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  • Kirra Pendergast

I was #chipsandchocolate

Updated: Jul 10

The story behind my why. By Kirra Pendergast

I had a falling out with an ex-business associate; she teamed up with someone I had introduced her to. Lies, defamation, threats, and name-calling disguised in hashtags, there was nothing that wasn't tried by my bullies in their relentless campaign that started in late 2013.

We had a handshake business contract, and everything was fine until the interference of another who clearly was manipulating her way into a stake in our company after an unsuccessful attempt to sue an old employer. That is another whole big story.

Our business was successful, but I was inexperienced in running my own company - I had been State Director for multinationals but never out on my own. They used this against me through coercive control and gaslighting. I see it clearly in hindsight. I would not agree to do something they were trying to push me into doing so they turned on me. It was relentless. They registered to attend events I was speaking at and made threats through Facebook and Instagram posts. They threatened to sit in the front row to intimidate me while I was on stage talking and throw rotten fruit at me. The main perpetrator turned up at one event, and when the organiser of the event asked her to leave, she falsely accused him of manhandling her and defamed him and another friend on Facebook who also saw all of this unfolding. They did none of what she accused - it was all on CCTV. These innocent men encouraged me to go to the Police and the Police told me to apply for a court order. I did everything that I knew you were supposed to do. I blocked the bullies on everything, reported them to the platforms the cyberbullying was happening on and tried to get a court order but the judge called it "journalistic" because the threat was on a social media platform. That gave my bully the ammunition to keep going. One day she even threatened my Dad in my parent's driveway because I refused to do what she demanded. She threatened to "take me down" because she knew my parents were guarantors on my house at the time. She touted that "they would lose their house too." My gorgeous Dad told her that I was more important to him than any material possession, so he didn't care what she had to say.


More hashtags surfaced. I was very overweight at the time, and they mainly targeted my weight. #140kgsofmerde photos of unattractive, overweight characters with variations of my name under them, and quotes like "revenge comes like a cat in the night....tap tap" was another favourite. She defamed me to clients and many of my friends. She knew I didn't have the money to fight back. I worked for myself. There is no HR department to get support from. I barely left my house for three months. I still have hundreds of screenshots on hard drives of the hate campaign against me online. They even started trolling and cyberbullying themselves from fake accounts pretending to be me to try and gain sympathy, and they managed to convince some people. It was horrendous and relentless.


Until my own experience, I was always one who said to turn it off, ignore it! Until I lived through the fact, I realised that you can't. Devices make bullying 24 x 7 now. This was what I refer to now as occupational violence, someone I worked with, someone I trusted implicitly, trying to bully me to death. Every notification beep that you hear from your phone, you think maybe it's more hate directed at you, every time you hear an email arrive, you tense up. The prolonged stress and my body overproducing cortisol, endless insomnia, and adrenal fatigue caused some physical health issues that I now have to manage for life. No one knows what it feels like until it happens to them. No one. You can't even think you do. People believe that they know because they were bullied at school and I acknowledge that pain, but it is on a whole new level on social media. 24 x7 and inescapable.

I saw doctors and counsellors, and none of them were experienced enough in this space to give me any advice that I could use. Being a 43yr old bullying victim was rare, mainly because it was now outside of a workplace, and my bullies were 54yr+. My bullies were ex-work colleagues, so I had no workplace support. I was really, really, alone. The eSafety commissioner's office did not exist; it was still a year away, only for young people under 18yrs. This changed in January 2022. If you are an Australian citizen, you can now report adult online abuse and bullying. I often wonder if my story would have been considered serious enough. Who gets to define whether what you are feeling is serious enough. For me, it was crippling. I ended up with reactive arthritis and spent a couple of months with plaster up to my knee in a wheelchair. But my real name was never mentioned, but I knew #chipsandchocolate was me. Confirming it was difficult. But I did. The day one of my bullies posted a little quote on Instagram was the day I finally confirmed it. My bully posted, "If you could rid the world of one thing, what would it be" she commented underneath….easy #chipsandchocolate We had a lot of friends in common. Some of my friends took screenshots of every post, monitoring what was happening. One wrote, "what does #chipsandchocolate mean?" and in a split second her elderly mother wrote "a fourth-generation lying fat cow from Byron Bay". The comment was deleted by my bully but I had the screenshot that confirmed it was me. It also confirmed that my bully had grown up with a bully mother. For the first time, I felt sorry for her.


I have been working in the Information Technology Industry since 1991 mostly in cybersecurity and specifically in social media security, privacy, and risk management since 2008. I had an extensive and very successful career behind me, and I am considered a leading expert in keeping people and their information safe online, especially on social media. I may have been considered an expert in the social media side of things, but back then, I had no idea what to do when someone was cyberbullied, let alone myself.


Here are some of the things I learned: Serious cyberbullying is something you cannot escape and you have to learn to manage it in your own way to minimise the damage to your mental health. Seek professional help and speak up.


You need a lot of money to pursue a defamation case, but there are legal precedents concerning defamation on social media now.

There are laws in Australia that can have people charged for cyberbullying, but people are rarely held accountable, so that still rarely happens.

Friends will try and "help" you out by sending you screenshots of what has been said about you so that you will see their posts even when you have blocked your bully (please don't do that - just keep them in case they ever need them but don't show them).

A considerable amount of your friends don't want to hear about it or will say, "let's not talk about that," or not listen to you when a vast amount of your need to be able to heal from being a cyberbullying victim is to speak up and talk about it.


People rarely know how to support a cyberbullying victim who is an adult.

Some Police (not all) do not take cyberbullying seriously enough. The Law Courts do not understand this correctly, a large number of judges don't use social media, so some do not understand the online world. This is also a generation gap issue. But it's getting better.


People do not understand the profound effect that it can have on a person's mental health and just how that sticks with you for life.


And some advice if it is happening to you right now:


Don't bite back. Instead take screenshots and document so you can report properly and your case will stand up in court. Be a role model and go high.


Manage your mental health by setting a digital sunset. Get off your devices. Stop scrolling and instead do something healthy. Exercise and eat well. See your doctor if you are not sleeping and book appointments to speak to a professional. You need the support so you don't get sick. Don't try and tackle this on your own. Don't ever be afraid to speak up!


If it is online:


Report it to the app it is happening on. Screenshot that this has been done. If the post is not removed in 24hrs report it to www.esafety.gov.au If the post contains threats of harm or is distributing image-based abuse report it straight to the Police or Crimestoppers.


The most important thing you can do when being bullied to protect yourself is to talk about it.


Everybody has a different threshold of what they consider to be serious bullying. Sometimes, the person who is bullying you may genuinely have no idea that it is affecting you. So if you feel up to it, telling the person who is bullying you can be really effective.

What I did


I chose the high road. I never bit back. Not once. Even though I could have annihilated their lives with what I knew. But that is not my nature. I woke up at 2:37 am on Sunday, March 15th, 2014, having a massive panic attack repeatedly going over in my head about what happened and what may happen next. You start to believe what they say about you, and their words become like knives. I realised that the main perpetrator had been gaslighting and attempting to control me for years. A warped form of jealously about my lifestyle. I dragged myself out of bed and decided I would do something about it.


I sat at my desk with my head in my hands and thought to myself, "I have $68 to my name, a child to feed, a mortgage, car payments, and two dogs. What do I do?" I keep people Safe on Social Media. I then thought that the only way to make good from a terrible situation was to teach others what I knew from the combination of my years of experience with cybersecurity and social media safety in the corporate sector. My right-in-the-moment experience with what I was learning about cyberbullying and what I continue to understand everything to do with cyber safety (which is different from cybersecurity). So with that last $68, I registered the business name Safe on Social, registered the domain name www.safeonsocial.com and had $21 left. I wrote solidly for the next two weeks. I wrote my first presentation from the perspective of a 43yr old woman thinking of how I would feel if I was 13yrs.


At 9am, I called Byron Bay High School and asked to speak to the Principal - Peter King. I asked Peter if he would like me to talk to the students because I thought I could empower them to engage online in a more positive and less risky way. He said no and my stomach sank. Instead, he said they were having a Far North Coast Principals meeting in two weeks and would I like to speak at that. And I did. From that group, all of the Principals except two booked me to speak and I have been doing this ever since. Word of mouth spread, and my diary booked out 6mths in advance. To that point, many schools had relied on Police to deliver CyberSafety training to kids. Often because it's free. Police are extremely busy people and are not trained to an expert level on everything, and the information they are given is often lagging behind a little so the Police started recommending me. I have also trained quite a few commands across the country and often welcome the Police at my sessions as parents or observers to pick up the new things I speak about.

I have worked with more than 500 schools across Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, and Hong Kong. I speak at legal and corporate conferences and train businesses of all sizes about occupational violence and cybersafety. I am about to release the most comprehensive e-learning of its kind globally. Constantly updated and affordable.


As for my bully, I have never seen her or her partner in bullying again. I know where she now lives and works in Sydney and unfortunately, her partner in this campaign still lives near me. We have a few friends in common. I see her comment on Facebook posts. I want to say something every time, but I continue to choose the high road. The day she actually turns up to one of my conference talks, I will point her out and thank her. Because really, if it wasn't for her, I would have never found my purpose.

Each week I have hundreds of conversations with kids aged 4-18, their parents, and teachers. I hear directly from kids when things are going wrong, and then if I don't know how to help, I find out the best course of action for them. I hear about things that people should never experience. I have Police commands on speed dial. My most significant teachers are kids. I sit with 100's every day, listen to their stories, and answer their questions. This way, I learn what they need; I do not assume that I know what they need because I am an adult who has worked in the field for a long time. I never assume I know more than they do. I never say don't, I just teach them how to do it better. I have a Youth Advisory Committee of twelve strong, incredible young people who work for me, all aged between 15-18yrs. They are my joy. They want to help make the online world a better place and they are.

Cybersafety is a complex, ever-changing area; even the law and governments are constantly trying to catch up. Stats are flawed. Academia isn't at the coal face. We need to be right there listening to real people and real experiences constantly.


I will listen. We will continue to try and help make the online world safer. I would like to hear from more people about where you believe the gaps are and your experiences with reporting and seeking help. This is the reason that I have finally publicly shared mine. Please leave your experiences in the comments below or email me at wecanhelp@safeonsocial.com if you don't want to make them public.

Kirra Pendergast is the CEO of Safe on Social Media Pty Ltd. Kirra’s frank, no fear-mongering approach is backed by 30 years of experience in IT Business Consulting, Cyber Security, and Cyber Safety.

Her purpose is to educate people and organisations about how to use social media safely. She is a regular media commentator on the topic of cyber safety, social media risk management, and the law. “My lived experience enduring relentless online abuse and bullying by someone I trusted, inspired me to create what is now Australia’s leading Online Safety education and consulting firm. I train my team to look for the positives whilst minimising risk to help people build resilience, know what to do when things go wrong, and use social media for good”. As an in-demand public speaker and educator, Kirra presents to tens of thousands each year, at schools, professional learning sessions, parent seminars, legal events, government and business events, conferences, and staff wellbeing sessions. Kirra has presented at cheese and wine nights with small groups of Mum’s as well as Rotary clubs and CWA’s in regional NSW. She has presented at a school with only nine students and zoom sessions of more than seven thousand business people. She also regularly works with professional athletes and sports clubs.


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