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AJAs 2020 Finalists

Unmasking Donny Dooley: Newfoundland's Most Wanted Troll


Date Aired or Published January 17, 2020
Media outlet where first aired or published: The Independent
Name of Program:
If co-produced, list partner:
Location: St. John's, NL
List awards, grants:
Running time (TV/Radio):

Short explanation of the story and how it developed:

While this story was the product of about eight days of intensive work in early January 2020, the circumstances which produced it have deep roots and go back many years. For a long time, Newfoundland and Labrador’s regional Twitter community — particularly women and victims of trauma — were terrorized by a pseudonymous account named “Donny Dooley.” The user would gleefully post graphic images of car accidents, clog up vital hashtags like #NLtraffic (and #metoo) with hateful garbage, and generally hurl invective and abuse for fun. Like a schoolyard bully writ large, he served as the instigator for an ecosystem of similarly malicious anonymous commenters whose main effect was to scare, hurt, and silent people in a public digital forum. He pretended to be a first responder, and his identity remained a mystery despite attention and effort from the City of St. John’s and the regional Fire Department. Through clever misdirection and a pervasive atmosphere of fear, the user managed to evade exposure over many years as he escalated from crude jokes to stalking and harassment. My approach to the Dooley account for years had largely been to “block and ignore” despite the user’s increasingly personal provocations. This became impossible once he and his cadre began harassing and antagonizing my wife. But he vastly underestimated both her personal resolve and her social media sleuthing skills. Between her gifted digital detective work and the cooperation of many highly-motivated community members (and past victims), we tracked down the real person behind the Dooley account — a wedding DJ known locally as Mr. Music — within eight hours. From there, we proceeded to compile supporting evidence and build the iron-clad case presented in the article. The production and publication of “Unmasking Donny Dooley” was a community affair. The Independent, at the time, was working on a shoestring budget. I was (and remain) the only person on staff, intimately engaged at every stage from writing and editing to publishing, socializing, and technical support. (All aspects of this process were engaged by this story, as the volume of traffic resulting from its publication actually crashed the website intermittently for several hours until I got it fixed.) It would have been impossible to pull this off without the volunteer assistance of my partner Sarah, my friend Jon Keefe, and my future brother-in-law Alex Spracklin — and the innumerable people who provided tips and testimonials in the interests of preventing Dooley from tormenting anyone else the way he had tormented them. It is difficult to overstate how toxic this figure was on Twitter. Many people who provided help for this story wanted to do so anonymously; others who had experienced stalking or forced sexual disclosures at the hands of the account did not want to go ‘on the record’ for fear of retribution. Given the intense escalations from Dooley as we closed in on him — culminating in his malicious disclosure of my own bisexuality — their worries were completely warranted. In terms of impact, we did not achieve our aim of eliciting an explanation or apology. But we did end the reign of terror. The Donny Dooley account was deleted just prior to publication and the story garnered nearly 25000 unique pageviews in its first 36 hours online. I was informed afterwards by someone who knew the user personally that his family was shocked and horrified to discover his online ‘persona’ but were relieved that he had been forced to stop. One year on from the events of last January and the general consensus is that the digital atmosphere feels significantly more safe. While no largely unmoderated social media platform can ever be completely “non-toxic,” no one on Twitter in Newfoundland and Labrador is being actively traumatized by the Donny Dooley clique anymore. We seem to have established a baseline of civilized conduct. Ultimately the lasting impact of “Unmasking Donny Dooley” can be summed up by one of many messages I received after it was published: “Great work,” one man wrote to me. “My daughter has been bullied terribly in school the past 3 years to the point of cutting herself. This gives us hope. A heartfelt thank you.” Repudiating bullying and harassment is why we published this story. Standing up for people who are unable to stand up for themselves is why I do this often thankless job called journalism. Knowing that it has helped even one young person feel more hopeful and safe in the difficult and rewarding task of being themselves means I am satisfied, in this moment, that I did it well.

Resources of the newsroom (money and time) available to complete the story:

The Independent is an independent, not-for-profit community news publication and as such does not have access to significant financial resources. The greatest resource investment underlying this article was the time it took to produce it.

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