When Lucy* went to bed on a Saturday night earlier this month, she was a regular teenager getting ready for the school week in one of Australia’s safest cities.
When she woke up, the 15-year-old Canberran had been inundated with death threats and no longer felt safe leaving her home.
Warning: This story contains content that may be distressing to some people.
As the threats of harm and sexual violence poured in, alongside graphic images of dead bodies, Lucy’s mother Sharon* could not understand why strangers were suddenly threatening to “slit my daughter’s throat”.
“I noticed a couple of odd messages on my own account at first,” Sharon said.
“Then Lucy came out and her lip was trembling, and she showed me her phone and there were hundreds of abusive messages.
Lucy had been mistaken for another person in a racist social media video posted on a local Canberra community Facebook page the night before.
Within hours, Lucy’s personal details were swirling online in Asia, Europe and the United States thanks to a practice known as doxxing.
Then the calls began.
‘They say they’re coming to kill us’
Sharon said the family was inundated with threats of physical violence:
“I want to see you bleed.”
“I hope you and your family gets raped, tortured and die a slow death.”
“Fresh meat like you should be careful out there … people like me are hungry.”
“They tell us they know where we live, they say they’re coming to kill us,” Sharon said.
“I’ve got messages, as has her father, her grandmother – they are just non-stop and mostly from people in America.
When the messages intensified, Sharon was hospitalised with an irregular heartbeat and stress-induced migraines.
“It has been relentless,” she said.
“The horrible things they say are really affecting her, it’s terrible.”
Sharon said Lucy no longer left the house alone and had to be escorted by teachers to and from the car at school.
“She suffers from anxiety as it is, so it’s heartbreaking to watch a teenager who is quite timid to go through all this,” Sharon said.
“She’s trying to explain to people it’s not her, but they don’t care.
“They just hook on and run with it and you are powerless to stop it.”
Lucy said she feared others teens would not be able to weather similar onslaughts.
“At first I thought about killing myself because that was what they were telling me to do,” Lucy said.
“That was when I went and showed Mum because I knew I couldn’t handle it alone.
‘I’m just doing my job’: Doxxer
One of the people who shared Lucy’s details online was Cesar Montiel, a videographer from the north-western US state of Idaho.
Mr Montiel saw the video on TikTok and shared it alongside Lucy’s name and details of her social media accounts, but not her home address.
“I truly think that [a teenager] is at the age of knowing right from wrong,” Mr Montiel said.
The 26-year-old said he believed social media doubled as an accountability measure for unacceptable behaviour, but conceded there were limits.
“Nobody should ever have their home address on social media, that can be dangerous,” he said.
“I’m just doing my job by sharing [the post] on my social media platforms to have people aware that these actions are not acceptable.”
When the ABC later asked Mr Montiel if he knew some the details he shared online were incorrect he did not reply.
Doxxers don’t see the scale of their crusade: expert
Simon Copland from the Australian National University studies the online tactics of ideological extremists and said most doxxers saw their actions as a form of justice.
“In this situation, involving racial remarks, they may see the justice system as being unlikely to get heavily engaged,” Mr Copland said.
He said individual doxxers like Mr Montiel were often unable to see the magnitude of the campaign being waged against an individual.
“They will likely be talking to other people who are also doxxing, but it is often a smaller community, so they will see their participation, but not the millions who are also joining in,” he said.
“You then have a situation where it’s hard to see the broad scale of what they’ve done.”
The PhD student said doxxing could cause “extraordinary damage” and had been made easier by the emergence of social media platforms like Reddit and TikTok.
“There are numerous stories of people who have committed suicide and have had major mental health issues because of [doxxing],” he said.
“Everyone can imagine being attacked online, but imagine that magnified to millions of people constantly attacking you from around the world.”
‘In an instant this could be you’
It has been 12 days since the first threats landed in Lucy’s inbox and only now has the torrent of abuse slowed to a trickle.
At one point, the messages were so vicious, Sharon contacted ACT police and investigators at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in a desperate bid for reprieve.
ACT Policing said it was speaking with the families that had been targeted and urged the community for calm.
“We would ask that people think about their public comments and do not consider taking matters into their own hands,” a police spokesperson said.
“The sharing of personal information publicly (including online and via social media sites) may be a breach of state and commonwealth privacy legislation.”
However, due to the global reach of social media, doxxing and similar attacks have been notoriously difficult to prosecute.
Police said victims of doxxing should keep a record of the threats they received and report it to officers and social media companies.
“It can be hard, but try not to respond or retaliate. If possible switch off your phone for a while and seek help,” the police spokesperson said.
‘We are losing kids’
Authorities have managed to remove many of the online videos containing Lucy’s details, but Sharon said she feared the ordeal would have long-term affects on her family.
“I’m always going to be concerned about Lucy being on the internet — who she’s talking to and who they are,” she said.
“I think it has affected her more than she lets on, she just doesn’t want to upset me and she is worried about my health more than her own.”
Sharon said she would never view society the same way.
“I am dumbfounded at how society has changed; how vicious people can be and how it is so easy to attack people from anywhere in the world,” she said.
“I’m looking over my shoulder everyday now. I’m scared of how vulnerable our kids are, and in an instant this could be you too.”
*Names have been changed.