‘Sometimes it’s people you know’

By Jane Burns on January 10th, 2013

My name is Jane. I’m a teacher. I have three children. This is my experience with Facebook.

Two years ago I was diagnosed with a serious illness, which I am pleased to say I have fully recovered from. As it could have been hereditary, last year, one of my children had a number of tests to determine whether it had been passed on.

I’d reached an age where the children had flown the nest, and for the first time in my adult life, I had time for me, and to do the things I wanted to do. So I joined a social community, or “group” on Facebook. At the time, I didn’t know anyone in the group. It was international, there were members all over the world, and It was a place to go to talk about a common passion.

As time went on, I attended a few local social functions members of the group had organised. After a glass of wine, or dinner with these people, they became what I thought were friends. One person I met was nursing their partner through a similar illness to the one I had recently recovered from. I nursed and supported him too. I was there when times were bleak. I supported them financially. I helped to redecorate their house, and my children and I even attended his funeral.

One night, I logged onto Facebook and saw I had been tagged in a post. When I went to click on it, I couldn’t see what had been posted as it had been blocked by the person who wrote it. A mutual friend called me, and asked if I had seen what had been written about me online. I told her I couldn’t, as I’d been blocked. She read the status update and the comments to me down the phone. It transpires it was the bereaved partner: someone I had considered a friend.

“Jane has been discussing my sexuality behind my back”

“Jane is a sad whore”

“Jane needs to fuck off out of my life and get on with her own”

“Someone needs to go round to her house and smash a brick in the bitch’s face”

“She’s such a fucking drama queen. I’m not surprised. Why don’t you go down there and sort her out?”

And then the one that really hurt:

“She’s an intention seeking little whore. She lied about being ill. Now she’s lying about her kids being ill”

I didn’t understand. I hadn’t said anything about anyone. I wondered whether this was a way of my friend dealing with her grief. But lying about being sick myself? Why would I do that? The person who made these comments had nursed me in her home when I got out of hospital. Two weeks after I recovered, I had lunch with her and considered her a friend. This person has a job working directly with people who need help, including children and vulnerable adults.

What made it even worse was that they’d bought my children into it, as they’d accused me of lying about them having tests for a horrendous illness. Anything that involves my children immediately becomes intensely personal. I’m sure any parent would agree.

I then saw a comment on my own personal Facebook page by a person who, at the time, I had considered extremely close to me. When a friend of mine’s partner was dying, I helped them through it, but suddenly was told that I was doing it solely for my own interests. I supported them day and night, as I’d been there myself. Yet here I was, in a catch-22 situation. If you fight back, people will assume you are guilty. If you don’t, people will assume the same.

I had never felt so trapped. I couldn’t understand why people whom I had considered friends and were seemingly so normal and family-orientated in real life could suddenly become so spiteful and aggressive on Facebook. Like a group of teenagers in the playground, or a drunken football crowd after a bad result, mob mentality had taken over. And I knew every single one of them personally.

A trusted friend told me who was saying what. All of these people were in their forties. Some were even grandparents. I think they saw me as a soft target, but I wasn’t a soft target, I was a vulnerable target. I was low. I’d just lost my best friend, and another was dying. The straw that broke the camel’s back was that my own partner had been involved in an accident at work which resulted in an amputation.

I really needed support, but I couldn’t believe that so many people who had been such a huge part of my life for so long could just switch and turn on me. And because of this, I lost an entire friendship group. I couldn’t bear it. If a person says something on Facebook, somehow it’s considered gospel, because who would bully under their own name? But when someone presses send, for them it’s all over. They don’t have to see the effect it has and those it was meant for.

One day, when I was alone in the house, I spoke to a friend I trusted and was told that the thread had now reached eighty comments from over twenty people, all determined to intimidate me and defame my character. After I deleted my Facebook account, the abuse from the person whose home I recovered in, the person who works with the vulnerable, continued to abuse me via text message and email.

I was touched that my friend had called to ask how I was, but at no point did anybody ever actually try and stick up for me. Fearful of the mob, no one said: “Stop.” I read every single one of those eighty heartbreaking comments. Someone wanted a brick in my face. I was a “fucking whore”, a “slag”, a “bitch”.

I’m none of those things.

I’m a mother. I’m a teacher. I’m a sister. I’m a daughter.

After the year of hell I’d had with my husband’s amputation, concern for my daughter’s health, and the aggression on Facebook, those comments were the final straw. I collected together my painkillers, my sleeping tablets, my anti-depressants and downed every last one with a bottle of vodka. I lay in bed, went to sleep and thought I’d never wake up.

There was no note. No drama. I just wanted to quietly slip away. One of my children returned from a night out with friends and went straight to bed. Oblivious to their dying mother in the room next door.

And then I woke up. I vomited everywhere. All the vodka came back up, I could see the pills in it. God’s will? Call it what you like: I’d survived. I cried so hard I was sick again. I thought about my children, and how I had nearly left them without a mother. To this day, I shudder to think at the devastation and trauma I would have inflicted on my family.

A few days later, I visited my local police station and told them what had happened. I was told I had a case because I had been threatened with violence and the abusers could have been given a formal caution. I tried to report them to Facebook, but since learned they need a certain number of harassment complaints before any action is taken. I was also told that under the Communications Act of 2003 I could prosecute.

But the chances of it being thrown out of court were high, as even when something appears on a personal Facebook page you need a witness for conclusive proof that it was written by them, so I decided to leave it. I could have destroyed a number of lives and careers by telling their employers, but what would have been the point? I’ve always believed in karma: that what goes around comes around.

I’ve moved on now and have cut those people out of my life, though if somebody were to call and offer an apology now, I think I’d reject it. I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. And, If I had the opportunity to confront my trolls, I’d just ask them to walk a mile in my shoes. I don’t think they would like themselves too much if they did.

Being a teacher, I am around young people a lot. It’s alarming the number of kids who come to me talking about being intimidated online. If you’re reading this and you have been a victim of cyber-bullying, there is help out there for you. Don’t keep quiet, because there are steps you can take. Seek help. Young people like Amanda Todd should not be taking their own lives or thinking about doing so because of some words and pictures posted on a website.

The National Bullying Helpline were very good to me and there is a lot of constructive advice on their website, as well as their crisis line. There is also the UK charity, Cyber Smile.

There are some people who say “turn your computer off, problem solved!” when presented with stories like mine, but to them I would say that to simply turn off your computer does not help. Once you have read the offending comment or photo, it sits in your head. It festers. To anyone who is emotionally vulnerable, it may just as well have been said face to face. The damage is done, so the switching off and walking away is a moot point.

There is also the fact that you may have to interact with people on a face-to-face basis who have engaged in the bullying or simply read it and then choose to use it as a source of entertainment to kill time. It then becomes a tool for bullying the vulnerable person further – in person. Walking away from the words does not make them disappear.

It takes an incredibly emotionally strong person to be able to shrug off the immense power of a written word or a photograph seen by hundreds or potentially thousands of other people. Trust me: I know from personal experience.

Facebook brings people together in a way that almost “fast forwards” friendships. You get the impression you are very close to certain people because they publish a lot of personal information. But these people aren’t really your friends. They’re just acquaintances you might happen to share a few common interests with. You don’t get to know someone just by seeing pictures of their family dog.

They say you should keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. I’ve learned this isn’t always the case. Mark Zuckerburg created a monster, and he needs to learn how to tame it. And as a society we all need to learn how to get our Facebook use under control, before any more lives are ruined.

Jane Burns was talking to Jamie Whitehead, who is a broadcast journalist for BBC World Service. Jane has kindly offered her support and advice to anyone who has been affected by her story or has been through similar experiences. If you would like to be put in touch with her, please go via the author @jamiewh_ on Twitter. Names have been changed or withheld.