The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Unmasking and death of a notorious British ‘Twitter troll’ sharpens focus on trial-by-Twitter

Kate and Gerry McCann pose with a computer generated image of how their missing daughter Madeleine might look now during a news conference in London on May 2, 2012. Madeleine McCann went missing from a holiday villa in southern Portugal five years ago as her parents dined with friends. (REUTERS/Andrew Winning)

The woman who called herself “Sweepyface,” caught outside her home in central England, looked alarmed as the cameras closed around her like a vise. On Twitter, she was known for effectively accusing an embattled United Kingdom couple of complicity in the 2007 disappearance of their 3-year-old daughter. Calling Gerry and Kate McCann the “worst of humankind,” she tweeted that they should “suffer” for the “rest of their miserable lives.” But here, in the soft light of day, she had shed such conviction and looked timid and fearful.

“Can we talk to you about your Twitter?” video shows a Sky News reporter asking the 63-year-old woman, named Brenda Leyland.

“No,” Leyland, called a “Twitter troll,” replied.

“Why are you attacking them so regularly?” the reporter charged, telling her police were investigating her tweets.

“I’m entitled to do what I want,” she said.

That was Thursday. Days later, after a public backlash caused by the Sky report, she was found dead at a Marriott hotel fewer than 20 miles from her house. The circumstances of her death aren’t clear, and a coroner told the BBC her “death is not being treated as suspicious.”

But her unmasking on TV and her death has sparked fresh questions over cyber-abuse, particularly involving trials-by-Twitter, and what sort of punishment online bullies deserve. In the realm of online anonymity, pervaded by ire-spitting handles like Sweepyface, has public identification, and shame, become the greatest punishment of all?

Sky News, which leveled its cameras on Leyland — then ran a story about her headlined “Gerry McCann says make example of web trolls” — was laconic after Leyland’s death. “We were saddened to hear of the death of Brenda Leyland,” BBC quoted the cable network saying in a statement. “It would be inappropriate to speculate or comment further at this time.”

The story begins on a Thursday night in Portuguese resort. That was when the cherub-faced Madeleine McCann disappeared in what the Daily Telegraph would call the “most heavily reported missing-person case in modern history.” While her parents ate dinner at a nearby restaurant, the child suddenly vanished, and hasn’t been seen since. Portuguese police were reportedly initially suspicious of the couple — eliciting what the Guardian called “libelous insinuations” in the tabloids — but later cleared them.

The parents, who are doctors, continued looking for their daughter. “We’ll never give up on finding her, how could we?” the mother once said, according to the Guardian. “What parent would give up on their child?”

But the grand jury of the Internet at their computers also wouldn’t give up on the case, and they were peddling a different narrative. It was in 2007, when social media and online gumshoe-ing were taking their first wobbly steps. Conspirators traded gossip in anonymous forums, released documentaries, dedicated Web sites and poured forth a torrent of speculative and highly-incendiary tweets.

“The campaign to indict the McCanns for the death of their own daughter was fought largely over the Internet, where normal decencies rarely apply,” wrote Ireland’s Sunday Independent in 2012. “… There’s a familiarity, even an intimacy, to online conversation which encourages strangers to feel that they have an investment in stories which actually belong to other people. Kate and Gerry were not only the ultimate victims of cyber  bullying, but one of its original casualties too.”

Then after years of conspiracy and intrigue and baseless accusations, the Metropolitan Police told Skynews on Friday it was “investigating” a dossier of 80 pages of tweets, Facebook posts and other messages targeting the parents. Some of those messages said they should be tortured and would “burn in hell.”

Some of those messages were dispatched by a Twitter user who was apparently Brenda Leyland. “Q ‘how long must the McCanns suffer’,” she once tweeted. ‘For the rest of their miserable lives.”

Gerry McCann, who claimed people have threatened his children and wife, said he hadn’t seen Leyland’s tweets, but added in an interview with BBC that “something needs to be done about the abuse on the Internet. I think we probably need more people to be charged. … We need to make examples of people who are causing damage.”

Neighbors, according to a Daily Mail report, expressed surprise at both Leyland’s death — and that she was behind the Sweepyface account. “Brenda kept very much to herself, but people were surprised when she was accused of trolling the McCanns,” one said. “… I’m sure no one would have expected her to do something like this. People didn’t condone what she is said to have done.”

On Twitter, the response wasn’t nearly so tempered. “I see the McCanns are responsible for another death!” one man wrote.