A crazy case of internet vengeance results in multiple charges

I’m calling this vengeance but it might actually be something less focused and more deranged than that makes it sound. The person at the center of this case has apparently been lashing out at lots of people for a very long time. We’ll come back to her in a moment but first let’s savor the truly strange world we now live in.

Last month the NY Times published a story about a software engineer named Guy Babcock. Babcock lives in England and one day in 2018 he got a warning from his father that people were saying bad things about him online:

Mr. Babcock, a software engineer, got off the phone and Googled himself. The results were full of posts on strange sites accusing him of being a thief, a fraudster and a pedophile. The posts listed Mr. Babcock’s contact details and employer.

The images were the worst: photos taken from his LinkedIn and Facebook pages that had “pedophile” written across them in red type. Someone had posted the doctored images on Pinterest, and Google’s algorithms apparently liked things from Pinterest, and so the pictures were positioned at the very top of the Google results for “Guy Babcock.”

Even as he was struggling with what had happened, he discovered that whoever had targeted him had also targeted his brother, his wife, his sister, etc. Literally every member of his immediate family except his 8-year-old son had been targeted by someone making false accusations. Babcock reported the allegations to police in England and in Canada where his brother lives. British police told him to gather evidence and he began putting together a document off all the false claims and one day he recognized a picture associated with one of the complaints:

Mr. Babcock stared at the photo in shock. He hadn’t seen it in decades, but he recognized it instantly. The woman’s name was Nadire Atas; this was her official work portrait from 1990, when she worked in a Re/Max real estate office the Babcock family owned outside Toronto. She had initially been a star employee, but her performance deteriorated, and in 1993 Mr. Babcock’s father had fired her. Afterward, she had threatened his father, according to an affidavit filed in a Canadian court.

After searching Nadire Atas name, Babcock found another woman in Toronto, an attorney, who had received similar treatment. In 2018, Babcock sued but he was far from alone. In all, a total of 43 people have sued her over her online behavior. That does not include an estimated 100 other people she has targeted who have not directly joined the lawsuit. But even after she was caught red-handed and jailed for contempt of court, she kept going:

Early last year, Judge Corbett found Ms. Atas in contempt of court because she had written to another judge, violating the restrictions placed on her as a vexatious litigant. She was sentenced to 74 days in prison. While she was locked up, the online attacks slowed to a trickle. (The fact that they didn’t cease altogether might have been because some complaint sites take content from one another, a pattern of mimicry that can keep attacks flowing.) When she was released in March, they resumed. Ms. Atas told me it wasn’t her.

As the NY Times began began working on the story, someone began targeting author Kashmir Hill with identical harassment:

During an interview with Ms. Atas in November, she grew angry that I planned to write this article. A week later, someone started writing posts about me and my husband on Cheaterbot, BadGirlReports and some of the other sites where Mr. Babcock and others had been targeted. The posts claimed that my husband was a drug addict and that I was a plagiarist who slept with my boss in order to get promoted. Ms. Atas said it wasn’t her.

Hopefully, you see what I mean about this going well beyond targeted vengeance. Today the Times published a follow up story. Nadire Atas has been arrested:

Nadire Atas, a Canadian woman who wrote thousands of online posts defaming her perceived enemies, was arrested on Tuesday by the police in Toronto. She was charged with crimes including harassment and libel, a Toronto police spokeswoman said…

Ms. Atas was charged with 10 counts each of harassment, defamatory libel and spreading false information with the intent to alarm, said Caroline de Kloet, the police spokeswoman. “This was a lengthy, complex investigation involving numerous victims,” she said.

Some of the people she has targeted have been dealing with this for nearly five years. That’s a long time to have someone messing with your life without any consequences. It makes me wonder how many people like this are out there, people whose inner bully is empowered by access to the internet. And how many of them never get caught because they aren’t quite as unhinged as Ms. Atas appears to be.