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What if I'm accused of online harassment?

What if I'm accused of online harassment?
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When you hear the word “stalker”, what image comes to mind? Perhaps a shadowy figure trailing a woman as she walks home from work or maybe an angry ex-girlfriend following her ex-boyfriend around town. We usually have a depiction in our head of one person keeping tabs on another; no matter where the victim goes, this lurker is not far behind. We don’t think of a stalker as someone hundreds, or even thousands of miles away. We don’t typically imagine stalkers who have never seen their victim in person. We certainly don’t think of ourselves, messaging a coworker or classmate every day to hang out as harassment.

It can be hard to believe that such a quick, simple action as this could potentially be harmful like taking the time to tail a person all around town. Our friends and family are accessible 24/7 through just a few taps on a touch screen, a motion that is second nature to many young adults today. However, this ease of communication tosses us into an entirely new and unfamiliar grey area that our parents’ generation was not forced to explore. “It’s been 20 minutes since I received a response. Should I send that third text in a row?” “I’m not getting a reply, is calling too much?” It can be hard to tell (especially when one is not face-to-face with the person) what is considered friendly, what is intimidating, and where the line is. Because of this, an increasing number of stalking cases are taking place entirely online.

Generally, “cyber harassment” is a process as opposed to an isolated incident and this process occurs relentlessly, amplifying the distress to the person on the receiving end. Cyber harassment can happen through text, email, social media, or any means of electronic communication. If you have been accused of cyberstalking, ask yourself a few questions:

1. Could your messages be seen as excessive? An example could be sending many unnecessary texts in a short amount of time without necessarily receiving any response.

2. Is the other person replying?

3. Are their responses enthusiastic or are they just expressing lukewarm interest in the conversation?

4. Have they indicated that they do not wish to talk?

Other examples of cyber harassment include, but are not limited to:

-Creating online profiles, pretending to be another person

-Posting private photos from an ex without their consent (“revenge porn”)

-Encouraging others to participate in the online bullying of another

-Repeatedly calling someone in order to intimidate or provoke them

-Monitoring another person online via “check-ins” in order to meet up with them (against their wishes)

If you think you may have cyber harassed, here are some steps that you can take to address the situation:

1. If you are under the age of 18, go to your parents and inform them in detail about what happened. If the situation turns into a legal matter, they will be just as much involved as you.

2. Remove anything that you have posted online that you believe could be considered harassment. This should be done by all and not only to avoid repercussions.

3. If you are accused of general online harassment, in addition to removing any harmful content, it is important to apologize. Let the other person know that you are genuinely regret the emotional harm your actions caused and are taking steps to correct them. However, if you are accused of cyberstalking, it is best to not contact the other person to try to explain or even apologize, as this could be seen as further communication against their wishes[DS1] .

4. Reflect on the motivations behind your actions that caused harm; understanding these will help to prevent future incidents.

5. Consult an attorney! Even after removing harmful posts and apologizing, legal trouble can still arise. Only an attorney who has handled this sort of case before will be able to give you proper advice on how to proceed in order to avoid costly legal disputes.

Above all, always be cognizant of what you say and do online. Once something is on the internet, it can never be completely erased!

About the Author

Ashley grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma before moving to Washington, DC for undergrad at George Washington University, where she will soon complete double majors in Criminal Justice and Psychology, with a minor in Law & Society. She has competed in mock trial competitions at both the high school and collegiate levels in hopes of preparing her for a career in criminal law. In her free time, Ashley has tutored inmates in GED-prep at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women through the Petey Greene Program. She is currently serving as the Vice President of the GW chapter of the Student Alliance for Prison Reform. Ashley also serves as a University Justice on GWU’s Conduct Board in the Student Rights & Responsibilities office where she determines responsibility and sanctions for a wide variety of conduct and academic integrity violations.

Ashley Wilson began interning for WGW in January 2016 before becoming a paralegal in June 2016. She assists in legal research for college student defense cases and writes for a blog about the college disciplinary process. She also aids attorney Shan Wu with his college course at GWU: Campus Justice. She has been accepted to multiple law schools and is currently weighing her options for 1L this fall.