Finding Karla and a professor of broadcast journalism at Seneca College in Toronto, is also a passionate advocate of free expression. It was her concern with threats to that freedom, from both government and some Internet users, that drove her to write her newest book, Extreme Mean: Trolls, Bullies and Predators Online. In it, Todd examines new research and reports on the Internet’s dark corners of stalking, sexual extortion and revenge porn, and what it means to our online future.

Q: One key element of your book is to expand our concept of the problem from cyberbullying to cyberabuse. There’s a whole spectrum of nastiness online that doesn’t involve just schoolchildren.

A: What I’ve been looking at is human behaviour: kids, youth and adults. Kids have been a big part of our coverage because we know that cyberbullying is hurting the emotional well-being of young people. Suicides have been linked to it. But my research revealed that the problem with cyberabuse is far, far bigger, that it is affecting adults, everybody. Not just being the target of cyberabuse, but reading it and being exposed to it all the time is bad for us. We already have a mental health problem around this world, particularly with depression, and we now know that being victims and being observers of cyberabuse increases the potential for depression. We’re building a social and mental health crisis.

Q: You argue that the cloak of online anonymity doesn’t explain it all.

A: That’s the reason we’re often given for people behaving badly online—because they can. That never made any sense to me, because I know a lot of people who do fantastic things anonymously; we’re not necessarily bad when we are anonymous. There are many different reasons people do what they do online, whether it’s bullying or tormenting—seeking out revenge-porn sites [where people post intimate pictures of ex-lovers], starting cyberstalking—and we’ve got a much larger culture at work here, with more people involved, for more reasons that we realize.

Q: But anonymity is a huge help, right?

A: It’s a huge, huge accomplice to behaviour that is compelled by a wide range of issues, whether mental health, drugs and alcohol abuse, schadenfreude—just the joy we get from seeing other people fail or suffer. Canadian research from the University of Manitoba suggests that everyday sadists and Machiavellians are at work, as well. That’s subclinical sadism, so these aren’t people who are going out into the world and kidnapping and torturing people, but the everyday variety, people who get pleasure from watching other people be hurt. Some of those harassing others are sadists who need that jolt, that chemical jolt, from harming somebody else. They are often bored and discontented, because they’re not getting feedback, not otherwise getting the pleasure they need as sadists.

Q: One worry you continually return to is the fear that abusive behaviour—which is already hurting free speech at one end of the spectrum by driving people off-line—will lead to a free-speech clampdown by government at the other end.

A: I believe that’s exactly right: Cyberabusers are laying the groundwork for government authorities to justify their intervention with our freedom. Cyberbullies and abusers are setting the rest of us up to lose what we love most about the Internet. That’s why some people in the Internet world have been very supportive of the work I’m doing, because my goal is to keep the Internet accessible to everybody. There are some white knights out there, including members of Anonymous who will look out for people online, particularly people who are being cyberabused, and some have said they will keep an eye out for me, because my goal is to keep as many people online as possible.

Q: Do you feel you’re going to need their help, that you will be the object of abuse yourself, just for writing about it?

A: There are lots of people online behaving badly, or even criminally. Some will be highly irritated that I am talking openly about what they’re doing, and the way that people most easily get revenge these days is online.

Q: So you’re warning your family, your friends, that strange things are going to happen. And all of us, in general, not to believe everything we read online?

A: I do expect that you will see pictures of me with a decapitated head and you will read nasty, nasty things, but it’s one of the points of this book: We, as a society, need to wake up. It is so easy to distort and to lie and to defame on the Internet. If we stopped believing it, if we stopped trafficking in it, we would go a long way to ending the cyberabuse problem.

Q: You write about the online abuses directed at adults, including revenge sites, some of which seem simply misogynist and pornographic, while others are fronts for blackmailers. Their effects can be devastating.

A: How would you like a sexually intimate photograph of yourself plastered all over the Internet, along with your home address, telephone number, social media handles, employer, school and any other identifying information (known as “doxing” or documenting) that revengeful exes or blackmailers use to encourage the public to join in your humiliation?

Q: It’s not just teens, fearing to lose their Internet privileges, who keep their abuse hidden. Amanda Todd’s mother, Carol, was quiet about her experiences for a long time.

A: When I first interviewed Carol Todd, she was fragile, disoriented by grief and overwhelmed by the reaction from the world—both the supporters and detractors. Throughout my research, I would conduct interviews with her when she was willing, and each time discovered a woman in a different state of emotional recovery. Todd dislikes people making a direct connection between cyberbullying and suicide, preferring to point out that her daughter, like so many teens, had social and emotional difficulties that undermined her coping ability. What alarms me is the number of people who say cyberabuse is not a serious problem because the targets are vulnerable. Well, who else is a humane society supposed to protect? There are several online detractors who still constantly accuse Carol of killing Amanda or faking her death, and of being something of a suicide stage mother. These same people are likely to come after me for daring to write about Todd as an individual, rather than evil incarnate. They will smear my reputation and insist I am somehow connected to the Todds because of my father’s last name. I am not related.

Q: I think the most incisive thing you wrote about the tone of the Internet is that it presents like a sociopath’s brain.

A: After doing so much research, it dawned on me that here is a world where you don’t have any feeling for the other person, because you can’t see them, you can’t read the necessary human cues and, eventually, you can become so disinhibited, it’s as if they don’t even exist as people. And, as I kept thinking about it and I thought, “Isn’t that the structure of a brain of a psychopath?” I found one theoretical psychiatrist who looked at that theory and said, “You know, it’s definitely possible.” We need to think about it. If we’re putting ourselves into a position similar to the way a psychopath walks around in his life—“I can’t see you, I don’t care about you, I don’t even recognize you as a person and I’m motivated by getting what I want, satisfying my needs online”—well, that’s a pretty serious problem.

Q: You have serious issues with the proposed federal legislation, Bill C-13.

A: C-13 proposes to make it illegal to share intimate images of another person without their permission. It’s aimed at curbing people taking intimate images and sharing them, especially somebody online who convinces someone to flash or to show various body parts—which, by the way, is an increasingly popular activity. We see those people sharing those images in public school, we see it in high school, we see it with adults. C-13 proposes to punish that activity if, in fact, police can even track down the people who’ve done it.

Okay, but there are 65 pages or so tacked onto the back of the bill making it easier for the police and the government to surveil what all of us are doing online. This bill would make it legal for every individual in possession of any of your personal information—the emails you’ve sent, the websites you’ve searched, the people you’re in contact with—and your metadata, which is when you sign on online, how long you stay there, what worlds you go to—to turn over to police that information without a search warrant, not in every case, but in some. The way people can be swept into that surveillance state is frightening. Now we’re considering blanket immunity for anybody who turns others’ personal information, including telecom companies, Internet service providers, the people who run Google, your neighbour, your ex-spouse, everybody? Under the guise of ending revenge pornography and the horrible exploitation of other people, the government is trying to grab a whole bunch of new surveillance power that, once again, is going to curtail free speech. This, too, will shut us down and drive us away from the Internet. This is wrong.


This excerpt contains disturbing and graphic content.

As much of the Internet-connected world well knows, Amanda Todd took her own life in the late afternoon of Oct. 10, 2012. That day, she joined the tragic list of young people whose suicides are blamed in part on cyberabuse. But unlike the situation with most young victims, the details of Amanda’s death ricocheted through the Internet’s fibre-optic cables, protocols and packets to burst onto computer and television screens and newspaper front pages in every hemisphere. Websites devoted to her death—some respectful and memorializing, others gruesome— earned millions and millions of views, as candlelight vigils flickered across the world.

Yet, what very few know is that Amanda’s death didn’t stop the abuse she’d reported. Every single day since trying to breathe life back into her daughter’s still body, Carol Todd is attacked online by tormentors, cyberbullies and conspiracy theorists who traffic in lies and profanities about them both. Much of it is cruel, sexist, and threatens violence.

It’s all your fault your daughter died. You are personally responsible for her death with your blatant negligence. Why the f–k didn’t you take away your whore daughters webcam. Answer: because you’re relieved that she’s dead, and that you no longer have to compete for your ex-hubby’s romantic attention. Can you really blame him, fatty? Go kill yourself . . .

Carol, maybe if you had kept an eye on your slutty daughter and taken away her Internet privileges after she started whoring herself out online, she wouldn’t be dead right now. If Amanda was too young to be responsible for her actions (as so many of you claim) then obviously her irresponsible pieces of s–t parents are at fault. Someone should just arrange a Todd family bleach-drinking contest. Honestly.

I m sic sic disgusted that this stupid white bitch kid is getting so much attention when my sister got raped and her pictures put up for every1 to laugh at. why dont we get some caring? f–k off/die

Why did Amanda’s case receive so much attention, much to the chagrin of some commentators, many of them young? Because weeks earlier, Amanda had issued a unique plea for help over the Internet, a video she shot in her bedroom with the computer audio and camera equipment she’d used to upload her songs, chats, and, it would be revealed, a bit more.

In the eerie nine-minute video she uploaded to YouTube, Amanda hides her face behind white flashcards on which she’s written the story of her short life—the bullying, extortion, depression, self-medicating, cutting and previous suicide attempts. Her presentation is lonely and stark, its minimalism setting the despair in high relief. Afterward, hundreds would copy her technique, none with the same effectiveness as her plea for help—a plea that became a living suicide note.

Well after her suicide, fake websites still pop up blaming Amanda (and her mother) for the multi-dimensional bullying (on and off-line simultaneously) and sexual extortion she recounted.

what a f–king joke page, bitch lied about her age to get on an adult cam sight, showed her tittes to the first guy who asked then wants me to feel sorry when he showed them to everyone? give me a break, any 10 year old knows anything put on the Internet is there forever. how about a page for people who are bullied for something they have no control over like their looks? I’m glad she offed herself, one less dumb slut in the world. p.s. she’s not “smiling down on you from heaven, she’s looking up at you while she burns in hell.

She never deserved any respect. Have you seen her disgusting pictures? Underage sex, drinks, drugs—she’s better off gone, I can tell you—except that it’s all fake. She’s still alive and in care

So she slept around, flashed her boobs, then people told her she’s a slut and she killed herself? Seems legit

In the now-famous video, Amanda told the world that she wanted to “die so bad” that she drank bleach. But that didn’t stop her bullies, who hammered away at her online and off.

Nobody cared . . . 6 months has gone by . . . people are posting pics of bleach, clorex and ditches. tagging me . . . I was doing a lot better too . . . They said . . . She should try a different bleach. I hope she dies this time and isn’t so stupid.

They said I hope she sees this and kills herself . . .

After Amanda took her life that autumn day, the RCMP announced it had assigned some two dozen officers to the case. But when weeks turned into months without a public statement, the online backlash against Carol and Amanda intensified. Seven months after Amanda’s death, I asked Carol Todd to take another look for any evidence of the bullying and extortion. When she didn’t call back, I thought she’d come up empty-handed.

Late one evening, I picked up the ringing phone to the sobs of a woman in serious emotional pain. Todd had recalled that Amanda had borrowed her laptop. In the computer’s trash, she found Facebook posts Amanda tried to delete. Some of the comments appear to be ones Amanda quoted in her video. Below you can see the verbatim Facebook exchanges Todd sent me—online posts, which appear to be confirmation from the bullies themselves that Amanda had allegedly been their target.

She had been “tagged” in the Facebook conversation, which means she would have been alerted that her peers were talking about her. The number of “likes” and shares on the Facebook screen captures I received indicate that more people than were writing were watching and applauding as the teens ridiculed Amanda. (The names of the Facebook writers are visible in these postings, but I’ve given them pseudonyms in consideration of the ongoing investigation.)

Lisa: eww who would be f–ked up enough to drink bleach why wouldn’t she just jump off a building or something and kill herself before she gets pregnant by . . . and lays eggs that would be literally the spawn of satan

zach: I dont know asker shes pree f–king dumb

Karee: u guys are ruthlessly ruthless

Karee: but LOL

Lisa: eww i wouldnt waste a second of my time talking to that

zach: bhahahahha Karee

Karee: u guys are still wasting your time on Amanda todd are u jokin seriously

Karee: this pics acctually so ruth. She drank bleach its nothing to make fun of her for, she drank it to commit suicide to get away from all u f–king kids making fun of her lol

Karee: . . . i hate her but thats ruthless

Lisa: we arent wasting our time on her we are wasting our time making fun of her hoping she sees it and kills herself

Lisa: well i am

Karee: lol i love you but dude she already tried killin herself n s–t

Karee: ur a bitchhhhhhhhhhh

Karee: she moved away to get away from u guys, u guys keep following her life wtf obv u are wasting ur time on her, when shes not even beakin you you guys go out of ur way to post pictures n go on and on about her

Lisa: lol i dont care she neds to try harder shes so dumb she doesnt even know how to kill herself properly

Karee: LOL

Karee: why dont u write idown proper ways n sent it to her in the mail

Lisa: i dont have her address i dont care enough this is just funny

Karee: u just dont care about everything eh

Lisa: anything*

Karee: i hate mixed drinks :p

Lisa: me too i prefer the splash less clorox plus over the walmart brand

Karee: does it splash less..

Lisa: no not at all

Karee: what the f–k does it mean

Lisa: it means it tastes better actually im not sure ask Amanda

Karee: ii dont have her on fb

Karee: or else i would


zach: She did it for attention n at least she clean inside of her body n got all the grease n jizz out

Drake: hey guys not nice

Lisa: your not nce peace

Lisa: nice*

zach: Drake n ur one to talk ehh loool

Brad: Thats f–kin hilarious

Angela: kay, Lisa, saying you want her to kill herself, People posting pictures and tagging her in it and laughing at her is a little to ruth and i agree with what Karee is saying. Like ya, Lisa your pretty cool, but saying that kind of s–t doesn’t make you even more cool. The only reason why she “drank bleach” is because of this, People making fun of her. I’m sure if you went through her situation, you’d be doing some pretty ridiculous things as well. Kids all around the world do things like this when being bullied, not always for attention either, maybe they feel like they have nobody anymore? & i know alot of people who i bet you guys know to, who have tried stupid things or have been bullied. I don’t care if i’m being an “lg” right now, i’m just sticking up for her, because apparently all of you think it’s funny for someone to end their life at such a young age. & ya, i bet I sound pretty stupid, but really, she moved away because of all this, she was trying to forget about it. and now she’s starting to be happy again, and then you had to bring back her past, what if she pulls something even more stupid now? You guys will probably won’t care, but i’m sure her real friends and family will.

Lisa: that was too much to read and no f–ks are given because its Amanda todd, something like this will never happen to me because i will never go masturbate and flash a webcam when im like 12 and i will never go for guys with girlfriends and i will never f–k some skid on his sweater behind value village and i will never lie to and backstab my friends and if i want to comit suicide ill do it fast and painless and not as stupid

Angela: yeah, that’s pretty f–ked, but still . . . does this all have to be said on Facebook?

Lisa: baking cookies and cupcakes all day today who wants one i wouldnt mind going for a walk to deliver them :*

CAL: Can you come to that dotch behind the value village and bring some windex or mr clean to wash it down? – Amanda Todd

Lisa: message me if you want one theres 12 vanilla rainbow cupcakes so first 12 get one . . .

Desiree: You’re an angel bb Lisa

Carol Todd says the RCMP had taken Amanda’s computer as evidence after her death. “They would have checked the deleted material, right?” She sounds incredulous as the information sinks in.When contacted by numerous press outlets, the RCMP would say nothing more about Amanda’s case than, “It is an ongoing investigation.” Todd says they were just as uncommunicative behind the scenes. She’d put her faith in the national police, but that reliance was turning to anger.

Around Easter 2014, Carol and Norm Todd met with the RCMP to learn, just two hours before the press, that Aydin Coban, a 35-year-old Dutch man, was in a Netherlands jail, suspected of sexually extorting youth around the world. Canadian prosecutors, intent on extradition, had just laid charges against him for criminal harassment, extortion, Internet luring and child pornography—in the case of Amanda Todd. “Our commitment to Amanda throughout this investigation has been unwavering,” RCMP Insp. Paulette Freill told the Todds. Yet, questions remain: What more could the RCMP have done in the two years between complaints of Amanda’s online and off-line abuse and her 2012 suicide?

Since losing her daughter, Todd has become an ambassador for children’s mental health rights and an end to cyberabuse. She has travelled thousands of miles across North America, speaking to governments and communities alike. Yet the tormentors follow her still, accusing her of hiding the truth about Amanda’s online behaviour, a narcissistic courting of public attention, and—without proof—of financial mismanagement (the foundation is not administered by Todd, but by the arm’s-length community funding organization, Vancouver Foundation).

Everywhere on the web there are posts accusing Todd of killing her own daughter, or of faking her death for the spotlight, driving her child to suicide by permitting her to drink and smoke marijuana, or of ignoring her and being a terrible parent.

Most days, Todd holds strong against the people who still attack and defame her and Amanda online without consequences. The harassment persists, she says, often intensifying at the cruellest moments—Amanda’s birthday, the monthly anniversary of her death, and whenever Todd is involved in awareness-raising events, which some say overshadow other deserving cases.

“I’m just a mom trying to help others so they won’t know this pain.”

Excerpted from Extreme Mean: Trolls, Bullies and Predators Online by Paula Todd. Copyright © 2014 by Paula Todd. Excerpted by permission of Signal, a division of Random House of Canada Ltd. All rights reserved.

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