Writer Anna Merlan wrote a piece for Jezebel a couple years back describing an experience she had online with cyber harassment. An angry online troll ordered an enormous amount of pizzas to her former address as a means of getting back at her for an article they disagreed with. In Merlan’s Jezebel piece, she used her own experience as a pushing off point to share the experiences of many other female writers and their struggles with law enforcement in these situations in a piece appropriately titled “The Cops Don’t Care About Violent Online Threats. What Do We Do Now?”
For people like Merlan and those she wrote about, it probably wouldn’t surprise them to see the recent report by ThinkProgress, which discovered that a significant amount of cyber harassment cases are not handled seriously or appropriately by the law. The data revealed that from 2012-2016, less than half of cyber harassment matters received ever led to a case even being filed.
CBS News reported some valuable facts on this a few years back. In their article entitled “Do police take online threats against women seriously?” it was reported that officers don’t generally understand cyber stalking or threats. In their interview with Professor Danielle Citron (University of Maryland School of Law), it was revealed that officers often react by suggesting victims turn off their computers, claiming they are ignorant to technology and therefore can’t do anything (“What is Twitter?”), or claiming not to know the laws of cyber threats and harassment.
It’s also possible, however, that there is some confusion about the details involved. According to Houston area attorney Herman Martinez, online stalking is tricky for law enforcement and prosecutors because the scene of the crime is so different from traditional violent crimes. “Online stalking can be difficult to define since it takes place in virtual space,” Martinez said. And of course, we at Borderless News and Views have already covered the lack of substantial data that the criminal justice system has and uses.
Still though, the facts show us this needs to be addressed. 52 percent of young people are reporting they’ve been cyber bullied. Four-in-ten Americans are victims of cyber harassment (per Pew Research). There are many terrible stories of people committing suicide and struggling to function due to emotional distress after online harassment encounters. And of course, it sometimes goes the distance, with ill-intentioned people using online information to find a person in real life and stalk them physically.
This will be a long conversation, but the law cannot stand by idly anymore. There needs to be stricter and more definitive laws surrounding online harassment, stalking, and the like. On the ground level, police officers need to be more informed and take claims of cyber harassment as seriously as they would the claims of any other type of harassment. Death threats online are still death threats. Invading privacy online is still invading privacy. Harassment online is still harassment.
There can’t be any more excuses of ignorance such as “we don’t understand that” or “how can a threat be real if it’s not in person?” We’re at the point that lives and safety are at risk, and it is clear that this is an urgent matter to address. It will take a while to figure out how to do this, but the worst thing we can do is nothing.
Avery T. Phillips is a freelance human being with too much to say. She loves nature and examining human interactions with the world. Comment or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or suggestions.