In Blairsville, Ga., as in most American towns, gossip is dished out with the daily special at the local diner. But now there's a new forum called Topix that spreads gossip as fast as the Internet connection allows. And unlike the diner, where you know the person you're talking to, Topix uses only screen names.
The combination of small-town familiarity -- everyone knows each other -- anonymity and instant dissemination compounds the impact when gossip is aimed at a neighbor or small business. Words on a web page -- permanent, searchable and bearing the authority of the (digitally) printed word -- are different from hearsay that can be forgotten or laughed off. They can ruin someone's life.
Ask Gene Cooley. Cooley grew up in and around Blairsville. In 2008 he was living in town, a divorced father of two young boys who was holding down a job as a hair stylist.
He had been given a second chance at love. He was engaged to Paulette Harper, who, together with her daughter, was getting ready to start a new life with Cooley.
"She was a wonderful girl," Cooley said in an interview with "20/20" Anchor Chris Cuomo. "She had a beautiful heart, a beautiful soul."
Yet before their new life could begin, Harper's ex took it all away.
"Apparently she was taking a nap," Cooley said. "Somehow he got in, startled her, and must have pushed her down and then shot her. He waited around for a little while, and then finally committed suicide."
Cooley's world was shattered, he said. All that was left was to bring Harper's body to Florida, where her family lived.
Just when things couldn't get any worse, they did. As he was preparing Harper's funeral with her family, they began to turn on him, Cooley said.
"They started asking me some unusual questions, asking me about having a drug addiction, being in and out of rehabs," Cooley said.
Cooley was flabbergasted by the sudden shift, he said. Harper's family kicked him out of their home and barred him from the funeral.
Cooley arranged for a sheriff in Blairsville to tell Harper's family his record was clean. Cooley was eventually allowed to attend the funeral, but the damage to his reputation was done.
"I had no idea of what was going on or why," Cooley said.
What was going on was a nasty discussion on Blairsville's Topix forum. A post discussing Harper's death had morphed into a feeding frenzy on Cooley.
The thread included several users with mysterious names like "Bugs," "Yuck" and "Mouth" that called Cooley a drug addict, a pervert who should be kept away from children and even a possible accomplice in his fiancee's murder.
Topix Chief Executive Officer Chris Tolles said the company, started in 2007, was created to bring more news and information to small towns through articles and citizen reporting and open debate among users. The site operates in 5,000 towns and cities, averaging 125,000 posts a day.
Yet in some cases, the site reads less like a local newspaper and more like a graffiti wall. Mixed in with the mundane chitchat and community news are anonymous personal attacks.
Topix.com Gossip: Free Speech or Defamation?
Days after Cooley returned to Blairsville, he was fired.
"Because of rumors and gossip. That's exactly what I was told," he said.
He desperately wanted to defend himself but had no idea how or where to begin, he said.
"How are you gonna defend yourself against somebody who you don't know who it is that's doing the attacking?" he asked.
Worried how it all might impact his sons, Cooley moved south to Augusta, Ga. During a trip to Blairsville to see them, he called on local attorney Russell Stookey.
"He laid this tragic tale out," Stookey told Cuomo. "I couldn't believe the story -- it was incredible. And I said, I'll try to do this case."
Stookey didn't know much about Topix before Cooley saw him. The idea of anonymously talking behind someone's back went against his principles, Stookey said.
"I confront people. They want to say something to Russell Stookey? I'll go to them. And I'll say, Here's your chance, you can say it to my face. And if I don't like it, we will fight. That's the way I do business," he said.
Stookey, who keeps a trio of rescued dogs he coos at while they sleep under his office desk, realized Cooley was barely holding on to life. The two men became friends.
"He was suicidal," Stookey said. "I was worried about him. And we talked every day."
Stookey went to work but discovered unmasking anonymous Internet posters wasn't easy. Then he learned of the one key piece of information he needed: the Internet Protocol (IP) address, a unique fingerprint left by every device that accesses the Internet.
"Once you get the IP address, you can go to your telephone companies and say, 'Give me the telephone number it comes back to, along with the name and address of the person who owns that telephone number,'" Stookey said.
It took two years, but Stookey got Topix to turn over the IP addresses of Cooley's critics.
Or critic. It turned out the majority of the negative comments had come from one woman, Sybil Denise Ballew.
"[Cooley] didn't even know who she was," Stookey said. Later it was determined that Ballew once worked with Cooley at a Blairsville department store a decade earlier.
Stookey said there were other names, but Ballew was the most prolific. She was also the most recent, which, due to the statute of limitations on defamation, made her the one Stookey had to go after.
Stookey said Ballew, using several names but mostly "Mouth," called Cooley a drug addict and pervert, and said police should investigate Cooley in the murder of Paulette Harper.
In January 2010 Ballew was tried on defamation charges. She admitted to going online to criticize Cooley as payback for what she said was his inappropriate behavior toward her when they worked together 10 years earlier at a Blairsville department store, and to protect Harper's daughter from being around Gene after her murder. At one point she said it was her First Amendment right to post what she did about Cooley.
"The First Amendment doesn't have a damn thing to do with defamation," Stookey said.
"I put her on the stand and said, Defend yourself," Stookey said. "I stepped back and let her say anything she wanted to say to the jury. And they hated her. We got a verdict of $404,000 -- $250,000 of it was punitive damages."
Cooley hasn't received a dime from Ballew, he said. Ballew told "20/20" she stood by her actions and she wouldn't give him "one red cent."
He got his life back, although the wounds remain.
"The worrying is the hardest part, you know, Is this ever gonna come back up? But everybody's been really happy that I've been back. I've had a lot of support," Cooley said.
Topix Chief Executive Officer Chris Tolles declined to be interviewed, but in a statement to "20/20" Tolles said Topix "pre-filter[s] user commentary" and "cooperates with law enforcement ... while being as respectful as possible with our user's privacy."
The Cooley case has launched Russell Stookey on a crusade, working with lawyers across the country, to bust others using Topix to defame.
"You've always had an ilk of individual out there that, I think they just harbor a dark side. And this is an outlet for them to anonymously blast people," he said, adding there's enough out there to keep him busy for a long time.
"I have caught a preacher's wife. I have caught people that work in the courthouse. 9-1-1 operators. These bastards are doing character assassination. And then they're just tripping off, thinking they got away with it. Well they don't get away with it anymore," Stookey said.
Gene Cooley has returned to Blairsville, where he found a job and friends eager to welcome him home.
Full text of statement from Topix CEO Chris Tolles:
Topix believes strongly in people's right to freely state their opinions. There are over 5,000 towns with daily activity in their Topix forums and the content is remarkably local, with many of the participants knowing each other.
In the Gene Cooley matter, Topix worked with the authorities on an active court case. The information provided by Topix helped identify someone guilty of defamation. We are never happy about people misusing our site and were happy to assist in this matter.
We strive to keep our forums focused on productive community discourse and dedicate nearly 20% of our staff to manually reviewing every piece of feedback we receive, usually within 48 hours, as well as using artificial intelligence systems to pre-filter user commentary. Of the more than 100,000 daily posts we receive, we remove an average of 15% of posts and review over 1000 pieces of feedback a day.
We cooperate with law enforcement and court requests for information while being as respectful as possible with our user¹s privacy. We are proactive in working with school officials when we see any cyberbullying of minors and have had success in the early detection and removal of such content.
Topix is focused on continually improving the site and the products it offers. We are creating new products around civic issues, politics and public matters, many of which will be deployed around the 2012 election.
Chris Tolles CEO Topix