They mostly came from anonymous Twitter accounts. Somebody called “DepressedSaintsFan” names her and then says: “We need to get a hit out on this bitch.” Another calls her daughter “a cock-hungry slut”. But it’s just the tip of a larger, altogether nastier iceberg: phone calls, a strange car that turned up in her street, and dozens of abusive, barely literate threats and insults and libels against Laws, her daughter, her husband. This is the price you pay, it turns out, for taking on a 27-year-old website owner called Hunter Moore, or, as he came to be known, the “Most Hated Man on the Internet”.
This is, given the internet, and what is on it, quite a title; it was bestowed by a BBC reporter back in 2012 and subsequently adopted by Moore as both a badge of honour and a handy marketing tool. If you traffic in human misery, it’s the kind of endorsement that will bring in a few thousand more Twitter followers, more hits, more advertising revenue. Because Moore’s website, isanyoneup.com, operated in the murky world of “revenge porn” – a modern-age phenomenon that almost makes you long for crinoline skirts and steam-powered engines.
Moore’s schtick was publishing compromising photos and videos of women (and some men) together with their full names and as many identifying details as he and his followers could find: their geographic location, their occupation, their address. It was, like Facebook, he claimed, perfectly legal “user-generated content”. It was usually their exes who sent him the photos, though others were mysteriously “found”. Ex-boyfriends, ex-husbands, some ex-girlfriends out to humiliate their one-time partners. To compromise their jobs. To professionally embarrass them and personally hurt them. To reveal their most personal, intimate details to the world. And in some cases – the women who were judged not fit mothers because of pornographic content on the internet, or who were sacked from their jobs – to ruin their lives.
Moore called himself “a professional life ruiner”. He compared himself to Charles Manson. And Charlotte Laws didn’t just take him on. She mounted a two-year investigation into his activities, compiled a dossier of evidence from more than 40 victims all over the world, and then led the FBI to his front door. In January he was indicted for conspiracy, unauthorised access to a protected computer and aggravated identity theft. He faces up to 42 years in prison. “Unless he gets off,” says Laws. But she doesn’t really want to talk about that possibility. There are potential repercussions either way. Hunter Moore has “followers”, people who identify themselves, after Charles Manson, as The Family. It’s unclear what they are or aren’t capable of.
It’s two years since Laws first heard Hunter Moore’s name. Her daughter Kayla, then 24, was an aspiring actor who was working as a waitress in a restaurant, and her email and Facebook accounts were hacked. Nine days later a friend told her that a topless photo of her had been published on the internet, alongside her name, her location and her Facebook and Twitter IDs. Minutes later, she was on the phone to her mother. “She was freaked out; she was in tears. She said: ‘Something horrible happened’ and she came home and she didn’t want to come out of her room. It was embarrassing and humiliating and all her friends knew and the picture was passed around her workplace. It just… kind of circulates, you know?”
For Charlotte Laws it was an unexpected, unwelcome entrée into a seedy underworld that until that point she’d known nothing about. For an 11-day period back in 2012, she threw herself into getting Kayla’s photo off the internet. She wrote to Moore and asked him to remove it in accordance with the terms of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. He ignored it. She wrote to his attorney. To his hosting service. To Facebook. To his internet security company. She tried to find an expert to take the case on. But, she says:”I quickly realised there were no experts.” She had no choice but to become the expert.
She contacted the LA police who “basically said Kayla shouldn’t have taken the photo”, and in desperation rang the FBI. “If a hacker hadn’t been involved, there would have been no case to answer and the site would still be up. But because there was, they took it seriously,” she says. Eleven days later, her husband spoke, attorney to attorney, to Moore’s legal representative and told him about the FBI investigation, and the photo finally came down. Basically, says Kayla, “they messed with the wrong mom”.
“Revenge porn” doesn’t cover the half of it, she believes. “It’s pure misogyny. It’s about hating women. It’s about hurting them. That’s the whole purpose of the site. It wasn’t about the pictures. There were hundreds of people self-submitting photos, but they’re not victims because they are saying: ‘Hey, you can post my nude picture.’ But that wasn’t interesting. The thing is humiliating people. The kind of people who would never post their photo on a site like that, and who have a lot to lose. Who have high-profile jobs, or could have their entire life destroyed. That’s what he found enjoyable. That’s what his followers found enjoyable.”
While I think what Charlotte Laws has done is great, and it’s great that there are laws being drafted in the US to try and stop this, there is something very limited about ‘stop revenge porn’. I hope to write about this in more detail at some point, but to summerise my uneasiness, what is happening with this is that women are being split into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ victims. ‘Revenge porn’ affects ‘good women’ who never chose to be turned into porn, the ‘bad women’ who ‘choose’ to do porn (regardless of their socioeconomic situation at the time), and who have it used against them later when they have a mainstream job, well, they aren’t ‘deserving’ victims. The same with prostitution too, a child victim of commercial sexual exploitation can end up with a criminal record that means they can never get a good job and have to spend the rest of their life in poverty, but so what? They aren’t nice middle-to-upper class white girls whose father is an attorney and whose mother has the time and resources to fight for her.