It began with an innocuous comment on Facebook defending a teenage X Factor contestant who was on the receiving end of a torrent of hate online.
What followed for Nicola Brookes was 10 years of hell as she became a target of faceless trolls who hid behind the anonymity allowed by social media to spew their poisonous lies, labelling her a drug dealer and paedophile.
The post that triggered the abuse was about 18-year-old X Factor contestant Frankie Cocozza, who she felt compelled to defend when she saw the “vitriol and abuse” he was getting.
Nicole said: “This was also motivated by the suicide of my daughter’s 15-year-old friend in 2007.
“She had been abused, both on and offline, by school pupils targeting her and my own daughter.”
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All Nicola wrote on Facebook in 2011 was: “Keep your family & friends close Frankie and ride it out.
“The smug scum that abuse you will soon move on to another scapegoat target.”
In writing this, Nicola, who has Crohn’s disease, became a target for online stalkers and abusers.
Soon, anonymous accounts with faceless profile pictures were accusing her of drug dealing and of paedophilia.
Nicola, 54, who lives in Brighton, said: “They took info off my public Facebook profile, my photo, home city, where I went to college, to use in their stalking abuse posts.
“At one point, there were more photos of me on Frankie’s X Factor page than there were of Frankie, telling people I’m a paedophile drug dealer.
“And there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it, the reporting tool did not work.”
When she answered back, the trolls took it up a gear and made a clone Nicola Brookes account which said she enjoyed abusing children.
She said: “I felt like I’d been winded, kicked in the stomach.
“When I saw the cloned child abuse account, I contacted solicitors and the police.”
The Mirror today launched a campaign to tackle online abuse, calling on tech giants to act.
English football will have a four- day boycott of social media next weekend in protest at its failure to combat hate directed at players.
1 Zero tolerance of identity-based hate, abuse and bullying on social media.
Firms must remove offensive material that breaches community guidelines immediately. We propose incremental fines for failure to remove such content within a specified time. Firms should also be fined if they fail to remove persistent offenders. Firms must make guidelines more robust and comprehensive.
2All social media firms to have a clear, publicised and accessible mechanism for reporting abuse. Firms should be obliged under law to acknowledge receipt of complaints and explain their action. Social media firms to publish six-monthly reports monitoring abuse and explaining action to eradicate it.
3 Automatic bans for anyone posting offensive material, including lifetime bans for repeated or especially offensive behaviour. Social media firms should explore a system of verification so it is easier to trace, remove and prosecute those spreading hatred.
4 A tax on tech firms to fund educational outreach projects to teach young people about online safety.
5 Demand the Government brings the Online Safety Bill before Parliament now. Make identity-based hate a specific crime alongside child sexual exploitation, inciting terror and promoting violence.
Our campaign was welcomed by football chiefs as Manchester City defender Kyle Walker, 30, became the latest Premier League star to suffer abuse.
He was sent racist insults after he and his side beat Tottenham at Wembley in the Carabao Cup Final on Sunday.
Our campaign demands social media firms create a system of verification so it is easier to trace, remove and prosecute people who spread hatred and abuse.
In 2012, after a lengthy process, Nicola won a landmark legal case against Facebook and gained a legal order forcing the site to disclose the identities of her trolls.
One of her tormentors was a serving police officer.
Another was Nicky Wright of Lewisham, South East London, who was convicted of stalking and finally jailed in 2018.
Wright had 28 Twitter accounts and 18 Facebook profiles which he used to target Nicola.
He also attacked her via video channels and blogs, doctored comments she made, created videos about her and posted hate mail to her home address.
Nicola said: “Wright flooded his Twitter feed with weird Photoshopped images of me.
“He falsely accused me of being a paedophile/paedophile protector and of trying to get his kids taken into care by social services.”
Between June 2016 and September 2017, Wright stalked her online on an almost daily basis, yet when the case finally got to court, Wright complained about the press, saying he did not want “certain information going everywhere online”.
As Nicola gave her victim impact statement, Wright sat with his fingers in his ears.
He was sentenced to 22 weeks in jail, but was released after serving just six.
Nicola said: “The Government need to do much more to hold the social media giants to account.
“Involving police and solicitors wouldn’t be necessary if websites reliably dealt with the problem.
“Simply fining them doesn’t go far enough. I’ve been forced to deal with extreme, constant, online abuse and stalking for 10 years. There has to be a verified ID system on all social media platforms.”
‘Some clients want to kill themselves’
– comment, by Yair Cohen, of Cohen Davis Solicitors who worked on Nicola’s case
There is all kinds of online harassment, it is extraordinary.
We’ve seen an average 15% to 20% increase in cases year by year. Now this year is more a 60% to 65% increase.
It’s got to the extent where some clients want to kill themselves.
You cannot stereotype the typical harasser.
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Quite often it’s people who are very well educated, they develop an obsession. In other cases we have business people lacking confidence.
Going down the legal route is often lengthy and expensive but many people see no other option.
It can be very difficult and expensive to unravel the identity of someone who is trolling you.
The way to combat this is to allow people to remain anonymous online but make it simpler and cheaper for people to be able to compel social media companies to hand over IDs of people who harass them.
At the moment you have to go to court and get an order.
A lot of the people causing abuse on the internet would not be doing anything similar offline or if they knew there was a good chance they’d get caught.