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People online took less than 24 hours to find a man accused of ghosting his pregnant wife. The law seems to be on their side.

Apr 10, 2024, 11:56 AM EDT | By Lindsay Dodgson | Andrew Zashin consulted and quoted

It’s been a big week for internet sleuths, who took less than 24 hours to find a man who apparently ghosted his family.

It’s a story that highlights a culture of online justice, where people who have been perceived to have hurt and deceived others get hunted down by digital vigilantes all over the world to answer for their crimes.

Some fear the movement has gone too far, but recent rulings suggest the law doesn’t seem to be on their side.

On April 7, an X post went viral, containing screenshots of a Facebook post by a woman named Ashley McGuire. McGuire said her husband, a chef called Charles Withers, had vanished “without a trace” last year.

Withers had completely “ghosted” her, McGuire said in the post, which she shared to the popular Facebook group “Are We Dating the Same Guy,” while she was pregnant with their second child.

“He loves to be the center of attention but I’m not sure how much he’s going to like this,” she wrote. “Last year, when I was pregnant with our youngest baby, he decided being a husband and a dad wasn’t the lifestyle he wanted anymore and he ghosted, like gone without a trace.”

McGuire determined that Withers was “unreachable,” but it took less than a day for the internet to uncover where he had been. The mystery was partly solved through screenshots of him appearing on dating apps.

McGuire told TMZ Withers had been located in Dallas, Texas, and that he had reached out since the post went viral, telling his wife he was willing to sit down and talk.

In a follow-up post, McGuire said she wished Withers no “ill will.” Her intention was only to find him so she could file divorce papers.

“I only want to see this situation resolved so me and our children can restart our lives,” she said.

Business Insider has reached out to McGuire and Withers on social media for comment.

The internet has a history of hunting people down

It’s not just estranged husbands the internet likes to track down. When experiences of wrongdoing capture the internet’s attention, there isn’t much that people won’t do to find answers.

Sometimes, it’s when a video goes viral, and people wish to find the perpetrators of racist public meltdowns or violence.

Other times, it’s more personal. In 2022, for example, dozens of women in New York City realized they had been dating the same guy, only to be ghosted by him. He was nicknamed “West Elm Caleb,” and people immediately started investigating his private life.

Screenshots of his dating profiles, conversations, and social media were leaked, and what started as good-faith warnings about negative dating experiences morphed into public shaming and humiliation.

Katya Varbanova, a viral marketing expert, told BI these things tend to go viral because content that evokes strong emotions is highly sharable.

Another element is the feeling of an unresolved mystery, she said, which leaves users in suspense, waiting for an update.

“It’s the same effect as watching an engaging thriller movie and waiting til the end to see if the main character survives,” she said,

It has been proven that when the internet bands together, it can find anyone. So people know more than ever that their comments and shares can make a difference, Varbanova said.

“That encourages people to share the content, making them feel part of something bigger, seeking justice and retribution.”

The law seems to back the internet

Some experts previously told BI that internet justice can go too far, and sleuths can overstep while trying to get justice against perceived wrongdoers.

However, the law may not agree. A judge recently dismissed one of the lawsuits brought forward by a man who discovered stories about him had been shared in multiple “Are We Dating The Same Guy” groups.

The man, named Stewart Lucas Murrey, is suing more than 50 women, claiming they “conspired to harm” his reputation and “violate his right to free speech based upon his sex and other discriminatory elements.”

However, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Gregory Keosian ruled in favor of the defendant, Vanessa Valdez.

A similar case was dismissed in January in Illinois brought by a man against 27 women who posted about dating him in Chicago.

Andrew Zashin, a professor of law at Case Western Reserve University and co-managing partner of Zashin Law, where he practices family law, told BI there are distinctions between the stories of Murrey and Withers.

In the case of Murrey, Zashin said, “he went about it in the right way and tried to get justice for it.”

“He didn’t slash their tires or go to their workplaces,” he said.

The Withers case is a bit different, with potentially even less of an opportunity to say anyone harmed his reputation.

In cases like this, “everyone’s entitled to an opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts,” Zashin said.

“He apparently got married, and he had a child with the woman he married, and then he disappeared,” he said. “Those are facts.”

What McGuire did is known in legal terms as “self-help,” Zashin said, which means taking matters into one’s own hands without resorting to the courts. Posting to the internet was probably a last-ditch attempt, he said, after approaching Withers’ friends and family, and maybe even the police, to try to locate him.

The court of public opinion, though, can be “terribly unfair,” he added.

The fallout of a relationship can be messy, and lawyers try to manage that. But it’s very difficult to control what anyone thinks outside of those two people — the opinions of neighbors, friends, and family, or the internet.

“The fact is, you don’t just abandon your family with no explanation like that,” Zashin said. “That’s just not the way civilized people manage their family affairs.”

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