Online harassment

Harassment online is a big problem. Legal remedies have limitations. It’s worth gaining ideas from nonviolent action.


One of my friends told me about a time, years ago, when she was stalked by a former student who threatened to kill her. The police could only recommend driving home using a different route and being cautious. She is pretty tough and is a politically aware feminist, yet she worried about what he might do to her or, if he turned his attention elsewhere, to someone else.

One of the difficulties in dealing with stalking is that, to outsiders, it doesn’t seem so bad. So what if someone comes by your neighbourhood and watches from a distance or shows up when you’re shopping? If he hasn’t physically touched you, what’s the problem? Until you’ve been stalked yourself, or talked to friends who have been, it’s hard to appreciate the terror it can cause.

These days, physical stalking has been overshadowed by an online version of the same problem. Stalking is just one version of a wider set of abuses that can be called harassment, bullying or mobbing. As with old-fashioned physical stalking, the online versions are often not treated as seriously as they deserve.

The most comprehensive and authoritative treatment of this problem is Hate Crimes in Cyberspace by Danielle Keats Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland. Based on years of study and interviews with dozens of victims, Citron’s book is a call to arms.

 Hate crimes in cyberspace cover

The experience

To give a sense of the patterns and impact of cyber harassment, Citron uses three case studies. One involves a female law student who, for no apparent reason, started becoming a target of abusive, threatening commentary on blog sites, including lies about her test scores, sexual behaviour and mental problems. What happens in cases like this is that after a public attack begins, lots of people join in, turning individual bullying into collective mobbing.

Her employment prospects were diminished because many potential employers look online to check out job applicants; when they see derogatory material, they seldom seek to verify it, instead just passing over the applicant in favour of someone about which there is no adverse material.

The attackers went beyond abuse, seeking to wreck the student’s life and career. They wrote to her employers making all sorts of false, damaging claims, and also made false claims about her husband.


            Another one of Citron’s case studies involves a woman who became prominent as a blogger, discussing software design. Simply by being a woman commenting in a male-dominated technological field, she became a target of massive abuse, including death threats, rape fantasies and the like.

The third case study is of a victim of revenge porn. This woman’s ex-partner posted nude photos of her on various websites, plus her contact details. An online profile falsely stated she wanted sex for money. This and other posts led to a barrage of unwelcome attention. Her boss and colleagues received photos by emails that seemed to come from her.

These three case studies, with many details (but not names), provide powerful testimony of the damage that can be caused by online abuse. Citron supplements these with a range of additional examples.


            Several factors contribute to the prevalence of cyberharassment. One is the online disinhibition effect: when people are anonymous, or just feel anonymous and separated from their target, they are less inhibited in what they say. The tech blogger received mountains of online abuse but none face-to-face. Another factor contributing to cyberharassment is that many people, including attackers, police and judges, do not think it’s a big deal. Attackers often say, “It goes with the territory” and police may recommend avoiding it: “Just don’t go online.” This is like telling a victim of street assault not to go outside.


Citron offers two revealing comparisons, with sexual harassment and domestic violence. Decades ago, these were not seen as issues of importance. Sexual harassment was seen as something women at work just had to accept, and likewise domestic violence was invisible as a social issue. Then along came the feminist movement. Sexual harassment and domestic violence were given names, stigmatised as wrong and even contemptible and criminalised by the passing of laws.

Citron says cyberharassment should be treated the same way. In all three forms of abuse, women and men can be victims, but women are much more likely to be targeted.

In Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, Citron gives most attention to legal remedies. She examines existing US laws for prospects of using them against cyberharassment – mostly the experience has been that they are useless – and recommends law reform and education of police and judges. She also recognises the importance of cultural change, including via interventions with Internet firms and in families.

 Danielle Keats Citron
Danielle Citron

Options in Australia

Citron’s focus is on the situation in the US, and she closely examines US court decisions and legal doctrine, especially concerning the protection of free speech in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Online harassers often defend their actions as exercising their own free speech. Citron shows, through a careful analysis, that it is possible to legislate against cyberharassment in ways compatible with the First Amendment. Her discussion is a fascinating tour of US free-speech law, much of it showing the sophistication of court judgements.

first amendment

            In Australia, however, this analysis is largely irrelevant, because there is no explicit constitutional protection of free speech, only an inferred and quite limited area of protection. In Australia, then, there is no constitutional barrier to passing laws against online harassment. Paradoxically, though, far less has been done in the legal domain than in the US. This may be because legal remedies are more a consequence of cultural change than a driver of it. Furthermore, laws sometimes give only an appearance of protection.

I remember when, decades ago, the issue of sexual harassment came onto the agenda for Australian universities. At the Australian National University in the mid-1980s, two groups were set up, one to address complaints, the other to raise awareness. I was in the awareness-promoting group: we wrote and distributed leaflets, wrote articles and gave talks. Then, in 1986, I obtained a lectureship at the University of Wollongong and joined the sexual harassment committee when it was formed that year; the same differences in function were apparent. Over the next decade there was considerable effort to raise concerns about sexual harassment and a related issue, abuse of trust and conflict of interest when academics had sexual relationships with students.

In those years, there was considerable attention to sexual harassment. But then the issues dropped from the main agenda. At Wollongong, the sexual harassment committee was abolished in 1998. The formal procedures remained, but efforts to generate awareness declined. Sexual harassment continued, but less was done to alert new cohorts of students and staff about the problem.

My experiences with sexual harassment committees made me sceptical of formal procedures as the primary tool for addressing problems. In many cases, official processes served to keep problems from being publicised. My special interest remains in helping people acquire knowledge and skills to deter and resist abuse.

Nonviolent action and cyberharassment

Citron, although emphasising legal remedies, also canvasses other options. One of them is individual resistance by exposing attacks. Some targets have courageously made public statements describing abuse and denouncing it. This is a potentially a powerful response, generating awareness and stimulating support, but sometimes it leads to the abuse becoming even more intense. Harassers are outraged when victims refuse to acquiesce, and are especially angry when their aggression, and sometimes their identity, is exposed.

In Australia, Emma Jane has undertaken in-depth research into what she calls “e-bile,” which incorporates various forms of online abuse and harassment. Her special interest is online misogyny, and the increasing prevalence of threats to women of rape, torture and murder. Like Citron, Jane is disappointed with institutional responses, and as well decries academic studies that minimise or ignore the serious impacts. She acknowledges that direct action by targets, called vigilantism, sometimes can be worthwhile, but argues that collective responses to change policies and cultural attitudes are necessary too.

To help judge when open resistance is likely to be effective, it is useful to turn to experience with nonviolent action against injustice, using methods such as rallies, strikes, boycotts and sit-ins. One option is using some of these techniques against groups that enable or tolerate cyberharassment. A possibility would be organising protests or boycotts of companies that advertise on sites refusing to restrain attacks. However, obtaining sufficient leverage to promote change might be difficult.

Another option is to apply the general approach of nonviolent action to a different domain, cyberharassment, where there is seldom any physical violence by harassers (though the threat of violence is routine). Naming and shaming harassment and harassers can be considered analogous to nonviolent action against a violent opponent.

Gene Sharp is widely considered a pioneer thinker about nonviolent action. His 1973 book The Politics of Nonviolent Action describes 198 methods of nonviolent action. It also presents a set of stages or elements of nonviolent campaigns. The first stage he calls “laying the groundwork”, which means building awareness, organisations and skills, all before taking action. The next stage Sharp calls “challenge brings repression”: campaigners take (nonviolent) action against the opponent, knowing that their open resistance may trigger a repressive response. The third element in Sharp’s framework is “maintaining nonviolent discipline”: if activists use violence, this helps to justify their opponent’s use of superior violence. By refusing to use violence, campaigners build greater support. Sometimes the opponent’s violence can trigger a huge increase in popular support, a process Sharp calls political jiu-jitsu.

he 1960 Sharpeville massacre in South Africa triggered international condemnation: it backfired on the government.

            This framework can be applied to responding to cyberharassment. An individual who is being harassed might be courageous to go public about it, but to be effective it may be better to lay the groundwork first, by collecting more evidence, building ties with other targets and with opponents of harassment, and preparing a strategy. Only when fully ready psychologically and organisationally is it time to openly resist, in what Sharp calls “challenge brings repression”. An increase in attacks should be expected. The challenge then is for everyone involved to remain composed and not respond in kind. At this point, anything that seems like a counter-attack, for example a legal action or exposing private details about harassers, should be avoided so it is completely clear to neutral observers who are the aggressors. The possibility then is that further harassment, if exposed, might lead to a huge increase in support.


            For an individual, this may involve considerable sacrifice: standing up to abuse remains risky. Therefore, it is wise to act as part of a supportive group, with links to a wider movement.

For those willing to take the risk, it’s possible to learn from research on nonviolent action about how to increase the effectiveness of resistance. Activism against cyberharassment is vital in changing cultural attitudes. Future generations may be the primary beneficiaries of efforts today to openly resist abuse.

Brian Martin

Thanks for Sharon Callaghan for valuable comments.