How a woman took on a Twitter harasser who threatened her with rape — and won
When the threats escalated, Foxlin found a way to hunt down the harasser and put an end to it for good
By Julie Bort
When start-up founder and robotics wiz Xyla Foxlin started gaining national attention, she became the target of a Twitter harasser. Foxlin tried to get Twitter to shut down the harassment, which involved rape threats. When the threats escalated, Foxlin found a way to hunt down the harasser and put an end to it for good. 20-year-old Xyla Foxlin is quickly becoming a name in the world of robotics. Still in college, she’s already running a start-up called Parahug, which makes a plush toy that lets you send a hug over the internet that your child can actually feel.
Parahug had a successful Kickstarter campaign over the summer where it raised US$53,415 from 389 backers. This will help Foxlin deliver the toys, hopefully in time for the 2017 holidays. It’s also helped the young Foxlin score an increasing number of speaking gigs, a few robotics awards, and the chance to star in a Microsoft commercial.
But that increased visibility also came with a terrifying dark side: a Twitter stalker.
See no evil
A few months ago, she started getting nasty tweets from a particular user. “It started out with sexual harassment, like ‘you’re sleeping your way to the top,’ and this went on for weeks of very sexually explicit tweets. And then it turned into rape threats,” she told Business Insider.
Foxlin reported the tweets to Twitter via the company’s automated harassment reporting tool and “nothing happening,” she said.
After her friends also started reporting the account, which seemed to be set up just to harass Foxlin as it had no other tweets, the account became private, meaning you could only view the profile’s feed if you followed it.
At that point, “Twitter cleared that as OK. And then it went back to being public,” she recalls.
The general advice on Twitter’s harassment page is to block the account, but this is sort of a “see no evil” approach. It only stops Foxlin from seeing the tweets and the person from seeing Foxlin’s account. It wouldn’t stop others from seeing them.
And Foxlin wanted to know what the person was saying about her because the harasser had moved on from insults to rape threats to “doxing” her, a term used for revealing identifying information about a person without their consent. In this case, the harasser tweeted out Foxlin’s address in response to Twitter users looking for sex, telling them Foxlin was a lady of the night.
The threat level had gone from alarming to beyond unacceptable and that’s when Foxlin sprang into action.
She didn’t just want this person blocked on Twitter, she wanted to learn the identity of the person so she could potentially press charges, or, at the very least, figure out how determined this person was to hurt her.
A subpoena and a lucky break
One of Foxlin’s friends contacted the campus police about the situation but Foxlin says they didn’t really take it seriously. They did, however, direct her to the local Title IX office. Title IX is an organisation that helps students find legal recourse over sexual violence and other serious issues. They put her in contact with a campus police detective who told her that most of the time, online harassment is someone you know. He encouraged her to quiz her friends and acquaintances.
She opted instead to ask him and Title IX to file a subpoena on her behalf with Twitter, asking for information about the account. The detective warned her the subpoena probably wouldn’t provide them with anything beyond a fake email address.
Foxlin also worked another angle. She found an engineer who worked at Twitter through one of the women-in-tech networks she belonged to and reached out. This woman immediately helped escalate things at Twitter, leading the social network to shut down the account, once the harassment folks saw the doxing.
Twitter had no comment on Foxlin’s case. A representative told us, “We will action anything that breaks our rules. Beyond that, I cannot comment on the details of what happened in any specific instance for privacy and security reasons.”
As luck would have it, the subpoena turned up some key information — the harasser had used a real email address. And the detective was right: the person was a fellow robotics student that Foxlin had helped mentor. And the harasser was a woman.
The detective called the harasser and at first she denied it. When he then warned her that he had grounds for a search warrant and lying to him could land her in bigger trouble, the woman confessed.
Once outed, the woman wrote Foxlin a long apology letter. Foxlin is still debating if this is the end of it or if she’ll take further legal action.
The whole process took about two months and was intensely frustrating. “Twitter support was a bot,” Foxlin said, meaning it was very difficult for her to get a real person to actually review the harassment and take immediate action, at least until she tapped into the women-engineering network and found a friend. At that point, given that her address was being tweeted out, the company responded quickly and took action.
She’s also very glad she tracked the person down and didn’t just block the account. “It was two months of not knowing who to trust,” Foxlin said. “It’s incredibly emotionally draining and time consuming to pursue it. But being silent and bottling it up makes it worse.”
Although Business Insider saw about a dozen tweets and DMs sent by the harasser, most of them are too explicit to share.
Here is an example of the type of tweet that did cause Twitter to step in and shut down the account for good.