It would start with a message online. “Can I tell you a secret?” would flash up on a woman’s computer or phone screen, before the sender proceeded to make a troubling, strangely personal claim about her life: a faux-pally warning that she was being cheated on, or a hint that she was getting too close to a friend’s boyfriend. This was just the beginning. Fake accounts might spring up, using the woman’s photos to engage in explicit conversations. Their friends and family would be bombarded with disturbing messages, which featured false rumours that could turn the victim’s life upside down. And then there were the countless menacing phone calls, which they’d pick up only to hear the perpetrator breathing down the phone.

That perpetrator was Matthew Hardy, an unemployed man from Northwich in Cheshire who is thought to be the UK’s most prolific cyberstalker. Over more than a decade, he terrorised his victims by creating hundreds of fake accounts and using them to destroy relationships and reputations. Finally, in 2022, Hardy was sentenced to nine years in prison for five counts of stalking (later reduced to eight years on appeal). Now the Netflix documentary Can I Tell You a Secret? is exploring the stories of the women Hardy targeted, unravelling why it took so long to bring him to justice. A two-part series from Louis Theroux’s production company Mindhouse, it is based on The Guardian’s 2022 podcast about the Hardy case. “I was really struck by the power of the women’s stories and their bravery,” says series director Liza Williams. “They had huge amounts of agency in how the perpetrator was caught, and had to take the matter into their own hands, to a degree.”

The documentary features interviews with Hardy’s victims, punctuated with real screenshots of messages, along with disconcerting, even eerie visuals designed to “make the psychological impact very clear”, Williams says. It took a long time to build up relationships with the interviewees, she explains: thanks to their past experiences, “If they get a call from somebody they don’t know, that can be really affecting.” Some decided to speak to the filmmakers off-camera, to help with research, while others found the interview process “cathartic”, she says.

Hardy, now 32, started harassing his classmates online when he was a secondary school pupil, back in the late 2000s when Facebook was in its infancy. Despite being given two restraining orders after targeting two local women, he carried on stalking. He would later turn his focus to women who lived in totally different parts of the UK, to whom he had no links at all. Many had a big following on social media; they shared frequent snapshots from their full lives online. One of them was Zoe Jade Hallam, a model from Lincolnshire, who appears in Can I Tell You a Secret? Initially, Hardy messaged her pretending to be a photographer, feigning interest in working with her; soon, he had started setting up fake accounts, using her images, to send pernicious messages. At one point, the 33-year-old tells me, “he made a fake account of my partner’s father, who’s a doctor”, and started inappropriate conversations with young girls.

Life online: Abby Furness had previously felt safe sharing her experiences online

(Courtesy of Netflix )

Boutique owner Lia Hambly’s experience followed a similar pattern. After sending an initial message to Hambly, who is now 25, Hardy would call her hundreds of times; he also impersonated her online, bombarding others with sexual messages. “You’d block one account and then he’d make another one,” she says. “Or then he wouldn’t be contacting me, he’d be contacting a family friend, their boyfriend or their husband.” Years later, she “still feel[s] embarrassed” to be around some of the people that Hardy spoke to using those catfish accounts. “I think that will stay forever. I don’t think that will ever go away. Even when I watched the documentary, it still makes me emotional. It brings back that feeling of: why have you done this to me?”

She was also consumed with worry about her personal safety, believing that her stalker was tracking her. On one night out, she told a bouncer about what was going on, and he advised her not to go to the toilet on her own. “You should be having a good time with your friends, why should you be worried about that? [Hardy’s] hundreds of miles away behind this computer screen, but he’s making out he’s watching me.” Hambly became “so wary of everyone that I met” – if someone asked her a question, she’d immediately think, “Oh, is it you?” Hardy’s attacks were so targeted and personal that they made her assume that the culprit “was someone very close … It almost makes you feel like you’ve gone a bit mad”. Hallam, meanwhile, became “scared to go to the gym, because Matthew knew which gym I went to, what time I went to my class. There [was] nothing stopping him getting in a car and driving down and being outside.”

It was destroying their family, their relationships and friendships

Liza Williams, director

Hardy’s intricate online web of fake accounts was “creating real world consequences for all the people [the victims] knew”, as director Williams puts it. “It was destroying their family, their relationships and friendships.” In the documentary, performer Abby Furness, 24, reveals how the chaos wrought by Hardy broke up her and her boyfriend (who had received messages falsely claiming she had cheated on him); at one point, Hardy sent intimate photos of Furness to her boss. Another anonymous victim had her wedding day sabotaged, when she was sent messages alleging that her fiancé had been unfaithful.

But despite all this, Hardy’s victims struggled to be taken seriously by the police. Hambly reported her experiences soon after she started being targeted, but was essentially told: “Until something happens to you physically, then we’ll look into it. But until then, come off your social media and basically don’t go out.” Of course, she had already found out that blocking Hardy’s accounts didn’t deter him. Hallam had a very similar experience with a different police force. “The second you put the word ‘cyber’ next to anything, so cyberstalking, cyberharassment, cyberbullying, it’s never taken as seriously as if it’s physical,” she says. “But the way that the internet works, now social media is so integrated into our lives, it’s not the case that you turn your phone off and you don’t get hassled any more.”

Hallam, who used social media as a platform for her modelling work, remembers showing her account to an officer and feeling judged. “Even just his expression – the whole thing was like, well, you deserve it, you’re asking for it, because I decided to have photos that were a little bit more posey than what he would accept. It wasn’t even just from the police – other people were like, ‘You’re bringing this on yourself a little bit.’” Even some of her friends thought she was being dramatic. “It was always like, ‘Oh god, Zoe, it’s always you.’ No one seemed to really understand the magnitude.” Williams describes the general response to the victims as “classic victim blaming”, and it’s hard not to agree: the onus was always on the women to change their behaviour.

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Victim-blaming: Zoe Jade Hallam was judged for the content she put out on socials

(Courtesy of Netflix )

During one home visit from the police, Hambly says she learned that one of Hardy’s phone numbers had been previously searched hundreds of times – and realised that she wasn’t his only target. At this point, she started compiling a “bundle” of evidence, much like the ones she had put together during her stint working as a paralegal; it comprised screenshots of every interaction and every fake account (it’s huge, as I see when she consults it during our Zoom call). “I remember going to the police station with this file, in tears, and begging them saying, ‘Please, can you help me? I don’t know what to do,’” she says.

Sometimes, Hardy used his own account to send messages; at one point, he even confessed to Furness. Some victims passed on his name to the police. But it wasn’t until PC Kevin Anderson, an officer with the Cheshire constabulary, started to investigate a different stalking complaint against Hardy that things actually started to progress. Looking into police records, Anderson discovered more than 100 reports about Hardy, from 62 victims; he’d also been arrested 10 times. He started to reach out to women from other areas who’d reported Hardy, including Hallam, Hambly and many more. “In the conversation with him, he wasn’t just ticking boxes, he wasn’t just going through the process of asking the questions, telling me to get security lights,” says Hallam. “He cared, you could tell by his whole demeanour […] There was relief that, god, finally someone’s doing something.”

Dedicated: PC Kevin Anderson helped bring Hardy to justice

(Courtesy of Netflix )

Eventually, Hardy pled guilty to five counts of stalking; only he knows just how many people were impacted by his behaviour. His defence barrister argued that Hardy’s autism and mental health issues had left him isolated, prompting him to seek connection online and “lash out” if those approaches were “rejected”. Williams felt it was important to place this in context in the documentary. “We spoke to charities and organisations run by autistic people and their main fear was there’d be an assumption that this was typical behaviour of an autistic person, which clearly it isn’t,” she says. “The vast majority of autistic people don’t display these types of behaviours … but it’s also important to talk about the fact that Matthew was diagnosed with autism late, and that meant he was very socially isolated as a young person. And that is a factor in why he became so obsessive and so glued to his social media. I think the film did have to discuss that: it’s absolutely not an excuse for his behaviour, and it doesn’t explain the harm he caused, but it is an important thing to explore.”

Both Hallam and Hambly hope that the documentary removes any misconception that cyber stalking is somehow a less serious offence than so-called “traditional” stalking. “We want to raise awareness, we want to put pressure on social media platforms to stop the ability to make so many accounts in such a short space of time,” Hallam says. She still finds the disparity between the dismissive response to her first complaint and the weight of Hardy’s eventual sentence quite difficult to compute. “It was such a vast difference: from no one caring, to ‘we’re taking this seriously, and this is the punishment we think it deserves,’” she says. “I wish I could tell the girl at the beginning what was going to happen. Just to give her a bit more strength. Because strength comes with support, and in the beginning, I didn’t feel like I had any. But by the end I felt like I had an army.”

‘Can I Tell You a Secret?’ is out now on Netflix