She had cut off contact with her ex, put a thousand miles between them and started therapy. Still, Jocelyn — a 30-something in the Pacific Northwest — couldn’t shake the feeling that his abuse was her fault.

Her therapist suggested she seek out other women who had experienced something similar to what she’d described: A fairy-tale romance that led to a quick engagement. A slide into violence. A cycle of broken promises.

When Jocelyn heard about city-specific Facebook groups called “Are We Dating The Same Guy?” she thought she had found that support. She logged into the social network using a fake account to shield her identity and posted several paragraphs about the relationship. She imagined other women would chime in with similar experiences, saying they understood.

“I didn’t get any of that,” said Jocelyn, who spoke on the condition that her last name be withheld to protect her safety. “Instead, I got him brought right back in my life.”

The secretive “Are We Dating the Same Guy” network exploded into public view in January, when an Illinois man filed a defamation lawsuit against its founder, Facebook and its parent company Meta, a woman who had allegedly posted about him and dozens of others he says are involved in the groups.

The lawsuit cast a spotlight on a phenomenon that has been quietly shaking up dating — a network of forums that aim to make courtship safer but have at times harmed the men being posted about and the women behind the posts. Some of the claims propagated within the groups have derailed the lives of the men being discussed. Women who opened up in the communities, meanwhile, have felt their safety was put at risk.

The groups were launched by one woman, Paola Sanchez, with a noble goal: Creating a space for women to “empower each other and keep each other safe from dangerous and/or toxic men.” A reported 3.5 million members in more than 200 groups share red flags about men in “AWDTSG” spaces shaped to feel like a sisterhood, with women sharing advice and encouragement in the often lonely search for love.

Sanchez, 29, declined repeated requests from The Washington Post for an interview, saying that speaking publicly about AWDTSG would set “a very bad example” for members. In posts to her groups in January, she said she plans to “aggressively fight” the Illinois man’s lawsuit “and show that these groups are mainly comprised of truthful warnings.”

In an era when many walk into first dates armed with only the paltry details on a Hinge or Tinder profile, crowdsourcing information within the groups has proved popular. Countless women say they have called off potentially dangerous dates, left a cheating partner or verified their concerns about a man because of what they’ve read in AWDTSG.

But nearly two years after the first groups sprung up, interviews with dozens of people involved with the network, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their privacy, revealed that the consequences can sometimes be far reaching. In forums that can top 100,000 members, where rules are difficult to enforce, damaging claims can take hold and ultimately wind their way back to the accused men.

Men describe being questioned by employers, losing relationships and spiraling emotionally over accusations they insist are untrue. Women speak of being confronted by the very men they warned others about.

Some former moderators, who once devoted hours to the groups’ cause, said they have turned against the groups out of concern about the collateral damage. A portion of members have also expressed discomfort with Sanchez’s efforts to raise money. GoFundMe drives aimed at building an app for the AWDTSG forum and defending against the lawsuit had raised more than $80,000 by late February.

Erin McPike, a spokeswoman for Meta, said none of several AWDTSG groups that The Post asked about were violating the platform’s policies. She said the company removes content that shares or solicits “personally identifiable information or other private information that could lead to physical or financial harm.” Meta also gives people ways to report posted images that they believe violate their privacy rights, McPike said. She did not respond to requests for comment on the Illinois man’s lawsuit.

In posts in the groups, Sanchez touts her network as guarding against the worst aspects of online romance. She marveled in February 2023 at the community’s swift growth, saying it “feels amazing to be helping protect so many women.”

But for Jocelyn, opening up made her feel less safe. She deleted her post, but it was too late: Her phone soon pinged with text messages.

Her words had made it back to her ex. And he was furious.

A ‘Fight Club’-like network takes shape

“West Elm Caleb” may have started it all.

In a viral January 2022 TikTok video, a New York woman recounted being ghosted by a dating app match, Caleb, after a promising first date. A slew of other women piped up about similar experiences with the mustachioed, 25-year-old West Elm furniture designer, transforming him into a shorthand for the frustrations of online dating.

Within a few months, the AWDTSG groups began to appear. They sought to operate with a “Fight Club”-like covertness; a primary rule of membership in the groups was not to talk about the groups.

The network aims to tackle a real problem: Unlike when families or colleagues used to play matchmaker, which added a layer of accountability, many couples now meet online. And it can be a dangerous free-for-all.

About half of U.S. adults say online dating is not safe, according to a February 2023 report from Pew Research Center, with women more likely than men to come to that conclusion. Two-thirds of women ages 18 to 49 who’ve used dating apps say they’ve received a sexually explicit image they didn’t request, have had someone contact them after they’ve said they weren’t interested, have been called an offensive name or have been threatened with physical harm, the survey found.

As a result, women routinely take precautions before meeting an online match: Getting together in public, telling friends where they’re going or turning down a date’s offer of a ride home. For some, posting in AWDTSG has become another safeguard.

In one of the groups, a member named Sarah wrote that a warning about a prospective suitor had helped her avoid a “potentially dangerous encounter.”

“This group can save lives, and may have saved mine,” she wrote, according to a screenshot from the groups that was shared on a promotional website.

While other online spaces have aimed to help women vet men, none have been particularly successful or long-lasting. The male-rating features of the Lulu app and collapsed years ago, and a man won a six-figure settlement in a defamation lawsuit that arose after a 2017 spreadsheet anonymously accused prominent “Media Men” of sexual harassment and other misdeeds.

Sanchez’s groups have smaller competitors — “Are we sharing boyfriends?” among them — and a trademark fight even played out over the phrase “Are We Dating the Same Guy.” But no rival network has the reach or influence of the one started by Sanchez, a University of California at Santa Barbara alumna who sold eyelash serum before launching New York City’s AWDTSG group in spring 2022.

As the forum’s popularity exploded, Sanchez wrote on her pages in 2023, she had to try to guard it against the threat of fake profiles, legal issues or a Facebook crackdown.

“While figuring that all out I learned of other similar groups that had been shut down or abandoned due to moderation and legal concerns, and realized that the techniques and systems I was learning from keeping NYC going could be used to allow groups like this to prosper in cities across the country,” she wrote. “So I created more. A lot more.”

‘Any red flags or tea?’

Posts to the groups often follow a pattern: A member shares a man’s first name — frequently using Facebook’s anonymous posting feature — along with the words “any red flags or tea?” She attaches a photo from his dating profile, and members use the comments to share what they know about him.

Some women have discovered relationship-ending information.

Mikayla Miedzianowski, a Tampa-area woman in her 20s, was scrolling Facebook last spring when she spotted a photo of her boyfriend in an AWDTSG group. Underneath, a woman wrote of him kissing and dancing with her friend.

Miedzianowski made a TikTok highlighting the oddity of the situation: “Silently swigging out of a bottle of wine on my boyfriend’s couch while he does the dishes because I just found out on social media in front of 35,000 people that he cheated on me.”

She confronted her boyfriend, who, she said, admitted to cheating. The couple’s families had been planning to meet. Instead, Miedzianowski ended the relationship within hours of coming across the other woman’s words.

“I thanked her,” she said. “I’m not going to waste any of my time.”

To join the communities, members are asked to acknowledge 10 rules. One guideline prohibits libel, defamation and “false information,” while others instruct members not to bully, victim blame or make mean-spirited comments.

“This group is not about hating men,” Sanchez posted in at least one of the forums in 2022.

But in online spaces inundated with a near-constant stream of posts and comments, rules are sometimes more like suggestions. Comments can careen from encouragement to disparaging remarks dissecting physical appearances or sex drives. Or worse.

The network’s leaders have alluded to the challenge of enforcement, writing across groups in May 2023 that “with the amount of posts we’ve been getting we would need hundreds of girls on patrol to effectively stay on top of it.”

Christan Marashio, a trauma-informed dating expert based in New York City, previously ran a support group for singles on a different social media platform. She said maintaining a safe online space requires careful vetting, strict rules and robust moderation.

Marashio heard about the AWDTSG groups shortly after they took off and immediately had concerns.

“My first reaction,” she said, “was this will not end well.”

‘The court of public opinion’

When a man in his late 20s found he was posted to a Florida group, he thought the initial responses seemed harmless. The accompanying photo showed him with his dogs, he said, and much of the chatter centered on the animals.

After someone shared screenshots of the post with him, he initially shrugged it off. But later, he said, things took a jaw-dropping turn: A group member accused him of having sex with his dogs.

Some commenters floated the idea of reporting him for animal abuse. As he browsed at a bookstore with his mom weeks later, he noticed two women looking from him to a phone screen. He became convinced they recognized him from Facebook.

“I was like, ‘Wow, I really can’t escape this. It’s going to affect me everywhere in my life,’” the man said, calling the ordeal “a solid nine out of 10 on the emotional destruction scale.”

By that point, the allegations had already vanished. The man said he had contacted the woman he believed initially posted him, asking, “Was this you?” He also messaged the people running the group, he said, asking them to take down the post and noting that he had contacted a lawyer. The thread disappeared the same day.

Moderators are instructed to ignore pleas from men like him. Guidelines obtained by The Post direct them not to respond to messages from men who ask for their posts to be removed.

“Ignore the message completely,” the document says.

That was the result for Walter Watson, a 39-year-old who was so horrified by an allegation in the Atlanta-area group that he went to the police.

Posting anonymously, a member had claimed he stored nude photos of women on flash drives, among other things. It was outrageous, he said, and he worried he would lose his relationship or his career over the allegations. A stranger even contacted his girlfriend’s workplace to flag the claims.

Watson tore apart his house, digging out every flash drive. He combed through them “to make sure that, I don’t know, somebody hadn’t saved a bunch of pictures on them,” he said. He found none.

Police in Woodstock, Ga., told Watson it would be “very hard” to track down the person who posted about him, according to a March 2023 incident report.

“I didn’t worry about getting in legal trouble because I knew there was no merit to it,” Watson said. “My bigger concern was: I’ve already been convicted in the court of public opinion.”

Encountering the men they warned about

Jocelyn was stunned to receive texts from her ex in May — about a month after she posted in one of the groups.

“Well, Jocelyn. Congratulations,” the message began. “You got what you wanted. You’ve finally succeeded in destroying me.”

Even though she had long ago deleted her post, her ex said his employer had fired him after learning he had been accused of abuse. He sent walls of texts berating her, re-litigating what happened on a night she said he abused her, hinting at self-harm and warning that he might get a lawyer.

She defended herself, telling him she would seek a no-contact order if he didn’t stop texting her.

The messages left Jocelyn shaken. Her ex had endangered her before, she said. Now he had lost his livelihood. What if he retaliated?

Jocelyn alerted her employer and got a gun for protection.

“I’m still scared that he’s going to show back up here,” she said weeks later. “And I don’t know what he would do if he did.”

As stories shared in the groups seep into real life, Sanchez — in her posts to the groups and in training materials — focuses on the people who leaked the information, at times downplaying the risks. The moderator guidelines suggest telling women whose comments have gotten back to men: “If he threatens legal action or police action I wouldn’t worry too much about those.” It’s unclear whether any moderators have used that language.

Yet some women have found themselves face to face with men they’ve warned about.

In late 2022, Becky Bates didn’t think twice about commenting on a post, criticizing a dating-app match as unlikely to offer to meet in person. Within two days, the man had appeared at the Virginia tattoo parlor where she works.

He had wanted to give her a message: Don’t believe everything you read online.

Someone in the group, Bates thought, could have sent him her comment.

“Because everything is on Facebook, these girls can go in there, look at your stuff and give these men all your information,” said Bates, 51. “It’s incredibly dangerous.”

Lana Hiott became tragically familiar with that danger after her sister, Shannon Hiott, posted about her ex-boyfriend Chance Donohoe in a Columbus, Ohio, group in August. In the post, Shannon Hiott accused him of stealing her money and prescription medication and said he “comes off super sweet and honest, but isn’t.”

She also warned about him in at least one other Facebook group and on her personal Facebook profile after blocking him on every social media platform, Lana Hiott said.

A few days after Shannon Hiott, 29, posted in AWDTSG and elsewhere on social media, Donohoe stabbed her to death in her home, county prosecutors allege. He later called 911 to confess, a prosecutor said at an August court hearing.

When detectives questioned Donohoe, 26, he said “he and the victim had recently broken up, and he was upset because she was posting dispiriting comments on social media about him,” the prosecutor told a judge, according to a transcript.

It is unclear whether Donohoe saw Shannon Hiott’s post in AWDTSG, as opposed to her remarks in other online spaces. Prosecutors declined to share more details. An attorney for Donohoe, who has pleaded not guilty, did not respond to requests for comment.

Lana Hiott still believes the AWDTSG groups are useful for warning about dangerous men. But she worries that women who post may face retaliation.

“We shouldn’t feel at risk for our lives because we’re posting stuff like that,” she said.

Kandace Russell, a former moderator of Tampa and St. Louis-area groups, said she got no guidance about whether to respond differently to a woman’s message about a leaked post if she said the leak had put her in danger.

“We weren’t equipped to handle that,” said Russell, 20. “We weren’t told about it. We weren’t given any information.”

The massive size of many groups has also enabled men to join undetected, some men said in interviews. One has gotten as far as becoming a moderator.

Sanchez maintains detailed criteria for approving members, but acknowledged in a 2023 post in her groups that “even with this extensive list, guys can still make it in in a few different ways.”

For nearly a year, Sanchez has been raising money to create a new app that she has said is meant to “keep women even safer.” The app, now in beta testing, would function much like the groups but would block screenshots and enable users to comment anonymously. While some group members have pushed back on her soliciting donations, Sanchez wrote in her groups in January that she is “done feeling ashamed to ask for help.”

Sanchez and the other group administrators have also repeatedly warned members that what is said in the communities should stay there. They’ve shared reminders that mean-spirited comments are not allowed, and they’ve urged members to report posts that break the rules.

The network can be safe if members follow the guidelines, Sanchez wrote across the pages in January.

But any changes to how the groups operate will be too late for Jocelyn, who remained rattled long after fielding those texts from her ex. Although the situation didn’t escalate further, she believes telling her story in the forum sent her down a dangerous path.

Jocelyn lost faith in the AWDTSG network, convinced it does more harm than good. Besides, she said, she no longer needs the online community.

She now has a real-life support group.

Razzan Nakhlawi and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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