Getting doxxed at 16 changed my life

By Hoe I Yune, May 09, 2019

Doxxing: the act of searching for and publishing someone’s private and personal information which can include photos, address, contact number, and employment details online to harass, cause violence or fear of violence. 

This was what happened to Gia Lim.

Gia is a 19-year-old Singaporean who is currently studying at a local university. 

Three years ago, she stumbled upon photographs of herself on Tumblr. What was even more disturbing for Gia was that her photos were doctored and manipulated, and when it happened, she had no idea who did it and why. 

Apart from having her photographs circulated against her will, Gia’s personal information was also shared widely. Things soon escalated to a point where she was even physically stalked.

The ordeal took an emotional toll on her and it became a battle against time to find the perpetrator and seek justice and closure for what she had to suffer as a result.

Gia is a victim of doxxing. 
This is her story.
 

* * * *

Hi, my name is Gia. I was 16 and in the midst of preparing for my O-levels examinations when a friend texted saying that she came across my pictures on Tumblr. 

She told me that it was photos that I had posted onto my social media accounts — photos of my teammates and I in sports attire after winning a badminton tournament.

It sounded innocent enough and given that I was certain that there was nothing out of the ordinary about those photos, it puzzled me when she said that they had been shared more than 300 times. 

That’s when she pointed out something bizarre — she told me 
that my chest had been photoshopped to make it look as if I had extremely 
big boobs. 

I was horrified when I saw them 
for myself.

I’m the one in the middle.

I’m the one in the middle.

The pictures were accompanied by sexually degrading and lewd captions.

The specific Tumblr site that she had sent me was just one of many that published photos of teenage girls — or what they call “xiao mei meis” — in school uniforms. It’s disturbing, because it makes you wonder who’s surfing these sites and what they’re doing with these pictures. But one thing’s certain, their intentions are far from innocent or good. After all, it is apparent that all of those pictures were taken off Facebook or Instagram without the girls’ knowledge or consent.

Some of the captions accompanying the photos even went to the extent of sharing the girls’ names, the schools that they attend, and their social media handles.

Around the same time, an acquaintance from school alerted me of email submissions he had been receiving about me. It turned out that he was an administrator of one of such Tumblr blogs. 

My photos didn’t go up on his Tumblr blog as he decided not to publish them on account that we were acquaintances. But my photos still appeared on other Tumblr sites. While I’m thankful that he did not publish anything, I was upfront with him that I do not agree with the existence of such blogs and suggested that he put an end to whatever he was doing. These sites are disgusting because they exacerbate issues such as voyeurism and doxxing.

Sadly, when I tried convincing him to stop what he was doing, my words carried no weight. I guess it could be because we were just acquaintances. I dropped the matter because I was more caught up with my own anxiety and could barely take care of myself.

By that point in time, not only were my full name and school published, personal information like where I went for tuition and even what subject combination I was studying in school were also being widely shared.

There were even photographs of my face being photoshopped onto naked bodies that were not mine. And the captions would also make false claims that I was offering sexual favours and suggested that I led a very promiscuous lifestyle. There were people who claimed that they slept with me and went into perverted details about my body and the sexual experience.

These were all untrue. I felt degraded and stripped of my dignity. I was helpless. 

Strangers started contacting me on Facebook and Instagram. Some asked to be friends, others straight up sent unsolicited pictures of their genitals, asking if I wanted to suck their dick. I felt violated and deeply uncomfortable. 

I started writing to the blogs one by one in an attempt to get the posts taken down.

The situation got increasingly worrying when someone started stalking me. 

It happened one day after tuition. I was getting off the bus to walk home when I noticed a man trailing me. I made a detour but it didn’t shake him off. That confirmed my suspicions and I started panicking. I called my dad to pick me up.

I hung around the junction near my home for a bit, not wanting to reveal where I lived. The man sat on a nearby staircase, waiting. I stood around, anxiously waiting for my dad to arrive. While waiting, I was afraid, but more than that, I felt frustrated and helpless by the situation. I was worried that I might get hurt but at the same time, I also realised that I was not in the wrong and had done nothing wrong.

So I decided to approach him and ask him what he was up to (which on hindsight, may not have been the best decision as I don’t know if he was armed or what he might do). I tried to appear firm and did not waver in my speech. Knowing that my dad was on the way also made me feel braver and more confident. I think he was taken back by my sudden burst of courage and confrontation.

He claimed that he worked in the area but I knew it was bullshit because I lived in a residential area with nothing but homes and trees. He ran off when my dad arrived.

The encounter really traumatised me because never had I come face-to-face with a stalker. What more one who was a grown man. I didn’t know who he was or where he came from, and what he wanted. Despite making a police report, nothing could be done as I wasn’t able to recall many details about him. He had a very generic-looking face and in my frazzled state, I could barely remember it.

The incident was a wake-up call. Fear and paranoia were eating at me but no one could help, so I had to do something about it myself. 

I looked into the way submissions were made on the Tumblr community page. I learnt that for every photo that goes up, there must be a source (a sender’s email address). I managed to get the email of the person submitting my photographs from my Tumblr admin acquaintance.

I realised that the name in the email address was that of a primary school friend, which took me by surprise. I reached out to him but he seemed just as lost as I was. We hadn’t spoken in years and we were not close, so it seemed impossible for him to do something like this or hold any form of grudge against me. I realised it must have been a decoy.

Meanwhile, I confided in C*, a close friend. C and I met through extra-curricular activities. We had a lot of common interests and instantly clicked as friends. We hung out a lot and would talk about many things. I saw him as a big brother.

When C knew of what I was going through, he was supportive and even went with me to make my first police report. Unfortunately, when I told the police that my pictures were being manipulated and misused, they said that there was nothing much that they could do, explaining that there was insufficient evidence and that they had little control over international platforms such as Tumblr.

I had to take matters into my own hands.

Without going into specific details, I somehow managed to gain access to the email account that was submitting my photos.

The moment I logged on to the email account, I texted C to inform him. He replied almost instantly and sounded excited that I managed to find a lead in this mess. We FaceTimed. 

During this time I was already digging around and suddenly, the truth hit me – I realised that both the account’s recovery email and phone number belonged to C. I was shocked and confronted him on the call, asking, “why does this belong to you?”

He attempted to defend himself and scrambled for an excuse, saying that someone must’ve hacked into his account. I didn’t think I had ever seen anyone look so scared before. He looked really frightened — so much so that he couldn’t even hold his phone straight. In his haste, he accidentally flipped the camera on his phone so I saw his computer screen.


 I was disgusted at what I saw — he had an entire folder of photographs of me on his screen. They were just pictures of me which I had uploaded to my social media accounts. They were not sexual in nature. What was even more shocking was that next to the folder of my photographs was a pornographic website, featuring a girl wearing only her underwear.

It hit me. I realised where my supposed “nudes” came from. 

My brain began to piece everything together yet I was still in disbelief. C was a friend. I trusted him. For a moment, I actually wanted to believe him when he said that he was framed. After all, this was someone who appeared to be there for me every step of the way in this whole incident and even accompanied me to make a police report. He acted as if he had nothing to hide.

C kept denying things and refused to admit to what he had done, but the proof was right in front of me. Eventually I hung up.

The email account was deleted the next day. Thankfully, I acted fast and managed to save most of the evidence before that.

Scanning through all the emails, I saw that C made over 60 submissions of doctored pictures and “nudes” of me, as well as false claims stating that I had sent these photographs to him. Never in my life have I taken such pictures before and if you look at them closely, it’s apparent that the photos have been tampered.

Knowing the truth did little to comfort me. I was shaken. I was shocked. And most of all, I was hurt and confused that someone whom I trusted and regarded as a close friend was behind all of this. 

When I confronted him for the second time over the phone, I struggled to maintain my composure and had to remind myself to stay calm. I wanted a confession but C again tried to convince me that someone else was behind this, and he even tried to convince me that he was ordered by someone else to do it. It was apparent that he was panicking and grasping at straws. I was not convinced. Eventually, he finally admitted that he was the one behind everything.

I was outraged. 

While the pictures had already been taken down by then, I wanted a public apology from him, owning up to his mistakes.

Earlier on, when he was pretending to help me, he created a Blogspot site to write about the saga, claiming that he wanted to journal the series of events and findings. So when I found out what he did, I asked that he issue an apology statement on that very same Blogspot site to conclude the charade. 
He agreed.

I wanted to clear my name and I also wanted people to know the kind of person he is. I wanted it to be a warning for others to stay away from him. I wanted to be able to share the link with my friends so that they’d understand what happened to me. To me, this was meant to be a form of closure. 

The Blogspot apology took three attempts. At first, he refused to state my name. The second time, he apologised but again claimed that someone else made him do it. They were both shitty apologies and showed a lack of remorse.

Only by the third time, after I got really upset and cried, explaining to him over the phone the trauma I was put through, did he come clean in his apology. In his post, he apologised and gave out his contact details, saying that if anyone wanted to reach out to him and voice their displeasure about what he did to me, they can.

A screenshot of the “public apology”.

A screenshot of the “public apology”.

I was ready to put an end to this episode but he took down the apology post just after one day, afraid of the amount of publicity it was getting. My friends who read it had shared it, and he claimed that the post gained 100 views within the first few hours.

I could not bring myself to challenge him for taking down the public apology back then. I was tired and frustrated, and after all the trauma that I had gone through, receiving an apology the way that I did somehow felt sufficient for me to “move on” at that point in time. It’s only now that I think back and realise that I failed to stand up for myself when I was 16.

I was too shaken by the harrowing experience to make a statement. I could not compose myself and felt lost. Even after the incident ended, it was never truly over for me. 

I didn’t suspect C for the longest time so I completely broke down when I found out the truth. I felt so attached to the friendship, which was why I didn’t pursue the matter further.

My O-level performance was compromised. I would turn up for a paper late because I was so caught up in investigating. I was obsessively trying to search for answers. Instead of studying, I would be trawling the Internet, afraid that more of my pictures and information were out there. I was constantly distracted because I would be thinking about what people were saying behind my back and if there were creeps following me.

I was not in the right frame of mind to focus on the exams. It was too much to cope for the 16-year-old me.

I also held back from sharing in detail about what had happened to my parents. Discussing issues that are sexual in nature isn’t exactly common in Singapore. We are still a pretty conservative society. This aside, being awkward and lost were also what dissuaded me from having an in-depth and mature discussion with my parents.

I wasn’t sure how to break it to them that there were all these salacious rumours and awful pictures of me floating around the Internet.

How do you even broach the subject? Was I supposed to simply go “Hey mum and dad, men keep sending me pictures of their dicks”? 

I shared what happened after discovering who was behind it. I didn’t show them anything but briefly narrated what happened. They just said, “oh, be careful next time”. They listened to me as I updated them on my findings but they didn’t seem to engage with what I was saying. Perhaps they didn’t know how to react.

My mum is also really conservative, so I think she felt uncomfortable talking about it. We’re your typical Asian family so we don’t openly discuss our feelings very much. But I also think it didn’t occur to them how damaging the incident could be. And maybe a part of it was my parents refusing to believe that something so devastating could happen to their own daughter.

Apart from the emotional stress, my health plummeted. I couldn’t eat and only slept after crying. I vomited a couple of times due to anxiety and felt depressed. I even visited my grandmother overseas to take my mind off things, but the incident didn’t entirely go away. I was still afraid each time I received a text or email notification. What kept me going was family and friends.

I no longer keep in contact with C and neither does he attempt to contact me, but I would occasionally chance upon his pictures on social media and it would make me feel sick all over again.

The effect of the incident on me was awful. I don’t think I handled it well at all. I was just overwhelmed with panic all the time and it turned me into a paranoid person. I found it difficult to trust people and became quite closed off. I didn’t make any new friends. I became very conscious of who I was connecting with and how much I shared with other people.

I would even share different parts of a story with different friends — never the full picture with any single person  — so that if rumours started brewing for whatever reason, I would be able to pinpoint who started them.

I overthought everything – if someone held their phone up differently on the MRT or bus, I’d worry that they were taking a photo of me.

If someone praised me for being brave, I didn’t believe them as I thought about the “cowardly” things I’d do such as clutching down tightly on my school skirt while on the escalator, covering my computer and camera phones, deleting my social media accounts, and creating numerous email accounts with aliases.

I avoided wearing “revealing” clothes such as skirts (unless I was in uniform) and sleeveless tops. But doing all that wasn’t ME. It wasn’t even because I felt embarrassed because I knew that none of the statements made were true.

I knew that I had done nothing wrong and yet, I was afraid and appalled by how others could take my reality and twist it. How some people could see me as merely an object to be utilised. 

It was no way to live, really.

It was only after reflecting a lot on why I felt so miserable and disconnected from my friends did I realise that I was the one holding myself back from recovery. My feelings weren’t invalid but it was up to me to move on. If my friends read all that falsehood and still stuck by me, supported me and loved me, I should trust them. Focusing on their warm reactions and support instead of the negativity was what put me at ease and helped me open up again. I learned to lean on my friends.

I’d be reminded of the incident sometimes and would call my friends, crying in the middle of the night feeling scared, like it was my fault, or as if what happened could happen again. 

It was a constant struggle having to stay emotionally stable and focus on school, but they were always there for me when I needed them. Plus, a good thing that came out of the entire incident was that it informed other girls of an online community which preys on young students.

Last year, I decided to come forth and be more vocal about my experience after my best friend encouraged me. She attended a women’s rights seminar in the US where she recounted my story and that was when it dawned upon her that it’s an issue that needs to be tackled. She apologised for having not been there for me when I was going through the ordeal but suggested that sharing my story could be a step towards recovery.

I published a private YouTube video on Instagram to be circulated amongst friends and it reached 10,000 views. Then, AWARE reached out to me to give a talk about my experience and raise awareness to help prevent such incidents from happening to others in the future.

I invited my parents to come down for the talk at AWARE. My mum was hesitant and said, “eh, she can go by herself.” But my dad showed up and sat through the entire presentation. During the presentation, I included pictures and screenshots of what was said about me on Tumblr. I also included conversations with the Tumblr site owners and the harassment I received on social media.

I think that was when it hit my dad how real the situation was, and how much it affected me. There was no longer a sense of detachment.

A week later, he sat me down and said, “Mummy and I would like to apologise for not being there for you. I was traumatised by the photos and cannot imagine what you felt when it was happening to you.”

I felt so relieved to hear that my dad understood my experience. For the first time in a while, I felt loved and supported.

When I began speaking in public, I panicked at first, thinking about how everyone would know my story, but I felt very heartened by the huge amount of support I have received. I realise that I have a voice now and I want to help others by raising awareness. To be able to share my story is a privilege and I’m thankful that people have been listening and keeping an open mind.

In April, one of the proposed changes to the Protection from Harassment Act (PoHA) is to criminalise doxxing. The point is to make it easier for victims of harassment and falsehoods to obtain remedies. I believe that it’s a step in the right direction. 

I would definitely have felt more protected and less helpless if the bill was in effect back in 2015. However, it’s better late than never and I believe that this bill will help Singaporeans feel safer in the age of technology.

Our education system should evolve, too. We need to focus on sexual education and arm people with knowledge and information on topics like harassment, assault, doxxing, and more. We need to educate people on their rights and share available resources for those who need help.

Truth be told, I still feel the stress and trauma from time to time but it has made me grow as a person. The support and knowledge that I’ve gained over the past few years empowered and inspired me to become a youth advocate. 

As cliché as it sounds, if I could be 16 again, I don’t think I would have done anything differently. I only wish that I could’ve been stronger to teach my perpetrator a lesson.

Just because we are “xiao mei meis” does not remove the right for us to stand up for ourselves and to be respected. 

To anyone going through what I did and who are trying to heal, I know that it can be discouraging to think that what you have to say may get ignored or that people might not believe you, but I encourage you to approach people whom you trust or go to a counsellor.

I know coming face-to-face with your emotions can be scary, so know that you can do so at your own pace, and when you’re comfortable. Take your time.

Although you may be convinced that the world is horrid, I want to remind you that there is still good in the world. There are people who will stand by you.

* * * *

What can you do if you’ve been doxxed? 

The practice of doxxing can refer to the release of personal info (be it photos, home addresses and contact numbers) with the intention to harass. To curb individuals from spreading such info online, amendments have been proposed to the Protection from Harassment Act last month.

We spoke with AWARE's Sexual Assault Care Centre, which provides free services to those who have experienced sexual assault, to find out what we can do if we believe that we have encountered any instance of doxxing. The Centre recommends that survivors of doxxing could first ensure their own physical and emotional safety. If possible, survivors can also tell someone whom they trust about what happened.

Next, try to gather evidence of the act (e.g.: photos and screenshots). 

Finally, alert the relevant authorities, be it the police or school officials.

Don’t feel like you’re alone in this. You can seek further support by calling the Sexual Assault Care Centre’s (SACC) helpline. SACC would then arrange for a case worker to support on the specific situation – from accompanying you to make a police report to filing for a Magistrate’s complaint and applying for court orders under the Protection from Harassment Act to stop the materials from being posted.

Writer’s note: 
Gia is one of the founders of metooSG, a non-profit youth organisation dedicated to raising awareness on issues of sexual harassment and assault. It’s currently pushing for educational reforms in school and helping Singaporeans be more aware of the available avenues for legal aid, emotional recovery, and support groups. 

Reach out to @/metooSG via Facebook messenger.

The photos and screenshots were provided by Gia.

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