Online Harassment

Illustrator: Jade Mulcahy

Why We Must Defend Ourselves and Why We Can’t

A fundamental aspect of society is supposed to be that it protects you. It may not keep you perfectly safe, but it allows you some basic security, or at least a sense of it. The impact of harassment can take different forms, including an attack on that sense of security. There is a recourse for standard harassment but not for online harassment.

The way we can better protect people from online harassment is to increase technical literacy, especially amongst the court system and legislatures. Too little is done for these cases due to the amount of work required and a lack of understanding in those in power.

Let’s start with defining terms. Harassment breaks down to actions that make people feel unsafe. The specifics vary from state to state, so we will be looking purely at Minnesota statutes. Single-event harassment includes physical assault, sexual assault, nonconsensual dissemination of private sexual images with an identifying component, and to use someone’s information, without their consent, to get a third party to engage in a sexual act with that person.

Some actions can become harassment with repetition. These include targeted picketing, patterns of attending public events after being notified that the presence is harassing to another, and the focus of this article, “repeated incidents of intrusive or unwanted acts, words, or gestures that have a substantial adverse effect or are intended to have a substantial adverse effect on the safety, security, or privacy of another, regardless of the relationship between the actor and the intended target.” With cases such as these, some sort of paper trail is required to prove substantive effect.

With harassment defined in such a way, it would be difficult to charge anyone with online harassment. Instead, stalking, defined as “to engage in conduct which the actor knows or has reason to know would cause the victim under the circumstances to feel frightened, threatened, oppressed, persecuted, or intimidated,” can better handle cases where an individual is sent threats directly. This is less the case for threats posted on a public forum (often allowing the poster anonymity). Examples include people creating Twitter accounts not associated with their names and then tweeting things such as “I set a bomb in front of So-and-so’s house that will explode at midnight,” or “@So-and-so, I will … to you” detailing some violent act.

These induce fear from the what-if factor. Essentially none of the people will actually do anything, but it only takes one. The victim could disconnect, but in our interconnected world, that is becoming tantamount to societal suicide. It also does not protect from other online attacks, such as impersonating someone to tarnish their reputation or trying to get them jailed. With as little as an address, which can be obtained as easily as typing someone’s name in one of the “people finder” websites, any stranger can make your life a nightmare.

The more you dig into this topic, the more you realize how vulnerable you really are. Being lost amongst the crowd protects people more than most initiatives, but to be protected you should limit what identifying information you post. Even this won’t protect you entirely; nothing short of a full-hermit, pay for everything with cash under-the-table lifestyle might.

Our current system is not adept at handling online harassment, although we are making progress. Technology is ever-changing and so is its impact on society. Agencies are little help given the amount of expert manpower needed to get harassers to face even a minor punishment for their actions. Here it tends to be up to you to protect yourself, at least for the time being.

This has been changing. Laws are better able to account for the cyber world and police are slowly become more capable as well. Social websites are better working to flag harassment and deal with it. These are the towns that spring up along the frontier, but the frontier has always been a dangerous place. It’s time for us collectively to learn to navigate it.