Defining Online Harassment A Glossary of Terms
There are many kinds of online harassment out there, from the annoying (rude comments made by online trolls) to the invasive (doxing) to the traumatic (cyberstalking, threats of violence, and everything in-between).
For the purposes of this Field Manual, “online harassment”—also known as “cyber harassment,” “cyber abuse,” and “online abuse”—includes, but is not limited to, the behaviors described below, carried out in an online setting.
Online settings include email, social media platforms (such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram), messaging apps (such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp), blogging platforms (such as Medium, Tumblr, and WordPress), and comments sections (such as those found on digital news platforms, personal blogs, YouTube pages, and Amazon book reviews).
This glossary is intended for two audiences:
- Targets of online abuse. Our goal is to help you identify the particular form of online harassment you’re experiencing and offer tips and resources for addressing that particular abuse. Each “What to Do” section offers a brief and immediate course of action for that particular form of harassment, as well as links to more in-depth resources.
- Witnesses, allies, loved ones, and employers of writers and journalists. Our goal is to help educate groups and individuals who intersect with writers and journalists about the specific kinds of online harassment out there. Raising collective awareness around online harassment and fighting back requires possessing a vocabulary for describing and addressing the abuse.
We encourage you to explore the rest of this Field Manual for more detailed information on the topics covered below.
Glossary of Terms
Definition: An umbrella term (like “online harassment”) meant to encompass a number of harassing online behaviors. Like physical bullying, “cyberbullying” is generally aimed at young people and may involve threats, embarrassment, or humiliation in an online setting. As Cyberbullying.org states, cyberbullying isn’t just a kid problem; it affects young adults on college campuses as well.
Example: In a tragic and now infamous episode of cyberbullying, a twelve-year-old girl took her own life in New Jersey.
What to do: Visit Cyberbullying.org for the best resources and information related to cyberbullying.
Definition: A cyber-mob attack occurs when a large group gathers online to try to collectively shame, harass, threaten, or discredit a target. According to online harassment legal expert, Danielle Keats Citron targets overwhelmingly belong to traditionally marginalized groups.
“Outrage mobs” or “shaming mobs” are a distinct kind of cyber mob made up of internet users who collectively troll individuals in the hopes of silencing or publicly punishing them. Targets of outrage mobs are often attacked for expressing opinions on politically charged topics or ideas the outrage mob disagrees with and/or has taken out of context in order to promote a particular agenda. Outrage mobbing can sometimes have severe consequences offline and has even resulted in targets losing their jobs.
Example: Ricochet editor and politically-conservative columnist Bethany Mandel experienced a surge of anti-Semitic trolling from self-identified white nationalists via Facebook and Twitter after publicly declaring her opposition to Donald Trump.
What to do: Since cyber-mob attacks are launched from so many accounts, trying to report them all can turn into an exhausting game of whack-a-mole. If reporting the abuse isn’t getting you anywhere, consider asking a member of your support community to monitor and report the abuse on your behalf while you take a break. Other options include: launching a counterspeech campaign to reestablish a narrative or reclaim a hashtag associated with your username; making a statement on social media alerting your social network to the negative activity and/or announcing that you’re withdrawing from online activity for a period of time; and, as a last resort, temporarily shutting down your social media accounts until the worst of the harassment has passed.
Definition: In a legal context, “cyberstalking” is the prolonged use (a “course of conduct”) of online harassment intended “to kill, injure, harass, intimidate, or place under surveillance with intent to kill, injure, harass, or intimidate” a target. (See: 18 U.S. Code § 2261A). Cyberstalking can comprise a number of harassing behaviors committed repeatedly or with regularity that usually cause a target to suffer fear, anxiety, humiliation, and extreme emotional distress.
Example: Over a 15-year period, a freelance journalist at Scientific American was the target of cyberstalking from a man who would go on to steal her identity and threaten her career. Read her story at Wired.
What to do: Cyberstalking is a federal offense, and many states have cyberstalking laws on the books. If you’re comfortable contacting law enforcement or seeking the advice of a lawyer, you might wish to take legal action against a cyberstalker. Other strategies include blocking your stalker on social media, documenting every harassing incident that occurs in relation to the cyberstalking, making sure your online accounts are protected if you anticipate identity fraud, and enlisting your support community.
Denial of Service (DoS) Attacks
Definition: A “Denial of Service” (DoS) attack is a cyberattack that temporarily or indefinitely disrupts internet service by overwhelming a system with data, resulting in the web server crashing or becoming inoperable. According to the U.S. government’s Computer Emergency Readiness Team (CERT), by targeting your computer and its network connection, or the computers and network of the sites you are trying to use, an attacker may be able to prevent you from accessing email, websites, online accounts (banking, etc.), or other services that rely on the affected computer.
In a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS), an attacker takes control of one user’s computer in order to attack a different user’s computer. This can force the hijacked computer to send large amounts of data to a particular website or send spam to targeted email addresses. According to CERT, the attack is ‘distributed’ because the attacker is using multiple computers, including the user’s, to launch the denial-of-service attack.
The impact on your life? DoS attacks can prevent you from accessing your own devices and data, and they can compromise sensitive information stored on your devices.
Example: In 2016, the BBC suffered a targeted DDoS attack in its U.S. offices, which also caused limited access to Reddit, Twitter, Etsy, GitHub, SoundCloud, and Spotify.
What to do: Because DoS attacks target email addresses, websites, and online accounts, it’s essential that you contact the necessary providers to report the abuse. Since this form of online harassment is rare and extreme, and more likely to affect business owners or individuals with a major web presence, it sits outside the purview of this Field Manual. We recommend checking out this DDoS Incident Response Cheat Sheet for more information.
Definition: “Doxing” (also spelled ‘doxxing’) is short for “dropping docs” and was a revenge tactic among ’90s computer hackers, according to HTML.com. Today, doxing involves publishing someone’s sensitive personal information online in an attempt to harass, intimidate, extort, stalk, or steal the identity of a target. “Sensitive information” can include social security numbers, phone numbers, home addresses, personal photos, employment information, email addresses, and family members’ personal information.
Example: After reporting on the police officer involved in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, two reporters for The New York Times were forced to flee their homes when their personal addresses were posted online in retaliation for their coverage.
What to do: Check out the Protecting Information from Doxing section of this Field Manual for tips on preparing for and preventing doxing. If you’ve already been subjected to doxing, immediately report the dox to the platform on which it appears, and do your best to assess the threat level to your safety. If you believe that the doxed information could fall into the hands of someone intent on harming you, please consider involving your local law enforcement immediately.
Definition: The unauthorized intrusion into a device or network, hacking is often carried out with the intention to attack, harm, or incriminate another individual by stealing their data, violating their privacy, or infecting their devices with viruses. When hacking is used to perform illegal activities or intimidate a target, it is a cybercrime.
Example: Fancy Bear, a Russian hacking unit, has targeted hundreds of journalists, including independent Russian reporters, at least 50 New York Times journalists, and several reporters at The Daily Beast, among other journalists who report on intelligence, national security, and Russian troll farms.
What to do: Practicing rigorous cyber security is the first step you can take toward preventing hacking. Check out the Preparation section of this Field Manual to learn about the many steps you can take to protect your passwords, devices, online identity, and more.
Hateful speech and online threats
Definition: By far the most common form of online harassment, hateful speech, or threats, both explicit and implicit, can be issued by an ill-intentioned internet user pretty much anywhere on the web.
Hateful speech: Hateful speech is a form of expression attacking a specific aspect of a person’s identity, such as one’s race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, sexual orientation, or disability. Hateful speech online often takes the form of ad hominem attacks, which invoke prejudicial feelings over intellectual arguments in order to avoid discussion of the topic at hand by attacking a person’s character or attributes.
Threats: Threats issued online can be just as frightening as they are offline, and are frequently meant to be physically or sexually intimidating.
Example: Writer Jessica Valenti has been the target of rampant misogyny, toxic (and irrelevant) character attacks, and rape and death threats throughout her 14-year career as an online writer. In 2016, she temporarily quit social media after online rape and death threats were directed at her 5-year-old daughter.
What to do: Depending on the level of threat and intimidation couched in these attacks, you may wish to block or mute a user, engage in counterspeech, or, in some cases, even consider directly confronting your troll. If you don’t feel safe responding to or blocking a user, turn to your support community and make sure you’re practicing self-care. If you’ve been named in a threat of violence or sexual intimidation and are afraid for your safety, please consider contacting law enforcement.