While the Internet has revolutionized the way we communicate and share information, it also plays host to a lot of rude, cruel, and threatening behavior. Unfortunately, we've come to expect incivility online, which makes it easy to downplay our experiences or wonder whether what is happening to us is really “bad enough” to be considered harassment.
But the same question plagues people facing offline abuse. For example, some women who shared their stories in the #metoo movement said they had written off harassing behavior because it wasn’t as extreme as other stories they’d heard. Activist Sophie Ellman-Goldman tweeted that she didn’t report her assault “because I told myself it wasn’t ‘bad enough.’”
Whether online or offline, it’s important to remember that you get to decide what you find acceptable. In this blog, we’ll cover the real effects of online harassment, how to assess your situation, and what steps you can take to protect yourself or get help from others.
You Decide What's Acceptable
Dismissing online harassment as not "real life" or believing it's the price of a digital presence leaves people facing invasive, persistent, or threatening treatment to wonder if their experience is “bad enough” to take action.
However, if your mistreatment online is bad enough that you’re asking these questions, it’s bad enough for you to do something about it.
The effects of online harassment are not superficial. This type of abuse can cause anxiety and panic attacks, decrease your ability to concentrate, and even result in psychological trauma. It’s important to remember that no matter what you’re experiencing, you decide what’s acceptable. You can want to change the situation.
And You Decide How to Use Digital Spaces
You have the right to decide how you want to use digital platforms like social media and even email. If your harassment isn’t taken seriously by others—or even if you don’t think of your experience as harassment—there are still steps you can take to make your online experience safer and healthier, such as:
- Use blocking or muting tools on social media
- Change your privacy settings on digital platforms
- Take a break from social media
- Set filters to send emails from malicious contacts to your spam folder
- Update your passwords, use a password manager, or use 2 factor authentication
- Use a service like Delete.Me to remove your contact information from various sites
All of these tactics are steps you can take on your own, regardless of how others view your harassment. If you think these ideas will decrease your distress, that’s reason enough to take action.
What if Blocking Isn’t Enough?
While you can use tools like blocking and filtering to create a more comfortable online experience, you may feel like you need to go beyond these tactics. Because every situation is different, it can be difficult to know where to start.
A good first step is to threat model. Threat modeling is a tool originally used to assess vulnerabilities in technology and software, but it can be applied to many other situations. It’s one way to understand the risks you may be facing and identify the right solutions for you. “Threat modeling” might sound a little intimidating, but it’s really just about asking what’s at stake, what your priorities are, and what you’re willing and able to do about your situation.
How to Threat Model
First and foremost, take a minute to think about your physical safety. If someone is approaching you offline or threatening to hurt you, it’s important to tell someone, whether that’s a friend or loved one or law enforcement. Harassment is real, whether it's spoken out loud or typed through a keyboard. If you are in immediate danger and feel safe engaging with police, call 911.
Once you’ve ensured your physical safety, you can go through the Threat Modeling Action Plan. The plan is straightforward: you answer simple questions to help you assess what steps to take to protect yourself and your assets (from the tangible things like bank accounts, to intangible assets like your reputation and emotional wellbeing. If you can, it’s helpful to go through these questions with a supportive friend or loved one. You don’t have to handle this all on your own.
After answering the questions in the action plan, you will have a clearer understanding of how to handle your situation.
Your next steps might include the following:
- Investing in physical security tools like locks and security systems
- Contacting a legal professional
- Alerting the digital platforms involved or law enforcement
Additional Resource: Use the Account Safety Cheat Sheet to help you secure your online presence, including bank accounts, messaging apps, and other digital profiles.
Getting Help From Platforms and Police
You may decide that you want to contact the email, social media, or other digital platform(s) where your abuse is taking place and ask them to remove the content or abuser. While most platforms have some avenue for this process (a “report abuse” button, for example), they also likely have their own definition of what qualifies as abusive or what violates their standards.
Governments, law enforcement organizations, and the courts have been slow to establish who is responsible for helping users and what forms of online harassment carry legal consequences. This means the process of finding the right legal avenues can prove difficult.
PEN America’s Online Harassment Field Manual has a helpful section on when to contact law enforcement about online harassment and how to seek legal support. Although the Field Manual is designed for writers and journalists, the tips and guidelines for engaging with law enforcement can be applied to anyone.
“In general, the police are more likely to be able to help in some way with the following forms of online harassment:
- You’ve received or been named in direct threats of violence (general note: threats that suggest a time, place, or location are more likely to be taken seriously by law enforcement.)
- An online abuser has published nonconsensual, sexually-explicit images of you.
- You’ve been stalked via electronic communication.
- You know your online harasser and wish to seek a restraining order.”
These aren’t the only circumstances under which you can contact law enforcement, but they do help us understand what police respond to. Even if authorities won’t take action now, lodging an official report or complaint means that your harassment is documented, which may help if the abuse continues. Although it’s frustrating when platforms or authorities don’t provide the help you need, it doesn’t mean you are overreacting.
Online Harassment is Real Harassment
In one of the most-cited recent studies on online harassment, the Pew Research Center showed not only how prevalent this problem is, but how much we struggle to recognize it. Pew found that of the 4,248 U.S. adults surveyed, 41% had experienced at least one of six behaviors the study defined as harassment. Of people who have been subjected to these behaviors, only 36% considered their most recent experience to be online harassment and 27% weren’t sure if they considered the behavior harassment.
People may disagree on the exact definition of “harassment,” but when it comes to your situation, you are the expert. If the way you are being treated is causing you stress, fear, or anxiety, you have the power and right to change how you experience the online world.