The State of Online Harassment on Social Media
Social media platforms have a serious issue: one that is arguably more concerning than censorship.
The Twitter War Begins: An Insider look at bullying, harassment, and online abuse.
Centerpoint on TBN: A nightly round-up of investigative journalists Doug McKelway Host, Former Fox News Washington correspondent, Amy Peikoff, Chief Policy Officer/ Parler, Kris Ruby, CEO/ Ruby Media Group.
- How could platform moderation change with Musk?
- What are the risks of unmoderated social media platforms?
- How effectively are social media companies addressing online harassment?
Harassment: A repeated pattern of behavior intended to scare, harm, anger, or shame a targeted individual.
Harassment requires “a knowing and willful course of conduct directed at a specific person that a reasonable person would consider as seriously alarming, seriously annoying, seriously tormenting, or seriously terrorizing the person and that serves no legitimate purpose.”
Recently, I discussed Twitter’s future with a potential Elon Musk acquisition on NewsNation. Unlike many conservatives, I expressed hesitation and doubt. This broke party lines and typical talking points around Musk, free speech, censorship, and the ability to say whatever you want on social media. I am almost certain that some people viewed this segment and asked, why did she go off-topic? The focus is on Elon Musk’s Twitter acquisition and free speech. Why is she talking about abuse and online harassment? How is that relevant?
The truth is, it is very relevant. In fact, it is more relevant than anything that was reported. An acquisition is not a small undertaking. When you acquire a company, you have to be willing to address all of the issues, not only the issues that drive the most eyeballs and media attention. As someone who has covered the politics of social media and big tech for the past fifteen years, I am keenly aware of these issues, both as someone who covers it and also as someone who has personally experienced it.
Free speech is complicated. It is easy for an expert to repeat talking points who has never worked a single day in content moderation. As someone who has, I can certainly tell you that these decisions are not as simple as the media leads you to believe. There are entire teams dedicated to Trust and Safety violations. Do I think Twitter has exhibited a strong political bias and favors liberal content? Yes. I have said that for years and continue to believe that. However, the challenge is when these issues are conflated.
Twitter has a growing problem with online harassment, bullying, and platform abuse. They are not alone in this. In fact, after thoroughly reviewing The Transparency report for every major social media platform, it is evident that social media abuse is one of the largest issues plaguing every big tech company, outside of child sexual exploitation.
Why is this such a big deal? Hundreds of hours of air time were spent discussing how Musk would revolutionize the free speech issue at Twitter if the acquisition went through. Not a single person bothered to read through the Transparency reports or mention that abuse, bullying, and online harassment is actually the largest issue Twitter currently has.
This is akin to a politician running a campaign that was not based on polling results or research and instead based on what people are saying on Twitter. When people speak out about the real issues, we are not applauded, in fact, we are scolded for going off-topic.
It doesn’t matter to me how many times Elon Musk screams from a rooftop that censorship is the largest issue (or fake bots). The answer is in the research and reports. Ignoring these reports does not make them less valid.
So why were people like me concerned when Musk was ranting about the censorship issue while ignoring the abuse and harassment problem on Twitter? Because revoking the current progress Twitter has made in this area would mean opening the floodgates for amplified social media abuse and harassment. Many were rightfully afraid as to what this would look like with Musk leading the way.
Social media platforms are being weaponized by digital predators to carry out defamatory smear campaigns with surgical precision. The abuse is amplified by the volume and number of emerging networks, making it increasingly harder to tackle.
Is censorship the answer? No. At the same time, neither is giving a microphone to repeat offenders who weaponize social media to commit heinous crimes. What is worse? Being kicked off a platform for political views or being allowed to stay on a platform and be cyberstalked, harassed, and abused? Where do you draw the line? And which option would you choose if you were the victim on the receiving end?
In its present form, not a single social media platform has managed to get this right. Predators and trolls have figured out how to game the system in their favor, specifically by throwing in liberal buzzwords like “white supremacist” and “alt-right.”
Politics are being weaponized to appeal to the political leanings of law enforcement and Trust and Safety officers at the expense of victims.
When it comes to issues of digital domestic violence, abuse, or harassment, a victim’s political leanings should have zero impact on content moderation decisions. Unfortunately, they do. Too often, we discuss how platforms censor users based on politics. What we don’t discuss is how they silence victims based on politics. Those are the stories you never hear. If you discredit an abuse report because you disagree with the political leanings of the person being abused, that is not a censorship issue. It is a domestic violence one.
We have created a woke society that is persecuting victims instead of prosecuting those guilty of the crime. There is a difference between censorship of a right to speak and censorship of a right to be heard in cases of digital domestic violence. If there is a lack of political diversity in the content moderation team, the arbiters of these decisions can effectively silence victims at scale. This is extremely dangerous.
I am not just talking about the right to have a platform. I am talking about the right to exist safely without being abused everywhere you go online. And it is all too often weaponized to create false reports, particularly against female conservative content creators. Don’t like someone? Report them for violent extremism and terrorism, regardless of whether it’s true. This is yet another example of how social media is being weaponized.
These false reports are effectively used to discredit any valid complaint of abuse, regardless of the validity of the claim. Social media companies are not staffed to spend hours on each case further perpetuating the problem. Repeat offenders will attempt to cover their tracks with blurred-out screenshots, taking their tactics from one platform to the next.
Essentially, this means that if they are suspended from one platform for bullying and harassment, the next platform has no record of this, leading the cycle to repeat all over again. This creates a constant cycle of PTSD in the victim, spending hours per day with support teams not trained in DV trying to help them understand what they are living through.
Pre-social media, victim services would help someone with that. Today, victims have to do this themselves, without support, and without truly understanding they are the victim because they are too busy fighting for survival online in a constant war zone. What makes the entire situation worse is that trust and safety and support are not trained to spot the warning signs and often tell the victim that nothing happened.
Imagine if a girl was punched in the face and the police told her she wasn’t really punched? This is what women deal with daily in their fight for social media survival. The predators game the platforms with an endless array of suspension appeals and smear campaigns, ultimately saying that they are the victim, and discrediting the real victim of their abuse.
Social media companies are ill-equipped to deal with the realities of cyber stalking, harassment, and abuse. They frequently take actions that will result in even greater levels of abuse by sending abusers notifications and alerts every time a report is filed.
The worst part of all of this is that those guilty of the abuse publicly claim that they are the victims. This makes it impossible for the trust and safety team to be a mediator without education in spotting the signs of DV. Social Media companies are trusted to handle abuse and harassment- something that we previously trusted law enforcement to do. They are being tasked to handle something they are not equipped or trained to handle.
Every time they make the wrong call, they are re-traumatizing the victim of the abuse. Their inaction leads to a cycle of digital destruction and chaos for the victim and everyone involved, which has far-reaching professional consequences.
We are essentially asking trust and safety teams to enforce a digital restraining order, without ever being handed one.
This problem runs far deeper than just Trust and Safety- it extends to software engineers, community managers, and marketers being tasked with navigating these reports in mentions and direct messages. We are already seeing the first signs of sexual assault and harassment in the metaverse. Law enforcement is ill-equipped to handle these reports because they do not treat digital crimes with the same severity as physical crimes. But they aren’t the only ones.
HR departments are having new hires onboard in the metaverse- which can put women at risk for assaults in front of their colleagues. Who is liable if this happens? Have companies thought through the severity of sexual assault in the metaverse? Or are we setting women up for failure?
Who is coming to protect these women if law enforcement isn’t and HR and legal don’t even have guidelines around it?
Companies have over-invested in woke talking points and line items at the expense of investing in online harassment training. This effectively means that employees are being tasked to handle something they have zero experience handling. Their response can lead to further escalation, which could put someone’s life at risk. This is not their fault- it is the fault of the companies who have not taken this seriously until it’s too late.
When a victim is cyberstalked, so are her colleagues and associates. It has far-reaching ramifications- the abuse does not start and stop with the victim- it will extend to everyone they interact with professionally online as possible targets.
Additionally, this will impact vendor and employee retention. If someone you work with is being cyber stalked or harassed online, it will impact the business relationship. What is your policy when this happens? Do you ignore it or do you take a stand? Do you leave the person to get eaten by wolves or do you put yourself in harm’s way, knowing that makes you the next target?
There is a reason why stalking and harassment are crimes. We need to start treating social media crimes with the same enforcement that these serious crimes deserve. Why is it that someone with a criminal record for stalking and harassment can commit the same crimes online and have multiple victims and the internet algorithms will instead treat this person as a victim?
The solution to social media harassment and abuse is much larger than any one person acquiring a company. It is much larger than who is censored and who has the right to speak. The solution starts with social media companies working with law enforcement and investing in domestic violence training and education for those on the frontlines.
We are raising a generation of women who are the victims of online harassment but are being gaslit by big tech and law enforcement to believe they aren’t. This is going to cause serious long-term, irreparable long-term damage to their mental health. This is not a joke. It is an epidemic.
Telling someone to just “block” an abuser online is invalidating and discrediting to their experience. Especially when the person creates numerous fake accounts to monitor and surveil their victim, and even show up at their place of work online. It is as if the people doling this advice have never spent more than a few minutes on the Internet.
Imagine if you went to the police to say a man hit you in the face and they said, just lock your door. Your black eye isn’t really that bad. And yet, this is what women are told every time they beg someone at social media companies (or law enforcement) to take this seriously.
The numbers don’t lie. The transparency reports across every social media platform show that online abuse and social media harassment is the largest issue.
The answer to abuse and harassment isn’t to empower abusers to abuse and harassers to harass. The answer to stalking isn’t to empower stalkers to stalk. The answer starts with acknowledging that the offline problems that the courts are trained in dealing with have merged to online problems at scale.
We need better solutions to create a safer Internet. That doesn’t start with decentralization. It starts with centralization between law enforcement, social media companies and acknowledgment of the severity of the issue.
How can you protect yourself from social media harassment?
In certain states in the U.S., you can petition for an injunction against harassment. If someone continues to harass you on a public website or social media, this is a crime. If the harassment continues, it is important to screenshot continued evidence of this on any and all public forums, including but not limited to social media sites, websites, blogs and internet forums and discussion boards. If someone continues to do this, they are in violation of harassment laws, regardless of whether or not your name is used. An injunction against harassment means stopping any and all harassment: full stop. The common misconception is that if someone’s name is not used, it is not harassment. This couldn’t be further from the truth, particularly if you have previously used someone’s full name, and a regular person can identify who you are discussing, which could lead to reputational harm. There is no better case of this than the Depp Vs. Heard defamation case.
If you continue to harass someone on a public platform, they have a legal right to collect any and all evidence of that. Document the public harassment. If someone does this on a public forum (website or social media platform) and all of the harassing content is about you, you have a legal right to document this.
Collecting evidence of further harassment is critical to show that someone has defied a court order and has no plans of stopping their harassment.
Remember: A victim has a right to collect evidence on any and all public platforms and social media platforms that someone continues to harass you on, regardless of whether or not your name is used.
Continued harassment through public electronic communication is a crime, regardless of whether your PII is used. A victim has the right to document public evidence of continued harassment.
Can social media be used in legal proceedings when it comes to social media harassment?
Yes. If social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are used to repeatedly cyberstalk, harass or defame an individual, they can absolutely be used in legal proceedings. However, regular screenshots will typically not suffice, and it is important to show the entirety of the post by saving the full article or post.
LEARN: Kris Ruby and Defamation Attorney Aaron Minc will discuss interstate stalking this week in a CLE webinar titled Depp Vs. Heard.
Ruby and Minc will discuss:
- What is digital domestic violence? An inside look at The State of Social Media Harassment
- The role of social media in libel/ defamation litigation.
- What role does big tech play in digital domestic violence cases?
- Firing a crisis PR firm mid-trial: why it was a mistake.
- The White House Task Force to Address Online Harassment and Abuse.
- Why we need to re-think the laws around cyber stalking and cyber harassment and the challenge of prosecuting interstate crimes.
- Making your case: how to present your case to law enforcement.
- The role of technology in cyber stalking and social media harassment: what can we do to make it easier to log and track incidents of digital DV?
Rules Enforcement: pic.twitter.com/52rgIM4YxW
— Kristen Ruby (@sparklingruby) April 27, 2022
Under our Abusive Behavior policy, we prohibit content that harasses or intimidates, or is otherwise intended to shame or degrade others. We took action on 1,043,525 pieces of content during the reporting period.
Reports received by category:
Harassment and Bullying was the largest category of reports received, followed by Platform Manipulation, Hateful Conduct, and Child Safety. The Platform Manipulation category excludes reports from the new one-click spam feature mentioned before.
“Harassment and Bullying, the largest category of reports received had one of the lower action rates, at 18%, as oftentimes behavior interpreted and reported as harassment does not directly violate our Guidelines.”
This quote above is the exact issue I am referring to. Behavior reported as harassment often is harassment- the issue is in the interpretation of what constitutes harassment when the people making moderation decisions don’t know what to look for.
RECENT LEGISLATION/ NEWS ON ONLINE ABUSE AND HARASSMENT:
The White House established a Task Force to Address Online Harassment and Abuse
Japan makes online insults punishable by one year in prison
What are some warning signs of online social media harassment?
- Lack of empathy/ sadistic tendency to disregard the boundaries of others
- Consistent examples of invasion of privacy in public forums
- History of defamation/ libel / slander
- The harasser believes that habitually posting derogatory online information about others is not a problem.
- Multiple usernames with different fake profiles and anonymous accounts.
- No track record of usernames across platforms due to being repeatedly suspended or banned for terms of service violations.
What are examples of social media abuse?
- Contacting former clients in an attempt to destroy your reputation and livelihood
- Contacting current clients through direct messages on social media platforms including LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook and spreading lies about a victim
- Contacting media outlets to spread lies about a victim
- Posting lies across numerous channels to try to hurt someone’s search engine results
- Recording podcasts threatening victims’ friends and family members
- Infiltrating someone’s closest inner circle through cyber stalking their connections
- Creating numerous fake accounts to keep track of a victim
- Attending work events that the person is speaking at and trolling the event to hurt their livelihood and reputation
- Spreading lies about a victim across numerous social media channels
- Sharing personal details about a victim in an attempt to humiliate, shame and embarrass them
- Intentionally inflicting emotional distress and humiliation to a victim through consistent social media posts across numerous platforms that make a victim afraid to use social media ever again for fear of being stalked and having their colleagues targeted.
Social media harassment involves:
- Cyber stalking
- Online abuse
- Digital sabotage through electronic communication channels (interstate)
- Dissemination of rumors and lies about the victim through email
- Revenge porn dissemination & posting intimate images
- Deep fake pornography creation
- Artificial Intelligence image creation that portrays the victim in a negative light
- Blockchain stalking (surveillance of DAOs, NFTs, wallet activity to monitor a victim)
- Online trolling
- Cyber bullying
- Destruction of digital property (down voting/ false reporting/ negative article creation)
- Distributing explicit information about the victim including medical information in an attempt to destroy their reputation
- Creating fake accounts to spread lies about the victim
- Writing negative information about the victim on the Internet with the sole intention of portraying the victim in a bad light
- Impersonating the victim through fake accounts
- Malicious software, hacking & IP tracking without your consent
What constitutes online harassment?
“Harassment can include repeated attempts to impose unwanted verbal communications and humiliation upon a victim in a manner that could be expected to cause distress or fear in any reasonable person and lead them to attempt suicide. Harassment of an individual can also occur when a person is harassing others connected with the individual, knowing that this behavior will affect their victim as well as the other people that the person appears to be targeting their actions towards. This is known as ‘stalking by proxy’. Family members, friends and employees of the victim may be subjected to this.”- Justice Narendra Kumar Gunaki
Cyberstalking refers to abusive behaviors electronically over an extended period of time that harm, threaten or terrorize a victim through consistent surveillance of online activity.
Who is guilty of cyberbullying?
“Anyone who sends any online communication to deliberately frighten, embarrass, harass or otherwise target another is a cyberbully. The cyberbully can use instant messenger, e-mail, websites, diary sites, online profiles, interactive games, tablets, and cell phones to assault his or her victim. Most of the time, the cyberbully knows the victim.”
Direct attacks are hurtful messages sent from the cyberbully through email, social networking sites, instant messaging, or other forums. They often target the victim relentlessly.
Indirect attacks or campaigns are widespread messages that hurt the victim’s reputation. Cyber bullies may start a website or a page on a social networking site dedicated to spreading hateful messages about the victim.” -Attorney General Rob Bonita
What Is the Punishment for Cyberbullying and social media harassment?
Cyberstalking is a federal offense.
The answer to this depends on the jurisdiction. In The United States, there are federal laws on cyberstalking (but not necessarily social media harassment), and each state handles it differently.
Cyber stalking involves a specific course of conduct where someone engages in a seres of acts that have continuity to case substantial emotional distress serving no legitimate purpose.
Federal cyberstalking laws state that a person has used a computer or electronic device with the purpose of harassing to intimidating the victim.
In a recent case, a man in Tampa was sentenced to more than three years in federal prison for cyberstalking.
“According to court documents, from approximately January 2020 through July 2021, Dragan engaged in a course of conduct with the intent to harass and intimidate multiple victims. Using Instagram, Dragan cyberstalked, harassed, and threatened the victims with a series of continuous messages.”
Most cyber stalkers do not do their stalking by solely contacting the victim. They use social media to orbit the victim by contacting the victims colleagues, clients, media outlets and personal relationships to conduct their stalking activity. This course of conduct over an extended period of time can turn into a federal offense that can result in prison.
State or federal?
Where the offense occurred distinguishes state cyberstalking from federal cyberstalking. This makes it even more complicated when dealing with social media harassment across state lines. This also means you are dealing with two separate court systems and two separate state laws pertaining to cyberstalking, further complicating the issue. This often results in neither jurisdiction or local law enforcement agency taking significant action. Each agency will say the other law enforcement agency is responsible for handling it, ultimately resulting in neither agency assisting the victim.
“If the conduct stays within Florida’s borders, it remains a state matter. However, if it in any way affects interstate or foreign commerce (for instance, if you are in Florida and communicating with someone in California), it becomes a federal case.”- Hager & Schwartz
Globally, we are seeing a crackdown on cyberbullying that is much stronger than any current action in The United States.
After rising concerns of harassment on social media, Japan has now made cyberbullying punishable by imprisonment. Japan also strengthened defamation laws in response to online bullying that sparked the suicide of reality TV star Hana Kimura.
Japan makes cyberbullying punishable by up to a year in prison after a reality TV star’s suicide
Japan’s parliament recently approved penalizing criminal defamation by up to one year in prison after the suicide of a young reality television star prompted a national debate over cyberbullying.
Is social media harassment a crime?
When using technology to hurt others results in criminal action
There are two different areas: civil and criminal.
Can you sue for harassment on social media?
Yes. The first step is to document cyber stalking and social media harassment. Every time a new social media harassment incident occurs, do the following:
I’m being harassed by someone on social media. What can I do?
- Save a PDF of the incident. Take screenshots that show the date/time/ full URL of the social media outlet it occurred on. Make sure this shows who is posting the content- not just the content itself.
- Report the content to the platform. Save a copy of all emails sent to every social media platform. Routine harassers will claim they are the victim and that you tried to “shadow ban them” and “hurt their business.” What they fail to mention is that the reports to social media platforms are always because the victim is being harassed, stalked, and abused. A harasser will always portray themselves as the victim, both offline and online and in court. It is extremely important to document the harassment you are enduring.
- Report each incident to law enforcement. Law enforcement won’t do much, but you will need to be able to show the reports in court if you decide to pursue a harassment injunction or stalking injunction. Keep in mind that when you file this, the person will file a retaliatory one against you, and the court will almost always keep both in place, due to liability reasons.
- Pursue legal action. Going to court (digitally or in person) can prove even more traumatic when dealing with the person who conducted the social media harassment, so ultimately you need to determine if that is something you are willing to go through. For many victims of online abuse, dealing with the abuser in court even one time is too re traumatizing to ever deal with again, leading them to completely disengage from fighting any false or retaliatoar4y harassment injunction.
SOCIAL MEDIA MINIMALISM
Horizon scanning and future social media outlook
In 2023, stalking looks very different than it did previously. The stalking laws catch up to technology in order to protect victims.
I believe we are entering the age of anti-social media, where posting on social media about every aspect of your life is becoming increasingly less cool. More people are starting to wake up to the real-world risk of stalking, harassment and offline occupational harm than can emerge as a result of encounters with nefarious actors on online social media platforms.
Simply put; maybe putting your entire life online was not a good idea after all.
This is obvious to victims who have been harmed by social media, or to those who have had their tweets used against them in court, or personal text messages subpoenaed and shared in court filings, like Elon Musk’s personal texts with business associates.
But what happens when online stalking turns into real-world harm? Has anyone examined the consequences on mental health of these victims or the PTSD those victims face using social media again after experiencing traumatic online abuse?
Every day, social media platforms gain new users, and lose existing ones. But who is looking at the churn? Why have people left? And where are they going to next? Social media companies lose users and don’t ask why. Maybe it’s not only because of the algorithm changes. Maybe people have finally met real world calamity with digital harm and have had enough. At some point, when the two collide, it’s just not worth it anymore.
ONLINE REPUTATION MANAGEMENT SERVICES | NYC
If you have been the victim of social media harassment, it is time to take control of the narrative. This includes a triaged approach with legal counsel, public relations, victim advocates, and psychiatrists. You are not alone. If someone is attempting to destroy your reputation and life online, we can help. Contact us today.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
KRIS RUBY | FOUNDER | RUBY MEDIA GROUP
KRIS RUBY is the CEO of Ruby Media Group, an award-winning social media marketing agency in Westchester County, New York. Kris Ruby has more than 15 years of experience in the social media industry. She is a sought-after digital marketing strategist and social media expert. Kris Ruby is also a national television commentator and political pundit and she has appeared on national TV programs over 200 times covering big tech bias, politics, and social media. She is a trusted media source and frequent on-air commentator on social media, tech trends, and crisis communications and frequently appears on FOX News and other TV networks. She has been featured as a published author in OBSERVER, ADWEEK, and countless other industry publications. Her research on brand activism and cancel culture is widely distributed and referenced.
Kris Ruby is a nationally recognized leader in social media and crisis management. Her firm, Ruby Media Group, focuses on helping clients develop executive thought leadership marketing campaigns utilizing digital PR and SEO strategies. She is a leading crisis communications expert and the go-to expert in The U.S. on cancel culture. With over a decade of experience, Kris has successfully helped hundreds of clients create search engine results they are proud of. Most recently, she published an article titled “The State of Social Media Harassment.” Ruby chronicles an insider look at bullying, harassment, and online abuse.
She has been a speaker at several national conventions and events on social media law firm branding including The American Bar Association and The Northern Westchester Bar Association. News media call upon Kris Ruby to provide commentary on topics involving social media, big tech, privacy, and social media harassment. Kris Ruby appeared on RTL Television, a major broadcast TV Network in Europe to contribute social media analysis on the Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard trial. She reported on the intricacies of crisis management and PR for high-profile Hollywood cases.
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*Nothing in this post is legal advice.
Update: Since the initial publication of this article, Elon Musk acquired Twitter.
*Date last updated Dec 2022