Cape Town - A Cape Town woman never imagined that leaving a comment on an online news story would result in a troll scattering her photo and identity around Facebook, with the claim that she was recruiting for the terror group ISIS (Islamic State).
Berenice Vietri, 45, told News24 on Tuesday that she had been commenting on a few news articles on Eyewitness News’s Facebook page at the weekend, using her own profile.
She is recovering from breast cancer and finished a round of chemotherapy and radiation a week ago.
She was conversing with another Facebook user about an assisted dying court ruling when she was interrupted by a third user “ranting and raving like a lunatic”.
Taken aback, she got her son to screen capture the comments and reported the abuse to the news organisation and Facebook.
“He had compiled an identikit of myself and he wrote my name and my surname on there, saying this is the woman who recruited the 15-year-old for ISIS.”
She said that the news organisation eventually deleted the allegations from its page and assured that they were following up from their side.
The so-called troll, operating from a fake Facebook profile, then flooded her Facebook inbox with numerous messages, which were shown to News24.
The messages are largely written in capitals and contain obscene and sexually explicit language, images and threats. The troll uses male pronouns, calls himself God and Troll, refers to the complainant as Zombie and claims to have orchestrated the deaths of people here and overseas, some in the public eye.
Vietri broke down in tears describing what had happened.
“It was terrible. He kept telling me he has got a bullet with my name on it. He said he is in control of my life and he is going to wipe me out and he is going to be the last man standing.”
Determined not to be a victim, Vietri decided to try and extract as much information from the individual as possible, to hand over to the police and to see if he really knew who she was.
She extracted a cellphone number for him and handed this over to the police, along with copies of all the messages and other information she had found.
She then blocked his profile.
Vietri, a second-hand clothing store owner, said the cyber-assault came as a shock because she had never had a similar experience and did not know where else her photo and identity had been posted.
“I cannot tell you what it has done to me over the weekend. I have been watching all over, looking over the streets, looking around to see if anyone has been looking at me, looking at my messages. He said to me: ‘and don’t take your sleeping pills’ and I got the fright of my life. I don’t feel like myself,” she said.
“It’s just been one long road for me and now this. But it hasn’t been too bad because I have had a lot of support and people around me all the time.”
Legal issues on social media
Western Cape police confirmed on Tuesday that they were investigating a case of common assault.
“No arrest has been made at this stage and investigations are continuing,” said Colonel Tembinkosi Kinana.
In South Africa, the definition of common assault includes both direct force and the threat of application of immediate personal violence to another.
Attorney Alicia Koch, who runs Alicia Koch consulting, said it was important for people to realise that their rights were legally limited on social media and that everything they posted had consequences.
“There are a number of legal issues which are at play when publishing anything on a social media platform: the right to privacy, the right to dignity and freedom of expression.”
She said a judgment handed down in the H vs W case in the High Court in Johannesburg last January, had brought clarity to the issue of defamation on social media.
“…the judgment recognised the harm a Facebook post can do to a person’s reputation and throws the weight of the court behind a person defamed [and who can afford the legal fees].”
Tips for using social media
Koch offers five tips for people who comment and post pictures on social media:
- Don’t use someone’s picture without their consent as it could infringe on their right to dignity, privacy and identity.
- Do not publish something as fact if you cannot back it up or cannot prove that you said it. Respect third-party copyrights.
- Think carefully what information you put online and check your privacy settings on Facebook. Criminals may be able to access information about your work, workplace or home, and target you.
- Remember that you are legally liable for anything you write or present online because individuals are considered publishers.
- Don’t risk a job and career by posting a comment or picture that is defamatory, pornographic or harassing.