Online harassment causes distress and anxiety, not least because it’s hurtful and scary, but also because it’s difficult for targets to assess who an abuser is and how the abuser might behave next. The ease of anonymity online and the proliferation of bots can make it difficult to decipher who is making the threats or how many people are involved.
Will an Online Threat Become an Offline Act?
Online threats spill over into the real world too often. Whether or not those threats actually result in physical harm, they change the way we think, behave, or go about daily life. The news doesn’t let us forget that in severe cases, online threats turn into very real violence or intimidation. Persistent online harassment or doxxing has left some public figures, journalists, and professionals so fearful for their physical safety or that of their family that they’ve logged off for good. Some people have even relocated or hired private security.
Journalists and public figures aren’t the only ones concerned about the connection between online vitriol and offline incidents. The American public is also growing more anxious. According to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, 4 in 5 American voters worry incivility will lead to violence or terror. And, the majority of Americans see online harassment as a “major problem.” And, this doesn’t even address the growing role of the Internet in intimate partner violence.
Adam Dodge, the Legal Director at Lawrence House, a domestic violence agency that services Orange County, California, recently told AJ+ that “We don’t typically see a case that comes in for a restraining order that doesn’t have some type of virtual or online harassment component to it.”
As technology grows as an extension of ourselves, it can also become an extension of "real world" dimensions of violence.
Knowing this, what can you do to assess the risk of a threat received online? And, what should you do with the information you have?
After Receiving an Online Threat
It’s worth noting here that if you feel like your immediate physical safety is at risk, contact law enforcement—or another entity that feels safe to you—or get to a secure location. If you’re not sure, keep reading.
Determining whether you received a threat can be confusing, but if you feel like you've been threatened or you've received escalated forms of online harassment, you should investigate them.
Detective Rachael Frost, an investigator with the Riverside Sheriff's Department who specializes in multi-disciplinary approaches to threat assessment and domestic violence threat management, emphasizes that every threat needs to be vetted. Reached for comment by email, she told OnlineSOS, "All genuine threats should be taken seriously. How do you determine if they are genuine? You investigate them, you don’t just assume one way or the other."
"Not all acts of violence are precipitated by threats and not every threat is followed by an act of violence. Said around threat assessment circles, 'Those who make a threat do not always pose a threat, and those who pose a threat do not always make a threat,'" writes Detective Frost, citing a threat assessment paper published by the National Institute of Justice. This makes context especially important when assessing a threat. In particular, law enforcement needs as much context as possible to understand whether any laws were broken and if they can step in to help.
To start, it’s helpful to properly document any online harassment you face. Specifically, that means you should not delete messages or siphon them off to spam folders. This can help law enforcement or another entity (for example, a social media platform) assess what’s happening. Then, answer the following quick questions. You may want to go through these questions with a trusted friend, colleague, or family member for support.
Also, think of your answers as the brush strokes of a painting. Combined, you'll see " the whole picture" and can determine the threat's risk. You want to combine who is making the threat, what they’re saying, and how often they’re saying it to truly understand the threat.
Who is the suspect?
When the target personally knows the harasser, the threat level rises. Because it takes more commitment to threaten harm against someone you know, the who part of a threat assessment is one of the most important pieces of context. Detective Frost writes, "It has been shown through different threat assessment research that many threats are all too often empty, except when those involved have an 'intimate relationship.'"
But "intimate" doesn't necessarily mean a former romantic partner. You might know the person on a deeper level, like a former intimate partner, but also a coworker, friend, or family member. Or, you might only know them as an acquaintance.
To assess the individual or user who is harassing you, answer these questions from PEN America’s Online Harassment Field Manual:
- Do you know the person who is harassing you? If so, do you believe them capable of escalating the abuse?
- Does the content of your harasser’s messages contain personal details about you (e.g., your location, your place of employment, details about your loved ones)?
- Has your harasser made an explicit threat that names you specifically?
- Are you concerned that the content of your harasser’s messages will have an impact on your personal or professional life?
What is the communication like and what are the patterns of communication?
To assess specific, active risks, answer the following questions:
- What is the most concerning communication?
- What is the last point of communication and what was the message?
- What is the specific text/content of abuse (threat made in email, etc)?
- What is the volume of the abuse (multiple messages, tweets, emails)?
- What is/are the sources of the abuse? (Twitter account, email account)?
- What is the timeline of the abuse? (How long has it lasted, is it ongoing, etc?
Answering these questions will help you determine whether what you’re experiencing online can turn into an offline threat or violence. Also, with these answers in hand, you’ll have more information to provide law enforcement or other support networks that feel safe to you. They’ll be better poised to help you review the information, assess the threat, give you advice, or take action on your behalf.
If you determine you might face a legitimate physical threat, contact law enforcement, get to a secure location, and reach out to your employer (if that’s an option for you).
You might find that the threat risk is low, but that doesn’t mean you need to suffer online harassment or abuse alone. You can reach out to a peer, your employer, or a mental health professional. If you’re experiencing harassment on a social network, report, block, and silence the abuser.
Even if you determine there is no threat, it's completely normal and O.K. to feel threatened because of online harassment and to seek support.
"We do need to acknowledge that there are cases where there is not a threat present—whether direct or indirect—but there is a deep-seated belief in the victim that harm is possible," Detective Frost writes. Trust your feelings and assess threats and harassments to keep yourself safe. Always secure your physical safety first, but make sure to remember that your emotional well-being deserves care too. Online harassment should not be just “part of the job.”