Four years ago, Patrick Tomlinson tweeted out that he never found Saturday Night Live legend Norm Macdonald funny.
That largely innocuous hot take has since resulted in a yearslong mass harassment campaign, culminating in the sci-fi author receiving countless death threats and being on the receiving end of multiple “swatting” attempts—hoaxing a serious law-enforcement emergency at a target’s home—the last of which was just days ago.
Worse yet, his anonymous tormentors are protected by the law.
Throughout this time, Tomlinson’s antagonists have gathered online on a message board ostensibly devoted to fans of a now-defunct shock radio show but that in reality now functions as a forum to obsessively troll and dox the writer and his family while cheerfully engaging in extremely misogynistic, racist, and homophobic behavior.
And the attacks haven’t stopped there.
Tomlinson and his wife have both been the victims of impersonators spoofing their email and social media accounts to send bigoted messages to colleagues and random people, prompting intensive cleanup efforts on the sci-fi writer’s behalf.
All the while, the author continues to receive dozens of insulting texts, voicemails, and emails on a daily basis from his nameless stalkers, some of whom even send pictures indicating they’re just outside his house.
Yet, as Tomlinson told The Daily Beast, the efforts they’ve taken to identify his harassers and potentially bring them to justice have not only come up empty but cost them tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. All because a court recently found that the identity of the anonymous owner of the message board can remain hidden and thus cannot be subpoenaed to provide information about the identities of the users on their site.
Tomlinson’s plight is somewhat similar to that of trans Twitch streamer Clara Sorrenti, who has been the focus of a lengthy, vicious, anti-trans harassment campaign by users on the internet message board Kiwi Farms. In fact, Tomlinson himself was the target of a 1,400-page thread on the notoriously toxic online community, whose users single out specific individuals to stalk and harass.
Kiwi Farms, which has been tied to the suicides of three people who were victims of its incessant harassment, had long been protected by tech-security company Cloudflare despite its role in real-world harassment campaigns.
That changed earlier this month after Sorrenti, who was chased around the world and eventually “swatted” by her stalkers, spearheaded an effort to take down the site. Furthermore, though the site is known for targeting trans and non-binary people, Kiwi Farms drew additional notoriety when it was linked to a swatting attempt of MAGA Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) last month.
“As Kiwi Farms has felt more threatened, they have reacted by being more threatening,” Cloudflare chief executive Matthew Prince said while announcing his company was dropping Kiwi Farms. “We think there is an imminent danger, and the pace at which law enforcement is able to respond to those threats we don’t think is fast enough to keep up.”
While Kiwi Farms now struggles to maintain any online presence as it bounces between web service providers, the website that’s totally devoted to stalking and tormenting Tomlinson continues to be a Cloudflare client. And just last year, John Doe, the unidentified owner of the forum, was able to quash a subpoena to Cloudflare that would potentially allow Tomlinson to learn the identities of the site’s users, who have baselessly accused him of pedophilia, domestic abuse, and rape.
On top of that, the sci-fi writer was required to pay John Doe’s legal fees, which have now amounted to nearly $40,000 plus interest and penalties.
It all started on Sept. 11, 2018.
Days ahead of the debut of his Netflix talk show, Macdonald—years before he died from cancer—drew heat for defending disgraced comics Roseanne Barr and Louis C.K., both longtime friends of his, following scandals that derailed their careers. (Barr was booted from her sitcom over racist tweets while C.K. publicly admitted to sexually harassing multiple female comedians.)
“Hot take: I’ve never found Norm Macdonald funny and was pretty sure all my comedy friends who did were either nuts or screwing with me,” Tomlinson tweeted that day.
Within three days, Tomlinson found his then-verified Twitter account @stealthygeek suspended after a massive number of reports were filed claiming he violated Twitter’s rules. He would later find out that a Reddit community of 30,000 subscribers dedicated to the canceled Opie and Anthony Show had taken credit for his Twitter account being banned, with users boasting that they coordinated a mass reporting attack because of the author’s anti-Macdonald tweet.
Though the Opie and Anthony Show had been gone for four years by this time (after co-host Anthony Cumia was fired for unapologetically racist commentary), the subreddit continued to embrace the spirit of the “shock jock” show and its transgressive fan community. By 2018, this largely revolved around launching trollish attacks on liberals who irritated them online.
According to Tomlinson, after the subreddit successfully got his Twitter account taken down, they organized additional campaigns in the ensuing months targeting his Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube pages. Their tactics included mass false reporting of the accounts and posting hundreds of bigoted comments. He also claimed that they created a number of impersonation accounts on Twitter that would post racist, sexist, and homophobic remarks in an attempt to damage his reputation.
Towards the end of 2018, Tomlinson said the subreddit ramped up the online harassment by identifying his family members and doxxing his personal information. Additionally, the group posted photoshopped images of his book covers and stolen personal pictures, prompting him to send hundreds of Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) violation reports to Reddit.
The death threats, however, began in earnest that summer. On June 30, 2019, a message was sent directly to the author’s publisher, Tor Books, with the harassing party claiming they had cut Tomlinson’s brake lines on his motorcycle and kidnapped his wife, Niki Robinson.
Days later, meanwhile, one of the cyberstalkers paid Macdonald to do a Cameo video that ended with the comic exclaiming: “Keep picking on that fat loser Patrick.” This was after Macdonald was informed that a person named Patrick said he wasn’t funny. The video was later posted to YouTube and was immediately celebrated as a rallying cry by the r/opieandanthony subreddit.
Over the next few months, Tomlinson eventually got his Twitter account reinstated after retaining a lawyer and getting the social media platform to have a human analyst review it for violations. Additionally, the subreddit was banned and eradicated from Reddit over repeated DMCA violations and the subscribers’ non-stop harassment campaigns.
But for Tomlinson things somehow continued to go downhill from there.
By the beginning of 2020, the former r/opieandanthony group appeared more dedicated than ever to relentlessly taunting Tomlinson. They’d somehow regrouped with their own independent message board that would eventually be known as new.onaforums.net.
In the two-plus years of its existence, users have posted more than 10,000 threads solely about Tomlinson, totaling roughly a quarter-million posts. The threads tend to obsessively break down the sci-fi writer’s tweets, social-media activity, videos, and other media appearances, all while mocking his physical appearance and ridiculing his attempts to quell their nonstop harassment.
“They use the site to coordinate new attacks, execute, and then brag about the crimes and suffering they've inflicted,” Tomlinson noted in a Twitter thread this month about OnA Forum’s harassment campaign. “Their state[d] goal in all of this, much like their ideological cousins on now dead Kiwifarms, is to destroy my career, marriage, and drive me to suicide.”
With users of the site continuing to share Tomlinson’s private information and dox his friends and family, the author and his wife eventually filed a complaint with the FBI in April 2020 regarding the harassment. A month later, the couple was swatted—the first of six times.
On May 21, 2020, two Milwaukee Police Department officers showed up at Tomlinson’s home at 11:00 at night. According to Tomlinson, the uniformed cops had their hands resting on their guns and shouted from the porch: “Where are the children?” The swatting attempt took place right after stalkers had created a fake Craigslist ad using the writer’s name, home address, and phone number claiming Tomlinson was giving away free pepperoni made from the bodies of African-American children kidnapped in his neighborhood.
Two months later, one of Tomlinson’s harassers filmed themselves trespassing on his property while dropping pieces of pepperoni on the front steps in a seemingly mocking reference to the previous swatting attempt.
An anonymous YouTube account also put together a “Tomlinson Pepperoni Commercial” in June 2020 featuring a spokeswoman “selling” pepperoni made from “local Milwaukee urban young Black meats” alongside images of Tomlinson’s home and address. The video was remarkably still online until The Daily Beast reached out to YouTube for comment this past week.
“Our harassment policies strictly prohibit content that reveals someone’s personally identifiable information, including their home address,” YouTube spokesperson Jack Malon said in a statement. “Upon review, we removed 1 video surfaced by the Daily Beast for violating these policies and issued a strike to the channel in question.”
Malon also noted that YouTube’s harassment policy prohibits content revealing someone’s personally identifiable information, such as a home address or phone number. Additionally, per YouTube’s three-strikes system, the platform issued a strike to the channel that uploaded the video, meaning the account cannot upload new content for seven days.
Around this time, the tormentors sent fake accusations of sexual harassment to Discovery in an attempt to get Tomlinson removed from its Science Channel programming as a contributor. They also bombarded the Amazon and Goodreads pages of his books with one-star reviews.
A second swatting attempt occurred in November 2020 after the couple’s favorite neighborhood bar, Hooligans, suffered an accidental fire. Within an hour of the fire, Tomlinson said, their stalkers had already filed a report to the MPD accusing Tomlinson of arson. Shortly after, officers once again showed up at the couple’s home.
Tomlinson also filed a police report in May 2021 after security cameras caught a stalker vandalizing the side of their house with homophobic slurs and trashing his motorcycle. While camera footage showed the perpetrator’s actions at roughly 1:30 a.m., OnA Forum users have repeatedly accused Tomlinson of staging the vandalism.
During this period of time, Tomlinson filed a court action attempting to subpoena Cloudflare in an effort to seek the identity of the anonymous blogger who runs the OnA Forums. Tomlinson’s lawyers argued that he needed the ability to depose the forum owner in order to learn the identities of dozens of anonymous users he sought to sue for posting defamatory statements about him on the site.
In September 2021, a California judge granted John Doe’s order to quash Tomlinson’s petition to subpoena Cloudflare to learn Doe’s identity, citing protections under Section 230 that allows for anonymity for those who passively engage on the internet.
The judge agreed with the discovery hearing officer that while it “is not disputed that Doe 1 anonymously created the OnA Forum which provided the communication vehicle facilitating defamation and harassment by others, there was no evidence that the forum owner themselves personally posted defamatory statements on the platform about Tomlinson.” Therefore, Tomlinson’s filings didn’t meet the burden of defamation requirement against the message board’s creator.
“Doe 1 meets the definition of a ‘user’ who has engaged in passive use of the internet. As such and as harsh a result as it is for Tomlinson, the mandate of section 230 must prevail in the case and the Petition to Quash granted,” hearing officer Steven B. Stein wrote in his recommendation.
Besides quashing the subpoena, Judge Ethan P. Schulman also ordered Tomlinson to pay a mandatory amount of $23,739.25 in attorneys’ fees and costs.
Since then, interest and penalties have added thousands of additional dollars. Without any ability to depose the anonymous users, Tomlinson was essentially forced to withdraw his case.
“The problem is the legal system is not set up for this. It’s not set up at all for this,” Alejandra Carabello, an attorney at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic, told The Daily Beast. “I just don’t think, especially in the policy circles…and the traditional views around technology, they just never imagined this kind of use of technology. They never thought that people would use websites to create forums to engage in this complete cyberstalking, and they don’t know how to grapple with it.”
The inability to not only find the identities of their stalkers but let alone be financially penalized in their attempt to go through the court system, has left Tomlinson and his wife extremely frustrated. Especially as law enforcement has suggested their hands are tied in taking additional action against those harassing them.
“‘Let us know who they are and then we’ll be able to do something.’ And then we go through the court system and try to find out who they are, and the court system’s like, ‘Oh, not only do you not get to know who they are, even though we know who they are, you owe them almost $40,000.’ You know, I mean, we were doing everything that we were supposed to do!” Tomlinson declared to The Daily Beast.
“I mean, how else are we supposed to find out who they are?” Robinson added. “If nobody will give us information and if they're literally protecting these anonymous people, you know, like it's, it's nuts.”
Cloudflare did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Tomlinson’s losses in court only appeared to embolden his stalkers.
In late 2021, Tomlinson claimed that a group of harassers impersonated him via email and asked the Wisconsin Commissioner of Insurance to cancel his insurance license with the state. (Prior to becoming a sci-fi writer, Tomlinson had been an insurance agent and maintained an active license.) Tomlinson said he was out of the country when the cancellation went through and it took him multiple “frantic” phone calls to finally get it reversed, saving him expensive renewal fees.
With coronavirus restrictions loosening and science-fiction conventions ramping up again, the harassment campaign met him on the road over the next few months. According to Tomlinson, stalkers created impostor Twitter accounts to send hundreds of racist and sexist tweets at attendees of WorldCon 79 in Washington, D.C. The author also claimed that one stalker arrived at the hotel to distribute business cards linking to a website mocking him over the fact he needed to pay the OnA Forum owner’s lawyers’ fees.
Forum users posted spy shots of Tomlinson at a Detroit convention in January 2022 and left threatening voicemails in April claiming they were going to assassinate the writer during his presentation at another event in the city. Tomlinson further claimed his stalkers called in a bomb threat to the local police jurisdiction, leading to officers bringing bomb-sniffing dogs to the event.
Eventually, Tomlinson went to FBI’s Milwaukee branch to file a complaint in-person. During this time, the OnA Forum users only increased their mockery of Tomlinson, making fun of his very public attempts to get law enforcement involved. Days later, they obtained and publicly released Tomlinson’s high-school transcript in an effort to shame him for receiving poor grades.
Within a matter of several weeks this summer, the couple’s house was swatted twice, and Robinson claimed she nearly lost her job because a Twitter account posing as her blasted out racist messages.
On July 12, Tomlinson said he received a voicemail threatening to swat their home once again, prompting him to call the MPD to warn them that another attempt was imminent. Tomlinson claimed he asked the police to not respond to any calls to their address unless they come directly from his or his wife’s phone numbers.
Nevertheless, while impersonating Tomlinson, stalkers placed a fake 911 call at 1 a.m. on July 25, claiming that the author had just killed his wife and another man in their bed with an AR-15 rifle. Minutes later, more than a half-dozen armed officers allegedly swarmed the property and dragged Tomlinson out of the house, leaving him handcuffed on the porch while they searched his home.
Home security footage, which Tomlinson shared with local station WISN 12 weeks later, showed the handcuffed author in nothing but a bathrobe during the raid, eventually lashing out at the officers for falling for the hoax. Audio of Tomlinson’s angry reaction to the swatting attempt, recorded by one of his neighbors, was obtained and mockingly posted to an anonymous YouTube channel dedicated to trolling the author.
Just five days prior to this swatting incident, Robinson traveled for her grandfather’s funeral. In the middle of the afternoon, while at her mother’s house, she said she suddenly received dozens of emails and voicemails calling her a racist. Robinson eventually discovered that someone had pretended to be her and sent a racist message to Marvin Toliver, a Black therapist and social media influencer, through his website contact form.
Toliver, who has a fairly large social media following, publicly called her out by posting the fraudulent message to his Instagram account, resulting in the flood of comments Robinson received. Within hours, leadership at the nonprofit group where she works suspended her from her job while they looked into the situation.
Eventually, Tomlinson contacted Toliver and explained the situation to him, prompting him to delete the Instagram post and subsequently record a video explanation absolving Robinson of any wrongdoing. Robinson’s position at the nonprofit was reinstated the following day and leadership released a statement to staff exonerating her.
Two weeks after the July swatting, and with Tomlinson out of town for the CONvergence fan convention, the couple’s home was swatted again while Robinson was home alone. Tomlinson said he watched the swatting on the home’s security system that evening. Police approached the situation much more cautiously this time, Robinson noted.
“After everything I had recently gone through, I was honestly an absolute wreck by this point. They had been going at me daily for months and I was overwhelmed,” Robinson told The Daily Beast. “[The stalkers] had told me the only way they would stop harassing me is if Patrick deleted his Twitter or if I divorce him—things that are obviously not happening—and I highly doubt that would stop anything anyway.” Following that swatting attempt, Robinson claimed, she received a voicemail from an anonymous caller threatening to rape her.
Yet again, less than two weeks ago, cops once more showed up at the couple’s house after Tomlinson’s agitators apparently called the police department claiming he just murdered his wife.
The couple said they answered the door together when the police arrived. This time around, they told The Daily Beast, officers were aware this was likely a swatting attempt and were deferential and polite. The home was not searched.
That wasn’t the case this past Saturday, though. For the sixth time, the couple’s house was swatted. And while law enforcement previously recognized their address was a frequent target of these pranksters, the responding team of six to eight officers came armed with assault-style rifles and ballistic shields during the late afternoon.
Tomlinson shared a home security video with The Daily Beast showing the armed law-enforcement team approaching his house. He also tweeted out photos from the incident. The author later noted that the officers who responded to the latest swatting effort came from the Milwaukee PD’s specialized tactical unit, adding that the cyberstalkers’ to law enforcement had something to do with cocaine.
“Apparently their specialized training doesn’t also include checking if the address they’re responding to is flagged as a repeated swatting target,” Tomlinson lamented to The Daily Beast.
Carabello, meanwhile, expressed pessimism about the couple’s ability to seek legal recourse and stop the never-ending harassment campaign.
“Law enforcement doesn’t take it seriously, and if they even do take it seriously, they’re like it’s not in our jurisdiction,” she said. “And then even with the FBI, it’s like this is below our paygrade. So there’s no help from law enforcement. Most of these tech companies have basically washed their hands of it. And then when you do try to seek legal remedies in the courts, there’s not really anything there.”
The Milwaukee Police Department denied The Daily Beast’s public records request for information on the cyberstalking case regarding Tomlinson’s address, citing the ongoing nature of the investigation. The department did note that since January 2020 there have been 10 incident reports filed for the false reporting of an emergency. Therefore, the swatting attempts on Tomlinson’s home have accounted for half of the city’s reports.
The couple, however, remains hopeful that the FBI can help them.
According to Robinson, they’ve talked with an FBI Milwaukee agent assigned to their case—though they are not at liberty to disclose the agent’s name. The FBI, consistent with a longstanding Department of Justice policy, would not comment on the status of any criminal investigation.
“I said they were escalating. I made a point of it,” Robinson recalled of her conversation with an agent. “It is still constant. And it is every day. For both of us. To this day.”More recently, after the fall of Kiwi Farms, Tomlinson shared yet another threat he received: A person going by “Patrick Tomlinson’s Killer” sent a letter to the organizers of WorldCon in Chicago claiming they would stalk the sci-fi writer from his home to the event and then shoot him during his Sept. 2 presentation.
Thread. In the run up to WorldCon in Chicago last week, one of our cyberstalkers resumed sending detailed, explicit death threats against me to organizers of the convention.
This was not the first time. They have left me many dozens of voicemail death threats. 1/ pic.twitter.com/c1AM4OWqIt
— Patrick S. Tomlinson (@stealthygeek) September 8, 2022
After four years of endless torment at the hands of anonymous cyberstalkers that hang on his every Twitter utterance, it’s tempting to wonder why Tomlinson continues to be an outspoken online presence and why he doesn’t just shut down his social-media presence and go offline to neutralize the harassment campaign.
“That is exactly what they want,” he defiantly said. “They want to silence me. They want me to cease existing, either online or just entirely. Their goal is to drive me out of public spaces. Their goal is to get me to stop participating with society.” Tomlinson concluded: “This is how I’m doing most of my self-promotion. This is how I let people know about my books and when they’re coming out or when they’re on sale. This is how I grow my market.
“This is my business, and to ask me to simply stop participating in the modern world because I have been chosen by a bunch of anonymous criminals is the height of insanity.”