Sunday, May 27, 2012

Looks Respectable, but is She a Facebook Harasser?

By Paul Bracchi and Tanith Carey

(U.K.) Hiding anything? Kirsty Chapman looks like a respectable mother - but her photograph appears next to a pseudonym on Facebook that sends vile abuse to memorial pages

Appearances, they say, can be deceptive. Kirsty Chapman (blonde, slim, pretty) is perhaps living proof of this.

To the outside world, she is a respectable housewife and mother of three. Most days she can be seen out and about in fashionable jeans wheeling a pushchair near her home in Wales. Remember these details — in particular, the fact she has three children. They make what you are about to read all the more shocking.

For Miss Chapman’s photograph has become chillingly familiar on the internet. Often her Facebook photograph has appeared next to a pseudonym. One of these is ‘Percy’, whose activities have become notorious — targeting the bereaved with vile insults on Facebook tribute sites. It would be hard to imagine a more cruel or sadistic ‘hobby’. One such memorial site was created for 16-year-old Megan Moore, who died when she tripped and fell under a train at Angmering station near Littlehampton in West Sussex in 2009.

Among the countless (sincere) messages of condolence for the hugely popular Megan was one from ‘Percy’: ‘Did this whore really have over 10 thousand friends?’ it said. ‘Or is that her client list?’

‘Percy’ has also joked about abusing Madeleine McCann. The precise wording cannot be repeated in a family newspaper.

The online slang for individuals who specialise in this kind of abuse is ‘troll’. They get their perverse kicks by leaving malicious outpourings on discussion forums, chatrooms, blogs and, most commonly, memorial sites, with the sole intention of causing pain and grief.

Miss Chapman denies she is Percy. Her photograph, posted next to Percy’s sickening attacks, were put there by someone else, she says. It would be easy for anyone to take her photo from Facebook and it would certainly take someone with a twisted ego to put their own picture next to such abuse. So is she being trolled herself?

Jessica had a loving, very middle-class upbringing. So how did she become a victim of the Rochdale sex gang? Perhaps she has made an official complaint to Facebook? ‘No,’ said her boyfriend Darren Burton. ‘What the f*** can she [Kirsty] do about it?’

In fact, there is a procedure for removing fake identities from Facebook. To begin the process, users can click on the ‘help’ button after logging onto the social networking site, then choose the option marked: ‘Report abuse or policy violations.’ Some might think Miss Chapman’s failure to do so is surprising.

Most revealing, perhaps, is the fact she lives with Darren Burton, who says he met her trolling and who is, by his own admission, a serial ‘troll’. His alter ego, or internet persona, is ‘Nimrod Severn’. Burton, a railway worker, and Miss Chapman have been together for more than two years and are believed to be engaged.

Among the memorial websites Burton has targeted are those of singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse and murdered student Anuj Bidve, gunned down in Salford, Greater Manchester, on Boxing Day. ‘Rot in p***’ is the message Burton left for those grieving Anuj’s death.

When Burton was once challenged online about the hurt and upset he was causing bereaved families, he replied: ‘F*** ’um.’

He has also singled out Madeleine McCann. His vile contribution, using his Nimrod alias, was left on a website specifically set up to mock the missing youngster and her parents, called ‘I Found Maddy . . . She Was Under The Bed All Along’.

And guess whose posting is directly above Burton’s odious comment? The aformentioned ‘Percy’, accompanied by a picture of Kirsty Chapman.

The term ‘troll’ is thought to derive from a fishing technique of slowly dragging a baited hook from a moving boat. Internet ‘trolls’ post inflammatory remarks (the metaphorical ‘bait’) to trigger a response from those they have abused (the metaphorical ‘fish’).

Trolls say they do it for the ‘LULZ’, or laughs, a computer variation of LOL, meaning Laugh Out Loud.

In other words, their sociopathic behaviour is as much about manipulation and control as causing offence and inducing despair.

It is an offence under Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, punishable by up to six months in prison, to send an ‘electronic message’ that is ‘grossly offensive’ or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character’.

Last year, though 3,105 people were prosecuted, the statistics cover all forms of electronic communication, including phone calls. In reality, there have been only a handful of convictions for internet trolling.

Yet the list of those who have been subjected to sickening abuse at the hands of ‘trolls’ grows longer every week. According to the mores of this dark sub-culture, anyone is ‘fair game’.

The BBC called in the police over racist internet attacks on Ruth Brown, a contestant in its talent show The Voice, and former Blue Peter presenter Richard Bacon recently told how he and his family were subjected to a barrage of lewd and sinister comments from an online persecutor.

The scale of the problem, and the difficulty in identifying perpetrators, means ‘trolling’ is all but impossible to combat. Nevertheless, the small number of successful prosecutions do provide a revealing insight into individuals who usually remain hidden from public exposure.

Few could have guessed that Frank Zimmerman, from Barnwood, Gloucestershire, was a culprit. Neighbours say he is well-educated and speaks with a ‘posh’ accent. In a previous life, he was, apparently, a children’s author. Now aged 60, with long, white hair and a straggly beard, he was regarded as a harmless, reclusive eccentric. The worst that could be said of him was that, over the years, he had allowed the once pristine garden of his semi to become overgrown.

Yet a few weeks ago, he sent a chilling email to Tory MP Louise Mensch.

‘You now have a Sophie’s Choice,’ he wrote. ‘Which kid is to go? Who will you choose?’ The question was a reference to the 1982 film Sophie’s Choice, in which a mother, played by Meryl Streep, is forced to decide which of her two children will be sent to the gas chambers.

Mrs Mensch was also told her that her computer had been hacked and that images of her family would be posted online.

The email, which contained foul-mouthed insults, left her feeling ‘extremely scared’, she said. It was traced to Zimmerman’s computer through its IP address — a unique code assigned to every terminal.

Zimmerman was convicted in his absence last month after he failed to turn up in court. He was warned he could face possible imprisonment when he appeared before a judge two weeks ago. Sentencing was adjourned for reports.

Megan Moore who was killed after falling between a train and the platform was the victim of trolling

Indian student Anuj Bidve was gunned down as he walked with a group of friends in Salford - and he was the victim of trolling

The devastating legacy of ‘trolling’ can still be found on Facebook memorial pages for John Paul Massey, a four-year-old who was mauled to death by a pit bull terrier at his grandmother’s home in Liverpool more than two years ago.

Today, visitors to the site are greeted by a warning from the youngster’s mother. ‘All of John Paul’s pages are being monitored by police intelligence,’ she wrote. ‘Be warned, your computers will be traced and you will be imprisoned just like Colm Coss.’

Unemployed Coss, 38, from Manchester, was jailed for 18 weeks in 2010 for leaving obscene comments on the site. He also preyed on other sites, including one in memory of reality TV star Jade Goody. He said he found it ‘amusing’ and enjoyed the reaction, particularly from ‘more educated people’. Coss was arrested after sending photographs to neighbours describing himself as an ‘internet troll’. He lives in a ground-floor flat in Manchester’s Ardwick district.

Asked if he had any remorse for what he did, he replied: ‘This was two years ago. It’s done and dusted. It’s over. I don’t want to answer any questions whatsoever.’

Sean Duffy is another revered name among ‘trolls’. He persecuted the families of at least four dead youngsters. His stock in trade was defacing photographs of his victims with swastikas. When 15-year-old Natasha MacBryde took her own life by jumping in front of a train on Valentine’s Day 2011, Duffy put her face on a YouTube clip of Thomas the Tank Engine and renamed it ‘Tasha the Tank Engine’.

He had previously doctored a picture of another victim, who died in a car crash, adding the caption: ‘Used car sale, one useless owner.’ Cautioned in 2009, Duffy, who claimed he had Asperger’s syndrome, was jailed for 18 weeks last year. He is banned from Facebook and other social networking sites and has to inform police if he buys a mobile phone with internet access. Duffy, whose father is a writer, used to live just a few miles from his parents’ home in Tilehurst, Reading, Berkshire, but has moved away.

As we know, though, not all ‘trolls’ are unemployed loners like Sean Duffy and Colm Coss, or, indeed, are male. Back in South Wales, we caught up with Darren Burton (aka ‘Nimrod Severn’) at the flat he shares with Kirsty Chapman and her children.

Miss Chapman was in, but did not come to the door. Burton admitted to being a ‘troll’ for the past two-and-a-half years, but said that he has stopped. His excuse for targeting memorial sites is one often trotted out by ‘trolls.’ ‘I think grief should be a private thing — I don’t understand why people who have lost someone need to tell everyone about it,’ he said. ‘And I don’t get why people who never knew the person who died feel they want a slice of the action by jumping on a bandwagon. They’re just “grief tourists”. It’s not really me saying those things anyway, it’s another person I become when I go online as Nimrod Severn or whatever name I assume.

‘The online world is not the real world.’ And people, he says, can ‘log off’ if they don’t like what they find.

He flatly denied that Miss Chapman was ‘Percy’. She had ‘trolled’, he admitted, but had never targeted memorial sites.

Last year, however, they were interviewed by a man who has spent the past two years monitoring the activities of ‘trolls’ for a book. The source wanted to include Burton and Chapman and they agreed to speak to him.

The conversation on Skype (that is, a conference call via computer) took place in December and lasted more than an hour. The Mail has a copy of the tape. On it, Burton refers to Miss Chapman as ‘Percy’. He speaks about his feelings for her and reveals how they met.

Interviewer: ‘She [referring to another female troll he spoke to] says Percy is really lovely an’ all.’

Burton: ‘Yeah, sure. I wouldn’t be with her if she wasn’t.’

Interviewer: ‘Did you find love through trolling?’

Burton: ‘Yeah.’

Miss Chapman also talks about ‘Percy’. At one point, she jokingly asks: ‘What did you think of Percy — did you find him handsome?’

Frank Zimmerman aimed abuse at MP Louise Mensch

There were also a string of admissions from Burton about some of the people he claims they have targeted, including Ayana Colbert, a black teenager from Georgia in the U.S. who killed herself in April 2010. Shortly after her death, a photograph of a black woman, resembling Ayana, hanging from the neck was posted on the internet and captioned: ‘Most Chimps Like to Swing About.’

The racist slur was attributed to Burton (aka ‘Nimrod’) at the time. When questioned about this by the interviewer, Burton says: ‘No, Kirsty’s done that as well.’

Confronted by the Mail, Burton did not deny such a conversation took place, but claimed he and Miss Chapman were ‘winding up’ the interviewer because they knew he had ‘outed trolls’ in the past. Or, as Burton also put it: ‘He [the interviewer} has “f***** everyone else up”, so they “f***** his head up”.’

What was Burton’s justification for his trolling? Ah yes, if the bereaved don’t like what they read on the internet, then they can just ‘log off’. Try telling that to the loved ones of Megan Moore, the 16-year-old who fell under a train. ‘A work colleague told me that Megan’s page had been targeted,’ says Megan’s mother Lorraine, an assistant manager at a pre-school. 'I wanted to look at the page to see what her friends were writing, but I knew that I would find it too traumatic, reading those horrible things. Still, to this day, I have not looked and cannot bring myself to do so. These trolls have to be stopped before they do the same to another family. I cannot understand what motivates them. They cannot ever have lost someone close to them or they would know what we are going through.’

As a mother of three young children, Kirsty Chapman, if she is Percy, should know that better than anyone.

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