What Happened When a NASA Astronaut Got Harassed on Twitter
Documents obtained using the Freedom of Information Act show the extreme lengths law enforcement went to to protect an astronaut from Twitter harassment.
Time and time again, those who have been harassed on Twitter have pleaded for the social media network and law enforcement to take threats against them seriously. What has to happen, some openly wonder, to take meaningful steps to curb harassment? Well, apparently it helps if you're an astronaut.
In late 2013 and early 2014, Twitter, Google, and three law enforcement agencies in two countries tracked down a British woman who allegedly harassed a NASA astronaut over the course of several months in 2013, according to documents obtained by Motherboard using a Freedom of Information Act request.
According to the documents, the astronaut and the woman began direct messaging on Twitter and also texted and called each other several times. After the woman realized the astronaut had a girlfriend, she began sending "false and malicious statements that include excessive profane and abusive language," according to the documents. Motherboard will not be naming the astronaut out of respect for his family's privacy.
The case is particularly notable for its thoroughness: The woman was visited at her home by British law enforcement at the behest of NASA, photos of her and her mental health and police records were shared between law enforcement agencies, and she was put on a Customs and Border Patrol watch list that would have immediately alerted authorities if she tried to enter the United States. To be clear, these are highly unusual steps for law enforcement to take in a harassment case.
"It is extremely rare for someone to receive a visit from law enforcement as a result of Twitter harassment," Eva Galperin, a global policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told me.
Twitter and law enforcement actually did something in this case, which is what makes it so highly unusual. Online harassment existed before the infamous and ongoing GamerGate movement, but particularly horrifying and highly publicized instances of online rape and death threats levied at game developers Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu; Amanda Hess, Anita Sarkeesian, Anna Merlan; and countless other journalists, feminists, and social media users rarely result in any law enforcement action whatsoever.
Merlan, a Jezebel reporter, detailed her and a handful of other female reporters' frustrating experiences with law enforcement in a piece about "harassment lit" published in January 2015. "Then comes the part of the harassment lit story where you go to the police and nothing happens," she wrote. "The police are particularly disinclined to view online threats as urgent."
So what does an actual harassment investigation look like?
According to the NASA Inspector General, a NASA astronaut, whose name is redacted in the document, began direct messaging and tweeting with a woman in the United Kingdom. Eventually, the two exchanged numbers and began calling and texting each other. After the woman became aware that the astronaut had a girlfriend, she allegedly began harassing him and the other woman.
"Subsequently, [the astronaut] received numerous tweets from the [woman's] account that included expletives and stated something to the effect of 'she could be your daughter' and 'she's younger than you," according to a summary of an interview with the astronaut obtained from the NASA Office of the Inspector General. The astronaut then unfollowed her and texted her to tell her that she "needs to 'calm down' and 'chill out' and ask[ed] that she refrain from attacking his friends."
The woman then allegedly created additional accounts and sent him additional messages and tweets "wherein she [made] false and malicious statements that include excessive profane and abusive language." Specific tweets and messages were redacted by the Office of the Inspector General.
The Inspector General served Twitter and Google with subpoenas that were used to confirm the woman's account activity, her IP address, and, eventually, her identity. The Inspector General then asked Customs and Border Protection to look up if and when the woman ever entered the United States (she had, several times in the early 2000s), and obtained a photograph of her. The Inspector General agent then called in a favor to a detective constable in the United Kingdom, who provided NASA with a dossier of her, including her address, additional photos, and her mental health history. The dossier and photos are redacted in the documents obtained by Motherboard.
She was put on a Department of Homeland Security watch list that would immediately inform law enforcement "in the event that [she] attempts to enter the United States," and local police were sent to her home to interview her and to threaten to arrest her if she didn't stop harassing the astronaut.
"She states she has spoken to the male on Twitter but that he has also been contacting her and that nothing has gone on [for months]. She states she has not sent anything threatening, harassing, or abusing, she also denied making fake profiles to send abusive messages to herself," an email from British law enforcement to NASA reads. "She has been advised if there is any further harassment, she is liable to be arrested."
Another British officer called talking to her an "interesting job."
"She also stated that he had given her his email and mobile phone number," that officer wrote in an email. "[She] stated that [the astronaut] had rung her a couple of times and that she had rung him once."
The NASA Inspector General ultimately determined after these visits that "the contacted officer … found nothing out of the ordinary, and determined that [the woman] was not a danger to herself or to others."
The investigation was closed.
The Twitter harassment problem is complex, made up of some mix of issues with human nature, Twitter's open platform, and with law enforcement's technical literacy and willingness to take these issues seriously, as Merlan pointed out in her piece for Jezebel.
If you agree that online threats should be taken seriously by law enforcement, this is a potential version of what such an investigation looks like. It requires police who understand social media and who perceive threats on it as potentially dangerous, and it requires cooperation from Twitter and other social networks. In the United States, it requires law enforcement officers who understand where the First Amendment starts and ends, and it requires a serious investment of time and resources.
It might require law enforcement talking to the harassers. But does it require extensive information sharing and federal watch lists? The approach taken in this NASA case is not only invasive, it's also impossible to scale, given how widespread a problem online harassment is.
Most agree that such cooperation between all parties for a case of Twitter harassment or threats happens exceedingly rarely, but because Twitter holds its cards so close to its chest, it's hard to put a number on how often a case looks like this.
Twitter regularly complies with court orders—according to its most recent data, it provided information to US government entities (including local, state, and federal law enforcement) in 1,948 cases in the first six months of 2015, of 2,436 total requests. Twitter won't, however, say how many of these cases involve harassment or personal threats, versus how many pertain to, say, threats of terrorism or admission of a crime. Twitter told me it would not comment on specific cases or provide more granular data to Motherboard. Twitter and law enforcement do seem to act quickly, however, when tweets involve threats of mass violence or threats of violence against police officers.
"There's nothing weird about this. The government did what you want it to do when you try to file a case about abuse," Galperin of the EFF said. "If we want them to get better about harassment, giving Twitter flack in this case is kind of crazy."
What's weirdest about it, given what we know about online harassment, is that an investigation happened at all.