This Is What It’s Like To Go To Prison For Trolling
In January 2014, two people were found guilty of sending death and rape threats to the feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez in the most high-profile online abuse case Britain has yet seen. They told BuzzFeed News why they did it – and what happened next.
At 2.29pm on 29 July 2013, Isabella Sorley, a then-23-year-old advertising graduate from Newcastle, said on Twitter: “Me doing something when tired only leads to one thing, me loosing [sic] my temper, but I’m sure sleep and wine will sort me out later.”
Twelve hours later, between 2.25am and 2.55am, she sent six tweets to two people: feminist writer Caroline Criado-Perez, who was campaigning for a woman to be featured on the £10 note, and Labour MP Stella Creasy, who supported the campaign.
The tweets said: "Fuck off and die…you should have jumped in front of horses, go die; I will find you and you don’t want to know what I will do when I do… kill yourself before I do; rape is the last of your worries; I’ve just got out of prison and would happily do more time to see you berried; seriously go kill yourself! I will get less time for that; rape?! I’d do a lot worse things than rape you."
The press, whose interest in online abuse cases reached a peak in the summer of 2013, invariably describes internet trolls as "vile", but in person, when BuzzFeed News meets her in Newcastle, Sorley, now 24, is confident and polite, and at times witty and self-deprecating. It's hard to imagine her getting a kick out of telling someone to "kill yourself before I do".
So how did she end up sending someone death threats at 2am?
"Alcohol," she says without pausing to think. "I’m a horrid drunk and it's just stuff I say when I'm drunk. I've read police statements of what I've said when I'm drunk and I've heard it read out in court and it's all alcohol. It makes me really mean and nasty.
"It's just something inside me … and I guess Twitter just became an outlet for that."
Three days before Sorley sent the offending tweets, 25-year-old John Nimmo in nearby South Shields sent abusive tweets to the same two women via five pseudonymous accounts. His 20 tweets between 27 July and 29 July included these statements:
"Ya not that gd looking to rape u be fine; I will find you; come to geordieland bitch; just think it could be somebody that knows you personally; the police will do nothing; rape her nice ass; could I help with that lol; the things I cud do to u; dumb blond bitch."
Nimmo and Sorley live just 12 miles apart, but don’t know each other (BuzzFeed News met them separately). They were both sentenced on the same day for the exact same crime.
On 24 January 2014, at Westminster Magistrates’ Court, Sorley was sentenced to 12 weeks in prison and Nimmo to eight for sending malicious messages, under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003.
They served half their sentences in London jails and were each ordered to pay £400 to their victims – although the judge allowed them to take up to three years to do so because of their lack of funds.
In the aftermath of the tweets, both Criado-Perez and Creasy spoke of the lasting effect of abusive messages like these, and Creasy later admitted to having installed a panic button in her home. Criado-Perez said she struggled to eat, sleep, and work at the height of the abuse. She declined to comment for this article; Creasy has not yet responded to our requests.
More and more people are being arrested and convicted for internet trolling. According to figures from Big Brother Watch, 6,329 people across the UK were charged or cautioned for malicious communications-related offences between November 2010 and November 2013.
Of these, at least 4,259 were charged and 2,070 were cautioned, and 355 cases involved social media.
Creasy and Criado-Perez received torrents of abuse from scores of Twitter users over the summer of 2013 from as many as 147 Twitter accounts, so what made Nimmo and Sorley so special? Twelve months on from their release from prison, what do two of the country’s most notorious internet trolls think about the case now? Were they especially wicked compared to all the other Twitter trolls on the bandwagon? And was it right for them to be punished with imprisonment?
What is not in doubt is that Sorley for several years had a serious alcohol problem.
When she was arrested for the abusive tweets in October 2013, she had 25 offences to her name, all of them alcohol-related, including assaults and counts of being drunk and disorderly. That's why she got a harsher sentence than Nimmo, despite having sent fewer truly offensive tweets.
While on bail for the trolling offence, Sorley was arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer. She had recently pleaded guilty to another assault, on New Year’s Eve.
While she doesn't absolve herself of responsibility for her abusive tweets, she does emphasise that she was very drunk when they were sent.
Sorley has woken up on the streets more than once, and is still subject to a public order banning her from Leeds city centre. One magistrate called her a "one-woman crimewave".
She joined Twitter in 2011, the second year of her degree in creative advertising at Leeds College of Art (she got a 2:1), and she has studied social networking’s effects on marketing and commerce. She speaks convincingly about how social media "can engage customers in a way you can’t with TV adverts".
Both Nimmo and Sorley say they offended for the same reason: because they enjoyed the attention and endorphin-generating effects of becoming briefly famous, or notorious, on Twitter. Without any planning or forethought, they joined a bandwagon that was already rolling. It was a game and they enjoyed it.
"I guess it was just for a laugh really," says Sorley. "I spent a lot of time wondering why I did it. One journalist said, 'Was it just because you were getting a kick out of it, was it just for a laugh?' and yeah, that’s pretty much it.
"I saw [Criado-Perez] was trending a few days earlier, I just sent out a tweet going, 'Why is this woman trending?' And I got in a conversation with these randomers and they were going, 'Yeah she’s getting abuse,' and then people were saying 'why are you being a victim-blamer?' and I said 'I’m not, but if she's getting abuse she's bound to have done something.'"
Sorley says she got carried away, encouraged by the retweets and favourites she was getting. Then, three months later, seven police officers turned up at her parents' house with a warrant for her arrest.
"My mam rang me about 7.30 or 8 in the morning and said, 'I’ve got these police here,' and I thought it was a joke. I said 'Mam, are you being serious?'"
Sorley had an idea what was coming. She'd read in the news that Criado-Perez's lawyers were threatening to complain to the police about Twitter abuse. "I was worried," she says, "but because it had got to October I thought I’d got away with it."
She entered a guilty plea at the earliest opportunity and was told by her solicitor that she wouldn’t go to jail. She only booked one day off from her job at Asda, thinking she’d be back in soon.
The trip to London for her sentencing was her first time in the capital. And despite the publicity the case had generated, on the morning of the hearing Sorley decided to take in some sightseeing. To her solicitor's alarm, she posted a selfie outside Buckingham Palace.
"I didn’t see anything [wrong] in it, like," says Sorley. "I'd never been to London before. I was staying at a mate's house and he had to go to work – we were up really early. He said 'Stay in my flat until the court case' but I said 'Nah, I don’t want to', so we went on a sightseeing trip."
In court, the shame of what she’d done began to hit home:
"Obviously when they read it all out, I just hanged my head in shame, trying to, like, imagine myself not there. It was all about getting through it really."
The court hearing was made worse by the presence of her sister in the public gallery. Sorley's family supported her, but hadn't known the full extent of what she'd said.
"Obviously they called me an idiot for doing it," she said. "But they'll always stand by me – they're just pleased now I've got a hold of my drink problem."
Eventually, having read the papers, the managers at Asda realised she wouldn't be turning up for work any time soon.
"They actually wrote to me in prison saying I’d be called to a disciplinary hearing," she says. "I said that I doubt Holloway are going to give me a day release to go to Asda."
Sorley found herself behind bars yet again six months later, in August 2014. "I guess I was celebrating getting out, but not in the best way. … I punched someone and got convicted for battery." Sorley says she’s been sober since that prison stint.
When she was charged, Sorley tweeted a string of indignant messages arguing, in essence, that Criado-Perez should just put up with the abuse. With the benefit of 12 months’ hindsight, does she think the trolling sentence was fair?
"I don’t think that long a sentence [was fair]," she says. "It was obvious I had a drinking problem. I'd just been given a community order by Newcastle magistrates, but because I got prison I couldn’t even keep my probation meetings in Newcastle. And I needed help with my addiction more than anything.
"I think education is really important. I think it’s obvious that the judge wanted to send a message that this wouldn’t be tolerated."
She and Nimmo were not exercising free speech but abusing it, she admits now:
"Threats are wrong. There's a difference between free speech and threats. Free speech, if you're just going to moan about something, if you said 'people deserve cancer', that’s free speech.
"But as soon as you talk at someone and say 'you deserve cancer', that's different. Threats and free speech are completely different. I know a few people say this is a free speech issue but it's not – threats have always been wrong, no matter if it's on social media or it's face to face.
"If you’re putting someone’s life in danger or making them feel scared, that’s different to free speech.
"I don’t want sympathy – I don’t deserve it, I did something wrong. But I'd like to think [that people say] 'good on her for sorting out her drink problems and finally admitting them'."
John Nimmo is a shy man. In court, his own lawyer described him as a “somewhat sad individual” who was “effectively a social recluse”.
Having made the trip from South Shields to Newcastle, he tells BuzzFeed News about his experience in a halting, nervous manner, while occasionally sipping a Coke. When asked to describe himself he uses just one word: "Shy."
After a pause: "I don’t go out much."
What does Nimmo think of his tweets now? "Terrible," he says. "It's not who I am. It's not me."
Like Sorley, Nimmo, now 26, looks younger than his age. He has what he calls "moderate learning difficulties", although his lawyer didn’t press this point during mitigation.
During his sentencing, the judge said he had more than than enough mental capacity to understand his actions and was guilty of a "sophisticated" level of trolling involving multiple accounts. "I knew what I was doing," he says now.
"I’m trying to use the experience, with the National Bullying Helpline, to get it out there that if you do it you might get locked up," he says.
"The irony of it all is that I wasn’t even passionate about the subject or the people I was bullying. I was simply bored, saw what was trending, and leaped on to the bandwagon."
Nimmo has been on Twitter for years – he was an early adopter, signing up not long after it launched. He can't recall exactly when he started creating anonymous or pseudonymous accounts – it was "a few years back”, maybe "a couple of years" before he was convicted.
He doesn’t deny that he said nasty things online before, but “it wasn’t that bad, not as bad as what I did [in July 2013], you know, it was just normal things like disagreements”. He was a compulsive if not particularly unusual Twitter user who would often tweet about computer games.
So how did he get from there to sending rape threats to people he’d never heard of, including "I will find you"? His answer is strikingly similar to Sorley’s.
"It was trending," he says. "I saw it was trending, so I looked into what it was about and, stupid me, I decided to join in. And I was getting, like, retweets, I was getting favourites and all that – and even the person I was sending tweets to, the person I was tweeting at, was retweeting it and answering back."
And as with Sorley, Nimmo had – at best – only a vague idea who his victims were. Only after sending his abusive tweets did he see a TV news item about the £10 note campaign.
The common advice given to people dealing with online abuse is "Don't feed the trolls": Don't respond or react to the abusers and hopefully they will go away. Block them and move on.
Instead, throughout this period, Criado-Perez stood up to her abusers with defiant replies, routinely retweeting them to offer a glimpse into the kind of vitriol she was receiving. She later said, in a speech in September 2014: "Not feeding the trolls doesn’t magically scrub out the image in your head of being told you’ll be gang-raped till you die."
While he admits his actions were plainly wrong, Nimmo now says that her reaction more than anything else encouraged him to “get on the bandwagon” and join in:
"I thought to myself, you know, she wants us to carry on. Because when you answer back, that's a conversation. I'm not blaming her, but if she didn’t answer back then I wouldn’t have [carried on]."
Nimmo uses almost the exact same phrase as Sorley to explain his abuse: "It was just all about a laugh.
"I thought in my head actually, that when someone sees something like that and they read it, they’re gonna complain … But you think, 'This is Twitter' – you don’t expect to be raided by nine police officers."
It took a producer on Newsnight to reveal Nimmo's real identity by befriending him on the PlayStation Network.
As with Sorley, the police turned up at his dad's house first, and then at his own at 2.30pm on 1 August 2013. While Sorley confessed to her crime immediately, Nimmo said nothing during the police interview, on his lawyer’s instruction.
In another parallel, Nimmo's trip to London for his sentencing was his first time in the capital, and he "made a weekend of it", visiting the Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street with his fiancée, Naomi.
He was already engaged to Naomi when he was arrested, and says he feared she might leave him.
Nimmo is apologetic, but still thinks he was made an example of. "But I don’t think it worked as a deterrent," he says, pointing out that several online abuse cases have happened since, some where custodial sentences were handed down but suspended.
While in jail, his fellow prisoners were amused by the novelty of someone being sent down for sending tweets – some even congratulated him.
"I’m in prison, with muggers and murderers and all that, just for saying some words on social media. I just thought, 'I’ve done a daft thing, [I've gone] down to prison.'"
Nimmo was criticised during sentencing for his lack of contrition and regret for his actions, and for appearing to blame his victims. A year on from his imprisonment, what does he think about them now?
After a long pause, he says he is concentrating on helping the National Bullying Helpline.
What would Nimmo say to his victims now? "I'd say 'sorry'. I've been told that it was free speech, what I did, but that just was crossing the line."
So you just crossed that line? "I went straight over it."
One theory holds that that one of the main reasons people act differently online to the way they would in a face-to-face encounter is "dissociative imagination", the idea that for some the internet represents a parallel world not populated by real people.
Sorley says she recognises this as a feature of her own behaviour: "It's because people don't engage their emotions. Yeah, there's that thing of having that power to send horrible stuff because you don’t have the instant reaction you'd have while saying it face to face."
Nimmo and Sorley both accept they did wrong, but both feel their sentences, served 280 miles from home, were harsh. They remain two of the UK's most high-profile convicted internet trolls, despite an unknown number of similar offences happening every day.
Criado-Perez has shown in quite horrific detail the long list of messages she received at the time, many of which were similar to Nimmo's and Sorley's, yet the only other high-profile conviction from the long list of people who trolled Creasy and Criado-Perez is Peter Nunn, who was sentenced to 18 weeks in jail in September 2014 (Nunn is appealing).
Sorley was already well-known to the police, while Nimmo seemed to fit the classic profile of an internet troll and had just been outed by media reports.
The police would have had to put a real name and address to the other anonymous accounts before acting on them, and here was an opportunity to send out a real message that the police had got a grip on what had become a national scandal.
As for what the future holds, Nimmo says he has no immediate plans other than to get a job – although the problem is, "If you search my name, what comes up is all this" – and to get married.
As for Sorley, she is unemployed but has plans to launch a social enterprise business designed at helping young people with alcohol addiction. It’s just in the planning stage, but she says she’s serious about using her experience as a way to help others.
One curious aspect of this case is that both Sorley and Nimmo are still on Twitter – but both using their real names this time. A restraining order prevents them from mentioning or contacting Criado-Perez and Creasy, but Twitter’s rules don't specifically say anything about convicted trolls keeping their accounts or starting new ones.
"I’ve also got another account," says Nimmo. "But I don't do trolling from it. I shouldn’t have said that, should I?"