The complexity of online harassment

by Nicole Shephard

Technology doesn’t cause harassment; racist, sexist, homo- and transphobic harassment on the internet is grounded in the same asymmetrical power relations, and in the same structural and symbolic violence as offline abuse and harassment. But rather than merely offering an additional avenue for abuse, the internet significantly adds reach, speed and durability to harassment. Online abuse often takes place over extended periods of time, and harassing messages and images can be shared widely, remain online for a long time, and are sometimes amplified by tactics like Google bombing. At the same time, online harassment extends to offline spaces, and offline events can, in turn, perpetuate online harassment.

woman with laptop, online harassment

The many facets of online harassment

Tactics and methods of online abuse are in flux. They include hate speech, defamation, identity theft or online impersonation, rape threats, death threats, doxing, cyberstalking, unsolicited sexual attention, sexual surveillance and other forms of peer surveillance, non-consensual photos or videos. Some forms of online harassment can be mobilised against anyone, others are specific to particular groups of people. Islamophobic harassment targets Muslims, dead-naming or deliberate misgendering target trans folks specifically, revenge porn or slut-shaming target women first and foremost (but not exclusively), while other harassing behaviours apply to a wide range of victims.

Online harassment can involve one or several perpetrators, and often follows a mob-logic that spans across multiple platforms. Depending on severity and context, online harassment can cause a wide range of harm. It affects participation in social and cultural life (a significant proportion of which takes place online), emotional well-being, mental health, physical safety, a person’s reputation, and by extension their professional or school life. As a result, online harassment can also incur a significant financial cost, affect economic stability, and further silence and exclude already marginalised folks.

Legally, online harassment can involve a wide range of legislation, including but not limited to hate speech, identity theft, stalking, defamation and libel, extortion, privacy violations, at times even copyright infringement, amongst others. Some harassing behaviours are illegal in some jurisdictions, others are legal but infringe on the terms of use of some online platforms they take place on. Yet other forms of online harassment are both legal and acceptable to the platform(s) they take place on but nevertheless cause harm to those affected, particularly when sustained over a long period of time. In addition to these localised legal contexts that rarely apply equally to all harassers, victims, and platforms involved, online harassment can touch upon fundamental human rights of those affected, including freedom of expression, the right to privacy, as well as the right to work, education, or participation in cultural life.

I could go on listing factors contributing to the complexity of online harassment, but the point is that one of the most important insights to be gained on online harassment is, unfortunately, that it doesn’t come with a quick fix. While the tech industry, policy experts, advocacy groups, scholarship, and legislatures the world over certainly have their part to play, no individual person, organisation,  or industry has the power or the means to make online harassment go away.

Short of large-scale social and cultural change that eradicates all underlying -isms, no panacea exists. While we wait for work on the revolution, it is worth taking a step back to consider what we can learn from ongoing efforts to tackle online harassment, and from what we already know about its complexity. The following are a few pointers on where that journey might productively take us.

online harassment tools

Less focus on flawed “free speech” logics

Once devised to protect the speech of marginalised groups against state persecution, freedom of expression is frequently instrumentalised to protect all kinds of hegemonic vitriol online. Misreadings of human rights frameworks and various national constitutions invoke the spectre of censorship to mobilise against efforts to fight online harassment.

Given that online harassment actually silences women, queers, trans folks and people of colour online – both as a result of, and to avoid harassment – it makes much more sense to think of online harassment as detrimental to the freedom of expression instead. But it seems questionable whether expending further energy on these circular arguments around online harassment as/against free speech does anything at all to stop harassment or reduce the harm it causes.

Sky Croeser convincingly shows how both sides of this free speech/online harassment discussion, as well as online harassment as such, are ultimately grounded in the same Western liberal democratic model that has not been kind to marginalised groups. She invites us to imagine more radical ways of tackling online harassment instead.

The energy freed up by divesting from free speech circular logics, and from debating whether particular words or behaviours are in fact harassment or protected speech, might be directed at interdisciplinary and intersectional work on online harassment instead.

More interdisciplinary and cross-platform work

While Twitter, or Facebook, or Wikipedia can improve their internal policies, functionality, or reporting mechanisms to tackle harassment on their platform, harassers often follow their targets across platforms and no filter or reporting feature can prevent that. Policy and legislation against online harassment are slow to follow technology, geographically limited, and thus only useful to a fraction of those affected. Academia is inherently slow and often (still) paywalls its outputs, making it difficult to access for other stakeholders. Advocacy groups, in turn, tend to focus on particular forms of harassment or groups of people – most prominently on the online sexual harassment of women and girls.

This is, of course, not to say that women’s rights activists, tech companies, scholars, legal experts should not be working on fighting online harassment in their own corner, so to speak. Achievements in any and all of these areas can make a difference to individuals and groups of people who suffer online harassment. To tackle online harassment on a larger scale, however, joining forces seems key.

Rather than (inadvertently) re-inventing the wheel at each turn, collaboration, the sharing of knowledge, and building on previous work can go a long way towards initiatives that are more sustainable and useful to a wider range of people. Forging coalitions between those affected by online harassment, the tech industry, scholars, the non-profit sector and policy bodies promises a better understanding of what’s at stake and how to address it.

And, while we’re at it, let’s also make sure that such coalitions are diverse in terms of the geographies, genders, races, religions, and sexualities they include.

More intersectional work

Too often, online harassment is conflated with the online sexual harassment of women and girls. Taking an intersectional approach to researching online harassment, but also to socio-technical ways of preventing it, and of alleviating the harm it causes is still the exception.

Real-name policies potentially expose queer and trans people to increased harassment. Privileging legislation and law enforcement cause additional harm to women, queer and trans folks of colour. Filtering and flagging particular words and phrases as harassment can ignore the diverging use of terminology and silence counter-speech by marginalised groups, to name but a few examples.

Focusing on race, gender, religion, (dis)ability, sexuality, and gender identity and how they come together in different forms of online harassment, and in different approaches to tackling the problem, promises solutions that can work for a wider range of people. An intersectional approach to online harassment shifts attention to how different groups of people experience harassment, and how strategies against online harassment affect different people differently.

An intersectional approach seems all the more necessary not because women aren’t harassed online, and not even because gender isn’t the only grounds for online harassment. It is doubly necessary because we still live in societies where pigeonholing something as a “women’s issue” makes it appear somehow less serious and less urgent. Compare how terms like “online harassment”, “hate speech”, or “cybercrime” circulate in public discourse, who applies them to what kinds of incidents, who is (or is presumed to be) affected by them, and how seriously they are in turn taken.


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