The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a Secret Service controversy turned an innocent professor’s life into an online nightmare

Kerry O’Grady has devoted her career in public relations to managing the reputations of her corporate clients.

And yet, despite years of pressure-filled triage experience, nothing prepared O’Grady — now an NYU communications professor who teaches graduate students about reputation management — for the day her own reputation was obliterated online.

The reason: O’Grady was mistakenly identified this week as a Secret Service agent (also named Kerry O’Grady) who is under investigation for posting a statement on Facebook that appeared to indicate she preferred jail over being shot and killed for President Trump.

Reached by phone Wednesday, O’Grady, 33, said she has struggled to plug the stream of hateful messages that have inundated her Twitter feed and Facebook page since Tuesday morning, leaving her “defeated and dejected.”

To make matters worse, she said, the influx began on the first day of class this semester, when many students were Googling her name and checking her Twitter feed for the first time.

“I consider myself a pretty strong person, but this has been a rough 24 hours,” she said. “People don’t even care to take two seconds and look at my profile to make sure that I’m the right person. They attack the first person they see.”

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Kerry O’Grady, 46, an agent with the Secret Service’s Denver field office, posted her controversial condemnation of then-candidate Trump in October, according to the Washington Examiner.

“As a public servant for nearly 23 years, I struggle not to violate the Hatch Act,” she wrote, according to the paper. “So I keep quiet and skirt the median. To do otherwise can be a criminal offense for those in my position. Despite the fact that, I am expected to take a bullet for both sides.”

Reached by email, the Secret Service released a statement that said that the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General “referred allegations of an employee’s social media post to the Secret Service” for review late last year.

“An inquiry was conducted into the matter and action was taken,” the statement said, noting that the Secret Service Office of Professional Responsibility (RES) is investigating the matter.

“All Secret Service agents and employees are held to the highest standards of professional and ethical conduct,” the statement added. “Allegations of misconduct are taken seriously and investigated.”

The attacks began Tuesday morning as O’Grady sat in her office in midtown Manhattan and prepared for class. She noticed a trickle of angry tweets on her feed, which initially confused her. Minutes later, the trickle turned into a uncontrollable gush, prompting O’Grady to Google her name.

What she found shocked her. The Examiner story about the Secret Service agent with her same name had gone viral, unleashing a swarm of trolls determined to hunt down the woman who had criticized President Trump. The agent had deleted her own social media presence, O’Grady said, leaving her to absorb the backlash.

The messages, which quickly skyrocketed into the hundreds, were full of misogynistic name-calling and referred to O’Grady as a “satanic whore” and “troublemaker,” and told her to “burn in hell.”

“Women like you and her do not deserve children!!!!!!!” a woman named Tami Baranowski wrote in a Facebook message. “PERIOD!!!!!!”

“At that point, I kind of got into a very quick problem-solving mode,” O’Grady said. “I teach public relations and corporate communications and my whole goal was: stop the bleeding as fast as possible.”

She said she started by posting a lighthearted statement on social media pointing out that she wasn’t the Kerry O’Grady from the news. Next she created the hashtag #NotSecretServiceKerry and began responding to her tormentors on Twitter, hoping the hashtag might catch on. Those that continued to attack, especially if they had few followers, got blocked, she said. Next, she began tweeting at media outlets covering the story and enlisting the help of friends, who began confronting aggressive tweeters online.

The fight lasted all night and into the next day, but a sleep-deprived O’Grady said she refused to let up because she didn’t want to let her hard-earned professional reputation slip away, especially as a new group of students began the semester. Unable to stop the tide of outrage entirely, she said she began to worry about sensitive personal information — such as her address or phone number — being leaked online, potentially jeopardizing her physical safety. At that point, she said, the attacks no longer felt virtual and she began to feel paranoid.

O’Grady said the messages she received via Twitter were mostly focused on angry political rhetoric, but the messages that arrived on Facebook were far more lengthy, personal and unhinged.

Eventually, as media organizations began to publish her hashtag, the online narrative began to change, and the flood of angry messages began to subside. Despite the vitriol being aimed in her direction, O’Grady said she refused to fight fire with fire and always responded to her attackers professionally.

“You can ruin someone’s life, you really can,” she said, referring to the attacks. “If I didn’t handle it the way I did — if I wasn’t a PR professor able to quickly come up with a plan — this could’ve harmed my credibility and followed me for years.”

Days later, O’Grady was still glued to her phone doing damage control. She noted that it takes only one person to post an “alternative fact,” unleashing a new round of escalating attacks. She might look victorious to outsiders, but she said that coming into contact with so much hatred has been deeply unsettling experience.

“I feel defeated,” she said. “Even if I was the right person, I’d still be a human being, and that didn’t matter to these people.”

Despite a nightmarish week, O’Grady said there is one benefit to being the target of an online smear campaign: Her class lectures on reputation management have been infused with a new level of credibility.

“I feel like I set a good example for my students for how to handle this type of situation,” she said. “And now, I’m a walking case study.”


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