WARNING: This story contains content some readers may find offensive

A private, men-only Facebook group that was used to flood multiple B.C. businesses with offensive reviews and circulate intimate images of women without consent has been taken offline.

The HimPower Facebook group had been used to co-ordinate at least two trolling attacks on B.C. businesses in the last month, and a third that occurred in late 2016, CTVNews.ca learned through first-hand knowledge of the group. The group had been around since at least 2015 and had more than 44,000 members of an active community that mostly shared racist, misogynist and irreverent content some would find offensive.

Facebook Canada said it was investigating the group Friday evening, just hours before it was taken offline.

The latest incident involved the Elizabeth Bagshaw Women’s Clinic, a Vancouver-based clinic for abortion and reproduction care. The clinic received dozens of five-star Google reviews in the last week, many of them from male users praising it for its fast service, free WiFi and convenience over other, more brutal alternatives such as coat hangers or bleach. Several individuals left similar reviews on the clinic’s Facebook page

“They alwayas (sic) got your back, this clinic was made for the boys,” one user wrote on Google. “They always help me out no matter how many women I bring.”

Many of the Google and Facebook accounts used to leave reviews at the women’s clinic were also used to leave one-star reviews for Chameleon Restaurant, in Maple Ridge, and BiblioTaco, in Cumberland. When CTVNews.ca contacted several of the individuals who control those accounts, the responses began with denials of any involvment with HimPower, followed by threats and crude responses.

In a Jan. 15 post to the HimPower Facebook page, group member David Comstock encouraged others to “ride to battle” and make the clinic “the highest reviewed abortion clinic of all time.” The post encourages others to leave offensive comments touting the clinic as “much easier” than drinking bleach or using a coat hanger.

“Boys, now is the time for BiblioTaco 3.0,” Comstock wrote.

Comstock reached out to CTVNews.ca to deny any knowledge of the group. When pressed, he said: "It was my decision to repeat a previous comment I saw on the group chat that didn't get the attention it deserved." He then added that “half of the group is full of trolls.”

‘Gotten a bit out of hand’

Several other users from the group reached out to CTVNews.ca to describe HimPower as a private community meant for men to share offensive content, without fear of offending outsiders. “The main objective is edgy memes and humour,” one user said, adding that the restaurant cyberattacks were prompted by members who wanted “revenge” after they were fired.

The individual, who asked to remain anonymous, said HimPower administrators were also quick to crack down on the sharing of nude photos.

In a post dated one day after CTV Vancouver reported the Chameleon restaurant had been targeted, a HimPower administrator told members the situation had “gotten a bit out of hand, and needs to be addressed.”

The admin said he would not be taking part in any “raids” on small businesses, adding that those who wish to do so should create a new page for that purpose.

The group’s description page described it as the home of “the most savage sons of bitches in the Lower Mainland.” The description listed several rules, including ones such as “no adding girls,” “keep it legal” and “don’t post any content containing nudity, as you’ll be threatening the livelihood of the group.”

Another rule encouraged users to be savage, but to mind the “fine line” between “being savage in a comedic manner and just being straight up hostile. We’re all here for the same purpose, we all just want to enjoy ourselves amongst our fellow brothers.”

Social media expert Jesse Miller, of Mediated Reality, says there are private Facebook communities operating in many cities, although this one seemed to be larger than most.

“The people who choose to make a one-star review and then have a group of people follow behind it – it’s that internet mob mentality,” he told CTV Vancouver.

Miller advised businesses to avoid getting into online conflicts with online reviewers, and to instead attempt to engage in respectful discussion.

Previous attacks

The attack on BiblioTaco occurred in late 2016, when the restaurant was hit with nearly 1,000 one-star reviews on Facebook. The restaurant owners noticed and appealed to their fans to fight the negativity by leaving five-star reviews. BiblioTaco declared victory in late November after registering more than 1,000 five-star reviews.

“The reviews have been flying and we now have the same number of good reviews as negative ones,” BiblioTaco wrote at the time

The business also responded to a number of outrageous claims in the one-star reviews, saying it will “clean up all the dead bodies and moldy burritos,” and that it will throw out all the “squirrel, rat, dog and raccoon meat” in its fridges. 

In the more recent cyberattack on Chameleon Restaurant, manager Mario Bitoiu alleged his business was flooded with negative reviews after he fired a bartender “due to lack of respect and communication.”

Bitoiu says he started receiving offensive and sexual messages on his phone the next day. “They wished I could get hit by a bus,” he told CTV Vancouver. He added that the negative reviews took a swift toll, with his earnings on the first Friday of 2018 down by approximately 50 per cent over the same time last year.

The fired employee told CTV Vancouver he vented his frustrations with the restaurant in the HimPower group, prompting others to launch the cyberattack. He said he felt remorseful after the attacks started and tried to get others to stop, but they soon turned on him.

Many of the Google users who left one-star reviews on the Chameleon Restaurant page also left five-star reviews for the abortion clinic.

Chameleon’s owners say police told them there’s little they can do about the matter if there was no criminal activity involved.

Sharing intimate images

Several women from a closed, all-female body-positivity group have separately claimed their community was infiltrated by a HimPower member, and that images of “half naked or fully naked women” were reposted with names attached.

CTVNews.ca saw rampant discussion about the topic on HimPower, with several individuals demanding to know who informed the women of their activities.

Many images posted in HimPower were of women. Some appeared to be screenshots of body positivity posts, while others appeared to be screenshots of female Tinder members.

Posters often asked if other members would have sex with the woman or not.

Vancouver police say they have a case open on the clinic attack.

However, RCMP have already told Chameleon's owners that there's not much that can be done.