Things getting nasty on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram? How to shut down the hate, harassment

The internet needs one of those big red panic buttons. You know the ones. They say things on top like STOP, EJECT, or just plain NO. As great as it is, it has a dark side too - namely in the form of online abuse - and wouldn't it be awesome just to press a button to shut that mess down?

For some of us, it's mildly hurtful. For others, it's truly life-threatening. We block people on social media and do our best to report the abuse to whomever we can. But it never feels like enough. Teen suicide, mass shootings - there's a whole new world of violence stemming from online abuse these days.

According to recent data from Statista, nearly half of adults experience some degree of personal online harassment.

A Pew Research Center survey also shows that since the pandemic started, people have experienced more severe encounters, such as physical threats, sexual harassment, and stalking. Women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community are at particular risk for more extreme forms of online abuse, including sustained harassment and hate speech, according to that Pew survey and another report by GLAAD.

Who gets targeted: These are the people targeted by online hate on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

"Women, people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, and people identifying with other marginalized or threatened groups," are at particular risk for more extreme forms of online abuse Jeje Mohamed, program manager of free expression and digital safety at Pen America, a nonprofit organization advocating for freedom of expression, wrote to me in an email.

There's a massive rallying cry to get tech companies to do more, but it's really up to us. Here are the tools, rules, and best ways to safeguard ourselves and those we love:

A Pew Research Center survey also shows that since the pandemic started, people have experienced more severe encounters, such as physical threats, sexual harassment, and stalking.
A Pew Research Center survey also shows that since the pandemic started, people have experienced more severe encounters, such as physical threats, sexual harassment, and stalking.  

What constitutes online harassment?

Playfully teasing your friends on Facebook or Twitter is mild and, for most of us, an extension of what we all experience in our real-life relationships. But when things move beyond inside jokes and snarky remarks, the damage can be permanent, devastating and even deadly.

Pew Research Center breaks online harassment down into six specific types:

  • Offensive name-calling

  • Purposeful embarrassment

  • Stalking

  • Physical threats

  • Harassment over a sustained period of time

  • Sexual harassment

Each of these can be incredibly painful in its own way, but some are more severe than others, like stalking, physical threats, and sexual harassment - the more serious the situation, the more options to deal with it.

What to do

How you deal with the nasty people who pop up from time to time online is entirely up to you, but some guidelines are worth knowing.

Mute, block, report

I get called all kinds of names and it often hurts my feelings. It's part of the job, sure, but it never gets easier.

One of my long-time (former) social media fans went on the attack over vaccines during the pandemic (I was publicly in favor), and the threats from him and his posse went far beyond anything thick skin could resolve.

"Facing online abuse can be very overwhelming and emotionally draining," Mohamed says, "and it is normal to feel this way. My first advice is to breathe and to know that there are different options for you and things you can do."

The first step here is to mute, block, and report. Even though these kinds of trolls can - and will - continue to post pretty much whatever disparaging nonsense they want, these first few steps tend to take some wind out of their sails.

  • Muting a person means you never receive messages from them again.

  • Blocking them often doubles as muting, while also preventing them from seeing your activity.

  • Taking things one step further, reporting abusers to the platform can help get them suspended, their posts removed, or even get them banned.

The big dogs here like Twitter and Facebook say they take these problems seriously and investigate reports of abuse, but the systems aren't perfect and often come down to a judgment call.

Dealing with stalking and physical threats

It's one thing to get called names; it's another to get confronted by someone on a sidewalk in your hometown, or hallway in your school. When something crosses over into your real-world life, it's time to take more severe action.

Document everything: Threats of physical violence and stalking can lead to criminal charges. In these cases, it's essential to document all instances of contact, including screenshots of social media posts, direct messages, emails, and text messages to your phone.

Threat assessment: Understand the legitimacy of the threat, including whether the individual has access to personal information like your home or place of work, phone number, or email address.

Locating the threats: Note whether the harassment has crossed platforms - i.e., the person first interacted with you on Twitter but has since begun emailing you, calling you, or even sending you physical mail or packages.

After documenting all the information you have, go to the police. Local law enforcement is usually equipped to deal with cybercrime issues, including threats of physical violence. Even if yours isn't, having a record of the abuse is the first step toward a more significant action.

You may also wish to contact a lawyer to help if you want to pursue a damage claim. It's imperative to know that if you don't feel comfortable in your home or place of work, you should report the abuse as soon as possible.

Sexual harassment online

This is considered one of the most severe types of online abuse and can take many forms.

Laws against "revenge porn" - the posting of private photos by an ex or someone with access to photos or video they shouldn't be seeing - are already on the books in almost every state. The few states without these specific laws still offer protection to citizens under various privacy laws on a state-by-state basis.

If the crime involves a child who is either being exposed to sexual content or is a victim of exploitation, the National Center For Missing & Exploited Children provides a cyber tip line where you can provide information on the incident.

Preparing for the worst

You know the saying, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Without a doubt, it's easier to stop something from happening in the first place than to repair the damage after it has happened. Here are three top tips:

Are you a target for online abuse?

How locked down is your online world? If you don't use complex and unique passwords, it's high time to batten down the hatches. Use a password manager app such as 1Password or LastPass. Both have free and premium versions that create more secure ways to protect your accounts. Also, be sure to check your privacy settings and use two-factor authentication. This goes further to safeguard your accounts from getting snagged by nefarious creeps.

Google yourself

You might be shocked to find out what information, such as your home address, kids' school address, legal documents, and so much more, is available to anyone who searches for your name online.

I set up a Google Alert with my first and last name as the keywords. Whenever Google's web crawlers find anything, it sends me an alert. Often, the information is wrong too.

Data brokers often scrape every bit of information - from public records to online contests you've entered - and sell it to the highest bidder. You can reach out to every company and try to get it removed, but who has time for that?

Instead, if you can afford it, it's best to use a service like DeleteMe ($130/year for an individual) or Kanary ($90 a year for an Individual or $130 a year for a family) to check data broker sites and delete any information they have on you.

Be aware of what you post

Most online abuse happens on social media, so you need to be careful about what you post. Most of us have learned this the hard way. Post about supporting one politician over another, and you get could the wrath of "the other side." Try to have an adult discussion over social media and allow several sides to weigh in. Good luck with that.

How to delete Instagram: Steps to take to delete or deactivate your Instagram account

But how public are you making your private information, without even realizing it? Run a social media security checkup at least once a year. Most apps like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter make this simple in the settings menu. This includes ensuring you know who can see your posts - are they all completely public?

Change your settings to make sure you're not sharing things you want to keep among friends with the whole world. If you post pictures, make sure you're not tagging your exact location, or seeing your address or kids' school in the background.

Know you're not alone

Most importantly, know that you're not alone regarding online abuse. There is no shame in asking for help, and there are now more places than ever to turn. A quick Google search turns up dozens of organizations and agencies to lend a helping hand, an empathetic ear, or assist you in getting the help you need if you're getting harassed online.

Even the president of the United States is trying to help curb online abuse. Last June, the Whitehouse launched a Task Force to deal with rising incidents, and create more safe havens to seek help when you need it most.

Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech columnist. Email her at Follow her on Twitter: @JenniferJolly.

The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram: How to deal with online harassment


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