What is Online Harassment?
Harassment generally consists of repeated or persistent actions made against an individual with the intent to cause distress or harm and may range in severity from annoyance to dangerous or illegal actions. Methods of online harassment can include but are not limited to threatening, intimidating, or shaming an individual; posting threats or insults; and the coordination of harassment campaigns.
Harassment is an attempt to hurt, smear, threaten, exact revenge, or perform some similar act that would cause distress to a reasonable person. When determining the difference between simple rudeness and harassment, consider issues such as the attacker’s apparent intent, the frequency of the remarks or postings, evidence of premeditation or information gathering, whether others were encouraged to participate in these acts, and whether remarks or attacks were directed specifically at the victim.
While each harassment case is unique, the following questions can help identify common harassing behaviors.
• Is the behavior targeted at a specific person?
• Are the repeated attempts to interact with or get a reaction from the targeted person by an individual who has been ignored, told to stop and/or been blocked?
• Are those engaging in the behavior in question encouraging others to make similar remarks or engage in similar behavior?
• Is the intent of contact or comments to cause distress, inspire fear, or provoke anger in the target?
If the answer to one or more of the questions above is “yes,” the behavior is likely harassment.
What online harassment is not:
• Rudeness (unless it escalates or is persistent)
• Profanity (unless it escalates or is persistent)
What to Do If You Are the Target of Harassment
Please know that this is not, was not, and will never be your fault. Nothing anyone says or does justifies harassment. The fault lies exclusively with the harasser and any individuals, communities, or systems that perpetuate the culture of harassment.
• If you have the time and emotional bandwidth to do so, document your harassment (e.g. take screenshots with time stamps, record names from the accounts of those who are harassing you, etc.) and report the behavior (with documentation) to the relevant contact for the medium via which you were harassed.
• Reach out to trusted friends and family members for help. They can lend you an ear, aid you in collecting and assembling documentation, or assist you in navigating security, legal, or mental health resources.
• If the harassment is especially persistent or sustained, you may want to reach out to others who may be affected by it.
• Inform supervisors to let them know what is happening and to work together to minimize any confusion or misunderstandings.
• Most importantly, take care of yourself. Make sure you are attending to your basic physical and emotional needs. You can get through this. You’re not alone.
Supporting Targets of Online Harassment
If you’re reading this section because a friend or loved one sent you this link, please try to treat them with empathy. Although online harassment happens all too frequently, it can leave the target feeling helpless and alone, despite the best intentions of friends and loved ones around them. To understand the impact of online harassment, you need to understand that, for many people, the internet is not a separate space from “the real world.” For many of us, virtual spaces are as crucial to our work and socialization as offline spaces. We do not always have the option of avoiding online spaces that have become hostile or even dangerous to us. We can’t simply “unplug” and walk away without personal and social consequences.
The most important thing you can do for someone targeted by abuse is listen to them. Another core component of being a good ally is signal-boosting their messages about what is happening and what should be done about it.
Don’t try to tell them how they should think or feel about what they’re experiencing. Don’t tell them what they should be doing differently. Don’t try to play devil’s advocate, justify the actions of the harasser, or explain what the target did to “provoke” the harassment. Ask them how you can help, and offer a level of support with which you feel comfortable.
Try to keep in mind that experiencing online harassment is emotionally draining, and the struggle to be heard and believed can add to the emotional burden carried by targets. Seek out additional information and research issues on your own when possible, rather than relying on harassment targets to educate you. When interacting with them, respect their time and ask if they currently have the capacity to answer your questions and feel comfortable doing so. Remember that targets of harassment may face social consequences for speaking publicly about their experiences.
Continuing Covert Harassment, after it has been addressed
When harassment is addressed in a healthy way, the typical reaction of a well-adjusted person is to understand that he or she caused upset by crossing boundaries and to try to avoid repeating the mistakes.
But if the harasser has strong patterns of abuse and/or narcissism, the typical reaction is to continue the harassment in more covert ways. He takes every opportunity to poke at and create difficulty for his target by cloaking his attacks in the appearance of normal rules and behavior. But knowing that others may eventually recognize his persistent poking as a pattern of harassment, he works to outsource it to others. Since clear thinking, confident people would be difficult to bend to his manipulations, he targets those who seem particularly vulnerable. The term "flying monkeys" was coined to describe those manipulated into perpetuating a bully's harassment.
Signs of continued abuse from a covert harasser:
- Consistently speaks out or votes against anything that the targeted person appears to want
- Initiates private one-on-one conversations to complain about or smear the target
- Creates or spreads negative gossip about the target
- Tries to recruit vulnerable people into the smear campaign, particularly those who seem insecure and easily manipulated
- Privately encourages his recruits to air his smears, rather than publicly raise concerns in normal respectful group process
- Seeks to render his target ineffective or run the targeted person out of the organization
What is a flying monkey?
How to defend against flying monkeys
Are you a flying monkey?