Unfortunately, no one is immune to cyberbullying.
Case in point: Last week, Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones quit Twitter after hundreds of anonymous trolls (and one well-known conservative blogger, Milo Yiannopoulos) threw a barrage of sexist and racist tweets at her. Twitter responded by kicking Milo off the platform (and Leslie has since reactivated her account).
But a few major questions came up in the wake of this incident: Do freedom of speech laws protect online trolls? And as a non-celebrity, what should you do if somebody is straight-up harassing you on Twitter?
When Tweets Cross the Line
Odds are you've experience at least some form of online bullying before. In fact, a Women’s Health survey found that 55 percent of readers say they’ve experience online harassment, and two-thirds of women say they’ve been called a bitch, cunt, slut, or whore online.
“When these comments start to involve racial or gender-based hatred, it’s gone too far,” says Sameer Hinduja, Ph.D., co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida Atlantic University. “In the best case scenario, you block the person, report it, and try not to let it get the best of you, but sometimes there are threats involved and we just don’t know what people are capable of.”
While Instagram and Facebook have taken serious steps to block and delete inflammatory content, “Twitter is one of the last legit social networks to not police their ranks,” says Parry Aftab, an Internet privacy and security lawyer and expert in cyber crime. “The rules online are that if you violate a network’s terms of service or code of conduct, you shouldn’t be able to use it, but Twitter has yet to draw that line.”
Facebook, for example, has a strict ban on nudity (whether it's for artistic purposes or being used to harass someone) and the company is quick to block any content that comes close to violating its codes. "In order to treat people fairly and respond to reports quickly, it is essential that we have policies in place that our global teams can apply uniformly and easily when reviewing content," reads Facebook's community standards. "As a result, our policies can sometimes be more blunt than we would like and restrict content shared for legitimate purposes. We are always working to get better at evaluating this content and enforcing our standards."
We reached out to Twitter regarding their policies around online harassment, but they didn’t respond in time for publication. In a statement made to Buzzfeed on July 19 regarding Leslie’s situation, Twitter had this to say:
“People should be able to express diverse opinions and beliefs on Twitter. But no one deserves to be subjected to targeted abuse online, and our rules prohibit inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others. Over the past 48 hours in particular, we’ve seen an uptick in the number of accounts violating these policies and have taken enforcement actions against these accounts, ranging from warnings that also require the deletion of Tweets violating our policies to permanent suspension.
"We know many people believe we have not done enough to curb this type of behavior on Twitter. We agree. We are continuing to invest heavily in improving our tools and enforcement systems to better allow us to identify and take faster action on abuse as it’s happening and prevent repeat offenders. We have been in the process of reviewing our hateful conduct policy to prohibit additional types of abusive behavior and allow more types of reporting, with the goal of reducing the burden on the person being targeted. We’ll provide more details on those changes in the coming weeks.”
So the network’s still in limbo on how to protect you—but what about the law?
Taking a Stand Against Cyberbullies
When it comes to online harassment, you can do “anything from nothing to putting somebody in jail,” says Aftab, who has represented a number of celebrities who’ve fallen victim to online trolling. “There’s a federal law in place that says if you intentionally communicate with someone with the intent to harass, it’s a felony and the FBI is required to investigate.”
For staggering statistics on online harassment, watch the video below:
According to Twitter's site, your first step should be ending communication with and unfollowing the user who you’ve received unwanted communication from. If the behavior continues, Twitter recommends then blocking the user. When you block someone, they can't follow you, direct message you, view your tweets, or find your tweets. Their tweets also won't show up in your timeline. “Abusive users often lose interest once they realize that you will not respond,” reads the site. If that doesn’t work, Twitter advises reporting the behavior. Once you do so, they will review the reported accounts and/or tweets and determine whether to suspend or terminate the user. Twitter also suggests contacting your local law enforcement if you think you’re in physical danger.
But finding out who is doing the trolling and attacking can be difficult (if not impossible) since much of it comes from anonymous accounts, and “unless there’s a credible threat, law enforcement doesn’t want to take the time to figure it out,” says Aftab. There are also state-by-state laws against cyber harassment, but making headway in the courts can be a long and taxing battle since that the line between free speech and abuse is tough to draw.
Which is why all eyes will be on Twitter in the coming weeks and months as they redefine what’s acceptable and what’s plain wrong. “As someone who protects victims of cyber harassment, I think it’s wonderful they’ve finally made a statement [by blocking Milo], but as someone interested in best practice standards and consistency, they need to make sure their rules are issued with a clear bright line on this,” says Aftab.