Harassment, Internet spaces, and reality

Someone I care about is having problems with a stalker who’s both harassed her in physical space and online. That reminded me that I haven’t talked recently about my approach to dealing with that kind of situation.

It’s a subject I’ve been thinking about every since I got online, 16 years ago now. I’ve had my share of mildly worrying experiences (people who just wouldn’t give up), but I’ve also had more friends than I can count who’ve had everything from persistent harassment and fixation to outright threats of major violence.

I also spent about 18 months as a volunteer on LiveJournal’s Terms of Service (Abuse) team, which handles everything from DMCA copyright reports to concerns about harassment to requests from the police, to parents trying to figure out how to handle their child’s online interaction. (And I did this in 2003-2004, when there was a lot less info out there on most of these topics.) Add to that ten years working in a high school library and helping educate parents, kids, and teachers about different issues, and you get a lot of interest in the subject. It also means I have a lot of opinions – but I’m always interested in learning more.

It’s all real:
You’ll notice that below, I don’t say ‘real world’ and ‘online’. This is, in my experience, a particularly damaging way to look at it. Many people have very meaningful connections with others online. Whether those are old friends who live far away now or people they’ve met online through shared interests, the emotions, conversations, and interactions are still very real. When they go wrong, they still hurt just as much.

Beside that, online harassment, insults, and threats do affect us in our physical lives. They add stress, they take time to deal with, they may require changes in our behavior and where and how we spend our time. How is that not ‘real’? So, here, I use ‘online’ and ‘physical world’. A little clunky, but much more clear.

Harassment is the fault of the person doing the harassing.
If you are being harassed, it is not your fault, and you are not to blame. That said, knowing some things can make your life easier if you do have a problem. You have a better idea what steps to take, you know what information you need to have ready to make a report, things like that. Sometimes information and specific tools can help you descalate a situation or make you less appealing to a stalker, too.

What you can do in advance:

Learn about the sites you use:
When you sign up for a new site, check out their information: the site policies, tools, and any privacy information. I prefer to use sites that explain their options and settings clearly, and that give me multiple ways to control what information I share and how. When I do choose to use a site that’s less clear, I share less about me. (And the more you know up front, the easier and faster it is to lock things down if you do ever need to.)

Look for how the site shares new information. Some places, it’s a news page you can subscribe to. Others have an email announcement. And some change things without notice. (Not a problem for new features, much more of a problem when they change privacy settings.) Find out what each site you use site does, and make sure you’ve got a way to keep up with it. Skim any announcements for any changes around privacy or tools you use to create the online experience you want.

Understand that sites have different cultures and goals:
The goal of Facebook is – as stated – to share lots and lots of stuff, and to make sharing easy with people who (supposedly) know most of it already, since it’s designed to use with physical-world friends. So, they’ve changed the default settings around privacy many times since the start of the site.

The thing is, people use any site in many different ways. Some people want to stay in touch with family and friends they see regularly in person. But others want to connect with co-workers and professional contacts, fellow students, or others where they may not want to share some information (for example, relationship preferences, chronic health concerns, hobbies and interests, or the fact they’re thinking about getting pregnant.) Many people choose to connect both to physical world friends, and people they know online through shared interests.

Be clear with yourself about how you’re going to use a given site, and revisit your settings if you decide to start adding people you know through a different area of your life.

Check your own privacy settings regularly:
Sites change their default settings every so often, or add new options. Some sites will make this obvious. Others leave you to find out for yourself. Keeping an eye out for notices or news stories can be a good move. You also may find you’re more or less comfortable with a particular setting than you were in the past.

I suggest checking your settings every 6 months or so, plus any time you have a significant change in your life (new relationship, new job, new ways you’re interacting with others, like kids going off to school, substantial long-term medical issues for you or your immediate family.)

Check your passwords:
This would be a good time to make sure all of your passwords are extra secure. Change them to something else, and make sure that someone who gets into, say, a Gmail account, can’t just get access to all of them. (In my case, while I use Gmail accounts, my password resets go to a different account on a much smaller webhost with tight security, and a direct way to confirm my identity (credit card and other information)  and an easy way to talk to a human being for help should that account also get compromised.)

Finally, hone your intuition:
Sometimes, harassment and abusive interactions come out of nowhere. However, often there are some cues that something is not right somehow. When you can spot problems early, even if you can’t quite pin them down, you have more control over the situation, and you have more options in how to handle it. (Recommendations for help with this at the bottom of this article.)

Things to know when dealing with harassment:

Immediate needs:

  • If you have concerns about your immediate (or near-future) physical safety, talk to the police before you do anything else. Online sites can’t keep you physically safe, and many of the options they can take may destroy evidence (like suspending an account or requiring someone to delete information in a given post.)
  • Keep clear notes, including a timeline and saved copies of everything even possibly relevant. List not only harassment, but anyone you talked to about it. (who, when, what you said, etc.)
  • Don’t delete harassing material from the site itself if you intend to report it to either the site or the police: they probably need to see it in situ. Hide it, screen it, whatever else.
  • Let your close family and friends know, so that they can be aware if someone asks about connecting with you, and so they can support you. Be clear about what contact information or ways to find you online are okay to share, and what ones aren’t.

How much help the police can be depends a whole lot on the situation.
Some police departments are very ‘Net savvy these days. Others aren’t. Likewise, there’s often not a lot the police can do if the person appears to be hundreds of miles away. There’s probably more they can suggest if someone is local or already in the area. And harassment, while unpleasant, is not the same situation as direct threats of immediate harm. So – please ask, if you’ve got any concerns, but expect that you’ll probably need to take additional steps yourself.

Be aware that taking action on an online site may escalate harassment in other places.
The police are best able to give advice about your options here. If the person is far away from you, this is probably not a big worry. If they live in your area, you want to think about what you want out of the situation before taking action, and to get expert advice from people who deal with this regularly.

Be realistic about what a site can and can’t do for you.

The site probably has a help or FAQ section with help about how to handle  harassment or other problems yourself. Read that first, and follow the steps they suggest. Generally, they can only help once the tools they provide aren’t enough to solve a problem. (i.e. if you can change who has permission to comment on your posts, but choose not to, they may not be able to do much for you.)

The site may be able to:

  • Help you learn to use their tools to limit who can comment on your space or otherwise interact with you on the site.
  • Remove illegal or clearly harassing content on someone else’s account. For example, someone posting your identifying personal information in a public space on the site, impersonating you, etc.
  • Provide additional information to the police with appropriate documentation. (Usually a subpoena.)
  • Track your report, so that if additional harassment occurs, they may be able to take more substantial action in the future. For example, if you ban someone from contacting you, and someone creates a new account to get around a banned account, they can often take action for that.

However, a site can’t:

  • Fix stuff in the physical world not related to their site. They can’t make someone leave your house alone, stop leaving threatening notes at your job , or anything else like that.
  • Fix stuff on another site. They do not control the whole Internet. You will need to deal with each place harassment is occuring separately.
  • Do stuff that breaks the law. (Or rather, they shouldn’t, and you shouldn’t expect them to.)
  • Do stuff that breaks the site, or their major established policies.
  • Do stuff they just can’t do. (For example, whether or not a site can preserve a deleted comment depends on the site back-end. It’s not something they can change on the fly for a specific need.)
  • Necessarily stop all harassment. For example, if it’s a free site, they can’t reliably stop someone creating a new account after the previous one got banned. Often, preventing it entirely (such as through an IP ban) would also affect legitimate users.

Writing a site for help:

Read their FAQs and help information. Many common problems can be solved this way (and you don’t have to wait for an answer). Less common ones, you’ll still have an idea of where to look for help. Since sites change where this information is from time to time, the best way is to look for a Help or FAQ section, and then look for terms like ‘harassment’, ‘problems with other users’ ‘privacy’ and ‘safety’.

Report it from within the account that’s being harassed:
Site staff (and volunteers) can’t see through your computer and see exactly who sent that email and how it connects to the person who’s having problems. They don’t have a quick and reliable way to determine identity (i.e. that the person writing is the parent of the person being harassed.) And they’ve almost certainly seen people try to fake every option that you might think of (photos, scans, etc. can all be easily faked digitally if someone wants to put the time in.) The site also knows that sometimes, people will pretend to be the parent of someone they’re harassing, to try and get the account yanked.

For these reasons – and many more – most sites can only take action if you report it from within the account having problems, or if you go through a real-world method that they can independently verify (such as talking to the police and having the police request help, if the situation makes that a good idea.)

Report it to the right place. This is why reading the help information is useful: many sites have one area for support questions (“How do I put this picture on my account?”) and another area for terms of service/harassment/legal issues. Getting the right one the first time speeds things up. Often sites will have a specific form for you to fill out that requests the specific information they need to investigate or take action.

Focus on the important information:

  • Be as concise and clear as you can be.  The site doesn’t need every detail of how this started. They do need to know the general time range, the specific things that are outside the terms of service or site guidelines, and whether there’s anything that has an immediate legal or safety aspect.
  • Be as specific as you can about where the problem is occuring: give specific links to the major problems.
  • If you’re getting widespread harassment on all your recent posts, link to five or ten, and point out the other problems. (i.e. “Other comments along the same lines can be found in my recent entries back to [date]”)
  • Note what tools you’ve already used. “I’ve banned/blocked this person from my space, but they made a new account to get around the ban” is different than not having banned them in the first place.

What has an immediate legal or safety consideration? Someone saying nasty things to you is unpleasant, but not in the same category as:

  • Someone posting your physical location, phone number or other ways that others could find you in the physical world (when you choose not to share that information.), especially if they’re encouraging others to contact or harass you as well.
  • Direct and specific threats. (“I’m going to hurt you” from someone you know is thousands of miles away is not as direct as “I’m going to show up at your job at [location] when you least expect it, and do [specific stuff].” from someone you know is in your state.)
  • Posting of extremely illegal content (child pornography, for example, or a file that can disable or corrupt a site)

Allow a reasonable time for response:
Sites get lots of reports, and they have widely varying turnaround times. Some sites will get back to you within a few hours. Others may take a couple of days, and on some, you may never hear back in specific. (I think never hearing back is very problematic, but it happens.)

The site may ask more questions, or they may take action. If they take action, they may not be able to tell you many details, though they may ask you to let them know if you have problems in the future, or tell you how to report any future problems so they can be handled very quickly.

Other notes:

Some resources suggest that if you’re being harassed, you should stop using a site, or should change your identity on the site. These suggestions work well in some situations, but not in others. On some sites, it can be possible for a determined stalker or harasser to figure out your new identity based on who includes you on their friends list or otherwise connects with your online account. Other sites (like Facebook) have requirements in their terms of service that require a legal name (even though there are many people who ignore that one.) In this day and age, with many organisations using Facebook for invitations, community management, and professional networking, simply dropping off a site may have significant physical world consequences, too.

All of this means that you’ll need to look carefully at each site you want to use (and continue using) and what makes sense for that site. It can make sense to disappear (or at least appear to disappear) online for a while to give yourself a chance to figure out what to do – but don’t do it at the cost of losing connections and support from real friends and family who could help you. One common option is to make posts limited to only your most trusted friends and family, locking everything else down so that nothing appears to be happening in your account.


One great resource for dealing with this kind of unwanted attention is a book by Gavin de Becker called The Gift of Fear . While it focuses on physical-world situations, much of the advice (especially about building your intuition, and when taking action may escalate the situation) is very applicable to online settings.

There are also a number of online safety groups out there. They take varied approaches to dealing with a problem: some of which I agree with more than others. That said, there’s a lot of good information and advice available.

Several of the better known (who work with both adults and minors) include:

danah boyd, a researcher and writer on topics related to online interaction, has an excellent blog with many entries relating to issues around online behavior and safety. A great place to start is her index of ‘best blog posts’. She’s especially good at exploring (and exploding) some of the myths about online use, safety, and education.

For parents and educators working with teenagers, I really like Nancy Willard’s Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats which talks through the different kinds of situations that frequently (and not so frequently) come up, and how to address both the physical and online aspects.

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Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Information Technology Librarian at the University of Maine at Farmington, the small liberal arts college model campus in the University of Maine system.

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