Saturday, January 22, 2005

When people are used by others to harass someone online - don't believe everything you read online.

Cyberharassment or Cyberbullying by Proxy
(or third party cyberharassment or cyberbullying)

Often people who misuse the Internet to target others do it using accomplices. These accomplices, unfortunately, are often unsuspecting. They know they are communicating irate or provocative messages, but don’t realize that they are being manipulated by the real cyberharasser or cyberbully. That’s the beauty of this type of scheme. The attacker merely prods the issue by creating indignation or emotion on the part of others, can sit back and let others do their dirty work. Then, when legal action or other punitive actions are taken against the accomplice, the real attacker can claim that they never instigated anything and no one was acting on their behalf. They claim innocence and blame their accomplices, unwitting or not. And their accomplices have no legal leg to stand on.

It’s brilliant and very powerful. It is also one of the most dangerous kinds of cyberharassment or cyberbullying. Children do this often using AOL or another ISP as their “proxy” or accomplice. When they engage in a “notify” or “warning” war, they are using this method to get the ISP to view the victim as the provocateur. A notify or warning war is when one child provokes another, until the victim lashes back. When they do, the real attacker clicks the warning or notify button on the text screen. This captures the communication and flags it for the ISP’s review. If the ISP finds that the communication violated their terms of service agreement (which most do) they may take action. Some accounts allow several warnings before formal action is taken. But the end result is the same. The ISP does the attacker’s dirty work when they close or suspend the real victim’s account for a terms of service violation. Most knowledgeable ISPs know this and are careful to see if the person being warned is really being set-up.

Sometimes children use the victim’s own parents as unwitting accomplices. They provoke the victim and when the victim lashes back, they save the communication and forward it to the parents of the victim. The parents often believe what they read, and without having evidence of the prior provocations, think that their own child “started it.”
This works just as easily in a school disciplinary environment.

Unfortunately, while many who work with children are aware of this tactic, few adults are. Online media is often used to do someone’s dirty work in a cyberharassment campaign, without realizing it. And many netizens are manipulated as well. When something may be true if it appears once online and becomes Gospel if it appears twice, where scams, fraud and con artists abound, thinking that they are anonymous or can’t be held accountable for their actions, where misinformation and hype thrives, this isn’t surprising. There is something about the typed word online to make people think it must be true if someone said it.

This creates problems for those being attacked by accomplices who think they understand the truth and think they are doing something right. Our advice has always been to ignore these things, and they will usually run their course. Media attention and public denials only feed the motives of the person behind the attacks. And are rarely heard or believed by the accomplices.
So, if something is believed if not denied, but denials only make it worse, how do people deal with these kinds of attacks? Usually, if anyone bothered to check things out, they would find out that any accusations aren’t true. This is especially effective when a second or third campaign attempts to build on the first. A statement may sound true. And in the short term may not be clearly untrue. But when enough time passes and the claims don’t pan out, most accomplices aren’t mislead a second or third time. It usually dies out faster. Rarely are members of the media caught on the second or third round. They have their reputations on the line. Good journalists don’t repeat unfounded rumors and usually understand that they are being used.

But there are always accomplices who have problems understanding that they are being used. Sometimes they have their own agendas. Public figures are very familiar with people who attack them for their own motives, either to get their fifteen minutes of fame or to get revenge, or in some cases for financial rewards. Some may be emotionally disturbed, or have problems with social communications. Some people are just mean and rude. And some are inordinately gullible. And the common sense that should filter their actions online may not be present.

These people may not understand that their attacks, if designed to hurt someone’s reputation may be defamatory and subject them to lawsuits and in some cases harassment charges. They may not understand that they can be tracked quite easily most of the time and held accountable for their actions. They may not understand that their actions, while they may believe they are noble and right, may be a terms of service violation and cost them their online accounts.

I often point to my articles for children teaching them what to believe and what to distrust online. Unfortunately, these gullible people or people with their own agendas don’t have the sense that many seven year olds do. They repeat rumors, and take action. And find themselves facing liability when the person who started it all hides behind them. They should know that repeating lies, even if you read them online, is no excuse under the law.

A caution to all who believe things without confirming their accuracy: Silence should not be confused with an admission of guilt or confirmation that a lie told by someone is true. Sometimes silence is smarter, especially when the real fight may not occur online at all. The smarter ones don’t fight their battles in the public online, not when defamation or harassment is involved.

Just a reminder to think before you click. Otherwise you have become what you say you are fighting. You have become a cyberharasser or cyberbully yourself. Don’t be used. Use your head.

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Parry Aftab is interested in hearing ideas and questions about digital safety, privacy and cybersense. Please do not advertise or promote services or products or include a link, video or image in your comment.

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Note that Parry Aftab does not respond to legal questions and cannot address specific issues about reported abuse.She cannot be retained as legal counsel online, and any prospective client must sign a retainer agreement before becoming a legal client of Ms. Aftab. Any legal discussions are educational and informational only and anything submitted may be made public on this blog.

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