The Coast Guard discharged him for abuse. The internet took his side.

The Coast Guard discharged him for abuse. The internet took his side.

Samantha White’s life hasn’t been the same since December, when videos posted by her ex-husband went viral on TikTok, Reddit and other social media platforms. 

The videos appear to show her and her ex-husband, Josset Vences, engaged in a series of arguments. She was dubbed “WiFi chick” in comments and captions after a video of her repeatedly asking for a Wi-Fi password during an argument gained traction. In another, she screamed for Vences to “not do this” as he pointed the camera at her. While the videos didn’t include context, Vences could be heard saying White was “yelling when she doesn’t get her way,” and most of the comments took Vences’ side, characterizing White as “crazy,” emotional and villainous. Vences also posted videos with screenshots of their texts that showed her full name and phone number, leading to a wave of online abuse.

White had already carved out a small following on TikTok, where she posted about being a widow from a previous marriage and a survivor of abuse during her marriage to Vences. But after Vences’ videos took off, her experience on TikTok, and on the internet in general, soured.

In a phone interview, Vences said that he didn’t expect his TikTok videos to gain as much traction as they did and that his intention in posting them was to show “his side.” He said he “made plenty of mistakes” in his relationship with White.

In 2021, White and Vences divorced after a year of marriage. They lived in military housing on a naval base, where Vences worked in the Coast Guard. After White left, she reported Vences to the Coast Guard for emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Vences responded by accusing White of emotional and physical abuse. 

Last year, after an investigation, the Coast Guard found that White’s allegations and the evidence she provided met its criteria for emotional, physical and sexual abuse, while Vences’ didn’t. Five months later, in November, the Coast Guard discharged Vences for misconduct. Five days after that, he uploaded the videos to TikTok. In a YouTube video posted after his discharge, Vences said he took “bad advice” from a legal representative in the Navy and wasn’t able to present his “side” during the investigation.

In an emailed statement, a representative for the Ninth Coast Guard District (Vences’ former district) wrote, “The Coast Guard holds our personnel accountable to our core values of Honor, Respect, and Devotion to Duty, and does not tolerate any form of abuse.”

“We take allegations of domestic violence seriously, thoroughly investigate each case, and hold members appropriately accountable,” the statement said.

NBC News reviewed military documents, more than 300 text messages White shared between her and Vences, emails between White and Vences and their individual social media histories over the past three years. 

One email, sent to White after a fight during their marriage, appears to show Vences writing: “Like you say, im abusive, dont love you, dont care about you, im a horrible husband. I shouldn’t have pushed you. Ill be home later tonight. Im done. Goodbye Samantha. Im not good for you. Im blocking the email as well.”

In a text exchange, he called her derogatory names and wrote “I will treat you like this everyday until you decide to leave” after the name-calling.

Online, Vences found support after he positioned himself as a victim.

White said that after Vences’ videos went viral at the end of last year, the online attention eventually calmed down. But then, in April, the videos were picked up by an influencer, Chloe Roma, whose legal name is Chloe Sunderland. Sunderland, a YouTuber with over 1 million followers and more than 400 million views, touts her “Roma Army” fan base as “the world’s largest men’s rights organization.” 

Sunderland is one of dozens of similar creators who have turned domestic disputes and abuse allegations into culture war fodder with a particular narrative — that men are some of the most serious victims of societal discrimination. It’s a narrative that has become particularly popular and lucrative online after the celebrity defamation trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard.

“We’re nobodies,” White said in a phone interview. “This is my real life. This is a normal person’s life that is being treated as a celebrity’s life in the most negative light.”

Sunderland’s men’s rights activism is part of a loosely connected network of internet personalities who advance the same agenda: that men are discriminated against in relationships and broader society. Social media platforms have become battlefields for abuse allegations, where men’s rights advocates argue that many of these allegations are false, even though research indicates the rate of false reports is slim and similar to the rates in other crimes, with false reports occurring in 2% to 10% of reported allegations.

White said that the videos Vences posted made her look “crazy” but that the reaction to them shows people “want victims to be meek scaredy-cats.” In one of the videos Vences shared, he included screenshots of text messages in which White conveyed that she had raised her voice and thrown things at him.

“I have never claimed to be this perfect, goody-two-shoes victim,” White said. “When I realized what he was doing was abuse, I was angry. I wasn’t perfect, but I don’t regret getting angry.”

White said she messaged Sunderland on Instagram after she saw the initial video, offering to share her evidence that her ex-husband was abusive, including his discharge from the Coast Guard for emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Sunderland responded by video-calling White and berating her while recording the call. At the end of the call, which lasted only a few minutes, Sunderland informed White that she would be making another video about her on YouTube. White shared screenshots of her messages with Sunderland with NBC News, which show White also sent Sunderland the Coast Guard documentation of her abuse case against Vences.

“I’m not looking at this,” Sunderland appeared to respond. “I don’t care.” The video Sunderland posted including their exchange was titled “I Tore This Abusive Woman A New Assh*le.” It has been viewed over 173,000 times. 

White shared screenshots of comments and messages she received after Sunderland talked about her, including threats of violence toward her and threats to call child protective services on her. 

While men’s rights content has thrived online for years, the framing of women’s making false allegations against men has exploded in the past year after the Depp/Heard trial drew major attention online. Creators like Sunderland have moved on to relatively unknown men and women, like White and her ex-husband, leaning heavily toward blaming women and exonerating men. Videos of breakups and upset women have become their own niche content genre. 

Reached for comment, Sunderland acknowledged that her videos fall into a pattern of assigning blame to women and identifying men as victims in domestic disputes. 

“I own that, and it’s something that I’m trying to work on,” Sunderland said in a phone interview.

But in White’s case, Sunderland pointed to a moment in Vences’ TikTok video when White said: “You’ve raped me. You’ve done everything. You probably touched my kids, too.” Sunderland seized on the moment as a “false allegation” that she said discredited White, although White said she never made a formal or public allegation of child sexual abuse against Vences. White acknowledged that Vences had never sexually abused her children. She told NBC News that she never expected the comments she made in the heat of the moment to become public.

“That was me in a state of anger and concern at the very end of our marriage,” White said. 

“I never legally accused him,” White went on to say. “The only reason why that is even [being discussed] is because he posted it on the internet.” 

After a phone interview with NBC News, Sunderland made another video called “She CALLS THE NEWS on me | Will They COVER UP Her Ab*se?” The video rehashed many of the points Sunderland made in her previous content about White. White sent NBC News screenshots of new comments targeting her with online abuse that appeared to cite Sunderland’s latest follow-up video.

Luke Munn, a media studies scholar at the University of Queensland in Australia who has written about how social media platform design offers incentives for toxic behaviors, said that such narratives aren’t new but that they play particularly well on social media.

“There’s a longer thread here about the way women are portrayed that’s not something that’s just crept up in the last five or 10 years of social media,” Munn said. “Women who become emotional are portrayed as aggressive monsters, while men who do the same thing are strong alpha males. It’s the social media logic, and it’s the gender logic.” 

Before the viral videos, White had posted her own videos to a small following, detailing her allegations of abuse against her then-unnamed ex-husband. She didn’t name him, although she included pictures of them throughout the relationship to show how she lost weight rapidly during their marriage, which she ascribes to the stress of the relationship. White said the platform gave her an outlet to “heal creatively.” Unlike White’s videos, which included context about their relationship, Vences’ videos were clips of emotional moments during fights. White has since grown a small following of supporters who defend her and encourage her to post. They’ve called her a feminist and a hero, even though she said that’s never what she wanted. 

But her videos didn’t get anywhere near the traction of those posted by her former partner. That’s a dynamic that Laura Richards, a criminal behavior analyst and expert in domestic violence and coercive control, said she has observed firsthand.

Richards said her experiences posting content online — on TikTok especially — have shown that there is far more engagement around videos that portray women as perpetrators rather than victims. 

“There are certain platforms, like, in my opinion, TikTok, where the misogyny is just ripe and the echo chamber and the devaluing of women and the antifeminist agenda there,” she said. 

As an example, she pointed to videos she made about Ghislaine Maxwell, who was convicted on federal charges of recruiting and grooming teenage girls for Jeffrey Epstein. Those videos tend to draw more attention and engagement than videos in which women are the victims, Richards said.

“It doesn’t get that level of engagement. And I do think that TikTok, certain platforms, encourage that engagement even more,” she said. “And unfortunately that controversy encourages even more engagement, then you get an even bigger echo chamber, and it does feel like a real anti-female narrative on some of these platforms in particular.

After it was reached for comment, TikTok took down Vences’ November videos of White. TikTok pointed to its Community Guidelines about harassment and bullying, gender-based violence and violent behaviors. TikTok also pointed to exceptions to those rules for public interest, which can refer to when survivors of domestic abuse share information about their experiences that can “inform, inspire, or educate” the TikTok community — such as White’s content. TikTok’s blog contains more information about the factors that lead to content being recommended on TikTok.

White said she stopped posting to TikTok as much because the hate and harassment she received from people who viewed Vences’ videos made the platform lose most of its appeal. Even after her ex-husband stopped posting early this year, White said, people reported her content and account to try to get it banned.

And she said she lives in some perpetual fears that the videos could resurface and trigger more online abuse. On May 19, after a period of relative silence, Sunderland pinned her video about White to the top of her Instagram account, promoting it to a new crop of viewers. Later that day, White found a note stuck to her front door. In pencil, someone had written a link to a YouTube Shorts video and “You need to see this.”

The link now shows an error message, but at the time it was the same clip of the viral Wi-Fi video. The note scared White, and she set up a Ring doorbell to record her doorstep. While she hasn’t reported the incidents of online abuse to the police, a judge signed off on a new yearlong domestic violence protection order for White against her ex-husband in June. White shared the protection order with NBC News, asking that its jurisdiction be withheld for her safety. 

“Innocent or not, why? It’s not anyone’s business,” White said. “It’s an invasion of privacy. It’s taking away that feeling of safety I should feel in my home.”

Kat Tenbarge

Kat Tenbarge is a tech and culture reporter for NBC News Digital.

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