In 2011, after seeing the level of abuse that The X Factor contestant Frankie Cocozza was getting online, Nicola Brookes posted a message of support. In a Facebook comment, she advised Cocozza to keep his friends and family close and be patient while waiting for the harassment to end.
For some reason her innocuous comment infuriated the internet trolls – sparking a 10-year campaign of abuse. For the next decade, Brookes, now 55, was plagued by people who seemed set on the goal of destroying her reputation – impersonating her online, stealing her photos to create accounts in her name, faking profiles that made it seem as though she was a paedophile and drug dealer.
One of her tormentors, Nicky Wright of South London, was jailed for stalking in 2018. Another turned out to be a police officer, who was suspended.
Yair Cohen, who touts himself as the first Internet lawyer, makes a living tracking down anonymous trolls online. Brookes was one of his first digital cases. After deploying court orders, online searches, private detectives and pulling strings at tech companies, Cohen took the case to the High Court forcing Facebook, for the first time in the UK, to disclose the identities of all the users who had abused her and convicting one of the trolls.
“There are very few people that we can’t get our hands on”, Cohen says. “We find people against all the odds.”
We meet at his office, a converted Georgian mansion set in tranquil grounds just north of the outer reaches of London. Cohen is an avuncular figure with salt and pepper hair, dressed in a short-sleeved shirt, shorts and socks pulled halfway up his calves, who eats thick slices of buttered white toast as he describes some of the horrifying abuse involved in the cases he’s worked on.
Cohen set up his firm, Cohen Davis, in 2012, realising there was a gap in the market for a digitally-savvy practice after working on numerous cases that involved online stalking or harassment. Since then, it has grown to a team of 10 people, which he says is the first in the country to take on only internet-based cases. Over the years they have helped “hundreds” of clients to track down their anonymous tormentors.
Clients frequently come to him after failing to get justice through the police or legal system.
In 2018, Cohen brought Paul Curran, a financial advisor who had harassed a woman online for 13 years after she ended a short relationship, to justice. In what was the UK’s longest ever case of online harassment, Curran created websites which falsely alleged various sexual and personal things his ex-girlfriend had done, and bought Google ads to direct users to them any time someone searched for her name. The former girlfriend had been dismissed by the police several times before she contacted Cohen. His firm brought the case to the High Court and won damages. Cohen won’t tell me the figure, but says the highest amount he’s won “was six figures”.
The lengths to which some online harassers go can be shocking. A notable example is Kirat Assi v Simran Kaur Bhogal, the infamous subject of the hit Sweet Bobby podcast that came out in late 2021. It told the story of how Assi was conned online and with messages and phone calls for a decade into believing that she was in a relationship with a man called Bobby. Spoiler alert – in 2018, Assi discovered that Bobby was in fact Bhogal, her female cousin.
To maintain the lie, Bhogal created around 50 fake social media accounts to interact with Assi. Bhogal built up the persona of “Bobby” via constant texts and phone calls with Assi, a lie which was supported by a fake social media ecosystem of secondary characters, which she pretended were Bobby’s friends and relatives. “This woman was working full-time [as an investment banker] at Barclays”, says Cohen. “And at the same time, she was able to run at least 50 social media accounts.”
The police chose not to pursue a criminal investigation into the matter, but Assi took civil action against Bhogal. She was awarded “substantial” damages, and received an apology letter from her cousin.
So what would drive someone to become a troll – particularly when so much effort is required and there is no clear benefit from it? As Cohen sees it, there are three main motivators. Firstly, there’s the sense of control that perpetrators can get from their actions. “I’m not a psychologist, but I’ve done dozens of these cases and it’s mostly people with low self-esteem, and they’ve found a way to be in control of something”, he says. “You are the de facto manager of your victim’s life.”
Others are driven simply by the thrill of potentially being caught, or begin it gradually and then get addicted to the behaviour. “They just latch on to something and develop an obsession”, he says.
Trolling can even be a cold-blooded business tactic. Cohen recalls one case where a company created an entire website to mimic a news provider, so they could run made-up stories about their rival. When potential customers would Google the rival company, search results would show what looked like news stories about scandals it had been involved in.
Cohen and his team use a variety of methods to unmask trolls, which require good relationships with tech companies.
If abuse or accusations are coming from an anonymous account on a major platform such as Instagram or Twitter, Cohen uses a mixture of court orders and contact with the companies to reveal identifying information about the user. If an abuser has created a website to carry out the attacks, there will be a paper trail of credit card information and IP addresses, which the website host will often provide to Cohen.
At other times they have to use old-fashioned techniques. In one case, private investigators were employed to find the real name of a woman who had used the internet to blackmail a prominent businessman out of £125,000 after meeting him on a “sugar daddy” website.
Despite the greater anonymity that some people believe the Internet gives them, it is now easier to catch a harasser than ever before, says Cohen.
“There’s always a credit card, or a money trail, or they’ll make a small mistake”, he says.
And what of the “Wagatha Christie” case in the High Court, where Rebekah Vardy sued Coleen Rooney for libel after Rooney told the public that she believed someone using Vardy’s account had been leaking personal information to the press?
“This should never have happened”, says Cohen. “[We could have] resolved it in 24 hours, without any publicity.”
A frequent theme of Cohen’s work is coming up against authorities who are not equipped to deal with these new types of threats. What does he think of the police’s ability to deal with online crime? “Terrible”, he says.
Chief among the problems is that the British police force is split up into forces by geographical area – which makes no sense for dealing with online crime, where the perpetrator and victim could be in different counties or countries.
“You need to have a dedicated police force… dealing specifically with internet-related issues”, he says.
On top of that, victims should be able to report digital incidents quickly and easily online, Cohen suggests, with mild offenders given something like a digital ASBO.
Campaigners frequently blame the problem of trolling on the social media companies themselves and argue for measures like the Online Safety Bill currently going through Parliament, which puts responsibility on tech companies to ensure their platforms are safe. Perhaps surprisingly, Cohen isn’t a fan of this argument.
Tech companies are both “the crime scene” and “the beneficiaries of the crime” so making them be the police as well is a clear conflict of interest, he says. “They’ve been encouraging, or at least turning a blind eye, to extremism on the internet, because extremes bring traffic”, he says. “[Why should we] delegate policing to them, when they clearly have their own agenda?”
There has, at least, been some progress in the legal system. When Cohen first opened his digital practice, English courts had no set process for how they dealt with cases involving anonymous trolls. At first they would often refuse to grant orders requiring American tech companies to reveal the identities of abusive users, reasoning that they would not cooperate with English law in California.
Courts tentatively started to give these orders once lawyers like Cohen approached companies and asked them to agree in principle that they would follow UK rulings. But the process was still lengthy and cost what Cohen estimates is £20,000 to £30,000 to get time in court and pay for lawyers for the companies as well as the victim.
After around a decade of unmasking trolls, it’s become easier and costs around a tenth of what it once did, says Cohen. “We created a process with those companies like Twitter and Facebook where we speak to them ahead of the application… and agree between us on the terms of a court order they will agree to and what information [they’re] going to give us”, he says. “Now it’s like, just send the paperwork to the court.”
He thinks the process could be made easier still, with the creation of a simple online form that victims could fill in which would trigger a simple process to unmask the perpetrator. Although that wouldn’t necessarily lead to immediate justice, the threat of unmasking is often enough to end an abuser’s behaviour, says Cohen, who is proud of every successful outcome. “I know it’s cheesy, but, sometimes I think, even if I die tomorrow, I’ve got a little bit of a legacy.”