A graphic designer who frequently engages in combative conversations on Twitter has been charged with criminal harassment, in another reminder that police officers are just as likely to intervene online as they are in the real world if they think someone is breaking the law.
Toronto Police said they charged a man Wednesday after Steph Guthrie filed a complaint about an artist she met to discuss a poster she needed to get designed for a women's group event. She said she began noticing him sending sexual messages to others, but when she made it clear the advances were unwelcome, the tone shifted and she began to feel afraid.
Her complaint sent officers to their Twitter accounts, and they began scouring the service's feeds for any tweets that could help them build their case. While Ms. Guthrie blocked the user and tried to cut off contact, her friends were receiving similar messages that they would forward to her via e-mail.
Several other Twitter users said Wednesday they plan to come forward to police in the coming days with similar stories. They all said that conversations would start civilly, but they would get a flood of angry messages tagged "#fascistfeminist" when they complained about the user's messages.
The messages have since been deleted from the user's account.
"Fortunately I have a good electronic record," she said. "I think it's important people realize that what happens online actually matters in the real world."
Much of what happened between Ms. Guthrie and the user took place in public, with other Twitter users following closely as the original argument intensified.
Ms. Guthrie said her public role as a feminist activist in the city had nothing to do with her decision to go to police – she said she was legitimately frightened by the tone of the conversations when she unsuccessfully asked the man to break off contact in August.
"This isn't some kind of publicity stunt," she said. "We do have laws."
Police took the unusual step of releasing the man's Twitter name yesterday, which is still active, as well as his most recent profile picture. Constable Wendy Drummond said they decided to include the information because they believe there are other women who may have been harassed, and they hope it triggers their memories.
It's not completely unprecedented – there have been several instances of harassment via dating sites in which police have released both profile pictures and user names in a bid to generate leads.
"It's for investigative reasons that we disclose that," she said. "We do it because the accused met the person through the use of Twitter, and the harassing was through Twitter. We do believe there are other victims out there and we put that info out there to make sure they are aware of what's going on."
Police said they charged Gregory Allan Elliott, 52, with criminal harassment and breach of a peace bond. He uses the name @greg_a_elliott on Twitter, police said.
He could not be reached for comment.