This post is by Dr Anna McFarlane. Anna is a postdoctoral researcher on the Wellcome Trust-funded Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities project at the University of Glasgow. She is the co-editor of Vector: The Critical Journal of the British Science Fiction Association and Adam Roberts: Critical Essays (Gylphi, 2016).
In this post Anna tackles a little discussed issue in academia – cyber stalking.
Reading it sent a chill down my spine and I can only commend Anna on her bravery in raising it on the Thesis Whisperer, which has an estimated readership of around 50,000 people. You’ll see what I mean when you read it.
I passed my viva in December 2014 and I’ve done my best to make a name for myself. I’ve read all the advice, I’ve written as many articles as possible, and I’ve publicised everything that I’ve done. I’ve done public talks for university outreach programmes, I’ve guested on the academic podcast Viva Survivors, and I have an up-to-date academia.edu profile. I’ve blogged about events I’ve organised and I’ve maintained my Twitter account under my real name, tweeting about every academic event I attend.
All of this information is publically available online and in my email signatures. It doesn’t take much to find me.
This is all the kind of thing that I’m supposed to be doing. I’ve read all the career advice and even at a recent academic event for postdocs we were coached on ‘Shameless Self-Promotion’ to build our online reputations and give us the edge in the job market. For me, every new link, publication, or even tweet represented a welcome addition to my profile, one that spoke of my credentials to potential employers, or fellow academics looking for peer reviewers, or speakers to invite to their events.
I have to remind myself of the many benefits this kind of online presence can have, because a few weeks ago it went sour for me.
I’m currently working as a postdoc on a project at the University of Glasgow, the Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities project. Like many early career researchers nowadays I have another job, working part time in my local library. One day I was answering university emails and I came across one from a name I didn’t recognise.
I looked at the content of the message, but it seemed to be part of a conversation. There was no salutation, and the text itself wasn’t referring to anything as far as I could tell. I received another that day, and a third. I’ve seen comments on blogs before that were clearly generated by a bot; text copied and pasted from elsewhere on the net, spliced together to achieve the illusion of human written speech, but gibberish on a closer look. I assumed these emails were being generated by a similar bot so I sent them to my junk box and thought nothing more of it.
It was seven weeks later on a Sunday evening that I signed into my email to do some admin and my partner happened to look over my shoulder. ‘How can you have over 500 emails in your junk? Don’t you ever check it?’
I have to admit, I almost never check my junk box, and even as the numbers had risen ever higher it never occurred to me that there could be something threatening about this. We looked through a message or two and I vaguely remembered seeing those first messages. ‘It has to be a bot’, I said, ‘Look at this, it doesn’t even make sense’. Rambling messages, always seemingly taken from the middle of an ongoing conversation, began to take on a sinister aspect. There were repeated references to feminism (something I always support, and the topic of a conference I organised a couple of years ago), conspiracy theories, and repeated references to stalking.
We began to accept that this was a real person, someone who had emailed me every night, again and again, for weeks.
The experience was akin to a horror movie, ramping up the tension and the fear with every new revelation. That first moment, understanding that we were dealing with a real person, filled me with dread.
When I began to see descriptions of my physical characteristics I knew that these emails were specifically meant for me, not sent out randomly by some weird phishing bot. When I saw my name, and the name of my workplace a cold fear gripped my heart and adrenaline coursed through me. It was only then, given the context, that I recognised the name on the emails as someone who used the library where I worked, and I reached another level of terror, shaking and almost in tears. As we read on, the content of the messages became increasingly intense and often sexual.
Before this experience I’m not sure that I would have understood the anxious and horrified state that simply reading some words on a screen would induce in me.
Part of it was the rambling nature of the messages, their delusional content, the failed attempts at logic or rationale. It made me think about the nature of reading itself. When we read someone else’s writing our brain temporarily adopts the patterns of another person’s mind, which is part of the pleasure of a well-argued sentence, or a beautiful metaphor.
Reading the outpourings of this diseased mind was like biting into a fresh apple, only to find it a mass of sticky brown rot on the inside. The more I read these ramblings, the more insane I felt I became myself.
After discovering the messages I spent an almost sleepless night listening to podcasts in the dark because I was too afraid to leave my partner, but found that closing my eyes in the silence brought the words and the fear back to me. Adrenaline spiked over and over again and I couldn’t sleep. That night the You Must Remember This podcast and the Kermode and Mayo Film Review took me through the long hours to daylight.
It seems from personal experience (and this study has found the same) that women often feel (or are made to feel) responsible for crimes against them, particularly if those crimes have a sexual dimension.
There was no possible way that I could be held accountable for my experience, but the feeling plagued me nonetheless. If I hadn’t put so much information online (defying all the careers advice I’ve picked up over the last six years), if my university email address was private (defying the expectations of my institution and anyone who wanted to contact me about my research) then maybe I wouldn’t have this Dossier of Disturbance in my email account.
These niggles were only exacerbated when the police officer taking my statement asked me if I had ever done anything to encourage the perpetrator.
Luckily, I suppose, I was able to categorically deny this; I had always had a bad feeling about this person, even during our brief interactions (‘Here’s your book’), but if I had smiled, as my customer service training repeatedly insisted, would I be more to blame? Or if I had stopped to chat about the weather? Or would a lack of online visibility simply have forced the perpetrator to approach me in real life? Would he have simply moved onto someone else, maybe someone less equipped to deal with the situation?
It’s this feeling that urged me to write about the experience, first on my Facebook page and now here.
Treating this as a private matter is anathema to me, it seems to imply that the relationship constructed in this person’s mind is real in some way. To hide it away would be to make it ‘intimate’ *shudders*.
I went to the police the morning after I discovered the emails, and the perpetrator has now been arrested. Hopefully this will keep me safe, and might even end up giving him the help with his mental health that he so clearly needs.
I was also well supported by both my workplaces. The University of Glasgow IT department kindly printed off every single one of those emails and had them couriered to the police so that the case could move quickly with as much evidence as possible.
My manager at the library immediately signed me off work for a week (something I’m so grateful for, at the time I was too anxious to realise how unfit for work I was). She also moved me to a ‘secret’ location (making me feel like an undercover spy) and changed my shifts so that I won’t be working in the evenings for a while.
All of these measures made the transition back into everyday life relatively quick and easy and my anxiety has now dissipated, though I’m still rebuilding my trust in people, particularly men that I don’t know very well.
Cyberstalking (like stalking of any kind) is not a private matter, it’s a public health issue, and one that needs to be dealt with head-on, especially in academic communities where our visibility can make us more at risk.
I’m very glad that I have never posted anything publically that specified my neighbourhood, it gave me some comfort through the worst of my fear. I’m also lucky to live in Scotland where the stalking legislation (although not without its problems) has been updated to take account of online modes of abuse.
Others may not be so lucky, but there could be other things that we can do to keep ourselves safe, and the first thing I had to offer was my story.
If you have tips for safe online academic living then please share them in the comments.
Thanks Anna! Let’s hope that you are free of harrassment in the future and thanks for sharing your story with us.