Online harassment is no less harmful because it happens online. Virtual harassment can leave lasting harm, as the content is often public, unerasable, and just as emotionally damaging as in-person harassment.
Online harassment and bullying are extremely common. Forty-one percent of Americans have been personally subjected to harassing behavior online, and an even larger share (66%) have witnessed these behaviors directed at others.
People from historically oppressed groups are more likely to be harassed online, and that harassment is likely to be more severe. Online harassment mirrors the inequalities we see elsewhere in society, often including racist, sexist, transphobic, homophobic, ableist, or other hate speech based on aspects of someone's identity.
Victims of online harassment often have little recourse. Due to the anonymity of the internet, many victims have no idea who is behind the harassment and have few avenues to make it stop even if they do know the person causing harm.
“Just log off” isn’t always an effective solution. Pushing the victim to no longer participate in online spaces to avoid being harassed is victim-blaming. Rather than expecting victims to change their behavior and limit their online presence, we must address the root causes of online harassment by taking the issue seriously and holding people who commit online harassment accountable. Many people rely on virtual spaces to stay connected with loved ones and have social interactions. Access to online spaces can be a healing resource for those who have experienced harassment.
Glossary of terms
Online sexual abuse can include any form of sexual harassment, exploitation, or abuse that takes place through the use of devices. As technology and the internet has become integral to our daily life, our awareness of ways it can be used to perpetrate harm requires equal attention. New concepts such as “sextortion,” “revenge porn,” and “doxxing” have become widespread concerns and realities for victims. Learning how digital harm can occur and in what forms it takes is a needed starting point. Here is a glossary of terms:
Astroturfing refers to campaigns of negative attention which appear to be genuine public responses but are actually coordinated by one person or group. This can be similar to a cyber-mob (a large group of abusers collectively attacking a target through threats or insults), but appears less threatening and is harder to detect. For example, a business owner may make multiple fake Yelp accounts to leave low reviews on a competing business’s Yelp page to create the wrong impression that they are disliked by the community.
Catfishing refers to the act of pretending to be someone else online in order to lure, befriend, date, or have contact with someone else who is unaware of their true identity. The popular MTV show Catfish has chronicled online relationships where one person was giving fake or incorrect information about their identity, often posing as someone else.
Cyberflashing or unwanted nudes (frequently called “d*ck pics”) refers to sending unrequested nude photos to someone without their consent. For example, sports reporter Jenn Sterger has become an activist against sexual harassment in the sports media industry after she was continually harassed and cyberflashed by Brett Favre, whom she’d never met or spoken to before.
Cyberstalking refers to the act of pushing continued unwanted contact on someone through the use of online platforms, portals, and technology. Cyberstalking may involve sending unwanted messages, joining groups the victim joins, or paying hyper-focused attention without the victim’s consent.
Deadnaming refers to outing a trans person by calling them by a previous name or birth name they no longer wish to be called. For example, the deadnaming of Elliot Page by countless media outlets led to a surge of anti-deadnaming campaigns, which explained why it is harmful to not respect chosen names and pronouns.
Deep fake refers to the creation of fake images, audio, or video which are artificially generated but look real. According to the Boston Globe, deep fakes expertly mimic “speech or facial expressions so as to make it appear that someone has said or done something they haven’t.” For example, the Star Wars franchise used deep fake technology to recreate old scenes with Princess Leia; however this technology is often hijacked to use people’s image without their consent in harassing or harmful ways.
Doxxing refers to revealing the identity, name, address, or personal details of someone who goes by an alias or screen name or whose information was previously not public. Doxxing often gives harassers intimate details of the victim, which encourages further abuse against them, including death threats. For example, writer Rebecca Scheffler shared in a harrowing Vox article the story of a stranger publishing her personal information on an explicit Craigslist ad.
Hacking refers to accessing someone’s account, profile, computer, or technology without their consent in order to get information, alter content, or pose as them. Hacking poses a serious security threat. There have been several cases in which hackers access celebrities’ personal technology and leak images of them without their consent.
Phishing refers to a scam to steal someone’s money, often through a fake offer or false claim which appears as if it's from a trusted source. Phishing scams might take the shape of fake invoices, bills, or fraudulent emails that demand urgent action or reply.
Revenge porn refers to the intentional or malicious sharing of intimate images or video which may or may not have been taken with consent, usually done to intimidate, humiliate, or slander the victim. For example, in one of the earliest known cases of revenge porn, Hugh Hefner published nude photos of Marilyn Monroe without her consent in the first issues of Playboy Magazine in 1953. Since then, one in 25 Americans has been a victim of revenge porn.
Sextortion refers to threatening to expose images or video of someone against their will as a form of blackmail to control and manipulate them. Sextortion is often used to coerce victims for sexual, personal, or financial gain.
Trolling refers to the act of intentionally upsetting, disrespecting, or not taking online users or content seriously. A troll is someone who “posts inflammatory, insincere, digressive, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, with the intent of provoking readers into displaying emotional responses, or manipulating others' perception.”
Zoombombing refers to unwanted disruption or infiltration of an online meeting by uninvited members, often including insults or harassment. A Zoombomber may enter a chat with their camera off and under a different name, and then change their profile, audio, or visual once they are inside the meeting. Zoombombers usually harass participants or create disruptions.