SAN JOSE, Calif. — “If someone tries to shoot me, let me know,” James McGibney says, as we take a seat at a Tex-Mex restaurant. The waitress puts him facing the wall, and McGibney, a tattooed, bearded 40-year-old in a hoodie and Yankees cap, is wigging. “I never have my back to the door,” he tells me, checking over his shoulder. McGibney has reason to be paranoid. A few minutes earlier, his iPhone had buzzed with the day’s first death threat. “Chop your head off” was all it said. Last night during our dinner, he got another two: “F--- off c---. I will kill u” and “I am gonna rape your bitch wife.”
Such are the hazards of being the most controversial vigilante online. McGibney is a former Marine who battles those he deems the Internet’s worst fiends. As social media permeates our everyday lives, so do the means of harassment: posting nude pictures of an ex on Tumblr, menacing celebs on Twitter, preying on kids on Snapchat. In late August, a hacker released nude photos of actress Jennifer Lawrence and model Kate Upton on the Web forums Reddit and 4chan. But one doesn’t need to be famous to be targeted anymore. And with the ease of anonymity, it’s difficult to get the police (who often lack the skills and resources for online investigations) to intervene. That’s where McGibney and his shadowy crew of hackers and sleuths come in. They’ve infiltrated, attacked and dethroned some of the baddest bad guys (and girls) of the digital age. As McGibney puts it with his usual bravado, “I will mentally skullf--- a bully.”
McGibney first achieved notoriety with CheaterVille, a site that allowed jilted lovers to post their exes’ names and faces on a site for others to search. Today, his primary war room is BullyVille, a social network where visitors can post the names, faces and bios of their harassers for free. With thousands of victims, including high-profile celebrities, sharing their stories on the site, BullyVille went mainstream, landing McGibney high-paying advertisers, international media gigs and an upcoming CheaterVille TV show.
But the success is coming at a dangerous price. The targets of his militant campaigns say McGibney is the real bully, a vengeful egomaniac leaving innocents in his crossfire. “He hacked me and sent terrible people after me,” says one of his self-described victims — and an unlikely one at that. She’s a mother of four who tells me McGibney and his cronies claimed she was harassing the reality show star Kate Gosselin online. Others call him “McFibney” and a “fraud,” and accuse him of being no better than his supposed foes by running “a blackmail/bullying company” of his own.
In recent months, the army of vengeful trolls tweeting, blogging and plotting against McGibney has grown so vicious that fighting them off is a full-time job. But McGibney isn’t backing down. “Go after my advertisers, go after my family, go after my friends, I'm not going away,” he says. “I’m going to fight you until I'm dead.” Then he checks over his shoulder, and dips into his nachos again.
The first bully McGibney remembers is his father. McGibney was 8, living in the Bronx with his parents and younger brother, who is severely autistic (McGibney was born under a different name, and doesn’t want to reveal it to protect the identity of his brother). A religious show was playing on TV, McGibney says, as he saw his mom on the ground, and his dad looming over her with a frying pan.
After Child Protective Services placed him in a foster home, he met his second bully: a father who hit him with the hinge of his belt — scars McGibney shows me, and that are now covered by a Marine tattoo. The next set of foster parents, McGibney says, were the worst of all: a wealthy couple who forced him and a foster girl to stand naked on towels for hours on end, burned his hand on a stove (another scar) and pissed on him in a bathtub after beating him to a pulp.
By the time he got to his fourth, and final, foster family — a compassionate New York City cop, Patrick McGibney, and his wife, Mary, an office worker — the frightened and emaciated boy bore more than physical wounds. “He was fast with the fists,” Mary McGibney tells me. But with a passion and proclivity for computers, he found another way out and, at 18, he enlisted in the Marines, where he put his programming skills to use. As part of the Third Surveillance Reconnaissance Intelligence Group stationed in Japan, McGibney fought off hackers infiltrating U.S. operations. “It was validation, for the first time, that being a nerd is OK,” he recalls.
McGibney soon realized how effective nerd power could be. On the way back from serving overseas in Japan, a Marine buddy found out his wife was cheating on him. McGibney thought, What if there was a way to out cheaters online, so everyone could be warned and aware? In his mind, it wasn’t controversial, it was a public service. In 2011, after completing a master’s in criminal justice at Boston University, he launched CheaterVille: an online board to out philanderers. Anyone could upload photos and evidence on their two-timing exes. McGibney designed the site to be self-policing. The better the proof (cell phone records, text messages and the like) the higher the community-voted Cheater Meter score. McGibney was protected under the Communications Decency Act, a 1996 law that shields website operators from lawsuits for content posted by third parties.
After a plug by Howard Stern, McGibney’s site went viral, and ad revenues began pouring in. With eye-catching billboards for CheaterVille across the country (“Don’t go down without a fight!” read one, alongside a woman punching a guy in the crotch), he became the talk of the talk-show circuit. But he had to field frequent accusations that he was recklessly endangering innocent people’s lives by allowing them to be publicly vilified. “Do you feel any responsibility that you’re basically providing a forum for people to anonymously trash other people?” Anderson Cooper once asked him.
Though McGibney shrugged off the accusations, he couldn’t escape the consequences of his risky business. One day, he opened his front door to find a very pissed-off guy standing there, holding a gun. “Are you the f---ing owner of CheaterVille?” he said. The irate visitor, who had somehow found McGibney’s address, was married with two kids and had been posted on CheaterVille for impregnating a stripper. McGibney carefully talked him down as if he were defusing a bomb, and agreed to remove him from the site. But he wasn’t taking any more chances. From that day forward, he carried a gun — and made sure his wife did too.
Shortly after appearing on CNN, McGibney got an email from Hunter Moore, a 26-year-old from Sacramento who’d seen him on TV and wondered if he’d be interested in advertising on his site, Is Anyone Up? The site was the most notorious purveyor of revenge porn, CheaterVille’s evil twin.
Like McGibney, Moore had created a place where people could anonymously get back at their exes — although Moore took it even further. While McGibney wouldn’t allow naked pictures or even profanity on his site, Moore let vengeful lovers post their dirtiest laundry — nude photos, sex videos, the works. As McGibney saw with horror, many of the exes posted on Moore’s site seemed underage. “That’s the first time when I'm like, ‘That's full-blown bullying,’” McGibney recalls, “and he’s the biggest bully on the Web.”
But, just like McGibney, Moore was operating freely, protected by the same law that allowed CheaterVille to thrive. So McGibney decided to bring him down from the inside. Taking out a few small CheaterVille ads, McGibney established a rapport with Moore, who admitted that he was buckling from pressure. People were suing him. Facebook had issued a cease-and-desist to stop using pictures culled from its pages. A victim of Is Anyone Up? showed up at his house and stabbed him with a pen, sending him to the hospital.
Behind the scenes, McGibney had a powerful gang of volunteers feeding him more dirt on Moore: Anonymous. Though the international collective of hacktivists was best known for taking on higher-profile targets such as the Church of Scientology and Middle Eastern dictators during the Arab Spring, they saw McGibney as one of their own: a good guy using hacker smarts to vanquish villains. “I have a lot of respect for James,” one hacker whom I’ll call Master Blaster, tells me. “It’s tough being that person who’s out there publicly getting shot at.” Blaster, a 40-something father of two with a well-paying job, was among those who offered to help his cause. He and others online sent McGibney photos they’d stolen of Moore doing coke, Moore’s home address and other personal details just in case McGibney needed them for leverage. Though others might consider such practices a form of extortion, McGibney saw it as ammo for fighting back.
Armed with all this, McGibney offered Moore a way out: Sell me your site. He promised Moore could redeem himself by helping victims protect themselves from bullies instead. McGibney was going to launch a new site for this purpose, and he was going to call it BullyVille. “Maybe I was naive,” McGibney recalls, “but I'm thinking that I'm getting through to this guy.” In April 2012, Moore sold McGibney his domain for less than $15,000 and, in an open letter online, credited McGibney with helping him see the light. From then on, anyone who called up Moore’s site would be rerouted to BullyVille instead.
But some bullies go down easier than others, and Moore wasn’t finished yet. Several months later, in the summer of 2012, Moore resurfaced online to inexplicably eviscerate the man whom he had credited with turning him around. “Aye james @bullyville,” Moore tweeted, “get some little kids dick out of your mouth and let me f--- your wife.” McGibney sued him for defamation, and launched a class-action suit against him on behalf of Is Anyone Up?’s victims. “Sometimes,” McGibney wrote Moore, “you have to be a bully to beat a bully.”
On December 5, Anonymous crashed Moore’s site with a Distributed Denial of Service attack, and then hacked and published a long file of his personal details: his address, phone, proof that he hadn’t age-checked the minors on his site. The campaign, which cited McGibney as an inspiration, dubbed itself #OpHuntHunter. Though McGibney balked at some of Anonymous’s outlaw tactics — “That’s not brains over bullies, that's illegal shit,” he says — having his own personal army felt empowering. “It was so impressive to watch Anonymous go after someone,” he recalls. The courts eventually ruled in McGibney’s favor in his defamation suit, awarding him a judgment of $250,000 (Moore has yet to pay, and did not return a request to comment).
With Moore down, McGibney and his hacker army took on another revenge porn site, Is Anybody Down? — releasing personal information on its webmaster, Craig Brittain, and his designer, Chance Trahan, as part of their expanding anti-bully operations. As the campaign against Brittain and Trahan picked up steam, McGibney’s justice league began to grow beyond Anonymous. Adam Steinbaugh, a 31-year-old lawyer who blogs on legal issues related to technology, was impressed by McGibney’s campaign. He began digging into the revenge porn pair, tracking down their threats to victims online, and then feeding the discoveries back to McGibney. Among other things, Steinbaugh alleged that Brittain and Trahan were posing as lawyers and collecting fees from their victims to remove them from their site.
Under pressure, Brittain shut down the site. Trahan left running so scared he filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. “I am currently being bullied by Bullyville.com who has also hired people to bully me via their blogs,” he wrote. “For someone who claims to represent not being bullied, I find it funny that he is funding active bullying against me, supporting hacking of every website I own and targeting me.”
With news spreading of BullyVille taking down two of the biggest revenge porn bullies, McGibney became an even bigger celebrity, making the rounds on TV, at conferences and at Vegas parties. And it couldn’t have been more timely. In the 12-month period beginning in September 2013, cyberbullying was all over the media (nine suicides were blamed on the phenomenon that year alone), BullyVille became the top place for victims to share their stories — and out their tormenters. Ashba of Guns ‘N Roses endorsed the site. Becca Tobin, who played a bully on the hit TV show “Glee,” became a spokesperson. “I am very excited about being the female spokesperson for BullyVille,” she blogged on the site, “and helping others realize that it does get better and they are not alone!”
But when Kate Gosselin, the reality TV star, posted her own story on BullyVille, McGibney took particular notice. Gosselin wasn’t just writing about being bullied as a kid, she was getting harassed online at the time. People were threatening to kill her and as she wrote, she had no idea “that 'adult bullying' via the Internet existed.” The hub of the so-called Kate Haters was Reality Without Apologies, a popular blog for reality TV fans. It was there that McGibney found what he calls the most vicious bullying he’d seen yet. There were calls for beheading, raping and murdering Gosselin, as well as Photoshop pictures of her bleeding on a stake. “Happy bday o a GRIFTING, stealing, lying, child & animal abusing cunt bitch,” read one message, “Hope you choke on ur birthday cake.” It ended with a reference to a celeb who was assassinated by a fan: “REMEMBER SELENA.”
McGibney imagined a group of surly male trolls behind the posts, but, after researching the blog, was shocked to find the truth: “They're all middle-aged women!” he says. “It blew my mind.” So McGibney says he employed the same strategy he’d used to take down the Revenge Porn crew: He would buy the site, and use it to take the Kate Haters down. Without the Kate Haters’ knowing, McGibney, as the new owner, had full access to everyone who was posting on Reality Without Apologies, and gathered their Internet Protocol addresses to determine their real identities. With the help of his hackers, he also extracted data from their photographs to determine their locations.
On April 1, 2013, he released the mother lode: a full list of the real names of the Kate Haters. It made international gossip columns, as perhaps the first public outing of dozens of people on a blog. While it exposed people who had expected anonymity, it was all legal — utilizing free software widely available online. Gosselin took to the Web to thank McGibney. “I proudly support all LEGAL means to bring bullies — who thought they could hide to light — on the internet or in school,” she tweeted.
The Kate Haters, however, insisted they were the real victims of McGibney’s wrath. One 45-year-old grandmother who posted on the Reality Without Apologies blog describes herself as “an upstanding member of my community and actively involved in my church,” and says that McGibney “publicly humiliated me” by posting her name and address (www.jendalessandro.com) Lora Lusher, another grandmother, describes herself as one of McGibney’s “main targets” and tells me that “McGibney and his followers have invented and spread so many bizarre and vicious lies about us that our names and reputations are forever destroyed.” (www.loralusher.com). But with the flame war unfolding online and not in a court of law, there was nothing to be done. McGibney had only grown more empowered. “Revenge is never pretty,” he tweeted, “but when done meticulously, intelligently, and psychotically, it sure is a thing of beauty.”
Before long, however, the Kate Haters, revenge porn masters and other enemies of McGibney had a powerful and mysterious new ally. And as he posted one night last November on BullyVille under the handle LongJohnSilver, he was ready to fight back. “I am simply amazed that this BullyVille guy, James McGibney, is still alive,” LongJohnSilver wrote. “If I was listed on his website, I would put a bullet in his head. It’s as simple as that.”
McGibney had grown accustomed to death threats, but LongJohnSilver’s post felt uniquely chilling. The guy claimed to know McGibney’s home address in Vegas and his personal appearance schedule, and went on to specify that McGibney could be shot in the Walmart parking lot and his body dumped in Lake Mead — not far from where McGibney actually lived.
A few weeks later, McGibney received a tweet from an account called @MrTexxxan that sounded eerily like LongJohnSilver, and went into specifics on his family. “It will be really funny seeing someone post pics of ur wife … when she is shopping at Smith’s with ur two kids,” it read. He also got a tweet from the account of someone called @Klansmann who made a threat using strikingly similar language, telling of how easily someone could come up behind McGibney at a 7-11 and “busts a cap in ur head.” (www.thomasretzlaff.com)
A website soon appeared called Files, which gave McGibney a taste of his own toxic medicine. The blog, which was authored by someone calling himself Dean Anderson, fired back at the BullyVille founder, attacking his credibility in a series of vitriolic posts. Anderson claimed he had access to government records that allowed him to dig into McGibney’s past. He suggested McGibney had faked some of his military credentials and his college degree, and run revenge porn sites of his own. He also posted photos of McGibney’s children, and the caption, “Are these children in danger??”
As the flame war between the Net’s most notorious bully-fighter and his newfound bully raged, it didn’t take long for others to pile on, on both sides. Longtime foes of McGibney took like flies to the Files honey, posting takedowns of him. McGibney garnered the public support of two of the most renowned gangs online: the trolling group Rustle League, and the main Twitter account for Anonymous, @YourAnonNews, which tweeted in his support.
But, for McGibney, all the online action was taking a real-life toll. Thomas Retzlaff began harassing BullyVille’s board members, advertisers and celebrity endorsers. Pictures were posted of board members’ children, along with their home addresses. According to a complaint filed in California court, DJ Ashba of Guns ‘N Roses (who declined to comment for this story) felt the heat: “After receiving these and other unwanted messages … Mr. Ashba became fearful for his safety and the safety of his family.”
Becca Tobin of Glee ultimately backed out of the site because she wanted nothing to do with McGibney’s battles. “I believe in providing strength to those who have been bullied,” she tells me in an email, “but not in bullying a bully." (BullyVille put its advertising losses due to the defection of its celebrity sponsors at $250,000. The company is privately held and does not release revenues). Tobin isn’t the only one shunning the more militant methods of doxxing (publishing identifiable information about people online) and vigilantism for less controversial solutions. While there are no federal laws against bullying, most states have laws and policies against it. Publicly funded schools are required to address any discriminatory harassment that occurs between students, and online resources such as the Cyberbullying Research Center (cyberbullying.us) and Stopbullying.gov provide information and advice for victims and their families. As then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in an anti-bullying public service announcement, “We can all contribute to more tolerant, supportive environments and to stamping out bullying wherever it happens.”
As for McGibney, he isn’t ready to abandon his cause yet. There’s talk of a CheaterVille TV show airing soon. And the BullyVille site, despite the battles, is still going strong. When I ask McGibney if he has any interest in tracking down the biggest bullies in his life, his parents, he says no. “As horrific as all that was, I'd probably thank them,” he says, “Because if it wasn't for that, I wouldn't be where I am today and I wouldn't be who I was today. I take it as a positive experience.”