For showing passionate enthusiasm after a good deed, for posting a video he titled “Her eggs make me feel like Batman,” and for wearing a hat and suit styled for an earlier era, a Black Mountain man found himself under a recent online attack from one venomous corner of the Internet.
Messages began pouring into his YouTube channel, TommyNC2010, with posters telling him to “drink bleach” or “KYS,” the Internet shorthand for “kill yourself,” for an innocuous, grocery store parking lot encounter he recorded on video two years ago.
“It feels like an anvil is being dropped on your heart and it feels like someone is taking a knife and just going,” Tommy said of the harassment, making stabbing motions to complete the thought. “Your soul is just getting chipped away slowly and you just break into tears.”
The treatment of TommyNC2010 became a focus of some of the Internet’s largest forums last week, first gaining traction on Reddit, a website that often serves as a launching pad for viral videos, before being commented on widely on YouTube and niche video gaming sites.
Thousands of users were appalled at the cyberbullying, outraged by an obstacle TommyNC2010 discusses openly: Tommy, 25, is autistic and has learning disabilities that prevent him from reading and comprehending numbers.
At his request over harassment concerns, the Citizen-Times has agreed not to use his last name.
In recent years, prominent campaigns have been waged against bullying of all types. About 15 percent of high- schoolers in the U.S. report being bullied through electronic means, while just under 20 percent said they have been bullied on school property, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The increased attention sometimes come by way of high-profile and tragic teen suicides attributed to online harassment and threats, and has spawned cyberbullying legislation across the country. The North Carolina cyberbullying law is being contested in the state’s Supreme Court as an infringement on freedom of speech rights.
Most cyberbullying laws — and research — focus on school-aged children, though social scientists and psychologists say victims are often adults, targeted by people who find the freedom to say things in the Internet’s relative anonymity that they would not say in person.
One popular YouTuber who weighed in on the bullying pointed blame at YouTube’s algorithms for contributing to a coarse internet culture.
The video that sparked the discussion was recorded after Tommy saw a woman about to drive off with eggs atop her car. He stopped her and, brimming with excitement, recorded an interview as she and another woman sat in a vehicle, recounting the event in the “Batman” video.
Awkward but harmless, that encounter was mocked last week by popular YouTuber LeafyIsHere, who called Tommy “cringey” and “obnoxious,” all while taking pot shots at his fedora and suit. The rant was enough to cue some Leafy subscribers, who number more than 1.5 million, to inundate Tommy with vitriol.
Upset and tearful, Tommy responded in a video, one that gained traction throughout well-known Internet communities, as viewers empathized with a man who was maligned for talking with a woman about eggs.
“I am having a difficult time right now because some people are threatening my life, threatening my family, and all I wanted to do was inspire people,” he said to the camera, adding that he would not be posting for a while.
Days later, he would thank supporters, who had populated his somewhat obscure YouTube channel with more than 100,000 subscribers.
Tommy’s followers, who he calls TommyHeads, numbered less than 3,000 a year ago.
Among the most popular genre on YouTube are video game commenters, usually young men who serve up a snarky take on gaming, fellow YouTubers and more.
Some reflect a style made popular by comedian Daniel Tosh, whose Comedy Central show “Tosh.0,” is marked by a barbed humor that roasts the unwitting stars of viral videos for blunders and social faux pas.
Tommy’s egg video caught Tosh’s attention more than a year ago, and the comedian invited him to Los Angeles, where he teased his target without dropping into cruelty.
“Now Tommy, have you visited the chickens you saved that day?” Tosh said, before ribbing him about his excitement in urging the woman he interviewed to pursue good deeds. “How many of these good deeds are just court-ordered?”
“None of them,” Tommy laughed.
After the show aired last spring, Tommy called the experience amazing and was thrilled with the broadcast.
But last week, after commentary by Leafy, the egg video found a new audience, one that was laughing at him, rather than with him.
The LeafyIsHere video titled, “The most heroic fedora man on the entire Internet,” served up a 10-minute segment, much of it attacking Tommy for recording an interview with the woman who left the eggs atop her car.
But as it gained negative attention, he removed it and apologized, saying he didn’t know his target was autistic, though Tommy had referenced the condition in the title of a month-old video.
The controversy quickly spread when another popular YouTuber, h3h3Productions, made a video critical of Leafy, pointing to a several videos that use similar tactics. Channels like those are “straight bullying,” h3h3 said, and asked why the community was giving those commenters a pass.
“They seem to have focused in specifically on kids and vulnerable people. It’s almost like a community made just for bullying. If you can find people worthy of being made fun of, then it’s all great, but right now this is out of control and I want to say for the record that we are hypocrites for not speaking out about it sooner,” he said, later adding of Tommy, “The guy needs support, not ridicule from a thousand raging kids on the Internet.”
He also criticized YouTube, saying the host’s algorithm promotes bullying videos when they become popular, putting them in front of more viewers.
More viewers, and more watched videos, translates to more income as advertising revenue rises.
Asked about the case, a spokesperson for Google, which owns YouTube, emailed several of the site’s guidelines, which include policies prohibiting harassment and cyberbullying as well as monetization restrictions, that could be implemented based on violations of service terms.
Social Blade, a company that provides YouTube analytics, lists LeafyIsHere as the 1,010 most popular channel on the site, and estimates his monthly income between $16,000 and $250,000.
LeafyIsHere did not respond to an email asking to discuss the situation.
None of the Leafy videos that h3h3Productions criticized as attacks on vulnerable people have been removed.
Though the Internet chatter on the bullying has moved on, Tommy’s residence was swatted last week. A anonymous caller to 911 falsely reported a serious emergency at his home, bringing Buncombe County sheriff’s deputies to his residence before the sun rose on Thursday.
Look no further than politics
About two dozen states have cyberbullying laws, though many address only the harassment of minors and students.
Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, said he is contacted daily by victims of cyberbullying who are seeking help, many of them adults.
Child victims can typically find some recourse through families and schools, but adults have few legal options in pursing online harassment, he said. Police agencies may pursue criminal charges, though the investigations can be difficult if threats come from an unknown source, he said, or a victim might pursue civil litigation, which is an expensive route.
For cases that win the attention of a wider audience – as Tommy’s did – societal pressure can be an effective pushback. But an online culture that edges into cruelty is hardly unique to any particular Internet community, Patchin said.
“I love it when people ask me, ‘Why are kids so mean to each other?’ Look at their role models,” he said. “You don’t have to look further than politics to see adults being just terrible to each other. Adults are very bad role models on how to interact with one another, online and off.”
Other researchers say the “online disinhibition effect,” also contributes to internet harassment, allowing trolls to spout hate in a relatively anonymous environment and without the burden of recognizing their targets as people.
Speech rights and cyberbullying
With the increased attention on cyberbullying, laws criminalizing that harassment have been written into statute, but not without objection.
In 2014, the New York Court of Appeals struck down that state’s cyberbullying law, saying it was too broad and infringed on the First Amendment.
Just last month, North Carolina’s highest state court heard arguments on its own cyberbullying statute, after the Court of Appeals upheld the law in a 3-0 ruling, finding it did not have the same “fatal defects” as the New York case.
The North Carolina case originated in Alamance County, after a high school sophomore was charged with harassing a classmate on Facebook. The state Supreme Court has not issued a decision.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education tracks cyberbullying laws and the organization finds most come out of “half-baked” legislation without considering civil liberties, said Will Creeley, vice president of legal and public advocacy for the Philadelphia-based organization.
“Too often cyberbullying laws are slapped on the books as a feel-good measure to make legislators feel like they are doing something to address the problem, when laws that are already on the books, if applied, would go a long way toward giving administrators and law enforcement the tools they need to address threats, intimidation and true harassment,” he said.
He noted the First Amendment doesn’t protect threats of violence, and most states have statutes allowing charges to be brought for that behavior.
In Buncombe County schools, officials said they seek to address bullying long before it begins with a curriculum for kindergarten through eighth-grade students called Second Step, which builds problem-solving and social skills.
The school system also has online reporting available to students and parents, and bullying may prompt small group or individual counseling, said David Thompson, director for student services.
Imminent threats will be reported to law enforcement officers, he said, but in most cases, where one student is seeking to control or intimidate another, administrators look to counseling for both parties, and in the case of the dominating student, focuses on seeking a root cause of the actions.
“Sometimes that behavior comes out of a lack of trust and they feel they need to take control of things because they have so little control, and part of that is ‘I can’t control my environment, but I can intimidate someone else,’” he said. “What we’re doing is moving from, ‘What’s wrong with the child?’ to ‘What happened to the child?”
Tommy, who graduated from a Buncombe County school, said he has long endured bullying but wants to encourage support for people in similar situations and is most concerned that taunted young people may believe their only recourse is self-harm.
“Cyberbullying is real and it’s here and it needs to stop,” he said. “I resorted to making a statement on YouTube to show this is what happens when you use an audience for vicious means. This guy made a video and his fans came over and started attacking me. I thought it was absolutely ridiculous that this happened. But there’s been a positive outlet.”
He joined YouTube in 2010, making videos for a small audience, and relying on speech-to-text applications and friends to provide titles and help with messages.
The aspiring film producer/director continues to make videos, almost always with an upbeat message and shout-outs to a growing fan base.
“I’m just a straightforward guy that is on YouTube trying to express positivity and make YouTube a better place, just trying to make it the most positive place that you can be on and make videos and have a fun time and have an audience that is caring,” he said. “I have found an audience like that, and it’s amazing. It’s like a gigantic hug.”
His subscribers now number more than 150,000, and his YouTube channel, TommyNC2010, he thanks them often.