Message Bombing (via email, text, SMS)
Definition: “Message bombing” is the intentional flooding of a person’s or institution’s phone or email accounts with messages meant to limit or block a user’s access to a device’s operating system or platform. Because large numbers of messages sent in a short period of time can typically render a person’s account unusable, this is an effective way for a harasser to prevent you from using your devices or accessing your online accounts. Message bombing typically occurs over texting apps, chat apps, or email accounts.
Example: In 2017, a flood of emails sent by bot accounts shut down the servers at ProPublica in a retaliatory attack against ProPublica journalists who had written a controversial article about the relationship between tech companies and extremist websites. The attack prevented the company’s employees from accessing important emails and interfered enormously with the news outlet’s day-to-day operations. One of the journalists was also targeted by tweet bombing—an attack in which a harasser tries to get a target kicked off of Twitter by flooding their “follower” pool with bot accounts.
What to do: Immediately report the incident to the social media platform, phone provider, internet company, or email provider where the harassment is taking place. If necessary, create a new and/or temporary email address or username to inform your colleagues, family, and friends that you have been message bombed and no longer have access to your usual accounts. You can find more in-depth information on dealing with online harassment via direct messages here and on talking to friends and family about online abuse here.
Nonconsensual, intimate images and videos (such as “revenge porn”)
Definition: Nonconsensual pornography—or revenge porn, as it’s commonly called—is “the distribution of private, sexually-explicit images or videos of individuals without their consent,” according to the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative. Revenge porn can also fall under the category of “sextortion,” i.e. “the threat of distributing a nude or sexually-explicit image or video in an effort to blackmail an individual.”
Example: Countless women and high-profile celebrities have been the targets of nonconsensual pornography. Leading revenge-porn expert Carrie Goldberg, a Cyber Civil Rights Initiative board member and lawyer who has dedicated her career to taking on cases around sexual privacy and internet abuse, was herself a former victim of “sextortion” by an ex-boyfriend.
What to do: Undergoing an attack of nonconsensual pornography can be extremely traumatic and may require legal intervention. (There are currently 41 states with nonconsensual pornography laws on the books—check to see if yours is one of them.) If an explicit image has been posted to a social media platform or chat forum, flag it for removal and, if possible, contact the platform’s administrators. Be sure to lean on your support community for help during this time as well.
Online Impersonation (or, Impersonation Trolling)
Definition: “Online impersonation” is a strategy whereby harassers create hoax social media accounts, usually in order to post offensive or inflammatory statements in your name. In most cases, the harasser’s intention is to defame or discredit you, often by convincing others to believe the fake quotes attributed to you, which might then incite others to commit additional acts of harassment. Impersonation trolling can also happen when a harasser impersonates someone you know in order to offend or hurt you.
Example: Writer Lindy West was subject to a particularly cruel episode of impersonation trolling when an online troll posed as her deceased father. Her story has an unusual ending, however: her troll ended up apologizing.
What to do: Immediately report the impersonation to the platform on which it appears. You may want to consider making a statement on your real social media accounts alerting your online communities to the imposter. (If the harassment is taking place on Twitter, you can “pin” the tweet to the top of your profile for a period of time, so it’s visible whenever someone visits your real Twitter profile.) In some cases, it may be appropriate to inform your employer or your loved ones of the abuse, especially in cases in which they’re implicated in the impersonator’s comments.
Online Sexual Harassment
Definition: Online sexual harassment — which is targeted at women at a far higher rate than men — encompasses a wide range of sexual misconduct on digital platforms and includes some of the more specific forms of online harassment included in this Field Manual (see “revenge porn” and “cyberstalking”). It often manifests as hateful speech or online threats. The Project deSHAME report on young people’s experiences with this type of abuse outlines four distinct types of online sexual harassment:
Non-consensual sharing of intimate images and videos: As described above, this type of abuse — often referred to as “revenge porn” — is defined as the public distribution of sexually explicit images without the consent of the victim.
Exploitation, coercion, and threats: These forms of abuse are defined in the Project deSHAME report as “a person receiving sexual threats, being coerced to participate in sexual behavior online, or blackmailed with sexual content.”
Sexualized bullying: When someone is excluded from a group, often systematically, through the use of humiliating or discriminatory sexual content.
Unwanted sexualization: When a person receives “unwelcome sexual requests, comments and content,” according to Project deSHAME.
A Pew Research Center survey found that while 21% of women ages 18 to 29 say they have been the victim of sexual harassment in an online context, only 9% of men in that same age group report experiencing this type of abuse. Such statistics illuminate the gendered nature of sexual harassment and the fact that women are at the greatest risk of becoming victims of sexual harassment, whether in an online or offline setting. Still, it is important for everyone to be familiar with strategies for responding to online sexual harassment.
Example: When author, attorney, and feminist blogger Jill Filipovic was a student at NYU School of Law, she discovered hundreds of threads on an anonymous message board that was filled with rape threats — many of them graphic — directed at her. This series of threats included calls for “a brutal raping” and references to Filipovic as a “gutter trash whore.” The online threats transitioned into offline contexts when harassers began appearing at Filipovic’s law school and later on at her law firm. Filipovic writes that her confidence and safety were compromised as a result of the online sexual harassment she faced.
What to do: As a first step, be sure to report the harassment to the platform on which it was received (and refer to this Field Manual’s Reporting Online Harassment to Platforms section when doing so). Also, make an effort to document the abuse.
Online sexual harassment can be extremely traumatic for a target, and may even require legal intervention. (There are currently 41 states with nonconsensual pornography laws on the books—check to see if yours is one of them.) If you do wish to seek help from law enforcement or a lawyer, please visit the Legal Considerations section of this Field Manual.
If you are a target of online sexual harassment, it is extremely important to keep in mind that you are not alone. Reaching out to others for support can go a long way in taking care of your mental health. Take a look at the Guidelines for Talking to Friends and Loved One’s section of this Field Manual for more tips on how to discuss sensitive topics, including online sexual harassment, with those around you.
Definition: “Trolling” is one of those terms that’s evolved so much overtime as to have no single agreed-upon meaning. Internet users use the word to denote everything from serious acts of online hate speech to the playful distribution of memes and comments on a friend’s social media page.
For the purposes of this Field Manual, and to encapsulate the kind of trolling referred to most often by writers and journalists targeted by online harassment, “trolling” is defined here as the repetitive posting of inflammatory or hateful comments online by an individual whose intent is to seek attention, intentionally harm a target, cause trouble and/or controversy, and/or join up with a group of trollers who have already commenced a trolling campaign. There are two subcategories of trolling to be aware of, according to Anita Sarkeesian’s Guide to Internetting While Female:
Concern trolling: When harassers pose as fans or supporters of your work with the intention of making harmful or demeaning comments masked as constructive feedback. (According to Sarkeesian, “when targeting women, this is most often done through ‘helpful’ suggestions on how to improve one’s appearance. . . . The concern troll’s disingenuous comments are actually designed to undercut or demean you.”)
Dogpiling: When a group of trolls works together to overwhelm a target through a barrage of disingenuous questions, threats, slurs, insults, and other tactics meant to shame, silence, discredit, or drive a target offline.
The third category of online trolling that applies to writers and journalists includes:
Bot trolling/sockpuppet trolling: Bot accounts come in two flavors: automated accounts, which are controlled by a code or an app in order to impart a particular agenda, and individual accounts, which are set up by a single user with the intention of mimicking real users (known as “sockpuppet” accounts). Bot accounts are used for a variety of reasons, from promoting propaganda to amplifying hate or defamation against targeted individuals. DFRLab describes the basic criteria for bots as “activity, amplification, and anonymity.” Signs you may be the target of bot trolling:
- The same accounts are tweeting at you 24/7
- The accounts use stolen or patriotic images as their profile picture
- There are long gaps in said accounts’ activity
- A disproportionate number of accounts that are simultaneously targeting you share the same content, language, and/or graphics in their messages
While bot trolling can be just as exhausting and emotionally taxing as other forms of trolling, some targets of bot trolling are relieved to learn that this kind of attack isn’t personal, and that they’re not at risk of harm.
Example: Trolling is one of the most ubiquitous forms of online harassment, meaning an enormous number of writers, journalists, and creators have been exposed to it. In 2016, comedian Leslie Jones was the target of a widespread trolling campaign built on racist, misogynist messaging, which culminated in her being subjected to revenge porn, doxing, and hacking. (The incident also resulted in notorious troll Milo Yiannopoulos being kicked off Twitter for his targeted, publicly racist abuse—thanks in part to a #LoveforLeslieJ Twitter campaign launched by her supporters.)
What to do: For a long time, the party line has been “don’t feed the trolls”—a valuable piece of advice when you’re dealing with someone who may be unstable and/or prone to escalate the trolling. But this can be an inherently dissatisfying tactic. While fruitful conversations with trolls are still few and far between, there have been some successful examples of targets confronting their trolls, while others have found respite in reclaiming their own online narrative and openly condemning a troll’s behavior. Only you can judge whether or not it’s worth engaging a troll. Check out this Field Manual’s Guidelines for Safely Confronting Your Online Harasser for more information.
Other steps you can take to address online trolling include reporting the abuse, blocking or muting the abuser, documenting all instances of trolling from repeat offenders, or asking your support community to monitor your online accounts while you take a break.
Definition: Swatting doesn’t take place online, but it is often the direct result of online harassment and doxing. It is also one of the most frightening examples of how online harassment can cross dangerously into one’s offline life. Swatting occurs when a hoax call is placed to law enforcement detailing a completely false but plausibly threatening event that the caller claims is taking place in a target’s home or business. SWAT teams are meant to respond to the call accordingly, showing up to a target’s home fully armed and putting the target and the target’s family in grave danger. This is one of the rarer but more serious consequences of online harassment and is a popular tactic among online harassers in the gaming community.
Example: In 2013, an online security journalist was swatted at his home in Virginia, where 10 to 12 police officers surrounded his driveway with their guns drawn.
What to do: Swatting is illegal. It is often the result of a doxing incident, in which a person’s home or business address has been posted online with the intention that it will be seen by other online harassers. You can take measures to prevent doxing by checking out this Field Manual’s Protecting Information from Doxing. You may also want to consider purchasing a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to shield your IP address, which contains geolocating information. If you’ve been the target of swatting, you may want to take legal action and file a report with law enforcement. If you believe you could be the target of swatting in the future, consider informing your local police department to prepare them for this possibility.