Bullying has existed for millennia. The word “bully” can be directly traced back to the early 1500s, but in its most basic form – an intimidator and a victim – we can easily assume the practice is almost as old as mankind itself. It is a horrid and usually despicable practice utilized to gain a sense of superiority over the victimized party, and can result in severe damage, both physical and psychological, to those on the receiving end.
Bullying and harassment are, unfortunately, common throughout all walks of life. Before mobile phones and advent of the Internet, bullying largely took place face-to-face, bar crudely written messages in the bathroom cubicles. Still, there was always a good chance the perpetrator of those bathroom stall-scrawls would be known to the victim.
The Internet has changed this dynamic. Let’s take a look at what has changed, and what you can do if you find yourself on the receiving end of cyber harassment.
Changing Origins of Bullying
Bullying and harassment have long been a way of attempting to exert dominance over another party. Oppressing another individual through a range of threat-actions usually follows a relatively predictable path. However, just as technological progress has allowed society to “evolve,” harassment hasn’t diminished as our understanding of the world expands. In fact, it is quite the opposite.
The Internet has changed how large swathes of society communicate. Interactions that would have played out face-to-face can now take place entirely in the digital realm, using anonymous technologies that simultaneously expand and contract space. We can be within someone’s bedroom, in their phone, while sitting on a beach several thousand miles away. This escalation has been a relatively clear pathway for those watching the technological evolution.
As online forums became widespread, isolating individuals and targeting them for harassment became easier. Anonymous accounts could be used to post negative, bullying statements, with little or no recourse. As forums evolved into instant messengers, it became possible to host private groups, further promoting exclusivity, and now we have a raft of easily accessible, sometimes anonymous, sometimes encrypted tools available to anyone with an Internet connection and/or a smartphone.
While parents may believe their purchasing of a smartphone will keep their child safe, given that there are estimates of around 80% of Western teens using a smart or cell phone regularly, it can easily become a primary source of harassment.
Cyberbullying Research Center
“When someone repeatedly makes fun of another person online or repeatedly picks on another person through email or text message or when someone posts something online about another person that they don’t like”
The study found cyberbullying victimization rates with a mean of 27.32% based upon seven studies over a three-year period, with cyberbullying offending rates with a mean of 16.76% based upon seven studies over a six-year period.
The study also illustrated differences between genders, with the male to female ratio varying in the following areas: “victimization within a person’s lifetime (16.6% for males vs. 25.1% for females), admitted to a cyberbullying offense within a person’s lifetime (17.5% for males vs. 21.3% for females), and had a hurtful comment posted about oneself online (10.5% for males vs. 18.2% for females).”
However, this slant may be due to the number of males reticent to admit their involvement in bullying, both as offender and victim.
Not Just Teenagers
Harassment and bullying are, of course, not limited to adolescents. Those who experience power and control through means of harassment and bullying in their formative years may continue to use these tactics in their adult lives, or arrive at them later down the line.
Harassment takes many forms, and arrives in numerous forms. The Internet is swimming in a torrent of harassment tales, from both genders, ranging from abusive messages, to physical threats, to identity theft, to being sent lewd and graphic images without having granted permission. Each area mentioned sees continual increases in statistical reporting. Sure, it could be skewed by larger numbers of people actually reporting these harassment cases, but that surely means we are still not seeing the true cyber harassment picture.
Pew Research found “fully 73% of adult Internet users have seen someone be harassed in some way online and 40% have personally experienced it.” They also provided some useful additional figures further breaking cyber harassment figures down:
- 60% of Internet users said they had witnessed someone being called offensive names
- 53% had seen efforts to purposefully embarrass someone
- 25% had seen someone being physically threatened
- 24% witnessed someone being harassed for a sustained period of time
- 19% said they witnessed someone being sexually harassed
- 18% said they had seen someone be stalked
Those who have personally experienced online harassment said they were the target of at least one of the following online:
- 27% of Internet users have been called offensive names
- 22% have had someone try to purposefully embarrass them
- 8% have been physically threatened
- 8% have been stalked
- 7% have been harassed for a sustained period
- 6% have been sexually harassed
There have been several extremely high profile cases of cyber harassment, some of which continue to this day. Some individuals may have participated in a harassment campaign against a high profile individual without realizing: being tagged, using trending hashtags, or involving themselves in online debates that spiral out of control.
Here are some notable recent cyber harassment cases.
Most people noticed GamerGate. In fact, at times, it was damn hard not too, frequently spilling over into “mainstream” news coverage. It covered the Internet in billions of words stemming from both advocates and detractors, splitting public opinion like a badly made primary school-lunch pink-custard. I’m not going to delve into the depths of GamerGate, but the hatred and harassment many of the central figures to the debate experienced could only be described as harrowing.
However, the experiences of one of the central figures to GamerGate, Zoe Quinn, bore revelation of another kind. Despite progress made with legislation, she still had to explain to judges concepts such as “doxxing” (posting personally identifying information online), online mobs, and the social media network, Twitter. Even if the law begins to catch up, until those enforcing them reach a similar level of education, victims will struggle to explain and identify their problems.
In October 2006, Megan Meier died by suicide. The 13-year-old had struggled with Attention Deficit Disorder and depression, as well as issues with her weight. Five weeks before her death she was befriended by a 16-year-old boy on social networking site, MySpace. The boy, Josh Evans, complimented Megan and began a positive relationship with her, all online. After a couple of weeks, Josh’s messages turned cruel, saying he didn’t want to be friends with her any more, culminating in a message telling Megan “The world would be a better place without you.”
Other classmates chimed in with their own negative messages, further escalating the cyberbullying and, on 17th October, she took her own life.
It later emerged Josh Evans was a hoax. The account had instead been created by a neighbor of the Meier’s, living only four doors away. The account creator, Lori Drew, was a parent of one of Megan Meier’s contemporaries, Sarah, who also aided her mother throughout the harassment, with one other co-conspirator. They had wanted to gain information to use to humiliate Megan, and to gauge how she felt about Sarah and their other classmates.
Despite Drew’s obvious involvement and direction of the other participants in the fake account, she was acquitted of all potential convictions, after the judge overruled a convicting jury.
Justice for Harambe
Cyberharassment takes many forms. You may remember earlier in the year when Harambe, a 17-year-old gorilla was shot dead in its enclosure by zookeepers. This came after a young boy had squeezed through security fences, and fallen into the gorillas’ enclosure. Harambe had dragged the child through the moat of the enclosure, prompting serious fears for his life.
Predictably, many people were deeply upset that an endangered animal had been shot, accusing Michelle Gregg, parent of the child who fell into the enclosure, of being negligent. People took to the myriad social networks to attack her, sending countless vitriolic emails holding her responsible.
As well as this, other women sharing the same name as Michelle Gregg were mistakenly targeted, also receiving threats and other offensive messages.
This is a prime and recent example of mob-justice. While there was undoubtedly a moment of negligent parenting on Gregg’s behalf, calling for her family to be split up by social services to repay the memory of Harambe is utterly absurd.
Amanda Todd killed herself following a sustained campaign of harassment. She described her experiences in a video (which I’ve linked below), but I’ll sum it up for you.
Todd flashed her breasts to a stranger in an online chat. The stranger took a screen-cap of her flash, and used the image to blackmail Todd into performing “a show.” During the Christmas school-break of 2010, police arrived at Todd’s house informing her that the image of her breasts was circulating online. Soon after this, she experienced an increase in threats, and began struggling with anxiety, depression, and panic disorders.
Her family moved to a new home, a new school, and Todd began using drugs and alcohol. After a year, the stranger appeared again, circulating the image of her breasts to her new classmates and teachers, prompting another bullying campaign. The Todd family attempted to move house and school multiple times, but the stranger would track her down and recirculate the images.
Eventually, following prolonged drug and alcohol abuse, as well as self-mutilation and a litany of other health issues, Todd commit suicide.
What Draws These Together?
In each of the cases I’ve listed, there is a common theme expressed by the victims and those supporting them: nothing can be done. And that hopelessness is only exacerbated by law creators. Take this example from Danielle Citron, well known for her work on cyber harassment cases, discussing Zoe Quinn’s case:
“Do we expect Massachusetts police to go after all of them? At some point, it becomes too much for the system to bear. You can’t nail down criminal liability in a case like Zoe’s, where there’s such a huge number of actors.”
The sheer number of threat-actors present in an online mob situation makes it impossible to work with. Even if agencies ban an individual from online activities, there are countless more to pick up the reigns.
Are There Laws Against Cyber Harassment?
Yes. As governments and other intergovernmental organizations around the world seek to understand how the Internet and its seemingly permanent status of evolution, affecting essentially the entire global society, there is a substantial focus on protecting Internet users from harassment (and other nefarious activities).
The difficulty has been updating existing harassment, bullying, and stalking laws in a time where evolution consistently outstrips the pace of legislators. Understanding and mitigating for a current technology is one thing, but most governments want to ensure their laws cannot be easily circumvented by a later iteration of a technology they didn’t envisage. It means developing concrete laws to not only deter, but actually give law enforcement agencies power to arrest and prosecute individuals for their online activities — and this can take some time to arrive.
For instance, while revenge porn — a form of harassment involving the posting of private photographs of an ex-partner to a public site, sometimes referred to as “non-consensual pornography” – was somewhat prosecutable under Tort, privacy, and copyright laws, at least 34 individual states and the District of Columbia have individual laws targeting revenge porn offenders. As well as this, Rep. Jackie Speir (D-Calif.) has introduced a bill to implement federal revenge porn laws, offering victims some assistance throughout the country.
— Jackie Speier (@RepSpeier) July 14, 2016
Other changes have seen alterations to specific language used within existing laws, such as the 2013 amendment to the Federal Telecommunications Harassment Statute. Congress replaced “harass any person at the called number or who received the communications” with “harass any specific person,” granting much more power to those seeking to use the law.
Citron “can only think of three or four reported cases in America, where victims have successfully been awarded a monetary judgment against their online harassers,” and even then this may bring seriously unwanted attention to the victim. She suggests a better course of action may be threatening to or actually suing the websites and services allowing the harassment to take place, as it usually breaches their terms of service.
What If You’re Targeted?
It can be an incredibly difficult experience if harassment arrives at your door, virtual or not. In the case of cyber bullying, harassment, or stalking, there are a few clear actions you can take.
- Recognize What It Is: “Don’t Feed the Trolls.” We see this statement with increasing volume, across forums, message boards, and comment sections. Separating yourself from the sometimes horrific messages being sent can be extremely difficult, but responding usually only fuels the fire.
- Save Everything: While the natural reaction may be to delete everything and attempt to forget the content, documenting and maintaining evidence is one of the most powerful things you can do. It keeps an accurate record of any interactions between you and any aggressors.
- Complain to the Service Provider: It might not see an immediate result, but this also acts as a method of documenting any harassment or bullying involving you. If the malicious actions break the terms of service, the account might be closed, and barred.
- Complain to Your Local Police Force: Again, you might not see an immediate result, but if the harassment continues they’ll be able to at least corroborate any cease and desist statements. If you’re (un)lucky enough to know exactly who your harasser is, the police force should be able to provide assistance by way of a home visit.
- Understand Your Outcome Options: By which I mean “what status do you envisage the end of your harassment granting your harasser?” In many cases – and I’m really not adding any positive weight to this outcome – you’ll manage to have accounts barred, uncover who a harasser or harassers are, and perhaps get the police to force them to cease and desist. Lawsuits are costly, and despite the advances of cyber harassment and bullying laws, prosecutions are still miserably low.
Staying safe online has become a primary concern for almost the entire globe. Be that protecting ourselves from malware or viruses, from phishing scams or identity theft, or from cyber harassment and bullying, Internet safety is an important topic central to many millions of lives. As we have seen, it is challenging for law enforcement to keep abreast of technological development, though in this day and age, education for those in civil protection roles should really be more forthcoming.
73 percent of young victims of cyberbullying knew the identity of their bullies. https://t.co/m4NCZoRkcw
— CCRI (@CCRInitiative) August 9, 2016
Almost all cases of cyber harassment, bullying, and stalking are utterly deplorable. The good news is that despite their increase in frequency, legislators really are trying to do their best to catch up, and as hard as it may be, victims are expanding on and using their experiences to expand national and international education around cyber harassment.
Have you been victim to cyber harassment? Did you find your local authorities helpful? How did you end the harassment? Let us know your experiences below!
Image Credits: 72 Hours of GamerGate Tweets via Medium
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