Online harassment is a problem of epidemic proportions that is increasing around the world at an alarming rate. Frequently cloaked in anonymity and with an air of moral righteousness, online trolls and cyberstalkers reveal the worst side of human nature in their efforts to attack and suppress the expression of free will and freedom of belief.
There have always been people with a predisposition to preying on others. The schoolyard bully, the jealous friend or ex, the boss hiding feelings of inferiority by putting down his employees, or the numerous cases throughout history of people persecuting, assaulting and harassing those who live outside the status quo.
In the past this abuse has largely occurred physically, with extreme cases of harassment leading to torture and murder. However this physicality has also been a limiting factor for those with a pathological desire to express hatred or violence but may not for fear of face-to-face confrontation or the possibility of physical repercussions. With the advent of the internet however this barrier has largely been removed due to the effects of online anonymity. Perverse individuals seeking revenge or who enjoy inflicting pain on others are given a virtual outlet through which they can express their hatred virtually free of consequence.
This has significant consequences for targeted individuals and groups. Expressions of online rage and hatred can have massive repercussions both psychologically and physically. Individuals have been continuously defamed and their reputations illegitimately ruined, online harassment can lead to intense physical and psychological distress, and human rights are affected as targeted groups such as those based on race, gender or belief are marginalized and driven from society.
The Varying Forms of Cyberhate
The expression of hatred on the Internet takes many different forms, the most prominent of which are trolling and cyberbullying (known as either cyberstalking or cyber harassment when perpetrated between adults).
While in academic literature trolling is considered to be “acting in deceptive, disruptive and destructive ways in internet social settings with no apparent purpose” beyond the troll’s own nasty form of entertainment, the phrase in common usage has come to mean anyone who engages in acts of online harassment.
Cyberbullying in its common definition is understood to be “deliberate, repeated, and hostile behavior intended to harm another” in the online space. Cyber bullies aim to “intimidate, control, manipulate, put down, falsely discredit, or humiliate” their victim, with the intent to threaten their “earnings, employment … or safety”. They aim to “damage the reputation of their victim and turn other people against them” or to create a sense of hatred in the mind of others and convince them to “dislike or participate in online denigration of a target”.
Cyberbullying can include actions that harass a targeted individual or group on public internet forums, information-based websites, Youtube and social media, through email, and even in the comment or review sections of products or books on platforms such as Amazon or Goodreads.
- publishing private information such as names and addresses online (known as doxxing)
- making cruel, malicious and defamatory false accusations and posting falsehoods as fact in order to discredit or humiliate their victim and damage their reputation
- repeated threats of harm or death threats (in some instances calling for killing sprees of targeted groups or individuals)
- encouraging others to harass the victim
- goading on or urging others to commit suicide and defacing tribute sites of the recently deceased
- monitoring online behaviors and gathering information in order to harass another
- subjecting an individual to ridicule in online forums through name calling, pejorative labels or hate speech
- vandalism of websites (eg. Wikipedia) and mass downvoting or negative reviews of websites, books, products or videos
Cyberstalking can be perpetrated by individuals or by organized groups. There are examples of website forums for instance, commonly known as bash boards, which exist solely for the purpose of denigrating targeted groups. These boards can become a portal for orchestrating organized acts of persecution, that take place both digitally and physically.
In the majority of cases of online harassment, cyberstalkers use fake accounts or pseudonyms in order to remain anonymous. From the comfort and safety of their personal computer this anonymity allows perpetrators, as explained by website DeleteCyberbullying.org “to avoid facing their victims, so it requires less courage and provides the illusion that bullies won’t get caught.”.
While in many cases cyberstalkers are enabled a measure of safety and protection from prosecution through the anonymity of their activities, those who are discovered can face fines of up to $50,000 or two years imprisonment. Many countries such as Canada, the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand have tough penalties to dissuade people from acts of cyber hate.
Despite these laws, if authorities are not active in pursuing acts of cybercrime, targeted groups or individuals may have difficulty finding recourse from online harassment. This is in part due to the cost of legal representation in defamation cases being prohibitively high for most people, and in that as explained by Mary Franks from the University of Miami School of Law, legal approaches to harassment generally treat cyberbullying as an action that does harm to an individual rather than a group.1 These factors create legal loopholes that allow cyberstalkers to continue their actions, while at the same time claiming that if a target does not file a lawsuit or fails to respond that it is “proof” that the allegations being made must be correct. Sociologist Massimo Introvigne explains that then if actions are taken to bring the perpetrators to justice or to rebut the allegations being made, the victim can be further harassed as being in opposition to free speech.
Sadly cyberstalking is an all too common occurrence. A recent survey in America found that 28% of Americans admitted to “malicious online activity directed at somebody they didn’t know” and prosecutions for cyber harassment are on the rise, with a 2013 article from the UK Mirror claiming that the “number of people convicted of internet trolling has TREBLED in the past five years – to almost 30 a week”. As such, the chances are high that someone you know has engaged in acts of cyberhate online, despite probably maintaining an unassuming or even respectable appearance in society. Online anonymity allows vitriolic people to safely express their hate without threatening their reputations. Would the family, colleagues, clients or employers of cyberstalkers still want to associate with them if they knew their free time was spent anonymously attacking others online?
Cyberhate – A Modern Day Case of Jekyll and Hyde
For an insight into why the anonymity provided by the internet has become such a breeding ground for acts of hatred, we can look back in time to the advent of CB radio in the 1970s. While mostly used for mundane reasons, the anonymity of radio operators led to an effect known as disinhibition, defined in social psychology as “unrestrained behavior resulting from a lessening or loss of inhibitions or a disregard of cultural constraints” where people felt free to say anything they wanted without any fear of reprisal. This disinhibition effect led to aural assaults of racism and the expression of violent fantasies.
Anonymity on the internet creates a similar but more opportunistic possibility for the undesirable aspects of human nature to be directed towards others. While over CB radio violence and harassment was spread in a general fashion to anyone who might be listening, cyberhate is targeted towards specific individuals or groups and its approach tailored to inflict the most damage possible on the cyberstalker’s intended victim.
This online disinhibition effect where a lack of face-to-face interaction leads to the loss of inhibitions, is caused by a number of psychological factors as explained by Professor of Psychology Dr John Suler. These factors include:
- a lack of standard social cues including changes in facial expression, averting the eyes etc. which we usually interpret in order to moderate our behavior in real life
- the ability to misrepresent who and what we truly are (which could include our level of experience with a particular group or individual being attacked)
- the asynchronous nature of internet interaction, eg. The ability to post a very emotionally loaded or inflammatory statement and then to avoid the consequences of the statement by not logging in or visiting the page again for some time
- the propensity of the human mind to “assign characteristics and traits to a “person” during digital interactions” which are not there in everyday life
- seeing cyberspace as a sort of game where the rules and restrictions of everyday life do not apply
- the ability of someone to dissociate their online and offline identities through the use of pseudonyms
- lack of fear of reprisal or disapproval which may be present if the same harassment was carried out offline
The effect of disinhibition is multiplied when a group of people join forces to harass others. As part of a group there is a diffusion of responsibility that makes people feel less accountable for their actions and makes them more likely to engage in amoral behavior. Social psychologist Alfred Bandura has found that the greater the diffusion of personal responsibility the more people tend to dehumanize others and that displays of aggression become more intense.2
Trick-or-treaters were invited to take sweets left in the hall of a house on a table on which there was also a sum of money. When children arrived singly, and not wearing masks, only 8% of them stole any of the money. When they were in larger groups, with their identities concealed by fancy dress, that number rose to 80%. The combination of a faceless crowd and personal anonymity provoked individuals into breaking rules that under “normal” circumstances they would not have considered.
For many the online disinhibition effect appears to be a case of Jekyll and Hyde, where it is anonymity rather than a potion which releases the monster hidden within the cyberstalker. Anonymity gives people the same sense of abandon as being intoxicated on alcohol or power and without inhibitions people act in ways that are more consistent with their true character and motives. The internet does not create cyber stalkers, rather it presents an environment where the darkness within perverse individuals who enjoy hurting others can manifest.
Psychologist Dr Darryl Cross approaches this concept from a different angle, explaining that he considers the nastiness of online trolling to be a symptom of something “similar to a split personality” where cyber harassers let the instinctual, animalistic side of their personality out. This darker, animalistic side of psychology has its own area of study known as “dark psychology” – the study of those who prey on others. Dark psychology includes a concept known as the Dark Tetrad of personality traits, which are comprised of Machiavellianism (charming and impulsive manipulation of others), Psychopathy, Sadism and Narcissism.
People who harbor these traits are explained by Dr Mark Thoma as essentially those who “enjoy inflicting pain on others, who show no remorse” and who are callous, anti-social and enjoy manipulating others for their own purposes. Thoma continues that people with dark psychology traits “feel quite self-important” are likely to have an over-inflated ego and “derive pleasure from hurting someone else either directly or vicariously”. He also explains that they “show disinhibited, bold behavior” and that they often want to attract attention to themselves and their acts.
In a comprehensive psychological profiling of trolls conducted by researchers in the Department of Psychology, University of Manitoba, those who victimize others online were found to have heightened indicators of psychopathy, sadism and machiavellianism. The study results led researchers to conclude that “trolls are “prototypical everyday sadists”, and that trolling should be regarded as online sadism”.
While the motivations of trolls and cyberstalkers differ – trolls are more likely to harass and victimize others online as a sick form of entertainment, whereas psychologist Dr Barry Rosenfeld explains that obsessed stalkers may be motivated by negative feelings towards their victim and may harass them in order to cause distress – both types of online harassment can be seen as status enhancing activities those for perpetrating the abuse, which allow those who harass others online to attract attention, perhaps much more than they would in their everyday lives.
The Far-reaching Implications of Online Harassment
Unsurprisingly, mostly anonymous individuals unleashing the darkest sides of their personality onto individuals and targeted groups can cause significant psychological and ideological damage to its victims and society as a whole. As Professor of Law Danielle Keats Citron writes in her paper “Cyber Civil Rights“:
Cyber attacks marginalize individuals belonging to traditionally subordinated groups, causing them deep psychological harm. Victims feel helpless to avoid future attacks because they are unable to change the characteristic that made them victims … Such attacks also harm the community that shares the victim’s race, gender, religion, or ethnicity — community members experience attacks as if the attacks happened to them. Moreover, society suffers when victims and community members isolate themselves to avoid future attacks and when cyber mobs violate our shared values of equality and pluralism.
The proliferation of online acts of hatred has far-reaching implications. Unlike regular bullying which may occur in the workplace or in just one aspect of someone’s life, cyberstalking is all pervasive and almost inescapable. It extends within the walls of one’s home, and false and harassing statements can spread to a huge audience due to the ability of internet users to continuously repeat and republish false allegations. Once a false accusation is published online it can be very difficult to remove, even when the victim is absolved of any wrongdoing.
Regular and persistent harassment has caused many individuals severe physical, emotional and psychological distress. Susceptible individuals harassed by groups may suffer somatic symptoms such as headaches or irritable bowel syndrome, depression and even post traumatic stress. Cyberbullying can lead to the development of feelings such as loneliness, disillusionment and a distrust of people in general. At its most extreme online harassment has led to cases of self-harm, suicide, and even murder.
For individuals psychologically strong enough to withstand the physical and psychological impacts of cyberhate it is all too easy for their reputations to be completely destroyed online, as biased forums and hate filled people or communities become judge and jury, spreading false and defamatory accusations wherever their victims have a presence online, aiming to isolate and alienate them or drive them off the internet.
When directed towards alternative spiritual groups (referred to by scholars as new religious movements or NRMs) or their spiritual figureheads, cyber harassment perpetrated by apostates (the small percentage of people who on leaving a group subsequently go on to attack it) and members or supporters of the anti-cult movement aims to invalidate and dehumanize its victims. This harassment has the specific aim of turning public favor against the targeted groups or individuals and of mobilizing moral or legal institutions against them. To this end, spiritual teachers or groups are often illegitimately conflated with high profile examples of criminal groups (which make up only a tiny percentage of all NRMs), and may be falsely accused of financial, sexual or psychological manipulation in order that their reputations are destroyed and those with an interest in spirituality will choose not to associate with them. In a continuation of historical attempts to restrict the personal freedom of spiritual seekers, members of NRMs are portrayed as suffering from mental illness in order to circumvent their human right to free choice of spirituality or religion. In this way cyber harassment is used as a weapon by small numbers of jaded individuals to alter the perspective of the general public in regards to alternative spirituality and to turn people away from it.
In this respect, researchers from George Mason University in Fairfax have found that perceptions of a subject may be “profoundly shaped by anonymous online commentary, especially if it is harsh”. In a paper titled “The “Nasty Effect:” Online Incivility and Risk Perceptions of Emerging Technologies” it was discovered that online harassment “not only polarized readers” but that it also changed the way issues being discussed were interpreted. As such the effect of expressions of hatred from the anti-cult movement has become amplified. This has allowed small numbers of negative individuals to significantly impact the usefulness of benign and helpful online resources that masses of people could otherwise benefit from.
As well as online reputation destruction, acts of cyber harassment can easily move offline with links commonly seen between online and offline acts of hatred. For example, victims of cyberstalking may have accusatory emails sent to their employers or professional associations, which threaten their livelihood. NRMs may be the subject of complaints to registry bodies vexatiously made by those who are also harassing them online. Personal details and whereabouts of targeted individuals maybe be posted online alongside strong calls for physical action against them. This sort of “verbal violence” may incite those who are unable to distinguish between verbal violence and physical acts of destruction to partake in physical harassment.
There have been examples for instance of trolls showing up at public events or threatening mass shootings. In China death threats against pro-Tibet activists are published anonymously along with their names and addresses. A “hit list” of pro-abortion doctors labelled “baby butchers” published on an anti-abortion website led to the murder of three doctors on the list, whose names were subsequently crossed out on the website when killed, or greyed out when injured.
While it may be hard to understand how online harassment could lead to physical violence, there are clear patterns of human behavior which demonstrate how attacks against targeted individuals or groups can escalate from online to physical abuse. One such example is Gordon Allport’s Scale of Discrimination and Prejudice which explains how behaviors such as making jokes about targeted groups can lead to avoidance, discrimination, physical attack and finally extermination. An alternate model was developed by special agents John Schafer and Joe Navarro for the FBI:3
- The hater finds other users with similar views to form a group
- The group develops symbols and rituals to identify itself
- The group shares its views to bond itself
- The target is taunted
- The target is attacked
- The target is attacked with weapons
- The target is destroyed
As a society and as individuals we are easily influenced by expressions of negativity, particularly when they play on common stereotypes of deviance and appeal to emotions such as fear. When these expressions occur in a group situation like an internet forum, individuals feel less responsible for their actions, and those who may not previously have engaged in acts of cyberstalking can be emotionally led to persecute others as a result of hateful propaganda. Once spread, negative propaganda against targeted groups or individuals can become naturalised, whereby false statements become accepted as obvious truths, creating a prejudice from which further hatred and harmful actions can be incited.
Cyber harassment is a commonly used weapon by the anti-cult movement and those who wish to suppress targeted groups and individuals with an interest in alternative spirituality. In such instances online harassment is often defended by perpetrators as an expression of “freedom of speech”, and thinly veiled behind a cloak of supposed moral righteousness. The persecution of others whether online or in person however has no place in a society which is open and tolerant, and no-one should be protected from suppressing the free will of others through the expression of online hate.
Unwilling Avatars: Idealism and Discrimination in Cyberspace, Mary Anne Franks, October 21, 2009 ↩
J.R Schafer, Joe Navarro (2003), “The Seven-Stage Hate Model”, FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin ↩