The age of the stalker
We've all done it, but when does the innocent scrutiny of an ex's photos on Facebook turn sinister? Where do you draw the line in this era of access all areas, asks Tanya Sweeney
Published 16/07/2011 | 05:00
As you read this, there's a very good chance that you know exactly where your closest friends are, thanks to the proliferation of Twitter and Facebook. You might have even cast a furtive glance at your ex's online profile sometime this week, keeping a surreptitious eye on his new partner's tweets to gauge their whereabouts.
As a term, 'stalking' has been bandied about with sheer abandon.
To some extent, we've all done it -- or, in a likely fit of pique or as a half-joke, breathlessly accused someone else of stalking us. Yet the inescapable truth remains that, thanks to technology, it has never been an easier time to be a stalker. But when does the innocent perusal of someone's holiday pictures end and something more sinister begin?
According to consultant psychiatrist John Tobin, 30pc-40pc of Irish women will have had experience of a stalker by the time they reach their 30s. What's more, the law linked to stalking offences -- Section 10 of the Non-fatal Offence Against A Person Act -- is being increasingly deployed in the Irish legal system. Who they decide to stalk is often arbitrary, although it's more common that females are targeted. As it happens, many people are being stalked and don't even know it.
"Most people who stalk are not mentally ill," he explains. "There are different types of stalkers, and the most common among them is the person who was in a relationship with someone. There has been a physical element to that relationship, and it's more common among males than females.
"This can come about as continually texting, following the person about, asking who they're with. It can then get nasty. The second most common form of stalker is one with a grievance against the person they're stalking; someone has done them wrong. It's more a righteous indignation issue.
"Lower down on the scale is the type of person who does not receive social signals, and doesn't realise how inappropriate is it to move into someone's emotional space," Tobin adds.
Kildare-born model Tiffany Stanley found herself at close range with an online stalker earlier this year. The 24-year-old blonde has been a stand-in for 'Desperate Housewives' star Nicollette Sheridan, so it's perhaps natural that she might command a certain amount of attention on Facebook. What she wasn't expecting was to be pestered online by a woman she didn't know.
"A lot of guys have been adding me -- it's creepy, but it's even weirder when it's a girl," said the former Miss Kildare recently.
'I'd never add anyone on Facebook who looked a bit odd, but this girl was in her late 20s and seemed okay, so I accepted the friend request."
Stanley said that the female stalker was following her online and adding every friend that she had befriended. "She'd contact friends and clients I'd worked with and ask, 'What's Tiffany like?' It became embarrassing and I was worried it would affect my career. Then she started messaging me every day, asking me what I was doing and where I was going. It was so creepy.
'I wrote back once or twice to be polite, but when I didn't respond she'd be like, 'Why aren't you writing to me?'" After four months of pestering, Tiffany blocked the woman on Facebook and Twitter, and had her mobile provider block her number.
Elsewhere, when Dublin-based blogger Ciaran McShane (not his real name) found himself the subject of unwanted attention from a female fan, he encountered a somewhat unexpected reaction from his friends.
"No men understand just how scary this situation is," he says. "Most people said, 'Is she good looking?', or told me I should be flattered. It was so annoying that people took it as a joke. But if someone's not acting like a rational person, there's no way of predicting what happens next."
Ciaran encountered Lynda (not her real name) via his blog two years ago, where she started leaving extensive, increasingly personal messages on his posts.
"From the get-go, she was absolutely crazy," he recalls. "Then the emails started coming every day; she thought she knew me and that I knew here, and the emails were very conversational and informal, saying things like, 'I just wanted you to know you're on my mind'.
Initially I tuned it out, but then one night I mentioned that I was going to a certain event on Twitter. I think I tweeted something like 'If you're in the area, come and hang out', but it was aimed at people who actually knew me. Anyway, she turned up and said hello to me like we were old friends. Her manner was so familiar, I thought I knew her. Then when she told me who she was I just turned around and walked out."
Initially, it was suggested that he simply block Lynda's emails, but "I figured I'd rather be seeing the crazy stuff she said about me than not, lest her mental state deteriorate.
"I even sent her a 'postmaster' email saying that the account had been deleted and that didn't put her off. She acted like an idiot, but by the same token she could be clever and sly enough when she wanted to be".
The attention subsided for six months, and Ciaran assumed that the episode was over. "Then she would show up at something, which was so dispiriting. When she arrived at another event, I ended up screaming at her, 'You're a psycho, I've told you a hundred times to leave me alone', but it didn't make a blind bit of difference."
Tobin suggests that because this type of stalker is infatuated with the subject of their attention, they believe that they're meant to be together.
"The recipient is often polite initially but this is entirely misread," he suggests.
"The message hits them, often when the law is called in, and then they pull back. Others get angry and then up the ante. For people who have been stalked, their space is intruded and there's a sense of emotional elevation which leads to sleeplessness and stress.
"I never say where I am on Twitter, and if people tag me on Facebook and Twitter I ring them up immediately and tell them to delete the post," says Ciaran. "Of course they all think I'm mad and possibly overreacting. Because the harassment has been entirely online, I've been much more careful about Facebook and Twitter. You don't want your whereabouts to be known and, when you think about, there's really no need to announce where you're going to be," McShane adds.
Yet herein lies the curious rub. A combustible combination of our obsession to document our social moves has caused a sea change. Come to think of it, there are no real guidelines on etiquette in this new world order. One minute you're casually ambling through an ex-boyfriend's new photos. A few clicks later, you've ended up perusing the photos of his new girlfriend's sister's wedding.
We are all stalking to some extent, mainly because the information is so freely available it seems daft not to take advantage of it. I know I'm certainly guilty of checking out Twitter, Google News feeds and Facebook more than I should. I'm also less than judicious when it comes to bandying about personal information, from a casual number exchange at the end of a boozy night to befriending a stranger on Facebook with whom we have mutual friends in common.
Just as Tobin suggests that stalkers have little idea of another's emotional space, it would seem that our very idea of what constitutes another person's emotional space has shifted en masse.
And, if you happen to be an obsessive fan of a celebrity, the internet is, well, Manna from heaven. From their innermost thoughts to public spottings, fans have come a long way from idling for hours on end in hotel lobbies.
According to Conor Lynch, MD of SocialMedia.ie, the proliferation of networking sites has changed the way we collectively think about stalking. "Facebook helps you share what you are doing, and now with Facebook Places you are sharing where you are doing it," he explains.
"'Following' someone's digital trail on Twitter is the acceptable face of stalking on social networks. It is now normal for couples to move in and out of relationships via Facebook updates and their relationship status. This is obviously a source of hurt and jealousy for many ex-lovers on Facebook. With this abundance of information available, it is bound to evoke curiosity in many people, which may evolve into stalker behaviour."
Technology is certainly on the side of would-be stalkers: "A new internet application called Firesheep allows users gain access to other Facebook and Twitter accounts for people logged in on the same open Wi-Fi network in areas such as internet cafés. It allows the 'hacker' to instantly invade the accounts of the other person who is logged on to Facebook and shows the vulnerabilities of Facebook security," Lynch explains.
'Earlier this year, KLM airlines ran a campaign whereby they gave their passengers free gifts. They got information through their passengers' social profile as to what gift they might like. The danger is that people are becoming more trusting online and people tend to have an insatiable appetite for information."
A rash of recent stories has hinted that the line between innocent stalking and something serious is becoming ever more blurred.
According to a new report by Women's Aid, technology is increasingly becoming a factor in the abuse of women. Facebook, Twitter and mobile phones are being used by abusive partners to monitor and control women, particularly younger women.
According to the report, women have disclosed instances of abuse such as their mobile phone calls and texts being monitored and social media and technology being used to stalk and control them.
Last month, Bournemouth teenager Emily Longley was found dead after posting on Facebook that she was being stalked. Two men, aged 19 and 17, were arrested by police but later released on bail, and the case is still ongoing.
Closer to home, a Westport court heard how Ray Collins from Newport sent a reported 658 text messages to an ex-girlfriend in a bid to win her back. One example of a text included: "Tinkerbell, I can do no more. I will not be texting no more. I will show everyone I will change." "We are the same" was also a regular line, which appeared to say they were meant to be together.
The court also heard that there were three or four incidents where they met out socially and Collins spoke to his ex. It was alleged that Collins approached her in a pub on January 9, 2010, and said "I'm going to kill you and that fool", referring to a person in her company. Collins was then remanded on bail to appear before the court in December.
Once upon a time, most of us had only heard of instances of stalking via the world of celebrity, where each story was more outlandish than the next.
Yet at a time when Facebook was a mere glint in Mark Zuckerberg's eye, Laura Sheehan (not her real name), now 36, an office executive from the midlands, was subjected to an 11-year ordeal from a stalker.
Perhaps not surprisingly, her online presence on sites such as Facebook and Twitter is non-existent; a rare occurrence in her industry, and one she admits puts her at a professional disadvantage.
"I was a wild child living in a small town and one night I had a huge house party while my mum was away," she explains. "The landline phone kept ringing and no one paid it any attention, but when I did answer it, this male voice said, 'Laura, I'm going to get you', in the scariest voice you ever heard. It started out of nowhere.
"I asked him what he wanted and he said, 'I want you to want me'. When I told him I didn't even know who he was, he was like, 'of course you do. You've walked past me so many times'. He'd always have Fleetwod Mac playing in the background when he rang, too. Everyone was fairly amused by it until they heard him on the phone. We tried to trace the call through Eircom, but to this day I don't know who he was. Maybe I ignored him or said no to him on a night out and it escalated from there."
After years of persistent calls, Laura moved away to the UK to study. "And I was sharing a house with some students when he rang at 4am. How he got the number I'll never know. The information he had on me was genuinely mind blowing. He knew everything about my family; stuff that no one else knew."
Perhaps not surprisingly, the situation had huge impact on Laura's day-to-day existence. "When I did meet someone, he'd ring up and call me a slut, telling me that my boyfriend was disgusting," she recalls.
"While I was single I would meet potential partners and all the while I would think, 'this guy could be him'. I really didn't want to be with anyone. For years, everyone was so scared on my behalf; even when I went to the toilet in the local pub there'd be a panic on if I didn't come back right away.
"I'm not as outgoing as before, and when I'm at home my mother drops me everywhere," she says.
Tobin suggests that "once there's a stalking scenario, there is a risk of harm, but it doesn't happen in the majority of cases".
Yet things came to a head when Laura's stalker approached her family home in Tullamore.
Despite seeing her stalker from an upstairs window, Laura still couldn't identity her tormentor, as he'd fled by the time Gardai had arrived.
"He was screaming about how he was going to make his name by killing me," she recalls. "The guards asked me if I knew who he was, and when I said I didn't know they told me that until he makes an actual physical approach and an attack, they don't yet have a reason to arrest him. It eventually died down, but he still rings every once in a blue moon.
"Because of him, I'll never join Facebook or Twitter, and even now I trust so few people. To this day, it annoys me that he got away with it."
As to how one might inure themselves to menace, Conor suggests that people address their privacy settings on social networking sites. "Only accept friend requests from people you know who are connected to other people you know. Watch out if somebody starts to regularly comment on your activity or photos and would be no more than an acquaintance with you."
Adds a garda spokesperson: "On some mobile phones, you can restrict communications to an approved list of contacts. Mobile networks can't generally bar numbers, but they will help you to change your number in the case of serious harassment. Serious incidents that could be illegal should be reported.
"Illegal issues could include someone making inappropriate sexual suggestions, racist remarks, or persistent bullying that can be seriously damaging to the victim's well-being."