Dealing with Digital Disaster and Combating Cyberbullying

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(Excerpt from Shame Nation book)

If your attackers are coming after you hard, it might be time for a more forceful response. Has your online reputation suffered irreparable damage? Has it gotten so bad that you are fearful for your safety? Should you consult an attorney or file a police report?

It’s certainly possible that you could be facing some of the mentally unstable people on the Internet who take trolling to the extreme. One woman, “Sarah,” first got sucked into an online flame war with one of these people years ago, when she was in grad school and brushed with an anonymous poster on Lena Chen’s Sex and the Ivy blog. “At that point, I’d never engaged with anyone online,” she recalled when I spoke to her. “I made a couple of comments. It didn’t even occur to me anyone would care; I was nobody.”

But her harasser, in retaliation, targeted her for years, creating rambling posts calling her a fat-ass, questioning her professional work, and even claiming that she had rape fantasies.

In fact, she says, this deranged stranger ultimately went after a dozen women who posted comments supporting her, trashing their reputations and getting at least one fired from her job as a teacher. “I’ve never encountered a situation quite like this one,” Sarah admits. “I was being called a fat, ugly slut who wants to be raped.

He spent eight years, on and off, trying to make me unemployable, undateable, trying to make me a target for crime—he’s accused me of having STDs, publicly claimed I was fired from jobs for sexual misconduct. That level of effort into trying to hurt someone… It is hard to understand. All I can think is this is someone deeply unhappy, and probably a sociopath. There are people out there who will think nothing of trying to hurt other people.”

“This is not trolling,” states researcher Lindsay Blackwell, in her talk titled “Trolls, Trouble, and Telling the Difference.” “This is harassment. It is violence, and it is very, very difficult to control.”

According to a 2014 Pew Research Center report, 18 percent, or nearly one in five, of Internet users surveyed were the victims of “severe” online abuse, such as stalking or physical threats.

Advising victims to get off the Internet doesn’t work either, Blackwell adds. “The Internet is real life. For many of us, it’s where we make a living, it’s where we make friends, it’s where we live our lives, it’s an extension of where we live our lives… Telling victims of online harassment to log off…[isn’t] helpful… It’s so, so important that we stop telling victims of harassment to not feed the trolls.”

Sarah’s experience has impacted her life in so many ways. When it came to dating, she would only give out her first name, then field comments from suitors who came across what was posted about her online. “I had someone tell me I shouldn’t mention it to men, [that] they would think I invited drama into my life,” she recalls.

Now an MBA student seeking employment, Sarah has needed to discuss her situation with career counselors, add explanations to her cover letters, and warn potential roommates.

She has filed police reports and consulted with two pro bono attorneys, but to date, has been unsuccessful in unmask­ing the identity of the perpetrator, leaving her understandably bitter. “You can’t sue someone if you don’t know who they are,” she explains. She hesitates, then adds flatly, “This sounds awful, [but] I would love to destroy his life in the way he’s tried to destroy mine.”

Controlling a Disaster

Reading comments online, especially twisted truths or outright lies about yourself, can be horrifying—I know this firsthand. The emotional toll that it can take on a person is enormous. Know that you don’t have to go through this alone. There are many outlets to help you through this cyber-torture.

What options are available for the average Joe, who doesn’t have an entourage, a high-powered publicist, or the star power of a celebrity to mobilize support or fund a legal battle?

To take control of a digital disaster, begin with these basic steps:
  • Document the attacks. Take screenshots of all the evidence. You might want to just push delete, delete, delete. But if things escalate, you’ll need to have some documentation. Print it out, keep it in an online folder, put it on a thumb drive, download any videos to an exter­nal hard drive—but do save it.Some even advise using a web-archiving service, such as Page Vault, which officially documents the date, time, and web address, allowing it to be legally permissible in court. This is an area where your friends and family can help you.Ask them to monitor the abusive content for you, so you don’t have to read it over and over again. “There was a point where I started to have an anxiety attack every time I thought about Googling my name; I felt like I needed to see if anything new was posted,” recalls Sarah, who had her father take over that unpleasant task. “Mitigating how much I was exposed [to] was really important.”
  • Block the offenders. Blocking functionality is available on social media platforms, as well as phone calls, texts, apps, and email. One tool offered by Twitter, under the guise of protecting your well-being, is quality filtering, which prevents you from seeing anything that a specified poster has posted about you.
    In November 2016, Twitter also expanded this mute feature to include specific words or users you choose to block.But some experts are not fans of this “ignorance is bliss” credo. Blackwell points out that if you enable this feature, there is no way to be aware of—and stop—what is being said behind your back.
  • Report the offenders. Review the website’s or platform’s Terms of Service (TOS) or Code of Conduct, to identify what actions are considered violations, then politely ask the service to remove offensive comments, in accordance with its guidelines, and to ban the violator from the platform.
    Beware—some sites, especially those that seem to foster harassment and revenge porn, have been known to thumb their noses at victims and reprint emotional takedown requests, so don’t get overwrought in your tone. Stick to boilerplate legalese.
  • Try to identify the attackers. Are you being harassed or stalked, and it’s escalating? Maybe you are fed up with the cyber-slime an anonymous user is posting about you. To identify that person’s IP address, you will need to file a crime report with law enforcement, says California Senior Officer Mike Bires. “After reviewing the facts of the case, the detectives can obtain a warrant, which can be served upon the social media platform in question, requesting all of the information relevant to the case and the suspect.”But if you don’t want to contact the authorities, there are other ways to find out who’s behind the IP, suggests security expert Theresa Payton, CEO of Fortalice Solutions and coauthor of the bookProtecting Your Internet Identity: Are You Naked Online?. “When you are in the digital world, you can feel powerless,” she says. “Consider hiring a cybersecurity company to unmask the aggressor, if the case is more serious.Unfortunately, my company has been increasingly hired to do this. It’s not a sure thing that you can unmask them, but often you can, if [you have] suspicions [about] who is harassing [you]. Everyone has a digital pattern, so watching the harasser’s patterns [may lead] you to the real-life person.”
  • Cut the criminals off. If you ever find yourself being extorted for money over explicit materials, treat it like you would any other form of blackmail, recommends ReputationDefender’s Rich Matta. “Cut off all ties with the extortionists. Block their email addresses and social accounts. Realize that a payoff is unlikely to change their behavior or resolve the issue. If videos or materials have been posted ‘privately’ along with a threat to go public, fill out the appropriate online forms to request removal from YouTube, Vimeo, Google, GoDaddy, or whichever hosts or service providers are hosting the explicit material.If appropriate, contact the authorities.”Officer Bires says, “Agencies throughout America are receiving information, tips, bulletins, and training every single day on social media and cybercrimes.” He recom­mends that if you become a victim of sextortion, report the crime to your local law enforcement. Bires continues, “ Granted, not every police department has the expertise to investigate such technical crimes, [but] these same agencies know there are law enforcement professionals who can assist them in completing an investigation.”

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