Cyber Harassment: A Crime Without Consequences?
“The internet is basically the Wild West,” said the police officer. His shrug was audible. “Unless there is an explicit threat to life, or physical contact, there’s nothing we can do.” It wasn’t the answer I’d been waiting for, and it didn’t fix anything. He had a huge file in front of him, full of evidence. He had my six-page witness statement. He had all the details of the person we both believed was responsible. Nothing we can do. How did we end up here?
This post has been brewing in me for months. Writing it is both painful and risky. It exposes vulnerability, and for all I know, it could restart some troubles that, thankfully, eventually died out on their own. But it is cathartic. It is an act of defiance and a way of reclaiming control of the narrative; this is not a chapter I wanted to be a part of, but I will take the opportunity to write the ending myself.
The story starts the same way so many of these stories do: With a man angry at a woman. I won’t go into the specifics, but with this particular angry man, I had made a decision that I would not communicate with him directly anymore. Trust me when I say I had good reasons. It wasn’t a decision taken lightly, and it had been a long time coming. Although this decision had consequences for the angry man, it was supported by other people in my professional life, who made sure that I would not need to do so.
This made the angry man more angry. When his first attempt to circumvent this decision failed, he tried different tactics. Because he could not get what he wanted officially, he took a different route. More accurately, a variety of different routes via the Internet.
At the last count, the angry man has attempted to force communication using 19 different pseudonyms on 6 different platforms — including our own comment section. Some of these pseudonyms were used to target other Pajiba staff, and others were attempts to impersonate writers and regular commenters below the line. (Incidentally, I don’t think he’ll show up here today because he’s probably not that stupid, but if he does, he can be sure that a) I will report him to the authorities and b) you will tear him a new one as you have done so eloquently in the past.) A lot of these communications were just him howling into the abyss, as however much I wanted to reply, or even acknowledge receipt, I wouldn’t. With the help of the Overlords, there was a lot of banning, blocking, muting and ignoring going on behind the scenes. And a lot of evidence gathering. I took a lot of screenshots. They are all in a dossier now, filed away with the police report. Because what was happening was a crime.
Let’s take a closer look at the law in the US and the UK. British law defines harassment as:
“conduct [which] was targeted at an individual, was calculated to alarm or cause him/her distress, and was oppressive and unreasonable.”
Stalking is a more extreme form of harassment, and includes:
“contacting, or attempting to contact, a person by any means”
“publishing any statement or other material relating or purporting to relate to a person, or purporting to originate from a person.”
Behaviour by a suspect as part of a campaign of stalking and harassment could include: —frequent unwanted contact, for example, attending at the home or the workplace of the victim, telephone calls, text messages, emails or use of other mechanisms such as the internet and social networking sites;
Harassment is generally defined as a course of conduct which annoys, threatens, intimidates, alarms, or puts a person in fear of their safety. Harassment is unwanted, unwelcomed and uninvited behavior that demeans, threatens or offends the victim and results in a hostile environment for the victim. Harassing behavior may include, but is not limited to, epithets, derogatory comments or slurs and lewd propositions, assault, impeding or blocking movement, offensive touching or any physical interference with normal work or movement, and visual insults, such as derogatory posters or cartoons.
A person is guilty of aggravated harassment in the second degree when, with intent to harass, annoy, threaten or alarm another person, he or she:
Either (a) communicates with a person, anonymously or otherwise, by telephone, or by telegraph, mail or any other form of written communication, in a manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm; or (b) causes a communication to be initiated by mechanical or electronic means or otherwise with a person, anonymously or otherwise, by telephone, or by telegraph, mail or any other form of written communication, in a manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm;
In some ways, the law is clear in both the US and the UK, though in the US, harassment falls under state laws and as a result, there is some variation between states. What muddies the water considerably is how the law can be applied to harassment that takes place online. In the UK, cyberstalking comes under the umbrella of harassment (though not necessarily stalking). In the US, the phrase ‘cyber harassment’ is used, which is perhaps more precise. The following definition outlines some of the issues inherent to cyber harassment:
Cyber harassment refers to online harassment. Cyber harassment or bullying is the use of email, instant messaging, and derogatory websites to bully or otherwise harass an individual or group through personal attacks. Cyber harassment can be in the form of flames, comments made in chat rooms, sending of offensive or cruel e-mail, or even harassing others by posting on blogs or social networking sites. Cyber harassment is often difficult to track as the person responsible for the acts of cyber harassment remains anonymous while threatening others online. This usually applies to school-age children.
Anonymity is the primary problem, but this goes hand in hand with responsibility. When platforms are used to harass, the platforms are not responsible for the content, nor are they willing to provide user data to law enforcement. They rely on users to exercise their own judgement, and moderate where applicable. They provide the option of reporting other users for breaking community standards, but let’s face it, the platforms themselves are often useless at judging reported content. When it comes to responsibility, each platform places greater emphasis on protecting the anonymity of its users than protecting its users from harm.
What about direct communications? Some of these you can trace yourself without much technical expertise, though the results of a geolocation trace can be inconclusive to say the least. Some traces go back to a server or a network rather than a specific user. Some users disable location services on their devices anyway. Law enforcement can do a more detailed search than this, but only if there is direct threat to life. And even then, even if you are lucky enough to trace a communication directly back to a device, the user can simply claim that someone else sent it.
Why would someone do this in the first place? The answer can be complicated. There have been psychological studies into those who engage in stalking behavior, but the issue really goes beyond these profiles when it comes to cyber harassment. This is more about how people behave when they think they can get away with it. We see a lot of feral behavior on social media. It’s not clear whether social media has changed human behavior or just revealed what’s been underneath all along, but the combination of free access to other people and a mask-like avatar you can hide behind seems to have led to a free-for-all of hate and fury. Psychologists call this deindividuation — a kind of mob mentality that takes over when you wear a real or virtual mask.
Cyber harassment is like an epidemic for the current age. It rears its ugly head in a number of ways, all of which are awful. It knows no political allegiance, though it is more frequent on one side than the other. It can take the form of an unknown person who means what they say, an unknown person who says terrible things but doesn’t really mean them, or a known person finding new ways to torment you when the normal channels are cut off. In some ways, what happened to me is low down the harassment scale, but how do we measure that? When we assess risk at work, we give a score for severity and multiply that by a score for likelihood. Using that measure, a severe threat that’s unlikely might end up with the same risk factor as one that is less severe but more likely. Which is worse: 100 strangers sending you a single message of abuse each, or one person you know, who abuses you 100 times and in 100 ways, and still turns up at your workplace for no good reason? It’s hard to say.
And as the police officer confirmed, there’s very little that anyone can do. When this was going on, I frequently compared it to standing still and smiling while someone repeatedly punches you in the face, hoping that if they punch you enough times, they’ll leave some evidence behind. I’ve also been told that this is the price for going online, that this is what happens when you “put yourself out there,” that this is only to be expected, and maybe I should just stop. I was also asked if it really was “that bad,” whether this was ‘just’ someone disagreeing with me online. Honey, I am a woman writing things on the Internet; people disagree with me all the damn time. Sometimes they tell me to fuck off. They don’t, generally, leave hundreds of messages over the course of a few days. They don’t send the same message from multiple email addresses. They don’t ‘dig up’ your work email address. They don’t try to recruit users of 4chan to come and join in the ‘fun.’ They don’t impersonate you and say hateful things in your name. That sort of behavior is a huge red flag, surely?
I don’t know exactly what motivated him. Was it anger? Vengeance? Was he just unable to recognize and process frustration with a decision he didn’t agree with? Was he feeling like a martyr to a political cause? Who knows. Who cares?
I do know the effect that he had. And this was really hard to admit, because I wish that this hadn’t had an effect at all. But it did. And I hated it. I had to admit this in writing, in my police statement: I don’t feel safe. I stepped up the personal risk assessments. I had my mail checked at work. I had emails filtered and traced. I got a personal alarm. I was escorted to my car after dark. I only relaxed when I got home and locked the door behind me.
And I was desperate to keep all of this hidden from view, in case he found out. Every day, I put my big girl pants and my brave face on in front of his friends, knowing that any sign of vulnerability or distress might be passed back to him. It was evident from some of the communications that this had been happening. Don’t let them see you cry. However much you want to have the last word, do not respond. Take a screenshot, update your file, then ban, block, mute, ignore. Take the punches. Keep smiling. Take some personal days. Take a bubble bath. Get a massage. Avoid mascara. Don’t check your notifications. Check the battery on your rape alarm.
No-one seemed to want the case. It was passed between officers, departments and counties. I didn’t understand. I had given them everything I could. But nowadays there are only two types of Real Evidence according to the police, and they didn’t have either. There was no CCTV evidence of angry man assaulting me, or even better, angry man’s DNA under my cold, dead fingernails. That would have been something concrete. Months later, I finally found myself face to face with one of the officers who had been looking at my case. It was a courtesy meeting; “Nothing we can do,” he said. There was one thing he could do, though: He could look me in the eye and tell me I was on my own.
What could I do next? Campaign for changes in the law? The laws that protect harassers protect normal people too. Waiving those rights and granting more power to law enforcement to snoop seems like too high a price. Anything else? The police officer implicitly suggested coming offline or growing a thicker skin. Helpful. He also suggested, without in any way kidding, wearing a body camera at work. They do like their video evidence, y’all.
The angry man may have been persistent, but I’m stubborn. Stubbornness gets a bad reputation, but it was my stubbornness that kept me going when it was rough. Not responding at the time was a form of winning, and stubborn people always win in the end —- mainly because everyone else has given up the game long before we decide it’s over. I’m declaring it over now.
Because, really, the only thing left to do is to just decide to let it go. So that’s what I’m doing. That evidence is still sitting in the file. It’s not going anywhere. If he does it to someone else —- and let’s face it, angry men will always find another woman to be angry with —- maybe the police will dust off the file and look more closely at it. They know his name. Until I wrote this post, that was the best I could do. Then I started typing. Do you know what this post is? It’s the last word. And it’s mine, asshole.
End of chapter.
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