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Stop Bullying, Abuse & Harassment online (stop, report, pevent)

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Offline kat

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Finding yourself subject to online bullying, harassment or abuse can be as confusing as it might be traumatic, but Don't Panic!(Amz), there are things you can do. It doesn't matter if you don't know the person or people involved, or it happens playing games, on social media, forums, or other public communities, there are steps you can take to stop it. Although not 100% foolproof, most social network services - Twitter, Facebook, SnapChat, Imgr, Skype, et al - provide tools and resources for Users to report upsetting content or conduct. Elsewhere this same process might instead be facilitated by contacting a website owner or community Administrator or Moderator with a complaint.

IMPORTANT: to be effective in preventing or stopping harassment, bullying and abuse online be very clear in your mind that what you are looking to report is in fact unwarranted or unwanted attention or abuse and not simply the consequence of a heated or emotional argument or discussion between you and the person, or people, you allege are being abusive - whilst all such behaviour should be reported, Service Providers can only act upon reports within the confines of their respective Terms of Service (ToS) agreements; content, conduct or Users should never be reported expecting otherwise (Providers acting beyond the scope of their respective Terms or Service) - content or behaviour reports are treated as violations of Service, not the individual or their presumed 'rights'.

In other words, whilst you might find something personally upsetting, the conduct, content or User may not actually be in violation of their Terms of Service, and/or may not be engaged in any 'criminal' or 'illegal' activity in the conventional sense. Understanding this distinction will better enable you to help yourself in dealing with harassment and the general abuse you may encounter online.

What to actually do
How then to actually prevent or stop online bullying, harassment or abuse. Although the process differs from service to service, when looking to report or flag upsetting, harassing or abusive content or conduct, keep the following in mind as it may help expedite the process;
  • Do not engage.
  • Collect the evidence.
  • Screen-capture everything else.
  • Block, report, flag.
  • Call non-emergency number.
  • Call emergency number.
  • Seek legal advice.
In detail...
  • First: DO NOT ENGAGE. Avoid engaging with the person or people sending harassing messages or content, especially if they are unknown to you, doing so only makes a bad situation worse, potentially undermines the credibility and/or veracity of claims made, as well as giving the abuser the opportunity to report you for abuse. DON'T use other people or third-party groups or Organisations as 'tanks'[1] to absorb abuse or run 'interference' between you and the harassing individuals, people or groups either, as this too will make the situation worse.

  • Second: collect the evidence. Do this yourself, or have someone you trust do it for you by taking screenshots and saving them to your device or computer – do NOT upload these to an online service or cloud storage as, depending on the content, the messages could be used to trigger an abuse report against you.

  • Third: screen-capture everything else. Wherever possible, screen-cap any communication with 'support' or whomever administrates the abuse or notification system. This creates a clear procedural history and makes clear the steps taken to solve the problem - your own efforts in this regard will help your case as no-one can report abuse for you (typically reports have to be made by the person receiving it).
IMPORTANT: screenshots by themselves may not be sufficient evidence because they can be easily 'shopped' (edited in an image editor). Where possible save direct messages or email locally and/or use 'archiving' services that 'capture' the offending content, making it accessibly via a unique URL/link.
  • Fourth: block, report, flag. Once the material has been collected and saved, keep copy(ies) for your records and then block, report or otherwise flag the messages or Users using whatever tools may be provided for such purposes by the Service Provider - Twitter, Facebook, SnapChat, Imgr, Skype, et al, provide tools to flag, remove or report abusive messages and or behaviour/Users.
If material is significantly abusive there may be cause to involve the Authorities - whilst individual messages might be considered harmless on their own, Criminal Harassment could potentially be invoked if the abusers actions are persistent and/or are expressed through multiple channels of communication with intent to cause the recipient distress, especially where doing so bypasses service blocks, bans, or suspensions that might already been in place against the person(s), if this includes threats of harm against you or someone you know, call the Authorities;
IMPORTANT: Do note that going down this path and calling the Police to report a potential crime/criminal act, obligates you to provide information to the dispatcher handling the call, details that might include personal information such as your name and address, and/or recounting the experience (upsetting as that may or may not be). There isn't a way to avoid this if a record of the incident is to be made which can later be relied upon, or a Police presence is wanted.
  • Fifth: call a non-emergency number. If threats are made, but nothing specifically indicates an immediate intent to cause harm, call your local Police Dept. using a non-emergency number or communication channel.

  • Sixth: call emergency number. If threats are made and they do appear to indicate an imminent intent to cause harm, call the Police emergency number.
IMPORTANT: it's critical to note here the Police are more likely to respond with personnel if they determine a credible, imminent, or immediate threat to a persons safety or well-being. It's vital this fact be understood to obtain a satisfactory result within the system as it stands when dealing with online harassment or abuse, because the realities of Policing and the Internet, regardless of internal policies on responding to harassment and abuse generally, means they are unlikely to dispatch personnel only if they cannot determine a credible threat[2]. This does not mean they don't believe you, that they are not “listening and believing”, it simply means they cannot determine the severity of the threat, or where they can, deem it to be non-credible with respect to there being an imminent or immediate threat to someone's safety or well-being.

This being the case, when making a call to the Police, never embellish the severity of the threat and/or activities being directed at you in an attempt to coerce a response from the Police. Do not make claims that cannot be later backed up with facts and information, as this only undermines your cause if you later need to correspond again with emergency services and/or the situation escalates to include prosecutory services. In other words, when involving the authorities the goal should not be to specifically elicit a physical response from the Police (absent actual threats of personal injury/violence), rather the generation an official record of the incident (an “Incident Report”), evidence that combined with further inevitable reports, creates a clear history of online harassment by a person or from an abuser/s that bolsters the case against them, making it more likely prosecutory action can be taken[3].
  • Seventh: seek legal advice. Once reports have been made and/or the Authorities involved where necessary, the final step is to seek advice from a suitable qualified legal professional to see what action can be taken - although reports may be made to the Police, unless a Criminal Offense (for example a specific incitement to violence against you or someone you know) has been committed they are unlikely to actually be able to do anything. Under such circumstances Civil litigation is the only viable option remaining. Talk to a lawyer specialising in online abuse/harassment etc.
The effectiveness of step seven will depend entirely upon steps 1 through 6; the more information there is to back-up a claim, the better chances are of litigation being possible and a faviourable outcome being had, i.e., the person going to jail (note that litigation is usually against individuals rather than groups, for that a slightly different approach needs to be take depending upon whether the group is just a collection of disassociated individuals, or an actual group like a Charitable, Non-Profit  Organisation or Advocacy Group, these can be reported to various governing Agencies - the Charities Commission in the UK, IRS in the USA for example.

Additional ResourcesFurther Reading

[1] a 'tank' is a person or group that acts as a damage control - when they see, or are asked to intervene or get involved in a situation where an individual is being harassed, they will often attack or otherwise interfere with the attackers efforts, redirecting the abuse away from the original target onto themselves. Whilst this works to a degree in the short-term, it imbues greater animosity mid to long term once the 'ruse' is discovered, or as a direct consequence of such groups employing questionable tactics themselves to counter the abuse (being abusive in return) - two 'wrongs' don't make a 'right' in this situation.

[2] although online harassment does not typically carry the same degree of concern over a victims physical safety as perhaps domestic abuse/harassment (unless the abuser is known to the person), a majority, if not all, Police forces/depts. have policies in place that obligate the dispatch of an Officers to investigate the situation and advise the victim of their options - "All forces told HMIC that force policy is that an officer will always attend a domestic abuse incident and will be dispatched immediately or within a non-emergency response time (typically one hour)." {cf. pp. 42, para 1 - "Everyone’s business: Improving the police response to domestic abuse"}.

[3] it's critically important to always report abuse and/or harassment that crosses the line at the time it happens to establish a record; regardless as to what some Advocacy Groups may advise, the Authorities take harassment and abuse very seriously, and are more likely to respond the more data they have available to them, not reporting incidents because you read the Police don't take things seriously, is counter-productive, and results in exactly that, lack of Police action.