London - Like many mothers of a certain age, Nicola Brookes knew very little about the internet or how itworked.
At the point when she posted a seemingly innocuous comment on Facebook one night last November, Nicola’s only regular use of the social network was tokeep in touch with friends offering theirsupport after a bout of serious illnesshad almost claimed her life a few months earlier.
Nicola, 45, had no idea when she posted a spur?of-the-moment online comment about an X Factor contestant that she was to become the innocent victim of vicious internet ‘trolls’ - people who anonymously post inflammatory messages online. While the trolls were able to hide behind a cloak of secrecy, Nicola’s reputation has been systematically destroyed over the past seven months - making her Britain’s number one troll target.
They branded her a child-abuser, prostitute, stalker and drug dealer, and her age, appearance and illness all came under fire. The trolls even cloned her Facebook account, sending paedophilic messages tothousands of other internet users in hername. To this day, the abuse continues unabated, and Nicola has no clear understanding of why the perpetrators of one of the most modern and vile forms of bullying have chosen to pick on her.
Before all this, she would have seemed an unlikely candidate to be taking on Britain’s most obnoxious and organised band of internet trolls - and the might of the £67 billion global corporation that isFacebook.
But there are already significant signs that Nicola may win her fight. Last week, ina landmark case overturning the cultureof anonymity that has allowed web abuse to fester and proliferate, she secured a legal order from the High Court forcing Facebook to disclose the information that can be used to trace the identities of the trolls.
It is the first time an individual has won such an order. Nicola now hopes to pursue private prosecutions againstthe people responsible for months of vicious and depraved attacks against her.
Nicola’s case also appears to be spurring the British government into action. It was revealed that JusticeSecretary Ken Clarke is proposing new laws to make websites such as Facebook and Twitter responsible for libellous troll messages unlessthey reveal the identities of the bullies concerned.
Until that day, the agony goes on for innocent victims such as Nicola, a woman whom internet trolls have sought to portray as a sour-faced, over-sensitive busybody with money to burn on a legal case which attacks the principle of free speech.
In reality, Nicola, an attractive, down-to-earth woman, managed to secure legal help only because her lawyers believe so strongly in her case that they have waived their fees to represent her.
A single mother, Nicola moved from her native Sheffield to Brighton four years ago so her daughter, Harley, now 20, could start college there.
Nicola worked in customer services at some of Brighton’s best-known hotels. But in December 2010, a severe attack of Crohn’s disease - an inflammatory bowel disorder - meant she had to have an emergency operation to remove a section of her digestive tract.
As part of the treatment, she had to take steroids which made her hair fallout. At times she was so weak she had to use a Zimmer frame to walk, and she was relocated to a specially-adapted flat.
Last November, Nicola was beginning to fight her way slowly back to health and had signed up with a recruitment agency to apply for jobs in the charity sector.
One Saturday night, her daughter Harley was at home with two friends getting ready to go clubbing. They turned on television to watch The X Factor while they had something to eat.
Nicola recalls: “The girls were chatting about how Frankie Cocozza, one of the contestants, had been thrown off the show for drug use.
“They mentioned that he was being criticised for it on The X Factor’s Facebook page.
“I thought it seemed unfair that a 19-year-old boy who’d made a mistake was getting such a hard time.”
Nicola went on to the online page and was shocked by what she read.
“People were saying they hoped he’d get hit by a bus, or that they wanted to ‘p***” on him. It all seemed so unnecessary.”
The cyber bullying hit a nerve with Nicola for personal reasons, too. “Harley had been bullied out of school for no other reason than that she was talented at music,” she says.
“I saw first-hand the devastating effect bullying had on Harley and on one of her close friends, who committed suicide as a result.
“For that reason, I couldn’t stand by and say nothing, so I wrote a message on the Facebook page.”
Nicole wrote: “Keep your friends and your family close, Frankie. They’ll [the online bullies] move on to someone else soon.”
But when Nicola went back online a few hours later, the abuse had shifted from Frankie to her. She responded to some of the comments, hoping the furore would blow over.
But she was mistaken. When Nicola logged on again the next morning and received a message to her own Facebook account from a boy accusing her of bullying him, the full scale of what was happening started to dawn on her.
She never heard from the boy again, but she worked out that he’d been sent a bullying message in her name.
‘”he trolls had taken my profile picture on Facebook then set up a fake profile in my name, which is apparently easily done,” she says.
From the cloned account, trolls were sending out vile material in Nicola’s name, including paedophilic comments to young girls on Facebook.
She says: “You can see it, you know everyone else can see it - yet there’s nothing you can do. I felt nauseous.”
Nicola and her friends immediately reported these incidents to Facebook, but nothing was done.
The same screen names kept cropping up as the initiators. In all, there were about 20 names who were sending her repeated bullying messages, though Nicola’s legal team has now narrowed the culprits down to a hard core of around four perpetrators.
Within a few days, Nicola had collected a dossier of more than 100 screen-grabs of offensive material sent out in her name. She took the dossier to Brighton police station.
“The police’s attitude was that they couldn’t care less,’”she says.
“I told them insults were one thing, but fake pages set up in my name containing paedophilic material were much worse.
“The officer I spoke to insisted there was nothing they could do.”
Nicola came to realise she wasn’t alone in what was happening to her. Hundreds of people who could see shewas under attack contacted her to say they’d been subjected to similarabuse.
She was shocked and appalled by the cruel lengths to which trolls go to hurt people and ruin reputations.
“They’re trawling support sites looking for the mothers of stillborn babies, ill children or Down’s Syndrome kids to bait and victimise,” she says.
“They deface online pictures of those children and post them all over the internet, including on pornographic websites. The trolls look for the weak and the vulnerable whom they can get the maximum reaction from — and once you’re on their list, the abuse can go on for years.
“They pick on people who are grieving, relatives and friends of those who have died recently. But you’re told by the police and Facebook that there’s nothing you can do. You just have to live with it.
“The result is that trolls have become so arrogant, they’ve run amok.”
Indeed, they followed Nicola everywhere she went on the net. Even when she posted harmless messages online appealing for support for a charity, the trolls called her “attention-seeking” and”demented”.
“I’d log on every morning with an appalling sense of dread,” she says.
“My illness had taken its toll on the way I looked, and it hurt to be called an ‘old whore’ and portrayed as a toothless old hag. Sometimes I saw so many vile remarks — many of them sexual — that I became desensitised to them. But sometimes, when I felt very alone, I broke down.”
Internet trolls tend to glean as much information about their victims as possible by reading theirFacebook pages and any mention of them on other websites or indeed previous news articles. This is how they found out about Nicola’sillness.
She says: “They’d joke about my stoma [a surgically-created opening from the intestine to the outside of the body], about how they’d like it to explode, how they’d like to see my uterus drop out, and worse things I can’t even repeat.”
Nicola says the remarks about her illness made her most angry because she felt they were offensive to other sufferers of Crohn’s disease and to the medical team who’d fought so hard to keep her alive.
When the police refused to help, Nicola approached the law firm Bains Cohen, which took her case onfor free. It wrote a letter to Facebook, pointing out breach of copyright because trolls were using Nicola’s own photograph.
Two weeks later, the fake profile was finally removed.
In the meantime, Nicola had to set about the harrowing task of collecting evidence for her court case.
She says: “I thought that if they wanted a war, I’d give them one.”
There was some solace. Nicola started to get support from ‘anti?trolls’ - an underground network of internet users who patrol Facebook to keep track of trolling’s worst excesses.
Nicola says: “People don’t realise it, but there’s a battle between good and evil being played out on the internet as we speak.
“The anti-trolls get no recognition, but they’re doing all they can to report and cross-reference information so that, one day, trolls will be tracked down and brought to account.”
In an attempt to exploit Nicola’s every vulnerability, trolls found her daughter Harley’s profile then doctored a picture of her and placed it on the body of a lap-dancer.
For Harley, who works for a promotions business, it has been unbearably painful to watch her mother suffering so much abuse.
She says: ‘”he stress makes Mum’s condition so much worse, and not being able to answer back has made me feel so helpless. These people are unhinged. My mother’s a strong woman, and I’m proud of her because she’s done the right thing.”
On Mother’s Day in March, the trolls published Nicola’s home address on Facebook. She was so afraid that she started sleeping with the lights on and with a knife under her pillow.
Nicola is devastated that gullible members of the public have fallen for lies peddled by the trolls.
By this point she had been monitoring the trolls for a while and knew their screen names, so when she spotted others agreeing with them, she suspected members of the public fooled by the trolls’ lies were starting to join in.
She says: ‘”he most painful thing was when real people accepted what the trolls were saying was true: that I was a child abuser and drug dealer.
“One person said they’d like to set fire to me and urinate on my ashes because they believed what the trolls had said about me.
“That people are incapable of making up their own minds has changed my view of humankind. Watching people bait each other passes for entertainment in this day and age.
“It seems we’ve learned nothing since the days when Christians were thrown to the lions.”
Despite Nicola’s legal victory to make Facebook hand over information to help trace the trolls’ identities, the abuse against her is unabated.
The websites of her solicitors and of newspapers which have covered her case have been subjected to shameless attacks pouring scorn on Nicola and her fight for justice.
Her case is being watched with interest around the world. The next step is for legal papers to be served at Facebook’s California headquarters over the next six weeks.
Once Facebook has revealed her tormentors’ IPs - the unique number every computer has which can allow its user to be traced -investigators can identify them and start criminal proceedings.
Nicola has vowed she will not give up her fight to bring them to justice, even if doctors order her to do so for the sake of her health.
“These are dangerous people. If this is what they are doing online, what are their activities offline?
“Even now, they’re bragging that they will escape. But they’re wrong. The tide is turning against them.
“I look forward to looking across a courtroom into the eyes of the trollswho once thought they were so untouchable.” - Daily Mail