Some strategies for dealing with on line harassment.

This post arises out of a recent discussion on Twitter about effective strategies for dealing with on line behaviour from others that you perceive as harassing or threatening. This is the product of my years of exposure to some very harsh on line environments. I hope its helpful, but of course, it is the result of my own particular experience, it may not resonate for you. In which case, ignore it. Or add some comments and suggestions of your own. 

I have been active on ‘public electronic communications networks’  (for e.g. Twitter) since 2011. My communication style has changed over the years; I hope for the better. I am have become less sensitive to challenge and better able to set appropriate boundaries around my own and other’s behaviour.

At the same time, I have become increasingly concerned about the way people chose to communicate on line. Abuse, aggression and harassment are increasingly common. Those in charge of social media platforms appear to have limited ability and/or willingness to control it.

The upsides of social media are significant – without Twitter for e.g. my opportunities for exposure to other disciplines would be greatly reduced. it would be a shame to lose the opportunity offered to share and explore ideas with many others because you are driven off the internet by the aggression or abuse. So, it’s worth spending some time to think about how you handle people who are abusive on line.

Freedom of speech is a vital component of any civilised society and protected by Article 10 of the ECHR. You are going to have to put up with some exposure to those who say things you don’t like. But the right to freedom of expression is not limitless. The freedom to say outrageous things is not (as some would appear to assume) a duty or a compulsion to say outrageous things. The limits to freedom of speech are rightly set by the law; for example, you cannot defame someone with impunity, you cannot racially abuse them or threaten to rape them without consequence.

Those more extreme abuses of freedom of speech are easy to spot. What causes the problem is that one person’s robust and necessary contribution to a debate can be interpreted by another as offensive or harassing.

So what can you do to improve your on line experiences and/or deal more effectively with those people that you find offensive? I am not suggesting by ‘resilience’ that everyone simply ‘toughen up’ and simply laugh off or ignore disgusting behaviour on line. On the contrary, I believe that such behaviour should be challenged and I am confident I have the necessary personality traits to enable me to engage in such challenge without disproportionate cost to my own emotional well being. But challenge and confrontation doesn’t work for everyone and every situation; you will need to consider other strategies and approaches.

I offer some below.

Know Thyself

Know yourself. Why are you on line? Who is your audience? What do you want to communicate? If you are engaging in debate about controversial issues or ones that encourage polarised and strong views then you are going to meet people who don’t agree with you and who won’t be shy about saying so.  If you find it difficult to deal with disagreement or confrontation in real life, the impact of this will be magnified ten fold on line. The combination of anonymity and distance from the recipient of abusive behaviour – ‘the on line disinhibition effect’ – often results in an increase in the intensity of people’s reactions.

Know what you are dealing with

The increase in intensity of reaction is of course a two way street. What you perceive as abuse or harassment, may be a reflection of your own strong feelings about a topic and your resistance to being challenged, particularly if the challenge is made in a blunt or aggressive way.  As much of interaction via social media is written, a significant part of necessary information we need to understand another’s intent is lost; most particularly tone of voice and facial expressions. It is not surprising therefore that the nuance of a discussion suffers. Combine this with what appears to be the natural human predisposition to discern threat where none exists and it is not difficult to understand why so many on line engagements go sour so quickly.

I think problems with on line communications involve 4 broad categories of people, and its important to try and identify which is which, as this will inform the remedy you chose.

  • The Trolls – the true dark side of social media are those who have no genuine wish to communicate but instead gain satisfaction or sense of purpose from abusing others.
  • Ineffective communicators –  those who genuinely wish to communicate but who are overwhelmed by emotion or circumstances that they cannot do so effectively.
  • Ineffective response to challenge – those who are particularly sensitive to challenge and react accordingly.
  • Basic misunderstanding – those who would have had little difficulty in communicating face to face but who misinterpret each other’s motivations on line due to absence of social cues.


But protect yourself

Criminal remedies

If the behaviour on line is serious enough to make you afraid for your safety then inform the police. Recent initiatives indicate that the police hopefully understand the need to engage more effectively with internet ‘hate crimes’ but we are still all finding our way and the responses of various police forces may vary in speed and effectiveness.

Harassment is both a criminal offence and a civil action under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. The police can ask offenders to sign ‘Police Information Notices’ or ‘Harassment Warning Notices’ to show in possible future legal proceedings that a suspect was aware that their behaviour would count as harassment.

In general, ‘harassment’ is behaviour that a reasonable person would agree would cause you distress and alarm. The offence of harassment occurs where:

  • there has been a “course of conduct” (not just one event); and
  • the perpetrator knows or ought to know that their conduct amounts to harassment.

The police can also consider the Malicious Communications Act 1988 but as the age of that Act suggests, it wasn’t drafted with social media/online harassment in mind and is not a particularly useful tool.  See this guidance from the CPS about prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media.


Some strategies to deal with behaviour that probably isn’t criminal

If the behaviour you are worried about however, is not so serious that it is likely the police will consider it a  criminal offence, then you have to make a judgment call about what is going on and what you are going to do about it.

Have you considered the intensity of your own reaction to an on line challenge and are confident that others would agree that the other’s behaviour is unacceptable? For example, they use foul language, derogatory terms or repeatedly contact you after being asked to refrain. Being subjected to this is emotionally draining and often very upsetting. You owe it to yourself to set and enforce boundaries to protect your own wellbeing.

I suggest the following strategies


This is often the most effective strategy for a wide range of offensive on line behaviour. Many who troll do so to feed off the emotional response of their victims; the more upset you get and the more you show it, the better they like it. Ignore them and they will often move on to another victim.

I personally don’t like this strategy as it doesn’t sit well with my inherent combative tendencies and I don’t see why they should get away with it. However, in some circumstances ignoring is objectively not a sensible strategy, if it allows people to claim you do not take seriously criticism of your activities or integrity. You may have no choice but to engage.  I therefore I often try the strategy of polite/persistent engagement.


Polite/persistent engagement

This has proved remarkably effective over the years. The true troll will get bored or annoyed very quickly and move on. Those who have genuine motivation to engage but who have been temporarily swept away by the intensity of their own reactions, can often respond well to this and I have managed to form some relationships of at least grudging mutual respect by this method.

As Lindy West comments

I feed trolls. Not always, not every troll, but when I feel like it—when I think it will make me feel better—I talk back. I talk back because the expectation is that when you tell a woman to shut up, she should shut up. I reject that. I talk back because it’s fun, sometimes, to rip an abusive dummy to shreds with my friends. I talk back because my mental health is my priority—not some troll’s personal satisfaction. I talk back because it emboldens other women to talk back online and in real life, and I talk back because women have told me that my responses give them a script for dealing with monsters in their own lives. And, most importantly, I talk back because internet trolls are not, in fact, monsters. They are human beings—and I don’t believe that their attempts to dehumanize me can be counteracted by dehumanizing them.

But its time consuming and requires patience. You are going to need to be confident that you can do it otherwise you are simply increasing the burden on you.


Refer on to other agencies

If its getting bad, you have the option to refer a complaint to the social media provider. For information about Facebook complaints procedures, see here; for information about Twitter see here.

I have never tried this, however, anecdotes from those who have, suggest that this isn’t going to be a very effective or swift remedy.  Is there anyone you can raise a complaint with – such as the moderator of a forum discussion or the administrator of a Facebook page?

(EDIT – I have now tried this and complained to Twitter. My complaint has so far been ignored so I am now even less confident this route will have any success generally. Twitter, in particular is a social media platform that appears to elevate ‘freedom of speech’ above all else, even when that ‘speech’ is designed to do little else but cause alarm and distress).

Some professions – such as barristers, solicitors and social workers – are ‘regulated professions’ which means you could complain directly to their regulatory body about their behaviour on line, if of course they are identifiable. For more information about such complaints, see this post.

Civil law remedies

You have the option of applying for an injunction/damages under the Protection from Harassment Act or seeking to persuade the court that you have suffered defamation.

You will need to be very confident that it’s worth it. No legal action should be undertaken without serious thought. It will bring with it financial and emotional consequences, even if you win. I discuss defamation in more detail in this post. Its worth quoting again from Mr Justice Warby:

Defamatory imputations can cause injury to feelings which is out of all proportion to the harm they cause to reputation. That, so far as the earlier publications are concerned, is this case. So far as the later publications are concerned, and more generally, Mr Economou has made the error of seeing this case from his own perspective as a victim, paying too much attention to the impact on him and his feelings, and giving insufficient consideration to the other perspectives, indeed the other rights and interests, that demand and deserve consideration.

As I know now from bitter personal experience, even sending a few letters from your solicitors to theirs is going to cost thousands of pounds.  The cost to your emotional welfare may be yet higher as even contemplating such legal action can absorb much of your time and energy. Don’t even start unless you have a clear idea of what it is likely to cost you. Trying – and failing – in court can also carry the risk that you have to pay some or all of the costs of the other side.

Getting evidence

If you are being harassed on line hopefully you can get screen shots’of any abusive posts/tweets etc. ‘Screenshot’  is the term used to for taking a picture of whatever is on the screen of your computer/phone/tablet etc. You don’t need any special software as all devices/operating systems should let you take a screenshot.

However, it may be that a screenshot by itself will NOT be considered good enough evidence. You will need to be able to show that the screenshot is genuine and you haven’t tampered with it. One way to do this is make sure that you have the URL for each screenshot. This is an acronym for ‘Uniform Resource Locator’ or a ‘web address’. It specifies a location on a computer network and a mechanism for retrieving it. Or you can use the web archive/wayback machine to save the URL.

I am grateful for the advice of one reader ‘Mr X’ who has provided the following advice to help you get useful evidence about any online harassment: << that is the program I use for my screenshots (Fireshot) – it’s a bit hard to explain in an email how to take the screenshots. I basically find the tweet I want to capture by clicking on it, when you do that, at the top in the browser is the tweet url (https://www.whatevertweet.url etc) use fireshot to capture the tweet, in fireshot there are tools, I use “capture visible area”, then use “crop” tool, so I end up with just the tweet, then I highlight the tweet url (which is on your browser window), right click “copy”, go to the screenshot and choose where I want to put the url text, right click “paste” – then I save it. It took me a while to get the hang of this program – now it takes me a few seconds to do the screenshots as I’ve used this program for 7yrs!!
The web archive/wayback machine is what takes the time – this is the link – if you look towards the right hand side of the page there is “save page now” and the box where you paste the url link into, the webarchive starts to save the page “as is” – once it’s saved there is a new url which has “webarchive etc etc whatever url” – sometimes it can take up to 4mins to save one tweet, you can’t put multiple urls at once, they have to be done individually.
I don’t know what operating system your computer is, but there is a Windows feature called “snipping tool” – I use that sometimes when I don’t need to put the url’s on screenshots.

Take care of yourself

Don’t engage in on line debate/discussion if you are feeling particularly angry or upset about something. Take a break, check that you are not tired or hungry. Don’t make any quick decisions, don’t respond hastily –  unless of course it is so serious you need to call the police. Don’t use offensive language or bring yourself down to their level. it is very difficult for outside agencies to ‘un pick’ who is the main offender when both parties are engaging with each other using abusive terms.

Further reading

Lindy West ‘What happened when I confronted my cruellest troll’ 

Anna Merlan ‘ The cops don’t care about violent online threats. What do we do now?’

The Guardian Experience ‘I was an Internet Troll’.

Google’s response to a defamation claim

Psychology Today ‘No Comment: 3 Rules for Dealing with Internet Trolls‘.

Inforrm article about the case of Smith v Unknown Defendants [2016] EWCH 1775 ‘Defamed by Persons Unknown’. The court awarded damages in defamation of £10,000 – but did Mr Smith ever get his money?

Article by NZ barrister Steven Price ‘The Defamation Minefield – 12 Steps to help you avoid it’

What you need to know about gathering social media evidence 

The National Stalking Helpline 0808 802 0300

Fascinating article by J Nathan Matias about what Victorian efforts to deal with food adulteration can teach us about developing tools for dealing with on line abuse.

Online harassment research guide – research on understanding and responding to online harassment.

Growing social media backlash among young people – report in the Guardian 2017

Excellent Twitter thread on why this platform tends to shy away from dealing with issues of abuse on line

4 thoughts on “Some strategies for dealing with on line harassment.

  1. James

    Very good Sarah, extremely relevant and fairly comprehensive, which was needed.

    I think it’s worth mentioning the cost of civil litigation, especially when it comes to defamation, because so often police are either unaware of what can amount to horrific online abuse, or perhaps are deliberately incompetent/dismissive. One tactic I know they have (both from personal experience and others who’ve been victims), is that they will find a pretext to arrest the victim, thus having it thrown out as each party is accused.

    Unless you’re considered important enough, then mostly a victim’s case will go nowhere, is often the fact of the matter.

    But thanks for being a professional who speaks up on issues like this, it’s sorely needed.

    1. Social Work Tutor

      Thanks for this comment James, it’s been enlightening.

      The mutually destructive issue you mention is not something I’d considered but puts into context some of the stories I’ve heard on this matter.

  2. Pingback: Resources – Remedies against Social Media Harassment

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