Mount Royal University student Zoe Slusar logged onto Facebook on the evening of Wednesday, Sept. 14 to write a status update about an unsavoury interaction she had at school that day. She posted it, then tried to put the event out of her mind.
Suddenly, her friends messaged her to check Facebook and see what people were saying about her. She explains, a foreboding sense of uneasiness started to creep in.
By the next day, Slusar had become the topic of conversation on an international scale.
The video which was uploaded online by another student, showed Slusar accusing Matt Linder of hate language on campus. In the video Slusar urges Linder to remove his ‘Make America Great Again’ Donald Trump US presidential campaign hat.
Ian Soliterman, the Mount Royal University student who recorded and posted the video to Facebook, added the caption: “The Millennial sickness right here at MRU. ‘His hat stands for ‘”Hate Language,’” she says. #SaveOurSouls.”
Several weeks have passed since the video surfaced online. It garnered hundreds of thousands of shares and comments across multiple media platforms, and put Slusar in the line of fire of vicious Internet attention, nationally and internationally.
In the wake of the video’s large audience exposure, Slusar became an overnight celebrity in the worst of ways. Her Facebook inbox became flooded with messages from enraged strangers.
She says the messages she received were, “Not only attacks on your person, your right to live and exist — they were thoughts on how you should kill yourself, and the urgency of you should do so immediately.”
One such comment proceeded to outline not only the messenger’s wish for Slusar to be, “raped by all of the muslims and people of colour that you are trying to protect,” but the writer then went on to say, “I hope that then I can come and smother you in the hospital and whisper ‘Make America Great Again’ into your ear while you breathe your last breath.”
Threats flooded into her inbox, her parent’s home phone line, and whatever other contact information people could find.
Dr. Thomas Keenan, a professor at the University of Calgary and author of best-selling book Technocreep says that some of this aggressive behaviour can be attributed to the fact that it all unfolded via the Internet.
“There is no question that people behave differently online,” says Keenan. “In real life you’re getting punched in the nose if you say something like that — on the Internet nobody knows who you are, so the reality is you can get away with a lot more.”
Slusar was never physically attacked but the comments she received online quickly began to feel like mental blows.
“I know for that weekend from Thursday to Sunday was probably the darkest place that I have ever been in, and even since then,” recalls Slusar, fighting tears, “there have been several instances where… it feels like my life is ruined, and it feels like it will never be the same.”
The negative attention became so great that even Soliterman, the pro-Trump supporter who posted the video, says, “It got pretty stressful knowing that something I posted would cause such publicity and any death threat, even if it’s kind of a prank or whatever was going. There was a couple days that I was overwhelmed with what was going on.”
Within a few days of posting the video, Soliterman released a statement on his suddenly much more popular Facebook page urging people to lay off of Slusar.
It read in part: “Being able to share a video that went viral is surreal,” and that his intention was to post it and have it be circulated within his Conservative circle of friends only…”
“Unfortunately, it has been taken too far. Vile threats to the woman through her family are completely disgusting and unacceptable behavior, and [I] wouldn’t ever wish it upon any fellow peer regardless of differing opinions.”
He finished by urging his followers to, “continue raising awareness for the heavily misunderstood ‘Make America Great Again’ campaign,” maintaining that in regards to Slusar, “the public exposure was bad enough of a punishment; there’s no need to take it further.”
Internet mob mentality
By this point the Internet mob has already thrown their punches. Keenan says that the Internet makes it much easier to mobilize this sort of mass attention.
He explains that the difference in the Internet age from physical mobs is that, “you’re sitting there in your underwear and you type away and now you’ve joined the mob.”
“I think we all have frustrations in life when things don’t go the way we want them too,” says Keenan. “It’s so quick and easy to type in something and it stays up there forever and you can’t take it back.”
“It’s a complete monster that will never go away, and that you’re powerless against, because it’s a whole world in the online system,” says Slusar. “I don’t feel like they are empty threats, I feel that they are real threats made by empty people and that there’s a reason people use the word ‘troll.’”
Keenan agrees that Internet ‘trolls’ are a present day reality, citing how some major news stations often have full-time comment moderators to ensure such language doesn’t appear on their websites. Others simply turn-off the comments section entirely.
“I hate that,” says Keenan. “It’s kind of sad that we’ve shut down dialogue because of trolls and nastiness.”
In Slusar’s case she agrees that the dialogue around the initial incident shifted far from that of her original interaction with Linder.
“None of this should have been about me or about Matt. The fact that the Internet takes wider concepts and makes it about individuals is part of the danger,” says Slusar.
Policing the online world
The danger of being targeted online is not something the Calgary Police Force is taking lightly. Their recently instated Cyber Investigation Response Team aims to deal with situations that unfold via the Internet.
“As technology has continued to advance in society and investigations have become more complicated, the Calgary Police Service needed a robust response to fraud and cyber type events,” says Detective Jeremy Wittman with the Cyber Investigation Response Team.
Wittman says that just because a crime transpires via the Internet, does not mean it is not taken seriously.
“Social media and the Internet are a great forum for expressing ideas and talking with people, but that doesn’t mean that you can threaten or bully people in a criminal manner. Those laws have always been in place, just the venue has now changed.”
That terrain is difficult to police, Wittman adds, “with the volume of information that is constantly out there,” and in dealing with the anonymity that the Internet grants attackers.
Wittman encourages anyone to contact the police if they feel they are being threatened or harassed — whether in the physical world, or the digital.
As for Zoe Slusar, she is ready to put the whole incident behind her, but has filled out a police report, and will be taking it to the police station.
The editor responsible for this article is Savaya Shinkaruk, firstname.lastname@example.org