Back in 2006, 14-year-old Megan Meier began chatting on MySpace with a boy named Josh Evans. Meier, who suffered from depression, was excited that an older boy was talking to her. But soon Evans started sending messages that said he didn't consider her a friend. These escalated to calling her "slut" and eventually writing, "The world would be a better place without you." Sadly, Meier hanged herself. Afterward, it came to light that was no "Josh Evans." The account had been created by a former friend of Meier's who lived on her street, with help from her mother, Lori Drew. Drew was convicted of three misdemeanor charges of computer fraud in the U.S.'s first cyberbullying verdict. Her daughter Sarah was not indicted. A federal judge later acquitted her [sources: Megan Meier Foundation, Steinhauer].
Not all online harassment ends with someone's death or conviction, but the trauma can still be there all the same. "Just when I think I've seen it all, someone will find a new, creative way to harass somebody," says Jayne A. Hitchcock, cybercrime and cyberbullying expert, and president of volunteer organization Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA). Her group gets about 70 cases a week. Usually they file a complaint with the social media company where the offensive comment was posted to have it taken down, but they will file police reports as well, depending on the incident.
Internet harassment takes on many incarnations, but the core concept is fairly simple – a person uses online avenues like email, social media, apps and websites to cause emotional distress. Usually, it's just hateful words, but sometimes it spills over into physical threats or worse.
So how do these harassers do their dirty deeds? Some of them might be new to you. Let's count the ways, starting with the most serious type of harassment.
Cyberstalking is considered to be the most dangerous category of Internet harassment, because cyberstalking generally includes a "credible threat of harm," according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Threats don't necessarily have to be made against the recipient of such communications. In fact, many malicious cyberstalkers bypass the target and direct their threats to the victim's loved ones, which can be an effective, albeit twisted means of getting what you want.
Such was the case for an art gallery owner in Temecula, California, who specifically targeted members of the art community. He repeatedly threatened former business acquaintances through emails and texts; posted defamatory information online and then demanded thousands of dollars to have the comments pulled down. The most horrific of his actions was to send images of his former employer's child to the employer electronically, accompanied by comments like, "It will be very unfortunate if something was to happen to him." The man was sentenced to five years in federal prison for stalking [source: U.S. Attorney's Office].
Cyberstalking laws are expected to become stricter as awareness of the problem continues to escalate, especially since many offenders are serious criminals like child molesters and others dealing with psychotic tendencies [source: No Bullying]. At any point, if you suspect that you or someone you know is being cyberstalked, take it seriously and seek help from law enforcement, the FBI or a victim assistance organization like the National Center for Victims of Crime or Working to Halt Online Abuse.
No, I'm not talking about Elvis here, although it's safe to say that this most popular of impersonation icons has more than a few false social media accounts in his name. While slapping on some sideburns and a bedazzled suit is a relatively innocuous way to impersonate someone, true online impersonation is far more sinister.
Sadly, it's easy enough to create an online presence in someone else's name, simply by creating a social media account — or 20. The major problem is, of course, that these accounts are created with less-than-stellar intentions in mind, leaving the violator open to harassment claims when they Photoshop nude photos, brag about rampant drug use or otherwise inaccurately depict the person they're pretending to be.
The Twitterverse is rife with such accounts, particularly among celebrities. Many states have laws banning online impersonation when it leads to some type of threat, intimidation or defraud attempt. But, what if you're pretending to be "George Clooney" and just spouting off "harmless" jokes? That can still land you in hot water for other crimes, such as trademark violation, false advertising, fraud or misrepresentation [source: Lu]. That's one reason Twitter puts a blue verified badge next to accounts of celebrities it has authenticated. The blue badge lets the user know whether she's following George Clooney or "George Clooney."
Say something online that other people don't agree with, and they may retaliate by making your personal information completely public, sometimes with catastrophic consequences. Such is the crux of doxing, which gained major notoriety thanks to the 2014 GamerGate controversy. To make a very long, tedious story short, GamerGate erupted when a woman released a video game that other serious gamers felt was detrimental in some way to the industry. To exact revenge, they posted the address, phone number and other personal tidbits about this woman (and ultimately others, too), which incited threats and harassment to such an extreme level that she actually had to leave her home [source: Hathaway]. The movement (if you can call it that) spawned "dox drops" on people who dared to criticize the doxing.
If you're wondering why releasing someone's name and address is such a big deal when most of our info is out there for all the world to see, the difference is that doxing makes such information readily available to the legions of people bent on doing harm to a particular person. It's literally at their keyboarding fingertips, making it terrifyingly easy for them to wreak havoc on someone's life and livelihood. In the words of sociologist and Feministing blogger, Katherine Cross, "To dox is to elevate certain data above others, highlighting it and thus painting a target on someone's back by making personal information – home and workplace addresses, phone numbers – easier to see." I'd insert a snarky comment here, but I'd like my personal info to stay that way, thank you very much.
GamerGate was also part of another disturbing trend, swatting. At least three people in the gaming community were swatted in 2015 for criticizing GamerGate [source: Cross].
"The majority of the time swatting happens after an online game where the loser gets upset with the winner," Hitchcock says, explaining that the angry party puts in a false 9-11 call for a serious, violent crime like homicide or even terrorism, effectively dispatching emergency law enforcement to the winner's home in droves. "The more you get to show up, the better," Hitchcock adds.
So, the victim opens the door and gets tackled/tazed/pepper-sprayed by a police team. The perpetrator of the hoax could receive a sentence of up to five years in prison (varies by state). At least one state is trying to pass a bill requiring convicted swatters to pay the bill for the emergency services rendered [source: BBC]. With the possibility that someone may get shot during a SWAT raid, swatting is an extremely dangerous maneuver.
Notre Dame football player Manti Te'o achieved minor celebrity on the field, but his full-fledged notoriety came to be after a website revealed that his recently deceased online girlfriend did not exist. She was actually a hoax created by a male acquaintance [source: Luckerson].
Known as catfishing, these hoaxes are similar to impersonation, except that the perpetrator is not pretending to be a person who really exists (like George Clooney). He or she usually steals photos from acquaintances or strangers off the Internet for their accounts. Catfishing schemes are generally designed to incite a romantic relationship while simultaneously deceiving the target about silly little things like gender, appearance and location. Whatever happened to just going to a bar, people? Some folks use catfishing as a backdoor way pursue an unrequited love ("he'll fall so hard for me that he won't care about the deception later"). Others just want to get their kicks making strangers fall in love with fake people. Still others are simply looking for attention. The most despicable variety is undoubtedly those catfish who offer love as a means to get subject to do their bidding, often in potentially embarrassing or illegal fashions [source: McHugh].
Telltale signs that you're being catfished include the fact that you can never meet your "lover" in person — or even via webcam. There's usually some elaborate excuse as to why. In 2015, 11 women, mostly students at Brigham Young University, were catfished by the same woman pretending to be Mormon man [source: Henkel].
Every once in a while, I'll read the comments section of a story published online, only to fervently wish that I hadn't bothered. They're usually filled with unnecessarily hostile commentary projected toward the writer, people discussed within the article and even other commentators. Sadly, trolls, who are known for inciting or chiming in on online conversations solely for the purpose of upsetting or angering others, get off on fueling people's hate fires.
When it comes to dealing with them, the experts say the best response is usually none at all. Trolls' sole intent is to get a rise out of others, so taking that potential away is the perfect punishment. Writer Lindy West might disagree. She had grown scarily accustomed to the legion of trolls who bombarded her social media and email accounts anytime she wrote about a topic like rape or feminism. When one consistently hateful troll created social media accounts purporting to be her recently deceased father, however, she turned the tables and addressed the violation in an article.
Imagine her surprise when the troll emailed her to express remorse for his actions and apologized profusely. She contacted him and asked why he wrote those nasty things about her. "He said that, at the time, he felt fat, unloved, 'passionless' and purposeless. For some reason, he found it 'easy' to take that out on women online," West wrote.
Doesn't sound like much of a reason. If you ever feel tempted to troll, take a hot minute to consider two things: First, would you have the guts to look the person square in the eyes and make the same comment? Then, how would you feel if a troll addressed your mom, daughter or other loved one in the same way?
Dogpiling at the conclusion of a championship sporting event like the World Series is such a positive, celebratory event. All those people rejoicing happily in their hard-earned, if sweaty, victory are inspirational and moving in their unity and joy.
This makes me wonder why the Internet's version of dogpiling is less about spreading the love and more about making people wonder why they go online in the first place. Online dogpiling typically occurs when a person says something that others don't agree with (are you starting to notice a pattern, here?), and the comment thread is then bombarded by a mob of rabid dissidents who unleash a torrent of insults designed to make you take back your opinion and/or scare you off completely. GamerGate again demonstrated how dogpiling could make a Twitter account unusable by bombarding it with negative messages.
Of course, the mob mentality is nothing new, as anyone who has ever read "Lord of the Flies," or has gone to one of those pop-up discount bridal shops knows. It's just another sad example of the anonymity of the Internet giving people a heightened level of bravery previously supplied only by large quantities of alcohol.
I'm definitely showing my age here, but file sending nekkid pictures under something I just don't understand. Many relationships end very badly. Make a borderline-crazy person mad enough and those digital images of your bare booty are practically guaranteed to travel the length and breadth of the Internet. Revenge porn doesn't even have to be put online to do damage. Some people opt to hit a person where it hurts, emailing or texting graphic images to mom, dad, husband or other family members. Yikes.
Kevin Bollaert, a revenge porn site operator in San Diego, was sentenced in 2015 to 18 years in prison for actually charging women hundreds of dollars to have such mortifying pictures of themselves taken down. The subjects of the abuse have reported damaged careers, emotional well-being and relationships with spouses and parents as a direct result of the humiliation [source: Alcindor].
Extortion aside, it traditionally hasn't been illegal for someone to post nude photos of others online, but the law is playing a game of catch-up. Some states are trying to make revenge porn a crime [source: Mince-Didier].
Sexting (texting someone with a nude picture) is also a problem. Although it usually starts off consensually, nude photos have a way of making it into the wrong hands. "Once it leaves the intended recipient's phone or computer and is spread to others, then it is considered harassment," WHOA's Hitchcock says. Depending on the ages of the sender and the receiver, and the state they live in, there could be child pornography charges if the pictures get out [source: Theoharris].
Cyberbullying is the granddaddy of online harassment, if only because it can include so many of the components we've discussed all in one ugly package. Roughly 2.2 million high school students (9 percent of high school students) reported experiencing some level of cyberbullying in 2011 [source: Megan Meier Foundation]. Possibly the worst characteristic of cyberbullying is that there is little to no reprieve for the people who endure it, typically kids and teens.
The bullies of yesteryear could only wreak havoc at school or otherwise in person, but cyberbullies can strike any time of the day or night, thanks to modern technology. This sad truth means that even home isn't a safe space for their victims. Cyberbullies use all manner of electronic communication to harass their subjects. Instant message, text message, email, websites, social media are all fair game to start rumors, distribute humiliating images and otherwise be vicious. It is often extremely difficult for non-law-enforcement officials to pinpoint the perpetrator, leaving the victim disillusioned, depressed and even suicidal. As a result, many victims detest or avoid going to school, causing their grades to drop; they also experiment more freely with alcohol and drugs [source: Stop Bullying.gov].
Cyberbullying-motivated suicides are also making the headlines, with police cracking down on perpetrators like the teen who, among other harassing statements, messaged the victim to "drink bleach and die" [source: Newcomb]. A Canadian man even went in online chat rooms and offered advice to his targets on how should end their lives [source: Associated Press].
Free speech is one of the cornerstones of modern democratic society and is a right that is fiercely protected. I would know. I'm a writer. There is a line between expressing opinions, however, and committing hate speech, which serves no discernible purpose except to incite rage or violence from or against an individual or collection of people, entirely because of their membership to a certain group. Hate speech is usually directed at racial minorities, women, religious groups and people of other sexual orientations [source: U.S. Legal].
It can be difficult to seek justice against perpetrators of hate speech, unless a serious, credible threat has been made [source: Civil Rights.org]. This is compounded by the fact that some people find certain words or phrases offensive, while others do not. Many experts insist that the best way to counteract online hate speech, which will never be 100 percent controllable, is to continue promoting education and tolerance about people of different faiths, backgrounds and lifestyles [source: Howard]. Hmm ... sounds like those "The More You Know" PSA campaigns were more groundbreaking than I ever realized before!
Last editorial update on Jun 27, 2018 12:54:21 pm.
HowStuffWorks looks at the extent to which the U.S. government conducts surveillance on its citizens and the role of Edward Snowden.
Author's Note: 10 Forms of Online Harassment
Make love, not war. Treat others as you'd like to be treated. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar I'm not sure why anyone would want to catch flies, but you get the idea. Being nice is nicer than being mean. Everyone stoops from time to time – that's what makes us human – but there are zero credible reasons for a person to harass someone else. Divert that energy and use it for good, rather than evil. At the very least, find a positive hobby to occupy your time!
More Great Links
- Alcindor, Yamiche. "San Diego revenge-porn site operator sentenced to 18 years." USA Today. April 4, 2015 (May 7, 2015) http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/04/04/revenge-porn-sentenced-18-years/25286583/
- Associated Press. "U.S. prosecutors seek new conviction for 'depraved man' who encouraged Canadian teen to commit suicide." Aug. 8, 2014 (May 7, 2015) http://news.nationalpost.com/2014/08/08/u-s-prosecutors-seek-new-conviction-for-depraved-man-who-encouraged-canadian-teen-to-commit-suicide/
- BBC News. "Alleged 'swatter' prankster arrested in US." Feb. 9, 2015 (May 7, 2015) http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-31299287
- Berger, Paul M. "Online Harassment: Electronic Intimidation." Campus Law Enforcement Journal. February 2001 (May 7, 2015) https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/publications/Abstract.aspx?id=187734
- Civil Rights.org. "The State of Hate: Exploiting the Internet to Promote Hatred." 2015 (May 7, 2015) http://www.civilrights.org/publications/hatecrimes/exploiting-internet.html
- Cross, Katherine. "Things Have Happened in the Past Week." Feministing. 2015 (May 7, 2015) http://feministing.com/2015/01/16/things-have-happened-in-the-past-week-on-doxing-swatting-and-8chan/
- EEA Grants. "Countering Hate Speech Online." Nov. 28, 2012 (May 7, 2015) http://eeagrants.org/News/2012/Countering-hate-speech-online
- Hathaway, Jay. "What is Gamergate, and Why? An Explainer for Non-Geeks." Gawker. Oct. 10, 2014 (May 7, 2015) http://gawker.com/what-is-gamergate-and-why-an-explainer-for-non-geeks-1642909080
- Hitchcock, Jayne A. Cybercrime and cyberbullying expert, and president of volunteer organization Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA). Telephone interview, May 5, 2015.
- Howard, Theresa. "Online hate speech: difficult to police...and define." USA Today. Oct. 2, 2009 (May 7, 2015) http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/tech/webguide/internetlife/2009-09-30-hate-speech_N.htm
- Know Your Meme. "Trolling." 2015 (May 7, 2015) http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/subcultures/trolling
- Lu, Andrew. "Are Fake Celebrity Twitter Accounts Legal?" FindLaw. Dec. 31, 2012 (May 7, 2015) http://blogs.findlaw.com/celebrity_justice/2012/12/are-fake-celebrity-twitter-accounts-legal.html
- Luckerson, Victor. "Can You Go to Jail for Impersonating Someone Online?" TIME. Jan. 22, 2013 (May 7, 2015) http://business.time.com/2013/01/22/can-you-go-to-jail-for-impersonating-someone-online/
- McHugh, Molly. "It's Catfishing Season!" Digital Trends. Aug. 23, 2013 (May 7, 2015) http://www.digitaltrends.com/web/its-catfishing-season-how-to-tell-lovers-from-liars-online-and-more/
- Megan Meier Foundation. "Bullying, Cyberbullying & Suicide Statistics." 2015 (May 7, 2015) http://www.meganmeierfoundation.org/statistics.html
- Mince-Didier, Ava. "Revenge Porn: Laws and Penalties." Criminal Defense Lawyer. 2015 (May 7, 2015) http://www.criminaldefenselawyer.com/resources/revenge-porn-laws-penalties.htm
- National Conference of State Legislatures. "State Cyberstalking and Cyberharassment Laws." Jan. 12, 2015 (May 7, 2015) http://www.ncsl.org/research/telecommunications-and-information-technology/cyberstalking-and-cyberharassment-laws.aspx
- NoBullying. "Cyberstalking Facts: The Top 20." Nov. 23, 2014 (May 7, 2015) http://nobullying.com/cyberstalking-20-important-facts/
- Stopbullying.gov. "What is Cyberbullying?" 2015 (May 7, 2015) http://www.stopbullying.gov/cyberbullying/what-is-it/#frequencyofcyberbullying
- Urban Dictionary. "Catfish." 2015 (May 7, 2015) http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=catfish
- Urban Dictionary. "Dogpiling." 2015 (May 7, 2015) http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Dog+Pile
- U.S. Attorney's Office. "Cyberstalking Case Involving Violent Threats Against Art Dealers and Their Children Leads to Five-year Federal Prison Term." The Federal Bureau of Investigation. Sept. 29, 2014 (May 7, 2015) http://www.fbi.gov/losangeles/press-releases/2014/cyberstalking-case-involving-violent-threats-against-art-dealers-and-their-children-leads-to-five-year-federal-prison-term
- U.S. Legal. "Hate Speech Law & Legal Definition." 2015 (May 7, 2015) http://definitions.uslegal.com/h/hate-speech/
- West, Lindy. "What happened when I confronted my cruelest troll." The Guardian. Feb. 2, 2015 (May 7, 2015) http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/feb/02/what-happened-confronted-cruellest-troll-lindy-west