What to do when you're harassed online: Tips from people who have experienced it

Harassment online has become so commonplace that for many people it's just a matter of time before they experience it. But what can you actually do when it happens? Here are some suggestions from people who have endured abuse.

Volunteers can help document abuse so victims don't have to read it themselves

Statistics Canada reported in 2011 that one in six internet users reported seeing content that promotes hate or violence. The people who experience the most abuse are women and people of colour. (Stefano Rellandini/Reuters)

Harassment online has become so commonplace that for many people it's just a matter of time before they experience it.

Women and people of colour in particular experience the most abuse online — actor Leslie Jones and feminist writer Jessica Valenti both recently left Twitter after enduring a deluge of racist, sexist and threatening messages. 

It can affect anyone; in June, it took Google almost a week to disable a profile used to impersonate and slander Alexandra Krystal's mother, who died in 2014.

Krystal said her estranged father made the account to harass her.

"I was really upset and angry and I just wanted the profile down as soon as possible," she says. "But I don't think a human ever read the report I wrote them about it. It was really hard to find anything on [Google's] website that will help you, or to find like, an actual person to talk to."

Statistics Canada reported in 2011 that one in six internet users reported seeing content that promotes hate or violence, and that seven per cent of people experienced it personally.

Of that seven per cent, young girls are more likely to be harassed than young boys. Ethnic or religious groups, people who are not heterosexual, or people who have a disability are also much more likely to experience harassment or bullying online.

We know this abuse is happening all the time, but few people know what to do when it happens to them.

Not taken seriously

Sometimes the behaviour is not criminal, but can still cause a significant amount of distress for the person it's aimed at. Unless a threat is tangible, police say they can only do so much.

"All that can be done is enforcing the laws that are on the books," says Det. Const. Kenrick Bagnall, from the Toronto police Computer Cyber Crime Unit. "And as much as anyone may think that what may be happening is wrong, if there's not an actual criminal offence on the books where a charge can be laid, law enforcement's hands are tied."

If police started to actually investigate and properly prosecute every time women were harassed online, that is all they would ever do.- Julie Lalonde, HeartMob project

However, Julie Lalonde disagrees — she says laws already do criminalize threats of violence, stalking, impersonation, and defamation. Lalonde helped to create HeartMob, a project where victims of online harassment can get help and support.

"If police started to actually investigate and properly prosecute every time women were harassed online, that is all they would ever do," she says. "I believe firmly that they have consistently passed the buck, minimized, trivialized this kind of abuse because I think they know fundamentally that they could never keep up with the amount of it."

Off-line is not an option

Lalonde and Emily May, also with HeartMob, have both experienced online harassment, including death and rape threats.

They add that going off-line is not an option.

"Being online is critical to your livelihood in 2016," says May. "We need to go online to buy things, to develop professional networks, we go online for a social community, to date — we're increasingly dependent on it, and asking someone to isolate themselves to avoid harassment just isn't a solution."

Carol Todd, whose daughter Amanda took her own life after being harassed, has become an advocate for safe practices online. (CBC)

And Carol Todd, whose daughter Amanda took her own life after experiencing online harassment, says the abuse doesn't stop if a person goes offline — it can be spread through a person's social network, as was the case with her daughter.

There is some promising change — Status of Women Minister Patricia Hadju has launched a federal strategy to help women who experience violence online.

But changes that may come are likely still a long way off.

Some of the options

In the meantime, here are some practical steps that could help if you experience harassment online.

1. Tell someone

Todd says that if a young person is experiencing some kind of harassment, they should tell an adult, because teens don't have the capacity to think as critically as adults to solve problems.

"They try to deal with the problem the best way they think possible, but it's not always the best way," she says. "Don't try and deal with it yourself, go to a trusted adult."

2. Document it

Todd, May and Lalonde say it's important to document the harassment to create a permanent record.

But the task can be time-consuming, and emotionally difficult.

You don't know how far that harassment is going to go before you make it an emotional breaking point.- Carol Todd

That's where organizations like HeartMob come in — they can help a person document abuse, or do it for them so victims don't have to read upsetting content.

Todd says it's easy to internalize "absolutely horrible and devastating comments."

"You don't know how far that harassment is going to go before you make it an emotional breaking point," she says.

Lalonde says that documentation can allow people to "use their privilege in a positive way."

"As a white woman, I can support someone who's experiencing racist harassment, because it might upset me, but it doesn't cut me the same way," she said.

Similarly, Lalonde says, men can help to support women who experience harassment by documenting the abuse for them.

3. Report it

Report the abuse on the platform where it occurred, be it Twitter, Facebook, SnapChat or any other place. Ask friends and family to report it, too.

"The more people that report it on that platform, the more likely it is that the platform will respond to it," says May.

4. Talk about it

Lalonde says that talking to friends about her experience of getting threats online has helped.

Todd agrees, saying it's important not to keep it to yourself.

"We can't get to all the trolls in the world, but we can certainly talk to anybody who might be a victim, and that could be anybody."

HeartMob can also organize to send supportive, positive messages to people who are experiencing online harassment so that the person can open their inbox and see something nice, instead of just vitriol.

5. Tell the police

If the abuse escalates, or if you feel in any way threatened, tell the police. They can start a file to document the harassment, and the report could also lead to a police investigation and possibly criminal charges.

About the Author

Laura Wright

Laura Wright is an online reporter and editor for CBC News in Toronto. She previously worked for CBC North in Yellowknife.