There are many kinds of online harassment out there, from the annoying (rude comments made by online trolls) to the invasive (doxing) to the traumatic (cyberstalking, threats of violence, and everything in-between).
For the purposes of this Field Manual, “online harassment”—also known as “cyber harassment,” “cyber abuse,” and “online abuse”—includes, but is not limited to, the behaviors described below, carried out in an online setting.
Online settings include email, social media platforms (such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram), messaging apps (such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp), blogging platforms (such as Medium, Tumblr, and WordPress), and comments sections (such as those found on digital news platforms, personal blogs, YouTube pages, and Amazon book reviews).
This glossary is intended for two audiences:
- 1. Targets of online abuse. Our goal is to help you identify the particular form of online harassment you’re experiencing and offer tips and resources for addressing that particular abuse. Each “What to Do” section offers a brief and immediate course of action for that particular form of harassment. In most cases, you’ll be directed to more in-depth resources contained in this Field Manual.
- 2. Witnesses, allies, loved ones, and employers of writers and journalists. Our goal is to help educate groups and individuals who intersect with writers and journalists about the specific kinds of online harassment out there. Raising collective awareness around online harassment and fighting back means first possessing an expansive vocabulary for describing and addressing the abuse.
We encourage you to explore the rest of this Field Manual for more detailed information on the topics covered below.
Glossary of Terms
Definition: An umbrella term (like “online harassment”) meant to encompass a number of harassing online behaviors, “cyberbulling” generally refers to bullying that takes place in an online forum. Like physical bullying, cyberbullying is aimed at young people and may involve harassing, threatening, embarrassing, or humiliating young people online. As Cyberbullying.org states, cyberbullying isn’t just a kid problem; it affects young adults on college campuses as well.
Example: In a tragic and now infamous episode of cyberbullying, a twelve-year-old girl took her own life in New Jersey.
What to do: Visit Cyberbullying.org for the best resources and information related to cyberbullying.
Definition: A cyber-mob attack occurs when a large group gathers online to try to collectively shame, harass, threaten, or discredit a target. According to online harassment legal expert Danielle Keats Citron, targets overwhelmingly belong to traditionally marginalized groups.
“Outrage mobs” or “shaming mobs” are a distinct kind of cyber mob made up of internet users who collectively troll individuals in the hopes of silencing or publicly punishing them. Targets of outrage mobs are often attacked for expressing opinions on politically charged topics or ideas the outrage mob disagrees with and/or has taken out of context in order to promote a particular agenda. Outrage mobbing can sometimes manifest severe offline consequences and has even resulted in targets losing their jobs.
Example: Ricochet editor and politically-conservative columnist Bethany Mandel experienced a surge of anti-Semitic trolling from self-identified white nationalists via Facebook and Twitter after publicly declaring her opposition to Donald Trump.
What to do: Since cyber-mob attacks are launched from so many accounts, trying to report them all can turn into an exhausting game of whack-a-mole. If reporting the abuse isn’t getting you anywhere, consider asking a member of your support community to monitor and report the abuse on your behalf while you take a break. Other options include launching a counterspeech campaign to reestablish a narrative or reclaim a hashtag or message associated with your username, making a statement on social media alerting your social network to the negative activity and/or announcing that you’re withdrawing from online activity for a period of time, and, as a last resort, temporarily shutting down your social media accounts until the worst of the harassment has passed.
Definition: In a legal context, “cyberstalking” is the prolonged use of online harassment (a “course of conduct”) intended “to kill, injure, harass, intimidate, or place under surveillance with intent to kill, injure, harass, or intimidate” a target. (See: 18 U.S. Code § 2261A) Cyberstalking can comprise a number of harassing behaviors committed repeatedly or with regularity that usually cause a target to suffer fear, anxiety, humiliation, and extreme emotional distress.
Example: Over a 15-year period, a freelance journalist at Scientific American was the target of cyberstalking from a man who would go on to steal her identity and threaten her career. Read her story at Wired.
What to do: Cyberstalking is a federal offense, and many states have cyberstalking laws on the books. If you’re comfortable contacting law enforcement or seeking the advice of a lawyer, you might wish to take legal action against a cyberstalker. Other strategies include blocking your stalker on social media, documenting every harassing incident that occurs in relation to the cyberstalking, making sure your online accounts are protected if you suspect identity fraud, and enlisting your support community.
Denial of Service (DoS) Attacks
Definition: A “Denial of Service” (DoS) attack is a cyberattack that temporarily or indefinitely disrupts internet service by overwhelming a system with data, resulting in the web server crashing or becoming inoperable. According to the U.S. government’s Computer Emergency Readiness Team (CERT), “By targeting your computer and its network connection, or the computers and network of the sites you are trying to use, an attacker may be able to prevent you from accessing email, websites, online accounts (banking, etc.), or other services that rely on the affected computer.”
In a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS), an attacker takes control of one user’s computer in order to attack a different user’s computer. This can force the hijacked computer to send large amounts of data to a particular website or send spam to targeted email addresses. According to CERT, “the attack is ‘distributed’ because the attacker is using multiple computers, including [the user’s], to launch the denial-of-service attack.”
The impact on your life? DoS attacks can prevent you from accessing your own devices and data, and they can compromise sensitive information stored on your devices.
Example: In 2016, the BBC suffered a targeted DDoS attack in its U.S. offices, which also caused limited access to Reddit, Twitter, Etsy, GitHub, SoundCloud, and Spotify.
What to do: Because DoS attacks target email addresses, websites, and online accounts, it’s essential that you contact the necessary providers to report the abuse. Since this form of online harassment is rare and extreme, and more likely to affect business owners or individuals with a major web presence, it sits outside the purview of this Field Manual. We recommend checking out this DDoS Incident Response Cheat Sheet for more information.
Definition: “Doxing” (also spelled ‘doxxing’) is short for “dropping docs” and was a revenge tactic among ’90s computer hackers, according to HTML.com. Today, doxing involves publishing someone’s sensitive personal information online in an attempt to harass, intimidate, extort, stalk, or steal the identity of a target. “Sensitive information” can include social security numbers, phone numbers, home addresses, personal photos, employment information, email addresses, and family members’ personal information.
Example: After reporting on the police officer involved in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, two reporters for The New York Times were forced to flee their homes when their personal addresses were posted online in retaliation for their coverage.
What to do: Check out the Protecting Information from Doxing section of this Field Manual for tips on preparing for and preventing doxing. If you’ve already been subjected to doxing, immediately report the dox to the platform on which it appears, and do your best to assess the threat level to your safety. If you believe that the doxed information could fall into the hands of someone intent on harming you, please consider involving your local law enforcement immediately.
Definition: The unauthorized intrusion into a device or network, hacking is often carried out with the intention to attack, harm, or incriminate another individual by stealing their data, violating their privacy, or infecting their devices with viruses. When hacking is used to perform illegal activities or intimidate a target, it is a cybercrime.
Example: Fancy Bear, a Russian hacking unit, has targeted hundreds of journalists, including independent Russian reporters, at least 50 New York Times journalists, and several reporters at The Daily Beast, among other journalists who report on intelligence, national security, and Russian troll farms.
What to do: Practicing rigorous cyber safety and security is the first step you can take toward preventing hacking. Check out the Cyber Safety and Security section of this Field Manual to learn about the many steps you can take to protect your passwords, devices, online identity, and more.
Hateful speech and online threats
Definition: By far the most common form of online harassment, online attacks consisting of hateful speech or threats both explicit and implicit can be issued by an ill-intentioned internet user pretty much anywhere on the web, including social networking apps, emails, comments sections, chatrooms, and texting apps.
Hateful speech: Hateful speech is a form of expression attacking a specific aspect of a person’s identity, such as one’s race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, sexual orientation, or disability. Hateful speech online often takes the form of ad hominem attacks, which invoke prejudicial feelings over intellectual arguments in order to avoid discussion of the topic at hand by attacking a person’s character or attributes.
Threats: Threats issued online can be just as frightening as they are offline, and are frequently meant to be physically or sexually intimidating.
Example: Writer Jessica Valenti has been the target of rampant misogyny, toxic (and irrelevant) character attacks, and rape and death threats throughout her 14-year career as an online writer. In 2016, she temporarily quit social media after online rape and death threats were directed at her 5-year-old daughter.
What to do: Depending on the level of threat and intimidation couched in these attacks, you may wish to block or mute a user, engage in counterspeech, or, in some cases, even consider directly confronting your troll. If you don’t feel safe responding to or blocking a user, turn to your support community and make sure you’re practicing self-care. If you’ve been named in a threat of violence or sexual intimidation and are afraid for your safety, please consider contacting law enforcement.
Message Bombing (via email, text, SMS)
Definition: “Message bombing” is the intentional flooding of a person’s or institution’s phone or email accounts with messages meant to limit or block a user’s access to a device’s operating system or platform. Because large numbers of messages sent in a short period of time can typically render a person’s account unusable, this is an effective way for a harasser to prevent you from using your devices or accessing your online communication accounts. Message bombing typically occurs over texting apps, chat apps, or email accounts.
Example: In 2017, a flood of emails sent by bot accounts shut down the servers at ProPublica in a retaliatory attack against ProPublica journalists who had written a controversial article about the relationship between tech companies and extremist websites. The attack prevented the company’s employees from accessing important emails and interfered enormously with the news outfit’s day-to-day operations. One of the journalists was also targeted by tweet bombing—an attack in which a harasser tries to get a target kicked off of Twitter by flooding their “follower” pool with bot accounts.
What to do: Immediately report the incident to the social media platform, phone provider, internet company, or email provider where the harassment is taking place. If necessary, create a new and/or temporary email address or username to inform your colleagues, family, and friends that you have been message bombed and no longer have access to your usual accounts.
Nonconsensual, sexually explicit images (such as “revenge porn”)
Definition: Nonconsensual pornography—or revenge porn, as it’s commonly called—is “the distribution of private, sexually-explicit images or videos of individuals without their consent,” according to the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative. Revenge porn can also fall under the category of “sextortion,” i.e. “the threat of distributing a nude or sexually-explicit image or video in an effort to blackmail an individual.”
Example: Countless women and high-profile celebrities have been the targets of nonconsenual pornography. Leading revenge-porn expert Carrie Goldberg, a Cyber Civil Rights Initiative board member and lawyer who has dedicated her career to taking on cases of sexual privacy and internet abuse, was herself a former victim of “sextortion” by an ex-boyfriend.
What to do: Undergoing an attack of nonconsensual pornography can be extremely traumatic and may require legal intervention. (There are currently 38 states with nonconsensual pornography laws on the books—check to see if yours is one of them.) If an explicit image has been posted to a social media platform or chat forum, flag it for removal and, if possible, contact the platform’s administrators. Be sure to lean on your support community for help during this time as well.
Online Impersonation (or, Impersonation Trolling)
Definition: “Online impersonation” is a strategy whereby harassers create hoax social media accounts, usually in order to post offensive or inflammatory statements in your name. In most cases, the harasser’s intention is to defame or discredit you, often by convincing others to believe the fake quotes attributed to you, which might then incite others to commit additional acts of harassment. Impersonation trolling can also happen when a harasser impersonates someone you know in order to offend or hurt you.
Example: Writer Lindy West was subject to a particularly cruel episode of impersonation trolling when an online troll posed as her deceased father. Her story has an unusual ending, however: Her troll ended up apologizing.
What to do: Immediately report the impersonation to the platform on which it appears. You may want to consider making a statement on your real social media accounts alerting your online communities to the imposter. (If the harassment is taking place on Twitter, you can “pin” the tweet to the top of your profile for a period of time, so it’s visible whenever someone visits your real Twitter profile.) In some cases, it may be appropriate to inform your employer or your loved ones of the abuse, especially in cases in which they’re implicated in the impersonator’s comments.
Definition: “Trolling” is one of those terms that’s evolved so much over time as to have no single agreed-upon meaning. Internet users use the word to denote everything from serious acts of online hate speech to the playful distribution of memes and comments on a friend’s social media page.
For the purposes of this Field Manual, and to encapsulate the kind of trolling referred to most often by writers and journalists targeted by online harassment, “trolling” is defined here as the repetitive posting of inflammatory or hateful comments online by an individual whose intent is to seek attention, intentionally harm a target, cause trouble and/or controversy, and/or join up with a group of trollers who have already commenced a trolling campaign. There are two subcategories of trolling to be aware of, according to Anita Sarkeesian’s Guide to Internetting While Female:
Concern trolling: When harassers pose as fans or supporters of your work with the intention of making harmful or demeaning comments masked as constructive feedback. (According to Sarkeesian, “when targeting women, this is most often done through ‘helpful’ suggestions on how to improve one’s appearance. . . . The concern troll’s disingenuous comments are actually designed to undercut or demean you.”)
Dogpiling: When a group of trolls works together to overwhelm a target through a barrage of disingenuous questions, threats, slurs, insults, and other tactics meant to shame, silence, discredit, or drive a target offline.
A third category of online trolling that applies to writers and journalists includes:
Bot trolling/sockpuppet trolling: Bot accounts come in two flavors: automated accounts, which are controlled by a code or an app in order to impart a particular agenda, and individual accounts, which are set up by a single user with the intention of mimicking real users (known as “sockpuppet” accounts). Bot accounts are used for a variety of reasons, from promoting propaganda to amplifying hate or defamation against targeted individuals. DFRLab describes the basic criteria for bots as “activity, amplification, and anonymity.” Signs you may be the target of bot trolling:
- • The same accounts are tweeting at you 24/7
- • The accounts use stolen or patriotic images as their profile picture
- • There are long gaps in said accounts’ activity
- • A disproportionate number of accounts that are simultaneously targeting you share the same content, language, and/or graphics in their messages
While bot trolling can be just as exhausting and emotionally taxing as other forms of trolling, some targets of bot trolling are relieved to learn that this kind of attack isn’t personal, and that they’re not at risk of harm.
Example: Trolling is one of the most ubiquitous forms of online harassment, meaning an enormous number of writers, journalists, and creators have been exposed to it. In 2016, comedian Leslie Jones was the target of a widespread trolling campaign built on racist, misogynist messaging, which culminated in her being subjected to revenge porn, doxing, and hacking. (The incident also resulted in notorious troll Milo Yiannopoulos being kicked off Twitter for his targeted, publicly racist abuse—thanks in part to a #LoveforLeslieJ Twitter campaign launched by her supporters.)
What to do: For a long time, the party line has been “don’t feed the trolls”—a valuable piece of advice when you’re dealing with someone who may be unstable and/or prone to escalate the trolling. But this can be an inherently dissatisfying and often unproductive tactic. While fruitful conversations with trolls are still few and far between, there have been some successful examples of targets confronting their trolls, while others have found respite in reclaiming their own online narrative and openly condemning a troll’s behavior. Only you can judge whether or not it’s worth engaging a troll. Check out this Field Manual’s Guidelines for Safely Confronting Your Online Harasser for more information. (If you suspect that you’re the target of bot trolling, then “don’t feed the trolls” may indeed be your best course of action—engaging a bot account isn’t likely to be productive.)
Other steps you can take to address online trolling include reporting the abuse, blocking or muting the abuser, documenting all instances of trolling from repeat offenders, launching a counterspeech campaign, or asking your support community to monitor your online accounts while you take a break.
Definition: Swatting doesn’t take place online, but it is often the direct result of online harassment and doxing. It is also one of the most frightening examples of how online harassment can cross swiftly and dangerously into one’s offline life. Swatting occurs when a hoax call is placed to law enforcement detailing a completely false but plausibly dangerous event that the caller claims is taking place in a target’s home or business. SWAT teams are meant to respond to the call accordingly, showing up to a target’s home fully armed and putting the target and the target’s family in grave danger. This is one of the rarer but more serious consequences of online harassment and is a popular tactic among online harassers in the gaming community.
Example: In 2013, an online security journalist was swatted at his home in Virginia, where 10 to 12 police officers surrounded his driveway with their guns drawn.
What to do: Swatting is illegal. It is often the result of a doxing incident, in which a person’s home or business address has been posted online with the intention that it will be seen by other online harassers. You can take measures to prevent doxing by checking out this Field Manual’s Protecting Information from Doxing resource. You may also want to consider purchasing a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to shield your IP address, which contains geolocating information. If you’ve been the target of swatting, you may want to take legal action and file a report with law enforcement. If you believe you could be the target of swatting in the future, consider informing your local police department to prepare them for this possibility.