Monika Glennon has lived in Huntsville, Alabama, for the last 12 years. Other than a strong Polish accent, she fits a certain stereotype of the all-American life. She's blonde. Her husband is a veteran Marine. Her two children, a boy and a girl, joined the military as adults. She sells houses - she's a real estate agent at Re/Max - helping others realise their own American dream.
But in September 2015, she was suddenly plunged into a nightmare. She got a call at 6AM one morning from a colleague at Re/Max telling her something terrible had been posted about her on the Re/Max Facebook page. Glennon thought at first she meant that a client had left her a bad review, but it turned out to be much worse than that.
It was a link to a story about Glennon on She's A Homewrecker, a site that exists for the sole purpose of shaming the alleged "other woman". The author of the Homewrecker post claimed that she and her husband had used Glennon as their realtor, and that everything was going great until one evening when she walked in on Glennon having sex with her husband on the floor of a home the couple had been scheduled to see.
The unnamed woman went into graphic detail about the sex act and claimed she'd taken photos that she used to get everything from her husband in a divorce. The only photo she posted though was Glennon's professional headshot, taken from her bio page on Re/Max's site.
Glennon was horrified. The story was completely fabricated and she had no idea why someone would have written it. Someone on Facebook named Ryan Baxter had posted it to the Re/Max page; Baxter also went through Glennon's Facebook friend list and sent it to her husband, family members, and many of her professional contacts.
"Sorry to be the one to let you in on this," Baxter wrote to Glennon's husband, Scott, in a Facebook message.
Glennon waded into the comment section on the Homewrecker story and wrote that it was completely fabricated. A woman named Amy responded skeptically, "Hmmm, so why would someone make up such an extravagant story?"
The story was re-posted on other sites, including one called BadBizReport.is where it has been viewed over 95,000 times. It quickly became the top search result for Glennon's name on Google. Within a year, Glennon was experiencing the repercussions: Her number of listings dropped by half. She estimates that she's lost $US200,000 in business since 2015.
She was mystified as to the post's author. She thought it could be a rival realtor, or an acquaintance who was angry at her.
"I was looking at every person in my life and every stranger and wondering who did it to me and why," Glennon told me by phone. "It makes you rethink every relationship in your life."
Eventually, after $US100,000 in attorney's bills, Glennon was able to unmask the culprit. It turned out to be a complete stranger who had been offended by a comment Glennon had made about a news article on Facebook.
In 2014, a teenager from Alabama visited Auschwitz and tweeted a smiling selfie from the former concentration camp. It went viral, as people across the internet debated the teen's choice of self-portraiture. WHNT News, a Huntsville, Alabama-based TV station, posted a story about the incident to its Facebook page asking readers to "share your thoughts".
A heated discussion ensued. Monika Glennon was among those defending the teen, saying that kids make mistakes, that at least she was visiting the site and that the condemnation by an internet mob "shows the same judgemental and senseless pack mentality that led to this horrific time in history to begin with".
A woman named Mollie Rosenblum disagreed. She responded to several of the teen selfie supporters, including Glennon, saying that Auschwitz was a sombre place for reflection and not an appropriate place to take selfies. She identified herself as being of Jewish descent and suggested that others didn't have a full grasp of the Holocaust.
Glennon responded to Rosenblum, telling her Auschwitz isn't "her" place, that it "belongs to all and was a former killing zone of all", including, originally, Polish people.
If you've ever argued with someone online, you're probably not surprised to hear that neither person was convinced by the other person's arguments.
Glennon forgot about the exchange and went about her life. Rosenblum did not.
Rosenblum stewed over the exchange for a week. It was a low point in her life; a single mother with two sons, she was, by her own account as posted on Facebook, then "in the throws of full blown methamphetamine addiction" and making very poor decisions (including, in 2016, kidnapping).
She spent a few hours researching Glennon online and soon knew enough to fake having met her in real life. It was the online version of road rage; instead of pulling a gun on another driver, Rosenblum decided to drop a bomb on Glennon's reputation. Rosenblum submitted her fabricated story to She's A Homewrecker and then, according to an account she later gave to a local news outlet, forgot about it.
There is a constellation of sites on the internet that exist solely as places for people to exorcise their demons and, more importantly, their grudges; She's A Homewrecker is one of them. It offers the opportunity to publicise a person's misdeeds so that they are available not just to an inner circle with access to relevant gossip, but to anyone who Googles that person's name. The terms of service specify that posts must be factually true, but if they aren't, it isn't a problem for the site.
In the US, it's protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects websites from being sued for the things their users say.
Rosenblum wrote and submitted the story in August 2014, but it wasn't published until September 2015, long after Rosenblum had forgotten about it. That's because submissions to She's a Homewrecker are reviewed before publication. Asked about the reason for the delay, the site's lawyer David Gingras speculates that Rosenblum's story may have "sat in a holding pen for a year". The trigger for publication was likely the sale of the site.
She's a Homewrecker was started in 2013 by Arielle Alexander, but she sold it in August 2015 to Relic Agency, which is run by Nik Richie, who also founded The Dirty, another important star in the constellation of grudge-settling sites. The story about Glennon went up a month after the site changed ownership.
It may have languished in obscurity there if not for a person who went by Ryan Baxter on Facebook. Baxter was the one who posted the story to Re/Max's Facebook page, emailed it to Glennon's bosses, and sent it to many of her Facebook contacts.
Apparently a regular reader of She's A Homewrecker, Baxter had a habit of compounding the damage to people shamed on the site. Glennon found numerous instances of Baxter posting She's a Homewrecker posts to the Facebook walls of other people's employers and friends. Such are the strange hobbies of the modern age.
Glennon wrote repeatedly to all the sites that had posted the story telling them it was false, but none of them would take it down. Her only option was to go to court, so she filed a lawsuit in 2016 against John Does, alleging libel and copyright infringement, because the post used her professional headshot, which she had ownership of.
Through the suit, Glennon was able to subpoena She's A Homewrecker and Facebook for IP addresses, as well as Internet Service Providers to find out the identities of the people behind the IP addresses. A couple of months after she filed the suit, yet another post appeared on yet another site, "Report My Ex", written by a man claiming to be the husband who had cheated with Glennon, again luridly detailing a sex act that never happened.
"That really scared me because I was afraid men would book me as a realtor expecting me to have sex with them," Glennon told me by phone. "So I had my husband start coming with me to bookings at vacant homes. We installed a surveillance system in our house because I was so scared."
Through the subpoenas, Glennon discovered that Ryan Baxter was a stranger in Oxnard, California, named Hannah Lupian. Shortly after Lupian was served with a legal complaint, the Ryan Baxter profile disappeared from Facebook. Glennon has never heard from Lupian and I was unable to get in touch with her.
Rosenblum was another matter. After becoming aware that her identity would be revealed by her ISP, Mollie Rosenblum doubled down. She emailed Glennon's attorneys, apologising but saying that if Glennon continued to pursue her legally, she would "protect [herself] by making their initial contact public".
Six months later, in September 2017, Rosenblum acted on her threat and took to Facebook and the comment section of the BadBizReport, where she apologised for lying about Glennon being an adulterer but said she did it because of Glennon's "veiled antisemitism".
"While Mrs. Glennon is not an adulterous woman to my knowledge, she is guilty IN MY OPINION, of facebook trolling the wrong person," concluded Rosenblum on Facebook.
Glennon was horrified. She didn't want more terrible things written about her online.
"I'm not a Nazi sympathiser. I grew up in a poor family in communist Poland," Glennon said. "I saw the comments and reached out to [Rosenblum] over Facebook Messenger and said, 'This has reached an awful level of damage that you have done to me. Let's meet. Please ask me what you want to ask me.'"
They agreed to meet at a restaurant in Athens, Alabama, a town an hour from Glennon's, where Rosenblum lives. The meeting lasted four hours.
"She had thought I was this mean, rich bitch. That's the problem with social media. You just make these assumptions about people," Glennon said. "After meeting me, she did an affidavit admitting everything she did. She understood who I was then".
Rosenblum did not respond to media inquiries via email or Facebook Messenger. She appears active on Facebook as recently as July 4, but she has been sentenced to four years for kidnapping and the Alabama Department of Corrections website says she started her term in November 2017. Her thinking, however, is well-documented online and in court documents.
Meeting Glennon in person seemed to defuse Rosenblum's anger. She returned once again to the comment section of the BadBizReport to retract what she had said and apologise.
"Mrs. Glennon is in fact a kind and compassionate person with whom I share many common values," wrote Rosenblum. "Please accept my deepest regret for the harm I have brought to the lives of her and those whom love her."
Rosenblum wanted to take the posts down but she couldn't. On submission sites such as She's A Homewrecker, there is no delete button, not to mention the copies of the post that appeared on other sites.
"These sites should allow original posters to take these posts down," said Glennon. "I see a lot of people in comments saying they regret it and want to take it down but they can't."
She's a Homewrecker lawyer David Gingras scoffed at that. "The fact that authors can't remove their own posts is intended to reduce the effectiveness of threats such as: 'Take this down or I'll sue your ass into bankruptcy,'" said Gingras by email.
"Although the site's policy is not to allow authors to remove their own posts as a matter of course, the site will still consider removal requests from an author on a case-by-case basis... it really just depends on the circumstances. The site will also usually remove content that a court has found to be false."
Glennon won her lawsuit against Rosenblum and Lupian, with a federal court in northern Alabama finding in her favour on claims of copyright violation, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and interference with her business.
The judge ordered websites that published Rosenblum's story to remove it. She's A Homewrecker has already taken down the post, but it remains up on BadBizReport. BadBizReport's website states that it doesn't respond to court orders and that "there's no way in hell to get off of BadBizReport once you're listed on it," adding that "American lawyers make us laugh".
Luckily, the judge also ordered search engines, "such as Google", to de-index all versions of the post "to ensure that it does not appear as a search result when Ms. Glennon's name is searched". In Europe, the right to remove irrelevant or false information from your search results is enshrined in the law as "the right to be forgotten".
In the US, you have to pay for it.
"You should be able to remove untrue stories without spending $US100,000", said Glennon. "For a person making minimum wage trying to clear their reputation, it would be impossible".
There is a question as to whether Google and others will comply with the order.
"Google typically complies with court-ordered removals in the US. However, in 2017, Google allegedly raised its standards on honouring court-ordered removals before relaxing some," said Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University. "Unfortunately, court-ordered removals can be obtained for illegitimate reasons in a variety of ways. Thus, I think Google should evaluate court-ordered removals carefully instead of honouring them reflexively".
For example, reputation management firms have gotten courts to order that posts be taken down and removed from search results by suing people who don't actually exist and then getting judgements by default against them. Goldman added that he thought Glennon's removal request was a legitimate one, given that Rosenblum also wants the post removed.
"It would make sense for Google to honour this particular injunction, though it likely would require some research by Google before they can confirm its legitimacy - research that Google really prefers not to do", said Goldman by email. A Google spokesperson said the company reviews all court orders requesting links be removed from search and prefers when parties resolve among themselves in court whether a page should be removed from search results.
Last year, Google removed links from search in the US because of defamation over 30,000 times.
The judge hasn't decided yet what damages will be awarded to Glennon. Neither Rosenblum nor Lupian appear to have ample assets, so she likely won't recover much of what she's spent on the lawsuit.
Glennon says the experience has left her more cautious online. She locked down her Facebook account so that strangers have less access to her information and, importantly, can't see her friends list. Surprisingly, she still comments on news articles.
"But nothing too provocative," she told me.
This article was originally published 27/7/18.