A Charlotte woman’s experience with online harassment through anonymous social media accounts has highlighted a potential blind spot in state law — it doesn’t explicitly label such harassment a crime.
Now some lawmakers are grappling with how to address such predatory behavior while still protecting an individual’s constitutional rights.
Jaclyn Brzezinski can’t quite pinpoint why she’s being harassed online, but she believes it started because someone took photos of her and used them to “catfish” people online about two years ago. Catfishing is the use of someone’s photos to impersonate that person, usually for romantic purposes.
But it wasn’t until May of this year that someone — or maybe even multiple people — have started harassing her online, including posting pieces of her private information.
“It’s not just a one-off random thing where someone is just doing random prank calls, they happened to pick me,” she said. “Someone, in their mind, is trying to get me fired from my job. So it’s someone very malicious, very angry for some reason.”
Brzezinski, 32, is a small business owner who makes jewelry. She has a sizable online following through her business’s Instagram account, but she’s not as active on Twitter. So in June when her sister started receiving text messages from an anonymous Google phone number that said “Twitter would ruin (Brzezinski’s) life,” she was confused.
“I hadn’t even logged on and posted anything since last September,” Brzezinski said. “So, I was like, how is Twitter going to ruin my life? I don’t use Twitter; I only have it for my business.”
Brzezinski had another friend text the number to try and figure out who was sending the cryptic messages, but to no avail. Even before the text messages started to arrive, Brzezinski was receiving “sexually explicit, vulgar” messages on Instagram and blocked the user who sent them. That didn’t stop them though, and more accounts popped up. Brzezinski continued to block the accounts. She’s not sure if those messages came from the same individual (or individuals) contacting her sister, but it’s part of a “series of weird events.”
”For days afterwards, I was constantly thinking about it,” she said. “Who is this person? Who is messing with me? Who has a reason to want to mess with me? I couldn’t figure it out.”
Eventually Brzezinski took to Twitter to find out how it could possibly “ruin her life.” There she found a Twitter account impersonating her — using her full name and photos — including those taken from her Instagram account. The account included a “doxing document” that contained personal information, including Brzezinski’s address, old phone numbers, email address and information about her company.
Other accounts on Twitter were talking about her using anti-Semitic remarks and doctored photos of her and her family members. Other accounts impersonating her popped up as well. The accounts used other racist content, including the N-word. The account impersonating Brzezinski made veiled threats against her and other members of her family. “At the beginning of it I was terrified of these people but now I kind of have a better understanding at least that they’re cyberstalkers in a basement somewhere,” she said.
When Brzezinski went to report the accounts to Twitter, the company gave the impersonating account 48 hours to comply with its parody account rules.
Once she started reporting the accounts for copyright infringement and threatening to sue — because the photos were taken from her business Instagram account — Twitter responded by taking down the photos and the accounts started disappearing. But more kept being created. Brzezinski then went to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.
At first, an officer told her they couldn’t help her, and a second interaction wasn’t positive either, she said. Since those first two attempts to file a police report, Brzezinski has been in contact with the CMPD’s cyber crime unit and officers there are seeking to subpoena Twitter to obtain the IP addresses of the accounts harassing Brzezinski. However, it could take months to pinpoint where the accounts originated, and even then the IP addresses could be from a public location like a coffee shop with WiFi. CMPD confirmed that a detective is actively working on Brzezinski’s case.
It became clear to Brzezinski during her interactions with the CMPD that state law wasn’t clear on what constitutes cyberstalking or harassment.
Under current state law, it’s illegal to harass or stalk anyone by means of “electronic mail” or “electronic communication.” But the law doesn’t directly list social media as a form of electronic communication. However, a legislative analysis document obtained by the NC Insider says that messages or posts on social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook are considered electronic communication.
Cyberstalking is considered a Class 2 misdemeanor, which has a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail. If the accounts were made by someone out-of-state, they could be extradited, but according to the legislative analysis it would be unlikely.
During her talks with the police, Brzezinski drafted a Change.org petition and reached out to Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, to discuss how to address ambiguities in state law. She said he emailed with her for a few days, and she worked with his staff to write the petition.
She said in her talks with Jackson, they determined that the state law concerning cyberstalking needed to be clarified to include social media — not just electronic communications. In an interview with the Insider, Jackson said when it comes to someone’s personal information being posted on social media, if there is “any legitimate question on whether that protection exists in our laws, then we need to clarify that it does.”
Since talking with Brzezinski, Jackson has taken a closer look at the laws and had “three or four conversations” about the current laws and how they can be interpreted, “because this is fundamentally a question of interpretation,” he said. He added that he’s not yet ready to introduce new legislation.
Rep. Chaz Beasley, another Mecklenburg Democrat, said state law needs to be able to keep up with technological advances — without the language becoming obsolete as soon as the latest social media craze hits the internet.
“I do believe that we can both strengthen our laws to protect people ... while at the same time making sure that our constitutional rights are protected,” Beasley said.
Laws addressing cyberstalking and online harassment can face legal challenges. A cyberbullying law was struck down by the N.C. Supreme Court in 2016 because it unconstitutionally restricted free speech.
Beasley said any new law would have to have enough protection built into that it’s not prohibiting speech. He said his office is working on a bipartisan effort to address modernizing the state’s laws.
During the legislative short session this year, Beasley gained bipartisan support for an amendment that strengthens protections for victims of date rape. The amendment clarifies state law to say that anyone who has been drugged or slipped a controlled substance without their knowledge is “mentally incapable” of consenting to sex..
For Brzezinski, the harassment hasn’t slowed down. On Tuesday when she spoke with the Insider, she said another account had popped up “five or six days ago.” She said Twitter took it down.
Throughout the ordeal people have given her suggestions that she’d already pursued. “When you’re actively being stalked like that it’s hard to not have a short fuse with people when they’re offering suggestions of things you’ve already done,” she said. “You’ve gone to the police, and you’ve done all these things and exhausted all your options and there is nothing they can do to help you.”
Brzezinski has been vocal about her experiences in an attempt to make it easier for victims in the future. Beasley believes that once more people like Brzezinski speak up and receive a positive response, others will feel comfortable coming forward.
“If there is a negative response, then that can be the opposite, and discourage people to speak up, which is exactly what we don’t want,” Beasley said.