Online harassment is surging — could you be targeted?
According to Pew Research Center, online harassment is becoming more prevalent, more intense, and more targeted against certain demographics. In this guide, we’ll explore what online harassment is, who is at the highest risk, and how you can avoid and report it.
What’s Considered Harassment Online?
Online harassment refers to the constant targeting of a person or group online. Just about any form of abusive behavior can be considered online harassment if it’s severe, constant, and targeted. Online harassment can occur anywhere, including social media platforms (like Facebook and Twitter), digital media services (like Youtube, Twitch, or video game clients), messaging applications (like WhatsApp), and even blogging platforms (like Medium or WordPress).
Here are a few activities that are often components of online harassment:
- Trolling: Trolling involves making disruptive and unsolicited comments just to rile up others. When it’s just a crude comment on a Youtube video, that’s one thing. But if you’re consistently the target of one or more trolls, that’s a very clear case of online harassment.
- Doxxing: Doxxing is leaking personal information online, typically to humiliate, threaten, or encourage others to harass you. This could include someone posting your home address and phone number, but it could also involve the release of embarrassing information, financial details, or more.
- Swatting: Swatting happens when someone calls law enforcement regarding a serious crime committed in your home. This happens to live streamers, but also people who have had their addresses leaked. As a result, a SWAT team raids your home fully armed. This is incredibly dangerous and could have lethal consequences.
- Cyberstalking: Cyberstalking occurs when someone conducts unwanted, invasive, and disruptive activities on your accounts across the internet. Cyberstalking can escalate to offline dangers, making this a very concerning form of online harassment.
- Online Impersonation: Online impersonation is when someone pretends to be you in order to defraud others, humiliate you, or begin wreaking havoc in your professional or social life. A cybercriminal can be charged for online impersonation if you can prove that their actions damaged your reputation.
- Revenge Pornography: If someone has been releasing nonconsensual videos of you engaged in any sexually explicit activity, then it could be considered “revenge porn.” This is a very serious and invasive form of harassment, and it’s considered illegal in forty states.
The Dangers of Online Harassment
In addition to anxiety, stress and negative impact on work, social life, and health, the greatest danger of online harassment is that it can turn into a physical threat that can irrevocably change your life and the lives of your loved ones.
This is exactly what happened to Matt and Maatje Benassi, a couple who became victims of severe targeting online over a conspiracy theory that blamed Maatje for being “patient 0” and bringing coronavirus first to China and then to the U.S. The couple’s life turned into a nightmare – they were receiving death threats and had to look over their shoulder a lot because they could not feel safe anywhere.
Unfortunately, some online abusers can go too far. The danger becomes real when these people get their victim’s address and threaten to show up at their door. However, in most cases the police can’t do much until it’s too late because they have to act upon a crime that has already been committed, not the one that they can potentially prevent. And worst of all is how easily and perfectly legally perpetrators can get contact and other personal details of their victims. All it takes is a Google search of someone’s name to find their home address — something that anyone can purchase in a few clicks on numerous people-search sites whose listings Google always pulls up to its top results.
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By the Numbers: Online Harassment Statistics
Pew Research has been tracking online harassment statistics for nearly a decade. According to their most recent report, since 2017, every form of online harassment has risen significantly. By their estimate, 41% of Americans have been the target of online harassment in at least one of six ways. More startling yet, not only has cyber harassment become more prevalent, but it has also intensified.
In earlier years, Americans experienced less severe forms of online harassment like name-calling. However, the modern American faces more serious threats, such as physical attacks, stalking, sexual harassment, and sustained harassment. In 2014, only 15% of Americans experienced these severe forms of harassment. Now, that number has jumped to 25%.
Pew Research also found that four in ten victims of cyber harassment say increased political tension was the cause. 20% of all Americans targeted with online abuse believe this happened because of their political views, with female political activists being particularly vulnerable. Besides politics and gender, the most frequently cited reasons for online harassment are race, ethnicity and beliefs.
Who’s at Risk of Cyber Harassment?
Different types of people face different forms of online harassment. For instance, men and women both seem to face a similar degree of online harassment in general (43% and 38%, respectively). However, when we look into the forms of harassment that each gender faces, clear differences arise.
Women Face an Increased Risk of Online Sexual Harassment
Young women are significantly more likely to experience online sexual harassment and cyberstalking than any other group. According to Pew Research, 33% of women under 35 say they have been sexually harassed online compared to 11% of men under 35.
Men are at a Higher Risk of Name-Calling and Physical Threats
Around 35% of men report facing name-calling harassment compared to 26% of women. Men are also more likely to receive physical threats. Around 16% of men have been physically threatened over the internet compared to 11% of women.
LGBTQ+ Community is at Elevated Risk of Severe Harassment
Around seven in ten members of the LGBTQ+ community report experiencing online harassment, and 51% report experiencing severe forms of harassment. Compared to straight adults, 23% of whom have faced severe online harassment, it’s clear that this community is particularly at risk of being targeted.
Specialists are Often Targets
Any field that’s involved in cultural battles, expressions of opinion, or other heated topics are often targets of internet harassment. These specialty fields include journalists, filmmakers, musicians, activists, scientists, law enforcement, medical workers, and plenty more.
Young People are at Significantly Higher Risk of Harassment
In the Pew Research report, it’s clear that younger people (ages 18-29) face a significantly higher risk of online harassment than older individuals. In fact, a shocking two-thirds of all respondents under thirty reported facing online harassment. It also appears that this younger age group faces a significant risk of severe harassment. The 30-49 age ground also faces elevated risks compared to individuals of 50 years and older.
Social Media Harassment
Social media accounts for the majority of all online harassment experiences. While it can occur just about anywhere online, platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are typically used. In fact, even the second and third most common venues for harassment are social media adjacent: forums and messaging apps.
What Makes Social Media Dangerous?
In many ways, the same things that make social media enjoyable are what make it dangerous — open communications, shared personal details, lists of likes and dislikes, public-facing content. Beliefs, political views, and personal characteristics (such as gender, race, or sexual orientation) are clearly displayed on social media. This information can be studied by people with malicious motives to launch a more sophisticated internet harassment campaign. These elements make targeting easy, and your profile will often be used to locate all of your other online accounts. The harasser can exploit this for sustained cross-platform harassment.
Case Study: Woman in Power on Social Media
As we already mentioned, women face more abuse for expressing political views online. To confirm this, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue studied harassment on Twitter, a notorious venue for online abuse. The research found that politicians who are women and people of color were far more likely than male politicians to experience internet harassment on the microblogging platform. While 5% to 10% of mentions of male politicians fit abusive criteria, 15% to 39% of female politician mentions were considered abusive. The content of abuse was different too – men were attacked in general terms, whereas women were harassed using highly personal and gendered insults.
Can Police Do Anything About Online Harassment?
When you’re the target of an online harassment case, it can be hard to know when it rises to the level of reporting it to law enforcement. Online harassment laws vary quite a bit from state to state, so it’s important to seek legal counsel. However, as a rule of thumb, law enforcement can assist you if your online abuse involves:
- A harasser you know: If you know the identity of the harasser, you can request a restraining order from law enforcement.
- Direct threats of violence: If your harasser directly threatens you with violence, law enforcement can step in, and they’ll probably take your case more seriously.
- Nonconsensual sexual humiliation: If your harasser posts sexually explicit images or videos of you in a plot to “get revenge” or humiliate you, the police can assist.
- Cyberstalking: If you can prove that your harasser is engaging in cyberstalking that constitutes a threat of harm to you or someone you know, then law enforcement can assist.
- Other safety concerns: If your harasser does anything that makes you fear for your wellbeing, you can contact law enforcement on a non-emergency line to learn your options.
How to Stop Online Harassment
Because it’s so easy to remain anonymous on the internet, it can be tricky to deal with online harassment. However, if you follow these steps, you should be able to minimize the damages.
Document the Harassment
If your harasser is violating a platform’s terms of service, their activities could be taken down at any time. Make sure you document as much of the harassment as you can. Documentation is necessary if you choose to approach law enforcement or take legal action. If the harassment doesn’t rise to that level yet, it’s still important to record proof in case things escalate. Documentation can also help you if you need to explain your harasser’s activities to others, such as colleagues, friends, or family members.
Assess the Threat Level
Depending on the severity of your case, you can take different actions to stop online harassment. Threat assessment should include a few key questions such as if you know the harasser, if they have made direct threats against you, if they seem unstable or irrational, if they continue harassing you across other platforms, and if their harassment has transitioned to the offline world.
Block and Report It to the Platform
After documenting the harassment, you can begin taking steps to stop it. Most forms of online harassment violate terms of service, so you can report the activity or the harasser and describe their violation. The activity or harasser should then be removed or limited by the platform. Once you’re done reporting the harassment, make sure you block the perpetrator to minimize further abuse.
Report Online Harassment to the Police
Online harassment doesn’t have to involve death threats to warrant a trip to your local law enforcement office. If you’re concerned for your safety, sanity, and reputation, filing a police report could show that you mean business. It will also start a paper trail, giving you a chance to put all of your documentation to good use.
Safeguard Your Privacy
Unfortunately, blocking and reporting harassers can sometimes escalate the abuse. Be prepared by making your social media accounts private, turning on two-factor authentication, and being very vigilant about incoming friend requests.
How to Report Online Harassment
Knowing when and how to report online harassment isn’t always clear. For the most part, any activity that goes beyond protected speech into threatening territory can be reported to platforms. However, the lines are blurred when it comes to reporting online harassment for legal action.
- Report to Platforms: Online harassment tends to center around social media, forums, messaging apps, and similar services. All of these platforms have terms of service, and when activities violate them, the violators can be banned. This is a practical first step in reporting online harassment.
- Seek Legal Counsel: If you want to take legal action or get a firmer understanding of when you should contact law enforcement, seek legal counsel.
- Contact Law Enforcement: If you want to file a police report, you may want to learn ahead of time what laws the harasser may have broken and collect as much documentation as possible. Depending on the severity of the harassment, this won’t always yield useful results. But it’s always a good idea to get something on file.
Tips to Prevent Online Harassment
If you feel like you’re at risk, you can follow these tips to avoid online abuse.
- Remove your personal information from people-search sites: There’s a good chance that your address, contact information, and more is posted on hundreds of people-search sites. Don’t want anyone to be able to get your private details? Use our free removal instructions to opt out of people-search sites manually or have OneRep delete your info from 159 websites automatically. We’ll also continuously monitor those sites to make sure your information doesn’t reappear.
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- Set your accounts to private: The vast majority of online harassment occurs on social media. By setting your account to private, a would-be harasser has to be approved by you before they can access your account.
- Purge your friends list: It’s common to accept friend requests from just about anyone in your area or workplace. This can become problematic if you don’t personally know them. Trim your friends list down to the people you really know.
- Lockdown your accounts: As a last line of defense, make sure you turn on two-factor authentication. This will make your accounts impossible to break into — even if the harasser finds your password.
FAQ about Cyber Harassment
Is it illegal to harass someone online?
It depends on the severity. Laws vary in different states, but if the harassment involves clearly illegal activities like serious threats, leaking sensitive information, and more, then legal action can be taken.
How do you prove online harassment?
It’s important to document as much harassment as possible. At any moment, the harasser may remove the evidence, or the platform may take it down as a violation of terms. By recording images and videos, you have proof.
Can I report harassment online?
Yes. Document as much of the harassment as you can, and then report it to the platform. If your assessment is that the harassment is serious, consider filing a police report.
Can you sue someone for harassment on social media?
Laws vary in different states, but there are some situations where online harassment is severe enough to warrant legal action. Seek legal counsel on this issue.
Online harassment can be intimidating, but you have the power to stop or prevent it. Protect yourself by following privacy best practices on social media, and make sure your personal information is removed from the web, that way harassers can’t find it. And remember, OneRep can always help you to achieve that and take care of your online privacy in an efficient, automatic way.
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