Toronto man charged with harassment through Twitter messages

Matt Coutts
Daily Brew

The world has been reminded once again that online insults, assaults and aggression do not go unnoticed and can lead to repercussions in the real world.

Despite a seemingly inherent belief to the contrary, Internet trolls are not allowed to hide behind the partial-anonymity of social media to protect them from their actions, be they criminal or simply stupid.

The Toronto Police Service announced on Wednesday that 52-year-old Gregory Alan Elliott was charged with criminal harassment stemming from months of Twitter messages that left a woman fearing for her safety.

The victim, who won't be named here, has identified herself on Twitter and says she reported Elliott because she felt unsafe and miserable. Many other users have lauded her bravery in coming forward. More have shared their stories.

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The charges were laid after one person complained, but several more people have already reached out to a police officer through Twitter, ready and willing to discuss their experiences with the accused.

The charges against Elliott have not been proven in court.

The investigation comes about the same time that nine Ontario high school students were suspended for making inappropriate comments about their teachers on Twitter.

Dufferin-Peel District School Board spokesman Bruce Campbell told CBC that some of the comments were sexual in nature.

"The school started the investigation over the last couple of days. We had nine students that were asked to remain home. Consequences will be meted out to these students," Campbell told the network.

These unrelated cases both stem from the apparent belief that the comments were made in the seemingly anonymous world of social media.

Alexandra Samuel, social media vice-president at Vision Critical, explained that phenomenon concisely to the National Post.

"Some people have argued that when we go online, because we are not engaging with people face to face, we lose the social cues that remind us to not be schmucks," she told the newspaper. "There are practices we need to engage in individually and that we need to normalize as a culture so that that doesn't happen."

Like in reality, it is up to each individual to decide when a comment or conversation has crossed the line. But limitations in blocking Twitter users means there is no way to totally tune out another person.

And that's the problem with social media. It has the innate ability to become a conversation you can't walk away from. There is no hanging up the phone call; no emergency at home you can fake to escape the awkward dinner party.

They are always there, poking at you. Trolling you, as they say.

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There is an excessive collection of Storify articles containing conversations with Elliot. Reading them may make you hate the Internet. They may offend you.

Exposure to too many of the tweets may actually make you stupider.

The school board has already ruled that the comments made by the Brampton students crossed the line, and it will be up to the court to decide whether Elliott's comments are considered criminal harassment.

For everyone else, these cases are just more evidence that cyberbullying has repercussions. It affects real people, with real fears.

And when those people stand up for themselves, cyberbullying can affect the trolls as well.