How To Stop Online Harassment: Laws, Reporting, & What You Can Do

Learn About Online Harassment and What You Can Do About It from Bosco Legal Services.

If you are experiencing cyber harassment, stalking, or bullying, it can be difficult to know where to turn. You may be thinking: Am I actually experiencing online harassment? How do I report it? Can I sue someone or involve the police? Let’s go over what constitutes online harassment, and what to do if someone targets you on the web.

Harassment is generally defined as a repeated pattern of behavior intended to scare, harm, anger, or shame a targeted individual. Online harassment means these actions occur using digital technologies such as social media platforms, email or messaging services, gaming platforms, or cell phone communication. Examples of such behavior include:

  • Posting defamatory remarks intended to harm a person’s reputation
  • Publishing private, explicit, or manipulated photos
  • Sending threatening messages
  • Posting false information or impersonating someone online

Types of Cyber Harassment

Incidents of harassment often take one of the following forms:

  • Hate speech. While there is no legal definition of hate speech, it is generally accepted to include damaging or threatening remarks motivated by animosity toward aspects of identity such as race, religion, gender identity, etc.
  • Sexual harassment or “revenge porn.” Online sexual harassment involves unwelcome or unauthorized behavior that is sexual in nature, including publishing private images. “Revenge porn” is the colloquial name for posting explicit or nude photos of a former partner online without their consent.
  • Cyberstalking. Closely related to “harassment,” cyberstalking is repeated online behavior that is intended to cause emotional stress and fear of physical harm.
  • Doxxing. This term refers to revealing someone’s private or personal information on the internet for public consumption, usually with malicious intent.
  • Impersonation or identity theft. Posting, messaging, or interacting on the internet as a person other than yourself.

We recommend exploring this resource from the Online Harassment Field Manual for an in-depth look into the different terms and crimes associated with cyber harassment.

Cyber harassment cases unfortunately often involve specific groups of people over others, namely women and people of color. In one study from the Pew Research Center, 50% of American women polled reported experiencing online harassment, compared to 30% of men. Additionally, 54% of all those who reported experiencing cyber harassment identified as Black, despite the fact that the Black community constitutes only 13.4% of the total American population. Hispanic persons have also indicated higher levels of harassment as compared to white persons.

What Can I Do If I Am Being Harassed Online?

Identify, document, and report incidents of harassment. First things first: what specific actions are you considering to be harassment? Is it repeated and severe? This step is important when it comes to reporting online harassment; companies or courts will need to know exactly what behavior has occurred and its effect on you. Next, start keeping track of every instance of abuse.

Document Everything

Luckily, digital media often leaves an overt trail of evidence. Posts are public, messages can be saved, and anything can be screenshotted. While your instinct emotionally could be to delete and ignore offending content, keeping records of the abuse will be key when attempting to get content taken down by social platform companies or if you choose to go to court. 

Use screenshots to record incidents of harassment and keep them organized in preparation for taking action against the perpetrator(s). Justice will more easily be served if you can also report how the harassment is affecting your physical, emotional, and financial well-being. Keeping a visual record of harmful images, comments, or messages can also help you show evidence of harm without having to relive traumatic events verbally.

What many people don’t realize is that there are specific guidelines and requirements for submitting digital evidence in court. You need to be able to provide details such as metadata, hash values, times & dates, and other “behind the scenes” social media data. So do your best to document everything yourself, and consider hiring an investigative service that specializes in social media court case preparation to assist you. 

Keep Yourself Safe

If you are being threatened online, you should stay vigilant in protecting your physical safety as well. Ask yourself: are you acquainted with the perpetrator of your online abuse, or is their identity unknown? If their identity is unknown, you can take steps to unmask them, but you should be aware that this process is often costly and time-consuming. If you know the person harassing you, consider the following red-flag questions:

  • Do they know personal details about you, such as where you live?
  • Have they made threatening comments? Are their threats specific? A specific threat may mention a time, date, or place where violence will occur.
  • Are their claims irrational or erratic? Do they have a history of violent behavior?

If any of the above statements are true, you may need to seek immediate help to maintain your safety. Find a place to stay where you feel protected, and enlist the help of friends or family who can support you as you navigate this situation. If the harassment is work-related, you may need to notify your employer of what’s going on. At this point, some victims may begin to consider involving law enforcement or an attorney. The reality is, different law enforcement agencies and legal offices have varying levels of understanding of cybercrimes. We’ll discuss the legal and criminal consequences of online harassment later on in this article.

Increase Your Personal Cybersecurity

Stop perpetrators from gaining any (further) access to your private information by upping your cybersecurity measures. Change your passwords to strong, un-crackable keys that include randomized numbers, letters, and symbols, and don’t ever use the same password for multiple sites. We recommend checking out different password managers to make this as easy as possible. Additionally, enable two-factor authentication when appropriate and keep personal & professional online accounts separate.

What if My Child is Being Harassed?

Start a conversation about how, if they’re the victim of any targeted attacks as described above, it’s not okay and there are ways you can help. As kids and teens spend increasing hours online every day, cyberbullying is a constant threat. In fact, nearly half of all tweens and teens report experiencing bullying online. Your child may not even recognize their experience as harassment or may be reluctant to share what’s going on with an adult. 

Explore this resource from UNICEF on how to address cyberbullying with your child, and start taking steps to protect them from further abuse.

How Can You Stop Someone From Harassing You?

Every social media and online messaging platform has avenues for reporting and removing offensive content, and it is possible to take legal action against perpetrators of online harassment as well.

Block, Mute, Report

Working within the platform where the harassment took place is the first option available to respond to online abuse. 

Block: You can silence perpetrators on most social media sites by blocking their account(s), which will prevent them from viewing your profile or communicating with you in any way. This can stop harassment on one site, but pervasive attackers may seek out other platforms or use fake accounts to continue targeting you. Keep in mind, if you are gathering information to take to law enforcement or a lawyer, blocking will prevent you from recording new harassment.

Mute: On some social media platforms, you can “mute” certain information or accounts, meaning it will no longer show up in your feed, search, or inbox. This differs from blocking in one important way: you are only preventing yourself from seeing content, and others on the site may still view defamatory or threatening posts. This does not affect the perpetrator’s ability to continue to harass you or others.

Report: You may report an account as violating a social media platform’s community guidelines in an attempt to get their posting privileges revoked, or at least have offending posts removed. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act prevents social media companies from being held liable for any comments or images posted using their service, so your best hope is to appeal to their internal policies for what may appear on their site. In the end, it’s up to their team to decide whether to respond. Each site has its own reporting process, and you can click these links to get started on Facebook, Instagram, Google, or Twitter.

Helplines: If you are concerned for your mental health or need advice on what to do next, reach out to one of these helplines that provide free assistance for victims of cyber harassment.

What Will the Police Do About Online Harassment?

In general, the police will be most able to assist you if:

  • The perpetrator has published sexual images of you without your consent.
  • You have received true threats or specific threats of violence that name a time, day, or location.
  • You know the perpetrator and would like to seek a restraining order.
  • The perpetrator has violated state or federal stalking laws.

Choosing to go to the police can be a difficult or intimidating decision for many people. Not everyone will feel comfortable involving law enforcement, and not all police precincts will have experience investigating and prosecuting cybercrimes. Ultimately, it is your decision whether or not you feel safe filing a report with the police. If you do choose to report online harassment as a crime, be prepared to be asked to provide evidence and describe your experience to officers or detectives. Our experience across the United States has shown that it is rare for law enforcement to get involved or provide meaningful help when online harassment occurs. 

What If the Police Can’t Help?

Another avenue to justice is enlisting the help of a legal team like Bosco Legal Services, who can help you seek justice and possible compensation for harm caused by an online harasser.

Can You Sue Someone for Harassing You Online?

Yes, you may sue someone for civil wrongs (or torts) such as defamation, harassment, and public disclosure of private fact that has occurred online. The object of such cases is to compensate the victim for any “injury” resulting from the civil wrong and impose liability on perpetrators of harmful acts. Additionally, in certain circumstances, filing a lawsuit is a necessary step in unmasking fake accounts.

Cyber Harassment Laws

18 U.S. Code Section 2261A prohibits the federal crime of stalking and has been amended to include actions taken online to harass, injure, harm, or intimidate a person. State laws differ on what constitutes criminal harassment vs. civil harassment, and if you’re considering legal action you should explore your state’s legislation surrounding harassment and cyberstalking. This index of social media court cases provides an idea of the process and outcomes associated with torts and crimes committed online.

Before you agree to pay any fees to a lawyer, investigate whether you have grounds in your state to sue based on online behavior and what distinctions exist between criminal and civil cases. The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative offers pro bono legal services to victims of cyber harassment and can provide guidance on your rights within your specific state.

What Do You Need To Go To Court?

In addition to keeping detailed records and screenshots of the harassment, you’ll likely need to work with a team that understands the regulations and laws requiring submitting content from social media as evidence in court as established by FRE 902(14). Suppose your abuser’s true identity is still unknown. In that case, you will need to determine exactly who it is you are suing using a service designed to uncover the people behind social media accounts. At Bosco, our cyber investigators use advanced search tools and analysis to locate the critical metadata, times & dates, and other data that the court requires to pursue a lawsuit. Learn more about social media investigations here.

What Is the Cost of Suing Someone For Online Harassment?

There are financial, emotional, and possible social costs for any case involving interpersonal harassment and abuse. If you’re considering taking legal action, prepare to be questioned about your experience and for details surrounding the harassment to be made public in court. Initial court fees for filing a civil suit can be anywhere from $400-$1,000, and fees to investigative teams and attorneys can often start between $5,000-$10,000 in online harassment cases. Victims of harassment should also be aware that proving cyber crimes in court using evidence from social media can be a tricky business, and not all cases will be successful.

At Bosco Legal Services, we offer comprehensive social media investigation services that give you the highest chance of success when pursuing a cyber harassment case in court. Explore our court resources for more information, or contact us to learn more about stopping online harassment.