Abbie Draper was so excited when she heard there was to be a big Tattle reveal that she set a reminder on her phone. On Friday, 1 October, at 7pm, Andy Malone was going to reveal the identity of the founder of the notorious website Tattle Life – the mysterious “Helen”.
Founded in 2018, Tattle Life is a gossip forum dedicated to dissecting the lives of women in the public eye. Quietly, without mainstream recognition, Tattle has become one of the most-visited – and hate-filled – websites in the UK. There were 43.2m visits to Tattle in the last six months alone, mostly from British users. (Almost all the people discussed on Tattle are British.)
While politicians of all parties fulminate about the social media giants, Tattle flies beneath the radar. This is due partly to the perception that its subjects – female influencers and media personalities with professional management and large Instagram followings, often working in the parenting, fashion, or beauty arenas – in some way deserve the anonymous vitriol, or should deal with it as the price of success.
In her only known interview (with Lime Goss, a gossip site affiliated with Tattle Life), “Helen” said that the site was a space for reasonable critique of public figures. “It isn’t trolling as it gives people somewhere to comment about people that choose to become a public figure and broadcast their private life to make money,” she said. But influencers allege that Tattle users have contacted their brand partners, attempting to sabotage commercial deals; reported them to the police for imaginary breaches of Covid lockdown rules; and, most disturbingly, made baseless complaints to social services about their parenting.
Browsing Tattle Life is like dipping a foot into an acid bath. “One ugly bitch,” reads a post about the television reality star Katie Price. Commenters eviscerate women’s appearances, parenting, relationships, and mental health. (“Her fake postnatal depression shit is disgusting,” reads a post about the influencer Melanie Murphy.)
Draper, 31, a business owner and influencer from Glasgow, has been discussed on Tattle Life. “Thinking about how vile she is is making me vom,” goes one typical comment. When Draper gave birth to a baby boy, Blaise, in February, Tattle users mocked the name for its similarity to the word “blaze”, and began calling him Baby Spliff. “I didn’t call my baby his name for two months,” says Draper. “They tarnished the name for me.”
In the end, Tattle paranoia seeped into every aspect of Draper’s life. If her kids misbehaved at the supermarket, Draper feared a Tattle user would spot her and post about it. “It makes the world feel a very small place,” she says. Sometimes, in a fit of late-night anxiety, she would confront Instagram users she suspected only followed her to discuss her on Tattle. More often than not, they would admit it.
Many people have tried and failed to take down Tattle. A petition to close it has been signed by 63,000 people. The author and Guardian columnist Sali Hughes presented a Radio 4 File on Four documentary in October 2020, in which she met a woman who had been trolling her on Tattle. “It was a way of me trying to solve my problems,” the Tattle user told Hughes. In August, the influencer Em Sheldon gave evidence before a parliamentary committee, calling for the site to be taken down.
Now, Malone fancied himself the man for the job. An influencer and motivational coach, Malone has a ready-meal business that sells £5 chicken chow meins with his face on the packaging. (After we speak, he texts, asking me to refer to him as “Ireland’s number one motivational talker and entrepreneur.”) On 28 September, he filmed himself in the front seat of his Lamborghini to whip up interest in his announcement. “Friday, baby!” he yelled, with a maniacal chuckle. “7pm! Be ready.”
The first of October arrived … and 7pm. Draper rushed to her bedroom to watch. Malone sat in the custom-built studio at his office in Warrenpoint, Northern Ireland. He wore a three-piece suit and a grave expression. “Who is behind the Tattle Life,” Malone asked, over a stirring instrumental soundtrack. He leaned in for the grand reveal. The founder of Tattle, Malone announced, was the CEO of a mental health charity. Her name flashed on the screen.
Draper was astonished. There was absolutely nothing to link the charity CEO with Tattle. “It was obvious this wasn’t the right woman,” she says. The great influencer fightback ended with a whimper.
Humans have gossiped since time immemorial. Before gossip forums there were gossip blogs and before that, gossip columns and before that, gossip pamphlets, and before that, handwritten letters filled with scurrilous scrawlings, and before that, rumours shouted in crowded taverns or whispered above steaming buckets of laundry about neighbourhood witches.
“Gossip helps us reassert our social bonds,” says Dr Ruth Penfold-Mounce, a sociologist at the University of York. “It’s relaxed talk, typically between friends and family members, where we can vent what we feel, usually in an emotional, not rational way.” In the real world and online, it skews towards the negative. “When we listen to people gossip, they rarely say good things. Tattle reflects that. There is very little positive in what is being said,” says Penfold-Mounce.
But this new iteration of the gossip forum is tech-enabled and optimised for cruelty. “This is an entire genre on the internet, unfortunately,” says Dr Crystal Abidin, a digital anthropologist who specialises in influencer culture at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia. Tattle’s closest forerunner is the still-active Guru Gossip, founded in 2012 to discuss the lives and careers of prominent YouTubers.
Analysis of 60 discussion threads by the British-American not-for-profit Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) indicates that 75% were about women. Of these, 15% contained posts promoting hatred of women, 12% contained misinformation, while 10% suggested that they were bad parents. In 2020, Tattle was also embroiled in a bullying scandal, after parenting influencer Clemmie Hooper was found to be using a pseudonym to secretly criticise others; including an allegation that the author and presenter Candice Brathwaite, who is Black, was using her race as a “weapon”. “It’s insidious and very poisonous,” says Callum Hood, head of research at the CCDH.
The experience of being abused on Tattle is profoundly anxiety-inducing. “Everything about me is twisted,” says the Dublin-based influencer Grace Mongey, 33. “When my cat went missing for four days, they said I hid it in my back yard for publicity.” Things got so bad, Mongey had to take a mental health break from social media in July this year. When she returned, she wrote herself a contract, which she signed and sent to a friend for accountability, pledging never to go on Tattle again.
Hannah Farrington, 28, from London has a stark warning about the dangers of Tattle. “I think someone will kill themselves because of it,” she says. “It’s inevitable. People are nasty as hell on there, and reading that about yourself becomes all-consuming. I love gossip as much as the next person,” she says. “But I do it with my friends. Creating a forum to slag people off is deranged.” Users mock Farrington for gaining weight. “I can’t believe how much she’s glowed down,” reads one post – glowed down meaning someone is no longer as attractive.
Penfold-Mounce explains that bad behaviour can spiral online. “It can start to become extremely harsh and bullying. There’s a liberty to being able to type what you are thinking, instead of looking someone in the eye. People go far beyond what they would say in a real-world setting.” She is sceptical about Helen’s claim that Tattle is an acceptable forum for critiques of public figures. “If you wanted to have a true social commentary site, there would be more balance,” says Penfold-Mounce.
Despite the site prohibiting harassment and urging users to “keep it on Tattle”, real-world harassment is discussed on some threads. “Any companies she works with, email them. There’s a lot of pissed-off people here, she’s screwed,” reads a post about the YouTuber Mia Jeal. When Mongey’s agent, Max Parker, announced that he was taking her on as a client, he received emails from what he believes were Tattle users, urging him to drop her. “Clients have told us that they can’t renew Grace for campaigns because so many people are contacting them with abuse,” says Parker. Another agent tells me that his client, a Devon-based influencer, has been reported to social services repeatedly by Tattle users urging them to take her children away.
A London-based influencer, who is 35 and prefers to remain anonymous, tells me her address was published by Tattle users. “If money was no object, I’d take them to court,” she says. But my lawyer says that, realistically, I’d need £30,000. I have nowhere near that much money – I’m a single mother.” She said it cost £1,500 in legal fees just to get her address removed.
Katie Hayes, 29, an influencer from the Wirral, says Tattle users called the police on her repeatedly, accusing her of breaking Covid lockdown rules. When Hayes promoted non-alcoholic prosecco on Instagram, Tattle users accused her of drinking when she was pregnant. “I thought social services were going to take my baby off me,” she says. “I had to ring the local authority for advice on what to do. If it wasn’t for me being pregnant I wouldn’t be here today. I was suicidal.”
When I catch up with Malone a fortnight after he sent his 121,000 followers to harass a blameless charity CEO, he says, “I don’t know much about Tattle. I just know it’s a bullying and trolling website.”
Malone is a flamboyant, self-aggrandising presence best known in his native Northern Ireland for a recent stunt in which he rented a private jet and pretended to be the subject of a Netflix documentary titled The Rise of Andy Malone. Afterwards, he said he donated £50,000 to a mental health charity, and launched Troll Busters, a web series in which he named and shamed people who had been rude about him online.
Troll Busters, Malone says, caught the attention of an anonymous Instagram account, @the_detechtives, which began revealing suspected Tattle users earlier this year.
The Detechtives was launched in mid-September 2021 with an online form urging users to submit details of suspected bullies for analysis. They declined to be interviewed, but said they were a collective of volunteers and that this was the “first time that anyone has stood up to” Tattle trolls. Many of the alleged trolls they exposed on social media were known to their victims, they said, adding that they “have been overwhelmed by the response” to their forms.
Tattle users appeared to be spooked. In a 21 September post, Helen reassured them that “people on Instagram can’t use some app to find your home address”. Despite this , the Detechtives shared screenshots of panicked users deleting their Tattle accounts. The account grew to 18,200 followers. In influencer circles, rumours circulated that a mass exodus of Tattle users was imminent. Tattle was going down.
And then, on 24 September, the Detechtives vanished in mysterious circumstances. Helen claimed responsibility. “This morning we sent an email that was written under careful advice, and shortly after the account disappeared,” she crowed.
Enter Malone. After the Detechtives’ Instagram account was deleted, the people behind it asked him to be their spokesperson, he says. “Someone had to have the balls to put their face to it,” he says. The Detechtives fed Malone information, which he delivered in his bungled 1 October reveal. Afterwards, Malone claims, hackers crashed his website.
Despite slandering an innocent person, Malone is unrepentant. “There was a mistake made,” he says. “We corrected that mistake.” (Malone donated £1,000 to the charity CEO’s organisation and deleted his video.) But on 8 October, he doubled down in a second Instagram video, naming the woman he claimed was Helen. “Get the website down!” yelled Malone, jabbing his finger at the camera over ominous music. “I know who you are and I will annihilate you!”
So, who is this cartoon supervillain? Rumours swirl. These include: Helen is the best friend of one of the most-discussed influencers on the site. She has a beauty business. She works for the prime minister. She has friends in influential places. She lives in France. She has a toyboy husband. She has a tech-whizz husband.
In Helen’s interview with Lime Goss, she says she launched Tattle “because so many people were just brazenly breaking the guidelines for adverts”. Anything else we know about Helen is gleaned from her posts on Tattle.
In these, her tone is strident. When Sheldon gave evidence to the parliamentary committee, she bragged that it only increased traffic. “It’s all good publicity for Tattle … almost every month we get more daily logged in users,” Helen wrote. “And no chance of it going anywhere no matter how much they smear and lie.”
But behind the scenes, there are signs Helen is nervous. She fields requests from users wanting to change their handles for fear of being exposed on social media. “Tattle has never given anyone’s IP address,” she reassures them.
Tattle also appears more willing to take down content in the last few years, says Yair Cohen of the internet law firm Cohen Davis. He has represented multiple influencers seeking to scrub defamatory, personal, or abusive content from Tattle. “There was a time when it was flat-out refusal. They’d say that it constituted free speech,” Cohen says.
Since the murder of the politician Sir David Amess in October, ministers are reportedly considering legislation to end online anonymity. “If you want to say something about someone,” Draper says, “you should have the balls to say it as yourself.” Not everyone agrees. “For people in marginalised segments of society, speaking anonymously may be one of their only places to air grievances or thoughts,” says Abidin.
Google is under pressure due to its links to Tattle, which uses Google AdSense technology to place ads on the site. (Google did not respond to a request for comment.) The CCDH estimates that Tattle generated $371,347 (£276,770) in Google Ad revenue in the past six months. “Tattle is full of vile abuse aimed at public figures who are disproportionately women,” says Hood. “Google should not be funding that.” He points out that Tattle – a site set up to call out influencers who weren’t disclosing work on behalf of brands – is itself not transparent about its finances: “The irony is that Helen has her own financial interest in running this website. She’s making a significant amount of money.”
As the dust settles on the great influencer uprising that never was, the clock might be ticking for this hate-filled corner of the internet. The vigilantes visited the wrong house, but justice may yet come via the law, if not the flaming torch and pitchfork.