As someone who researches online behaviours such as trolling, cyberbullying, and cyberstalking, I have, from time to time, ended up on the receiving end of abusive online behaviour myself.
Out of a wide and varied selection, I’ve had a well-educated “independent researcher” delivering tirades of colourful ad hominem attacks while asking for copies of all my publications in comments in between. A second spent some considerable effort constructing an online profile of me, complete with posts, which, for simplicity’s sake, I’ll describe as “not complimentary”. And a third has sent me a catalogue of emails wrathfully explaining how I’m part of a media and pharmaceutical-based plot to censor America. (Just America, apparently…)
What’s especially sad, though, is how many people will read that summary with amusement – or perhaps envy – at how tepid my experience has been. Indeed, when we consider that regular targets for online abuse include academics, women, and public figures, I’m really only surprised that as a female academic with a public profile, I haven’t had worse.
I shouldn’t feel so thankful – just as no one should feel thankful for crossing town without ending up the victim of an unprovoked shooting – but the sense of miraculously dodging a hail of bullets is frequently reinforced.
In recent years I’ve done all kinds of keynotes and talks for the EU, the House of Lords, Westminster, regulatory bodies, the media, schools, colleges, conferences and more besides. As a result, I’ve met a small army of people – public figures, journalists, MPs, police, students, parents, other academics – keen to share their own experiences of online abuse.
Many have also conveyed just how few people they can talk to about it. Some have been dismissed with answers like, “don’t take it so seriously, it isn’t real”, while others, who have internalised this mindset, even denigrate the problem themselves with reflections like, “I don’t know why I let it bother me”. Either way, the result is a feeling of isolated inadequacy – as though being affected by online abuse is somehow a failing on their part.
Such views are deeply troubling. I suspect that it is a rare person who can’t recall a single hurtful thing ever said to them. Some words are so sharp, they leave wounds that last a lifetime – far longer than any physical injury, and yet there is almost an unwillingness to acknowledge that words online are as “real” as those offline.
Another classic “solution” often thrown casually about is to tell targets of abuse to just “close their account”. By this logic, why not tell a victim of burglary to just move house? Or a target of homophobic assault to just avoid their attackers?
For some, the online abuse they receive is defamatory and specifically designed to harm their offline reputation, career, or relationships. Leaving damaging rumours to take root as “fact” is therefore not an option. For others, online abuse can have a terrible fascination that drags them into a cycle in which they obsessively search online to see if anything new has appeared. If that seems odd, think of it this way: you overhear someone talking about you. Could you resist staying to listen? And if it turns out to be nasty, could you just forget it? Not stew over it during the long hours of the night? Not recall it every time you see that person? Truthfully…?
The conversations I’ve had with those who have faced online abuse contrast markedly with those who haven’t. The latter often have simple explanations for how they’d handle it, as though facing a boxing match that ends with a final bell and a clear winner.
Those who have experienced it often know better. Online abuse is more akin to a slow poison that continually erodes confidence, security, and peace of mind. Dealing with it is not easy, either for the target or investigative bodies, but we must get better at recognising that it is as “real” as offline abuse. To dismiss it as otherwise is to not only deny someone the help they may desperately need, but worse, to enable online abusers to carry on inflicting misery.