Isabella Sorley, 25, Newcastle, UK
As the metal door clanged shut behind me, my stomach filled with dread. Locked in a cold cell, I still couldn’t believe I was here.
My problem began when I started my university degree in creative advertising in 2009. I had dreams of becoming an arts therapist, working with people with special needs. But before long I fell into the student drinking culture. My grades struggled, but I was having too much fun to care.
My grades struggled, but I was having too much fun to care.
After a few months, things were so bad I got arrested for being drunk and disorderly, but I still couldn’t accept that I had a problem. ‘You need to get help,’ one friend told me. ‘I’m not an alcoholic,’ I snapped back. Although I was a binge drinker, I figured I had it under control.
That’s when I decided to set up a Twitter account – so I could share my views. Whenever I wanted a rant, it was the perfect outlet. I became so interested in it, I even wrote my dissertation about social media.
In spite of my struggles, I graduated from uni and moved to Newcastle. There, I rented an apartment and got a job in a supermarket so I could save to study for a master’s degree. But my drinking continued.
One night in July 2013, I had been out with friends when I stumbled home in the early hours of the morning. I was heading to bed around 2am when I checked Twitter and saw a trending topic where people were leaving abuse for a public figure. As I read the hateful comments, I got caught up in them and, jumping on the bandwagon, added my own tweets to the conversation. I didn’t even have an opinion on the subject but I sent out my remarks without a thought.
What harm could it do?
As strangers began ‘favouriting’ my comments, I got carried away. That night I posted six vile tweets online. I felt anonymous and powerful.
What harm could it do?
I didn’t find out until the next morning, when I woke with a sore head. Opening my phone, I saw that people were criticising my tweets. Reading over my comments, I felt so ashamed.
It was just an empty threat, I replied, trying to smooth things over.
But I soon realised idiotic tweets don’t go away when you sober up. The next week, my tweets were among dozens reported in the news as police launched an investigation. For the next few months, I hoped it would blow over. But three months later, I got a call from my mum. ‘The police are here looking for you,’ she told me, explaining they had a warrant for my arrest. My stomach lurched. I knew exactly what it was about.
Sure enough, they soon arrived at my flat and charged me with sending malicious messages. I was terrified and confessed to everything. Surely if I was honest, I wouldn’t go to jail. But as I waited for my case to go to court, I tried to escape my problems by drinking more. I hated the person I’d become.
Finally, in January 2014 I appeared at Westminster Magistrates’ Court, where I pleaded guilty to sending the tweets. As my vile comments were read out in court, I cringed. I felt so ashamed. There was no denying I was a Twitter troll.
I always hated bullies when I was younger but that’s what I’d become. I’d thought being behind a computer made my remarks okay – I was wrong.
The judge sentenced me to 12 weeks in prison and I was ordered not to repeat the details of what I tweeted that night ever again. I won’t forget the moment I was locked in my cell. Other prisoners chanted ‘Twitter girl’ at me as I passed. At one point I saw my face flash up on TV. It was a report on internet trolls and I was one of them. I knew right then I had to focus on changing my ways for the better when I got out.
Six weeks on I was released, but changing wasn’t easy. I had no job and lost my flat as I couldn’t afford the rent. But soon, I began doing charity work – encouraging young people to consider the effect alcohol can have. It gave me a sense of purpose. I also plan to start teaching people about the impact their online activity can have.
I’m pleased to say that two years on I’m sober. I’m sharing my story because I want young people to realise that things you write on social media can have lasting and devastating consequences.
I don’t want or deserve sympathy for what I did, I just want to do something positive. I’m determined to prove I’ll never be a troll again!
Isabella has not been paid for her story.
Originally published in that’s life! Issue 2, 2016.
The court heard...
While conditions of Isabella Sorley’s conviction prevent her from speaking about details of the case, it was widely reported her tweets were directed at feminist campaigner, Caroline Criado-Perez. She received abuse from 86 Twitter accounts after using social media to lead a campaign for a female figure to appear on a Bank of England note.
Among the six tweets Isabella sent on July 30, 2013, she wrote, kill yourself before I do and I will find you and you don’t want to know what I will do.
On January 7, 2014, Isabella and UK man John Nimmo, 25, pleaded guilty to sending threatening messages. In sentencing them to 12 weeks and eight weeks in prison respectively, Judge Howard Riddle said it was ‘hard to imagine more extreme threats’.