Travis Alkins never met Nadire Atas and she doesn’t know him from a hole in the ground. But that didn’t stop the southern Ontario woman from including the East Ferris carpenter in a tangled web of lies posted online to get back at her enemies.
And despite a ground-breaking Superior Court of Justice decision in January and the arrest of Atas in Toronto last month, her dirty deeds continue to smear the reputations of 150 victims.
See: Caplan v. Atas, 2021 ONSC 670
“I just want to make sure people know it's not true and how easily people can be tarnished by somebody they don't even know just by posting something online,” Alkins said, referring to how he and others are labelled as pedophiles and whatever else that might embarrass them. “And you can't get it removed.”
Go ahead and Google his name for yourself to see what the married father of two children and local small business owner is up against.
First to pop up are posts on websites like thecheatalert.com, adulterers.org and catfished.net with his name, business and local communities screaming across the screen in bright big letters: “Pedophile…Beware of this monster.” Look a little further down the list of Internet search suggestions and there’s even a Wordpress story with his name and photo inserted in an actual pedophile ring article.
“Hopefully people don’t believe everything they read on the Internet these days but I’d like to get it clear that I am not associated with it at all,” Alkins said.
The court ruling and the Atas story has made headlines in the New York Times and has been covered by the CBC, but victims like Alkins are too numerous and not mentioned specifically. Another court judgment expected later this month will name all 150 in an attempt to exonerate them. Also part of the ruling, Atas is required to hand over the passwords and alias names she used to find and remove as many of the anonymous postings as possible.
But they doubt they can get them all off the Internet. Many of the websites are protected by American “freedom of speech” laws where online platforms are not responsible for what is published. And some of them are set up to charge fees for removing content, something akin to “blackmail.”
Travis Alkins was targeted because his wife Melanie has an aunt who worked for a law firm that was hired to repossess property Atas lost as she went bankrupt. The court found she scoured the law firm’s available staff lists and then went after their relatives.
“Her targets included people she was seeking revenge on, including my Aunt, whom she believed to have ruined her life,” said Melanie Alkins, describing how they were included. “Ms. Atas found my Aunt's family member’s names through my Grandfather’s obituary online, then searched on social media for images, and inserted them into fake news articles.”
The Alkins first noticed the posts in 2017 but didn’t realize what was going on and who was doing it at first. Her aunt was targeted as part of her work in 2008 and hadn’t realized how far it had reached into her extended family.
“I didn't know really about Travis being attacked until my niece reached out to me and said, ‘Do you know anything about this or what we can do about it?’ And I said, ‘Well, actually, I know who it is and we are doing something about it,’” Christina Wallis of Wallis Law in Belleville, ON recalled.
“This has been a nightmare for my family members and others,” Wallis said, describing how she left the original law firm and moved away from Toronto as an attempt to get away from the links to posts about her but it didn’t work.
Wallis said Ontario law needs to catch up to the Internet because most of the defamation law and court precedents were written before the world wide web.
“Our Libel and Slander Act in Ontario is very, very old and has not been updated. It's really written for the times of newspaper print. It doesn't deal with the Internet,” she said, noting the few judgments that do reference the Internet don’t include proper ways of making things right. “The remedies aren't there to stop this and it's not properly addressed.
“So the hope is that this case prompts the government to take a look at the defamation laws in Ontario and maybe throughout Canada and take a look at the impact that the Internet has on defamation and maybe change those laws.”
See: Ontario Superior Court recognizes new cause of action addressing internet harassment
The official judgment is still being hammered out, Wallis said, but it will declare Atas as the poster of these defamatory posts, including a list of the website URLs and victims, and that they are not true. Atas, she said, will also be ordered to remove them with a schedule and designates available to ensure it’s done because she’s banned from using any device connected to the Internet.
Wallis said there’s still a long road ahead of them, adding they are still dealing with contempt charges when Atas didn’t follow previous court injunctions and the ruling also will be likely appealed.
“This should not be allowed to happen and people should not be allowed to falsely put things on the Internet that destroys or adversely affects people's lives,” Wallis said. “I think free speech is important and people should be able to comment, but they need to do so responsibly.”
Wallis feels bad about her work impacting those connected to her, such as her niece and her husband.
“I vouch for Travis's character,” she said. “He's an upstanding citizen. He's a business man in this community. He's a family man. He's a wonderful person. And I am so sorry that this has happened to him as a result of my dealings in my law practice as I am other family members. It's just tragic. And if I can help clear his name, I want to do that.”
The Alkins are tired of it all and looking forward to not having to worry what people might find online.
“It has been four years now since we first noticed the Internet attacks against Travis,” Melanie Alkins said. “We tried to have them removed, with no success. This has been extremely upsetting and stressful, as we do have young children … it’s difficult to even know how far her damage has reached.”
Travis Alkins said the situation gets more serious as his children get older and have their friends over and begin to play more sports. These kinds of rumours spread among parents behind the scenes and could end up hurting his children. He also hoped to help coach their teams and it’s not clear how this impacts the required police reference checks.
“I'm not one to look for attention, so this is kind of hard for me, but it is what it is and I would like to get it clear that I am not associated with it at all,” he said.
None of his customers or people they know have approached them and said they saw what’s online yet, he said.
“They might not say anything because it is kind of an awkward topic,” he said.
Wallis said it’s a lot more complex than people would initially think.
“A lot of the websites are really extortion sites,” she said, explaining how someone can put these lies on a variety of platforms that republish them over and over again. “They take these posts from other websites and they post them on their own site. And then they contact the victim and say they’ll remove this posting if you pay us, for example, $5,000.
“And so these websites are really extortion sites and some people do pay, and then they say, ‘OK, there's more postings. So if you want those removed, we require more money. Look how successful we were. We got the last one,’” she said.
“We need the laws changed now throughout North America and not just in Canada, but United States as well, to stop this type of activity that's ruining people's lives,” Wallis said.
Dave Dale is a Local Journalism Reporter with BayToday.ca. LJI is funded by the Government of Canada.
Dave Dale, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, BayToday.ca