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Cyber-bullying and Online Harassment

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The pervasive and anonymous use of social media has increased the rate and frequency of online harassment and cyber-bullying, endangering the data, safety, reputation, and even lives of many people


It is no secret that people are bullied, harassed, and threatened over the internet, to the point where, if someone disagrees with another person, death threats often are the result. Both Judge Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Ford were threatened by partisans on both sides of the 2018 Supreme Court nomination debate, as were many of the politicians involved in the Congressional hearings. Jennifer Lawrence and Nicki Minaj quit Twitter because of the abuse they suffered at the hands of “fans.” Shannon Watts, founder of “Moms Demand Action” became the focus of intense harassment because she was lobbying for gun control. Teenagers are driven to attempt suicide because of the bullying tactics of classmates. Brianna Wu, a game developer became a target of Gamergate after she tweeted caustic commentary about the movement. She was threatened with death and rape, and her private information was shared publicly.

Posts Cause Departure from Online Communities

If someone posts something controversial on Twitter, he or she should be prepared to receive an onslaught of attacks. Women are likely to be the recipients of sexist threats, according to several sources, including Seton Hall University. Because of this pervasive online abuse and harassment, women and girls are pressured into censoring themselves on social media which experts claim fuels gender-based discrimination. In some cases, posts have become so nasty that reporters and celebrities are discontinuing the use of social media—people like Emma Stone, Miley Cyrus, Alec Baldwin, Justin Bieber, and Adele. High-profile journalists leave Twitter after receiving tweets attacking both them and their family members. Thousands of “ordinary” people have been shocked when they were attacked for giving what they thought was an honest opinion about an author’s blog, commenting on a newspaper article, or doing what they assumed was a harmless online posting. It may be hard to believe, but even memorialized Facebook pages of deceased users have been mocked by anonymous individuals.

Online harassment is more common that than most people perceive, and it can be annoying or in some cases terrifying, since these hostile encounters occur in virtual space. Often, victims suffer emotional stress because someone, known or unknown, has decided to harass them. The stress can come from the aggravation of knowing privacy has been invaded, but sometimes it increases to fear for the preservation of one’s reputation, or it escalates to the point where personal safety is truly at risk. Fortune magazine ran an article titled “Bullies and Trolls” but this is not the first news outlet to present a story concerning how the web continues to be taken over by attention-mongers and hate groups.

Evidence of importance of the harassment topic is demonstrated by the feature in Time as the “Person of the Year (2017)”. Additionally, many people are concerned with the loss of privacy from the continued selling of their data by social media, insurance companies, schools, government entities, apps, and phone carriers. Amnesty International reports that of the women who have experienced such harassment, more than 40 percent said the online abuse made them fear for their physical safety and more than half reported trouble sleeping, loss of self-esteem and panic attacks after the incidents.

Cyberstalking is a criminal offense under American anti-stalking, slander, and harassment laws, and conviction can result in a restraining order, probation, or criminal penalties against the assailant. However, these laws have not stopped the abusers and according to a PEW Research Center survey, almost 50% of Americans have personally experienced online harassment and 66% have witnessed abusive or threatening behaviors directed at others online. Norton, an identity-theft protection vendor, reported that 76% of women under 30 had experienced abuse or harassment online and that young women and marginalized minority groups are especially vulnerable to this kind of attack.

Social Media and Online Harassment

Although social media users feel that companies who collect data should be policing their own sites, little has been done to stop online harassment. The notion that one’s data was going into a pool where it would be tracked only by one’s preferences, and not identified personally, has disintegrated rapidly. More than half of the app-trackers also track users through websites. Thanks to this technique, called “cross-device” tracking, these services can build a much more complete profile of an online persona. WhatsApp, for example, is connecting a phone number with Facebook’s systems so Facebook can offer “better friend suggestions.” Not too surprisingly, this new “feature” has raised fears of more personal harassment.

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Figure 1 – PEW Research Center Survey – Online Stalking

Another method of online behavior is doxing, where hackers publish personal data, such as financial information, one’s address, pictures, and even valid social security numbers. There have been numerous reported instances of movie stars and politicians being “doxed.” Sometimes the published information is accurate but often it is questionable and the practice is used to discredit someone or ruin his or her career or reputation.

Who are the people that get a “kick” out of harassing others? In a study conducted by the University of Manitoba the researchers concluded that internet trolls — people who commonly lurk on message boards and post offensive material to get reactions from anyone — exhibit anti-social behavior in their offline settings as well. Backing up this theory is a study that found that internet trolls scored high in narcissism, psychopathy and sadism.

Many times, parents, teachers and law enforcement often mistakenly advise young people to go offline, which makes the victim think they are responsible for the problem. And while many well-meaning people may advise someone to “just log off” because this can temporarily provide respite, a person should not have to disengage from getting information, promoting himself, sharing thoughts, socializing, and all the other benefits of the internet because her or she has had the unfortunate luck of having been targeted. PEW Research reports that despite this advice, more than a quarter of Americans have chosen not to post something online after seeing the harassment of others, but what about the other 75% who still want to express opinions? Experts state that no matter how much a person disagrees with someone, the respondent should be civil when posting a rebuttal or a different opinion. Experts also advise that people should NOT stop expressing opinions, but if a troll tries to engage in an online battle, one ignore them (as difficult as this may be). The normal first reaction is to respond directly to the person posting abusive content, but research shows it is most effective not give a harasser the satisfaction. Remember, these bullies are trying to elicit any response so they can continue with their online badgering, and knowing they have struck a nerve is exactly the reaction they want. Responding or engaging starts a downward spiral that makes it harder for the victim to support a case if they eventually seek assistance from the legal system.

State of Online Community

Is this what the online community should be? Should the internet be a place where everyone must avoid spirited discussion because everyone is afraid of online harassment? Should reasonable people surrender the internet to bullies that can hide behind the anonymous curtain of fictitious identities and post vicious threats? Expressing a point of view that does not coincide with others is part of free speech protection in the United States, under the US Constitution. However, trolls are able to identify individuals or groups and post their invective against them based on religion, politics, gender, books or articles they have written, their profession, or their culture.

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Figure 2 – PEW Research – Online Harassment Posting Fear

Steps to Take Facing Online Harassment

Experts recommend that if someone feels threatened, he or she should keep copies of all parts of the online harassment. Either take screenshots or print them as evidence for law enforcement or for a civil lawsuit. What starts as moderate harassment can escalate, and if it does, it will be necessary to have copies of harassing and malicious remarks. Unfortunately, many legal remedies are costly and invasive, and do not always offer the justice people are seeking. The law is notoriously slow to adapt to technology, but legal scholars say that if done right, the law can be used as a tool to stop frightening, embarrassing, and unnerving behavior. If the harassment starts to impair a victim’s daily functioning (feeling distress, difficulty eating or sleeping), all the experts agree that the person should contact a mental-health professional for support.

Employers and governments must address the challenges inherent in the current state of the internet to ensure it is a safe space in which everyone can participate without fear of harassment or bullying. Social media companies have a responsibility to enable controls that allow that their platforms to be used freely and without fear of reprisal. However, part of the responsibility to stop harassment lies with every user. Bystanders have a key role to play when they witness harassment, since it is crucial that all work together to create a culture where online harassment is completely unacceptable. Some social media users try to flood the victims of abuse with kindness; one example of this practice is the aftermath of the body-shaming attacks on Gabby Douglas during the 2016 Olympics.


Remember that although social media companies can do more to police their internet sites, only the user community can bring back civility to the internet and ensure that it remains an open forum where people can express their views without fear of reprisals. Do not let bullies keep people from running for political office, posting comments, identifying wrong-doing, interacting with social groups or just chatting with friends. Standing up for what is right, together, can stop online harassment and anonymous bullying.


Catherine Nolan, MBA

Catherine Nolan is the co-author of the book “The Audacity to Spy.” It describes the many ways personal data and privacy information can be compromised and how the average person can protect themselves and their digital assets. Cathy has over 30 years’ experience in Data Management and earned a Master’s in Business Administration from the Lake Forest School of Management.

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