U.S. News

10.10.13

The Bully Waging War Against Bullies

James McGibney was thrust into the media spotlight after he brought down Internet bully Hunter Moore. Has he become what he once reviled? Lizzie Crocker reports.

Hunter Moore was once the most reviled man on the Internet. The creator of the now-defunct revenge-porn website IsAnyoneUp.com made money off of the misery of others, publishing compromising photos of women—often sent by jilted lovers—without their consent.

James McGibney, a crusading ex-Marine and Internet entrepreneur, was not amused.

“Anything that has to do with destroying Hunter Moore in public, I’m all for it,” he says with a gruff bark. “He’s a prick, and I’ll go on record saying that.”

In 2012, McGibney mounted a successful pressure campaign to shut down IsAnyoneUp, befriending Moore and ultimately convincing him to sell the domain to his company. In a statement released after the sale, Moore thanked McGibney for righting his path, saying that he now wanted to “channel his talents…in positive ways.”

But Moore would later confess that his “conversion” was a cocaine-fueled ruse, a well-crafted practical joke, and subsequently accused McGibney of possessing child pornography, while threatening to rape his wife. McGibney slammed him with a defamation suit. “We definitely knocked him on his ass and took away his prized possession, which was that site. He now owes us more than $305,000 with interest, and that judgment will follow him for the rest of his life,” he says. “So if that piece of shit ever finds a way to monetize the crap he does, we’re going to get that money.”

*****

James McGibney is something of an anti-bullying entrepreneur. He’s the owner of the website Bullyville.com, which launched in April 2012 as an online forum where victims of social harassment could share stories, read testimonials, and pen anonymous letters to their tormentors.

The media has paid attention to McGibney’s war. In May 2012, the Associated Press quoted him as a bullying expert, describing Bullyville.com as a place “where [bullying] victims can find help.” He partners with celebrities (Guns N’ Roses guitarist “DJ” Ashba and Glee actress Becca Tobin are Bullyville’s spokespeople) and consults as a “Life Changer” on Dr. Drew’s daytime talk show.

But this slayer of bullies can often seem, well, like a bully. A quick glance at Bullyville’s Twitter feed reveals an attitude that seems at odds with McGibney’s cause. “If someone is ‘bullying’ you on Twitter, stop fucking crying about it,” reads a recent tweet to his almost 75,000 followers. It’s an incongruity he readily acknowledges. “Sometimes you need to be a bully to beat a bully,” he tells me.

“This slayer of bullies can often seem, well, like a bully. It’s an incongruity he readily acknowledges. ‘Sometimes you need to be a bully to beat a bully’”

Indeed, it’s difficult to reconcile his finger-wagging “stop picking on people on the Internet” philosophy with his “let’s pick on people on the Internet” approach to combating bullying. After McGibney acquired IsAnyoneUp, redirecting users to Bullyville, Forbes called him a “character who is almost as controversial as Moore.”

Moore isn’t the only Internet monster that McGibney has targeted. Last month, he helped take down another revenge-porn website, YouGotPosted, which was almost identical to Moore’s site (“The scumbag who owned it used the exact same format under the domain name IsAnyoneUp.net,” says McGibney. “But we had trademarked IsAnyoneUp when we acquired it from Moore, so we sued him for trademark infringement”). McGibney says he went after its founder on principle, but it helped to have a legal leg to stand on. Bullyville was in contract negotiations to buy YouGotPosted when everyone affiliated with the site suddenly backed out. McGibney was awarded $330,000 in court for breach of contract and trademark infringement, and YouGotPosted has since shut down.

McGibney’s anti-bully crusading is often reminiscent of old fashioned vigilantism. He claims to have revealed the identities of pedophiles on Twitter and Bullyville. “It’s a form of public shaming,” he tells me. “I go after these people and expose them in a vicious and brutal way.” He occasionally works with the controversial hacking collective Anonymous and Rustle League, a smaller group of online trolls and security professionals. “We’re very thorough on how we dox someone [stripping a web user of anonymity] and get their information,” he says.

But how much “help” are bullying victims actually getting by posting their stories on Bullyville? Online support groups, say critics, potentially risk exposing the bullied to other trolls. “I’m worried about the privacy and wellness of people who are posting on these sites, especially the kids,” says Parry Aftab, founder of the StopCyberbullying Coalition, adding that any child taught to walk away from a bully will recognize flaws in McGibney’s methodology. “He’s just enriching an environment that will ultimately breed more cyberbullying.”

Currently, 49 states enforce some sort of anti-bullying laws, 18 of which have specific legislations against “cyberbullying.” And while revenge porn legislation exists in only three states,  California Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed a bill banning circulation of such material, making it a misdemeanor carrying a sentence of up to six months in jail. Three New York state legislators proposed a similar bill this week.

But McGibney doesn’t think legal remedies are effective enough on their own. In a way, his is a more realistic view of cyberbullying, an issue that can sometimes display the classic symptoms of a moral panic. It’s a problem that can be managed, he says, but not eliminated: “Bullies will always exist.”

And McGibney knows from experience. As a kid he was bullied “every day, in all forms and facets.” “I was an absolute loser in high school,” he says. “Even in elementary school, I was a nerd. I had no friends.” During his freshman year of high school, he was relentlessly tormented to the point that he thought (“quite a few times”) about killing himself. But the schoolyard taunts would ultimately inspire him. “I think if you’re going to start a company, especially something like Bullyville, you damn well better have a lot of experience on the subject matter to be able to relate and handle the situation.”

Before Bullyville, McGibney served in the Marine Corps from 1992 to 2000. After his military career ended, he founded SecuraTrak, a telecommunications company that patented a wireless tracking system and raised more than $28 million before being sold to a publicly traded company. He boasts of authoring “numerous” GPS patents and filing 47 trademarks with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. “This is what happens when you have no friends in high school.”

In 2011, a friend and fellow Marine returned from overseas deployment to discover that his spouse had been cheating on him. The moralizing, once-bullied techie sprung into action—and Cheaterville was born, a site he launched on Valentine’s Day (“Very cynical of me, I know”). “I wanted to create a site that warned other people about cheaters but that also served as a dating resource,” he says. Cheaterville is a website on which spurned exes, jealous friends—anyone, really, who wants to label someone else unfaithful—can post a profile of a so-called “cheater,” complete with pictures and other identifying characteristics (“location,” “ethnicity,” “maiden name”).

Now McGibney oversees a constellation of cyber “villes”—SlingerVille (a tattoo site), CupidVille (a dating site), JudgeVille (a forthcoming legal site)—but many of the sites serve as outlets for social justice and revenge. Cheaterville is devoted to outing philanderers; Karmaville to sharing stories of reciprocity—both good and bad; and Dramaville to swapping tales of woe about the “drama” that afflicts their daily life. “I recently did a search of the word on Twitter and it was the second most used word on there,” says McGibney. “People always have some kind of drama in their lives.”

Critics like Parry Aftab argue that these sites are essentially conduits for bullying. “He’s selling ads off the pain of other people,” she tells me.

McGibney is the first to acknowledge that his anti-bullying approach is heterodox. “I didn’t want to be one of those anti-bullying sites that bullshits people and says, ‘Everything’s going to be okay. Lollipops and rainbows. Hug it out. Ignore that person.’” But his modus operandi is, above all else, about retribution. “Bullies hate it when you fight back because basically they’re starting to lose control of you, and I love a good fight.”

But this has made his own websites the target by defamation claims. In August, Winona Valdez and Jared Powers, a happily married couple in California, filed a federal lawsuit claiming Powers was wrongfully singled out on Cheaterville. The post, she told me, received more than 720,000 views (“way more than any other post on the site”) before it was taken down in January. “The profile is back up on their newsfeed, as is the correspondence with their attorney,” Valdez says. “I think it’s another form of bullying.”

But McGibney is adamant that Cheaterville did nothing wrong. “We told [their lawyer] to take his extortion claim and basically shove it up his ass. They didn’t even name Cheaterville in the suit. We’re not going to pay him a dime and we will fight it in court because we’re protected by the Communications Decency Act of 1996.”

He also dismissed Valdez’s remark that some of the material on Cheaterville amounts to a form of bullying. “I get so many emails and direct messages from adults who complain they’re being bullied on Twitter and Facebook. The way I look at it? Go hire lawyers. I want to focus on kids.” In a series of tweets, he argues that adults don’t deserve his support. “Their lack of appreciation is obvious and quite frankly, they reap what they sow,” reads one. And in response to one follower’s criticism: “How about you put on your big boy pants and do something about it instead of crying for someone else to help you.”

McGibney’s recent tweets have been less provocative, but it’s not because he’s changed his tune. “A huge publicly traded company is looking at acquiring all of our domains,” he says, adding that he’s since “toned down” his online persona. But he’s convinced that his methods of rallying people around online justice have been effective. “Even corporate America is saying, ‘He’s doing it right.’ They wouldn’t come looking for an acquisition if they didn’t think so.”

Stopbullying’s Parry Aftab acknowledges that good things can come from aggressively exposing bullies, the driving force behind McGibney’s activism. “I’m happy he shut down [Hunter Moore’s] awful website,” she says.

But what the cynic might argue that McGibney’s activism is nothing more than a selling point—a marketing strategy rather than a means to a solution. It’s an accusation that he dismisses. “I look up to anyone who has the balls to fight back—to stand up for themselves and do things that may be judged as wrong by the public. I do what I think is right and let the chips fall where they may.