Judge In Twitter Harassment Case May Have Been Fooled by a Parody Account
The case has been under scrutiny from all corners of the web.
Image: Flickr/Rafiq Sarlie
A judge dismissed all charges against Gregory Alan Elliot, a Toronto man charged with criminal harassment of two women on Twitter, on Friday.
Now, it appears that a tweet cited in the decision may have been sent by a parody account, and not Elliott.
In his decision, Justice Bruce Knazan described one of Elliott's tweets in particular as "homophobic," but nonetheless decided that his tweets were neither threatening nor sexual in nature. The tweet contained the line, "Enjoy your AIDS, #TOpoli faggots." #TOpoli is the hashtag used to discuss political happenings in the city of Toronto. This tweet may not have been sent by Elliott, however, leading at least one blogger to question the court's characterization of Elliott.
Elliott, a middle-aged Toronto man who describes himself as a poet and designer, was accused in 2012 of criminally harassing two prominent feminist activists on Twitter—Stephanie Guthrie and Heather Reilly—in a case that tested the legal limits of free speech on Twitter in Canada.
Since all the charges against Elliott were dismissed, it's unlikely that the tweet, which didn't exactly paint Elliott in a favourable light, would have had a substantial impact on the verdict. "I wouldn't consider it a 'wild development' since nothing in either case (Guthrie or Reilly) turned on Elliott's tweets being homophobic or not," Christopher Bird, a lawyer with the Gene C. Coleman Family Law Centre in Toronto, wrote me in an email. Bird added that, with respect to Guthrie, the court decided that the non-threatening and non-sexual nature of Elliott's tweets meant her fear for her safety was not objectively reasonable. For Reilly, the court determined that her behaviour was not fearful, and again, the allegedly homophobic nature of Elliott's tweets was not at issue.
Regardless, it underscores how difficult it is for the criminal justice system to untangle the mess of sock puppets and fake accounts that characterize online harassment.
In a section of the decision dealing with how the tweets presented as evidence were collected, Knazan notes that the police's method of searching for tweets using software called Sysomos was incomplete. To underscore this, Knazan quoted one tweet allegedly from Elliott that he said did not appear in the police's Sysomos search, nor in a DVD the prosecution provided to Knazan. Instead, it only appeared in a print out of a Twitter exchange started by a tweet that was found in the police's Sysomos search.
"Below that tweet is a tweet from Mr. Elliott," Knazan wrote in his decision. "@tapesonthefloor @rachelmack @amirightfolks You have accomplished nothing, and you will fall. Enjoy your AIDS, #TOpoli faggots."
The only problem is that this tweet was not sent from Elliott's known twitter account, @greg_a_elliott. Instead, searching for the text of the tweet on Twitter reveals that the tweet was sent by an account with the handle @greg_a_eliott. One commenter in the thread dismisses the tweet's contents, saying, "That's the parody account." Motherboard has not independently confirmed that the account is indeed a parody account and not, for example, an alternate account operated by Elliott.
Other tweets from the @greg_a_eliott account, which sent its last tweet on August 19, 2012, include a photo of a penis with the message, "This is all I have to say to the feminazis of #TOpoli."
Elliott's case has been under close scrutiny. The dismissal was seen as a victory for free speech by commenters on Reddit and Twitter, but many women who commented on the verdict also reported being harassed by men online. It's also worth noting that while Elliott may have not tweeted the homophobic tweet, his tweets were often vulgar or provocative. In one instance, he referred to Guthrie as "media whoring," and often used the phrase "fascist feminists."
Knazan appeared to be aware of the parody account, however, or one like it, as he mentions it several times in his decision. "Someone, not Ms. Reilly or Ms. Guthrie, had created a parody account with a handle similar to Mr. Elliott's," Knazan said.
The court has not responded to Motherboard's request for comment, and we will update this story if we hear back.