Comedian Chris D’Elia first noticed Michaela Coletta’s Instagram photos years ago, when she was 17, according to the now 25-year-old. He took the opportunity to DM her.
“He noticed I liked some of his photos on Instagram and immediately started messaging me,” Coletta told Mashable. “From my Instagram photos, you could visibly tell I was still in high school.”
In an emailed statement to Mashable, Coletta described behavior she knew to be a pattern. “This man is HORRIBLE,” she wrote. “The amount of messages I’ve gotten from other girls that are too afraid to speak up is… insane. With almost the exact same stories, same ages… some as young as 14 [sic].”
In a span of hours on Tuesday night, Coletta and dozens of other women — both named and anonymous — went public with stories about D’Elia on Twitter.
Survivors of sexual misconduct and inappropriate advances have taken to whisper networks in recent years as police when they come forward. Many also never report what happened to authorities due to fears that nothing will happen even after they endure an excruciating trial. In this current moment of social upheaval, the whisper network is more public and vital than ever, and much of it is happening on Twitter. Some other famous examples include the and list, but while those documents contained the whispers, Twitter fueled their delivery.
In this current moment of social upheaval, the whisper network is more public and vital than ever, and much of it is happening on Twitter.
And it’s not just sexual misconduct being revealed in these online whisper networks. As accusations against D’Elia piled up on Twitter, people separately began raising concerns about systemic racism in their workplace. Emboldened by the police brutality protests unfolding on the streets, people took to Twitter to share their own stories of discrimination. The media industry has had a as CNN called it, with present and former Black employees and other employees of color exposing deep-seated racism at publishers from to . Crisis Text Line employees and volunteers’ Twitter complaints led the nonprofit’s board to oust its founder and CEO. These discussions were, if not sparked on Twitter, then at least amplified considerably on the platform.
When the wronged feel like the powerful will ignore them, they embrace another outlet: Twitter. Opponents of whisper networks say social media isn’t the right venue to seek justice. But after the individual whispers turn into a collective roar, the powerful start to listen.
How the D’Elia accusations came to light
After Coletta and D’Elia moved their conversation from Instagram DMs to email, she said he began talking to her with his now-infamous RocketMail account. The same email account appears in several screenshots from various accusers. He told her he wanted to see her when he performed in Vancouver, where she lives, she said. After that, they moved their conversation to Kik, a messenger app .
“That’s when he really started getting explicit (probably because Kik is easy to wipe and leave no trace),” wrote Coletta. “He said he wanted to see my body and it felt SUPER weird. I sent him one though, because I felt pressured to.”
Coletta continued, “The way he spoke to me was intimidating and also extremely straight to the point. He also sent a shirtless photo of himself back to me. I remember him saying how tiny my waist is and how I have such big breasts perfectly. I also remember exactly what photos he’s seen of me, that are VERY clearly taken in a child’s bedroom with pink walls.”
In a statement to People,enies the dozens of accusations, hopping around an apology and blaming his “lifestyle.”
“I know I have said and done things that might have offended people during my career, but I have never knowingly pursued any underage women at any point,” D’Elia said in his statement to People. “All of my relationships have been both legal and consensual and I have never met or exchanged any inappropriate photos with the people who have tweeted about me. That being said, I really am truly sorry. I was a dumb guy who ABSOLUTELY let myself get caught up in my lifestyle. That’s MY fault. I own it. I’ve been reflecting on this for some time now and I promise I will continue to do better.”
Coletta said D’Elia told her he wanted to make-out with her — a recurring theme in his messages to young women — and that he wanted to fly her out to Los Angeles. After that, Coletta slowly stopped responding “just so he would go away,” she said. He did message her when he was in her area, but she kept ignoring him.
“I have been public about it since it happened,” said Coletta, who told her friends and her boyfriend at the time. She (and recently ), and then she tweeted again when she saw his character in Netflix’s series You “because of the insane irony that he is literally playing himself in that role,” she said. On the show, D’Elia plays Henderson, a comedian who drugged and raped victims and took photos of them while unconscious.
Coletta deleted the second tweet soon after because a friend had previously been vocal about D’Elia and she said he subsequently threatened her. “I deleted the tweet about ‘You,'” said Coletta, “because he’s KNOWN for searching his own name and fighting with people or harassing, like he did to my friend.”
On Tuesday, that same friend sent her a tweet by Simone Rossi, who goes by @girlpowertbh on Twitter. “I still can’t believe netflix cast chris d’elia as the pedophile…like the literal IRONY,” Rossi tweeted on June 16, also evoking D’Elia’s You character:
i still can’t believe netflix cast chris d’elia as the pedophile in season to of “you” like the literal IRONY
— simoné (@girlpowertbh) June 16, 2020
Rossi threaded her tweet with screenshots of email conversations she said she had with D’Elia that were sent in 2014, when Rossi was 16.
“Imagine being 16 and being groomed by a stand up comedian twice ur age and the only reason you never met up and never got physically m*lested was because u had just gotten a boyfriend ur own age,” Rossi then wrote.
These tweets prompted Coletta to speak out once again on Tuesday. “I immediately made a tweet about it because FINALLY it was getting attention,” she said.
although i’ve been publicly saying it for years, FUCK Chris D’elia. he solicited nudes off of me when i was 17 years old and constantly messaged me whenever he was touring vancouver and asked me to come backstage to his shows.
— goblin (@michaelacoletta) June 17, 2020
Twitter erupted almost immediately with similar stories about D’Elia. In addition to other on , many others messaged their stories to , an account that spotlights gross messages women receive from men. Michaela Okland, who runs SheRatesDogs, threaded anonymous DMs she received as well as other tweets:
In a matter of hours, dozens of women — both named and anonymous — spoke up about him. And in addition to these accusations going viral, D’Elia’s thinly-veiled pedophilic “jokes” started going around as well:
Twitter is the new whisper network
We know that stories like the ones about D’Elia don’t exist in a vacuum. Not only are we entering the third year of the #MeToo era — calling anything seems like a farce — but we’re in a time of deep social unrest. (The “Me Too” phrase was actually coined in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke, but it took on new life after the New York Times and New Yorker investigations exposed Weinstein’s pattern of sexual harassment.) The recent protests have made more Americans question whether the police actually “serve and protect,” whether our justice system actually carries out justice. When authorities won’t give a voice to the victims of wrongdoings — whether these wrongdoings happen on the streets, in an office, or in someone’s DMs — the victims turn to social media to give themselves a voice.
In addition to brutality and racism, the police system’s often shambolic handling of sexual assault cases has come up in recent weeks. In response to protesters who’ve called for the abolition of police, opponents often cite rape as a crime that we need police to investigate. Yet, the ; they’re not even reported. Tweets like the one below (about the ) go viral and highlight the police’s incompetence:
While protesters fight racial inequality and police brutality in the streets, others do so online, especially on Twitter. This is seen in the circulation of bail funds and other requests for donations; protest and supply organizing; and coming forward with harrowing stories about racism. Exposing racism has snowballed into exposing other injustices, as is the case with D’Elia.
“I use twitter more than any other socials and have been on it for probably over 12 years [so] I had a bit of a follow[ing] already,” said Coletta. “Plus [it’s] my main news source that I feel like I can actually trust since its coming straight from the people experiencing it.”
“It’s more of an echo chamber on Instagram,” said Okland. But not on Twitter, where retweets allow her to get on feeds of people — particularly men — who may not have thought about these issues before.
Many reports on D’Elia went viral on Twitter, including the SheRatesDog’s thread. But this isn’t the first time the account has exposed abusers, Okland told Mashable. She had previously shared stories about a professor and a — though nothing quite on this scale.
She became aware of the emerging conversation about D’Elia from Rossi’s tweet, which Okland saw before it went massively viral. “I had actually gotten a DM about Chris two months ago,” she said, and that’s what she quote-tweeted Rossi with and jumpstarted her thread.
“I’m not usually an exposing account,” said Okland, who said she feels guilt and anxiety at the thought of something bad happening to someone she posted about. That’s why she usually keeps everyone anonymous. “If I was logging on and ruining three or four lives a day, that wouldn’t be healthy,” she said. “Even though there are people who say shitty things or do shitty things, that’s just not a good life to live.” But given Rossi’s tweet, what Okland has heard in-person from female comics about D’Elia, and the two-month-old DM, she decided to get involved.
That DM several months ago came from a woman in Columbus, Ohio, who chose to remain anonymous on both Twitter and in her discussion with Mashable, in order to not jeopardize her employment:
As in her retelling to SheRatesDogs, the woman told me that D’Elia stayed at the hotel where she works two years ago. Her supervisor at the time, another woman in her early 20s, worked the overnight shift. D’Elia allegedly called the front desk to say that his air conditioning wasn’t working. Due to the hotel not having overnight maintenance, the supervisor went to D’Elia’s room to help.
The supervisor said D’Elia exposed himself to her and didn’t cover himself when she asked. He called the front desk again some time later, but the supervisor refused to go back to his room and told him that maintenance would arrive in the morning.
“I came into work the next day and the hotel’s assistant general manager told us the story as a ‘do not go to the room alone’ warning and named D’Elia and his room number,” the woman told Mashable. “He wasn’t removed or barred from the hotel, but I don’t know that he ever came back.”
“Nobody would even see or believe me posting it on my own”
The woman said she loves the account SheRatesDogs in general because it made her feel less personally attacked and alone when she received abusive messages on dating apps. She told the account her D’Elia story because she saw that Okland tweeted something about him one day, “and I had to get it out,” she said. “I didn’t think she’d ever see it, but I didn’t have anyone else to tell.”
The hotel management didn’t do anything about the incident, the woman said. “I can’t call the police two years later and they wouldn’t care anyway, and nobody would even see or believe me posting it on my own,” she said. “She created a place online where women could be believed *and* let the frustrations out and be funny or angry or whatever.”
#MeToo on Twitter beyond D’Elia
D’Elia is far from the only example of allegations against someone gathering steam on Twitter. This month alone has ushered in a similar trend at several American universities.
In the same way , they’re also creating Twitter accounts to expose sexual assaulters. Students at a number of universities, including Rutgers and UC San Diego, have followed the lead of , which now has over 12,000 followers.
The University of Michigan account started because the account owner, who chose to remain anonymous, wanted there to be a voice for survivors.
“The University of Michigan has failed one too many survivors by simply doing nothing when approached with sexual assault cases,” said the account owner. In 2018, were logged in an academic whisper network created by Karen Kelsky. Earlier this year, the back to back.
In a statement to Mashable, the University of Michigan took issue with the criticisms and pointed to a website outlining the university’s response to sexual assaults:
While we certainly understand the difficulty of reporting sexual misconduct and the ensuing process, it’s just not accurate to say the University of Michigan is doing nothing.
We’ve implemented new processes, added staff to our Office for Institutional Equity that handles investigations, created a special victims unit within our campus police department, made reporting easier and more visible, implemented mandatory training for all employees and students and are constantly revising and updating our policies. And we publish an annual report with details on all reports of sexual misconduct that are shared with the university.
The account’s creator chose Twitter because it’s a global platform. “I believed it would have the most impact,” they said. Scrolling through Assaulters at UMich’s now-locked feed is a similarly visceral experience to scrolling through SheRatesDogs’ D’Elia thread: Account after account of assault, often contrasted with the alleged assaulter’s smiling LinkedIn photo. The account has received thousands of stories, even from people who don’t attend the University of Michigan or even reside in the state.
As of publication, the account is locked due to an individual posted about on the account threatening a lawsuit. In addition, the account owner said, they locked it following an attempted hack. While they eventually plan on unlocking, they want to ensure that survivors and their stories are completely safe.
Assaulters at UMich has received both positive and negative feedback. One common criticism is that Twitter isn’t the best way to seek justice, but the account’s owner said there isn’t any better way to empower survivors at the moment. “Until something has been created, I will continue to use this platform to shed light on the prevalence of assaults that take place on college campuses,” they said.
Okland, too, has no plans to get rid of SheRatesDogs anytime soon. She said she’s received over 500 DMs about D’Elia, from accusers themselves and their loved ones. The responsibility overwhelms her, but she loves running the account and has no plans to give it away.
What’s more, is that her messages are already flooding with stories about other abusers.
“It’ll probably happen again,” said Okland. “Especially just after this situation… I mean I have, like, five completely unrelated DMs about another guy.”