Anyone who has participated in the blogosphere in the past two months knows the troubling story of Kathy Sierra, a prominent blogger who was the victim of online threats that included violent sexual acts and murder ("Death threats force woman to suspend blog, cancel talk at O'Reilly conference"). When the harassment spread beyond her own blog to two others that were affiliated with other prominent bloggers, Sierra became so terrified that she canceled an upcoming speaking engagement and took a hiatus from blogging.
But Sierra isn't the only one to endure online harassment. In fact, some would argue that she's just the most visible -- if not the most historically egregious -- tip of an iceberg that has been around since Internet discussions began in the early 1980s. "Between now and the early days of Usenet, the level of abusive behavior has been distressingly constant," says Tim Bray, a veteran blogger and director of Web technologies at Sun Microsystems Inc.
The difference is, with 70 million blogs in existence today and 1.4 new blogs created every second, according to blog search engine Technorati Inc., there are just more people participating in online discussions, and "the more crazy people you've got reading them, the wilder the whole blogosphere can become," says Richard Silverstein, who advocates for a peaceful approach to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his blog.
And he should know. Like Sierra, Silverstein is the victim of online harassment, in the form of hostile comments on his own blog, in external discussion groups and on blogs created solely for the purpose of maligning him. Given the topic that he blogs about, Silverstein is no stranger to abusive commentary. "It's part of the territory -- if you want to write a blog like this, you're going to deal with unpalatable people," he says.
But when the external blogs -- whose creators were anonymous -- grew increasingly threatening, including what he saw as pornographic photographs, he began to feel personally harassed. "I've felt insecure and under threat," he says. "No one has said, 'I'm going to come and kill you,' but there were some comments that got me concerned. You hate to think of these things, but it's very possible that some wacko will escalate from a threatening comment to actually doing something."
Silverstein has been able to uncover the identities of the bloggers, but he's been unable to force the blogs' removal, despite repeated correspondence with Blogger.com, which cites Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act that shields providers of content creation tools from liability for the content users create. In an e-mail sent to Silverstein, Blogger.com said that the site "does not remove allegedly defamatory, libelous or slanderous material from Blogger.com or BlogSpot.com," pursuant to Section 230, although it did remove the photographs because they were copyrighted images.
While both Silverstein and Sierra are higher-profile bloggers than many of us, it's clear that anyone who enters the blogosphere needs to be aware of the types of people who get satisfaction out of online harassment. According to Derek Wood, vice president of clinical operations at PsychTracker Inc., a journaling site for people with mental illness, the harassment comes in two general forms: trolls and cyberstalkers. It's important for blog participants to understand the psychological makeup of both types so that if they encounter any type of online abuse, they'll have some idea of what they're facing and how to respond to it.
Essentially, a troll is a person who posts with the intent to insult and provoke others, Wood explains. The goal is to disrupt the normal traffic of a discussion group beyond repair. "A group is considered to be cohesively destroyed when two-thirds to three-quarters of the messages are a result of [trolls'] comments," Wood explains. They often target new users, who are more likely to take offense, hence the term "troll" (as in "trolling" for newbies).
Many trolls are characterized by having an excess of free time and are probably lonely and seeking attention, Wood says. "They often see their own self-worth in relation to how much reaction they can provoke," he says.
Woods categorizes trolls in the following ways:
Spamming troll: Posts to many newsgroups with the same verbatim post.
Kooks: A regular member of a forum who habitually drops comments that have no basis on the topic or even in reality.
Flamer: Does not contribute to the group except by making inflammatory comments.
Hit-and-runner: Stops in, make one or two posts and move on.
Psycho trolls: Has a psychological need to feel good by making others feel bad.
The last type, according to another victim of online harassment, who asked to be identified only as Tim to avoid further online trouble, are "sick individuals." At one point, he says, an online hobby community that he led was attacked by such a person. "We learned over time that he wasn't just some schmo having fun -- he seemed to have some formidable computer hacking skills as well as debating skills," he says. Even when site administrators tried to ban him from the system, he found work-arounds, Tim says. "He eventually went away, but he's still out there [on other discussion groups], doing his sick, twisted thing," he says.
Later, Tim was hit at a more personal level when another group of people set up a blog aimed at mocking and attacking prominent members of the hobby community, including himself. Some of the material included photographs depicting their targets being violated, he says. One individual was able to force the bloggers to remove the images, using the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the same law that helped Silverstein force the removal of the offensive images from the blog harassing him. Despite that victory, however, the bloggers continue, "and they used the DMCA notices as a way to further malign [the victim] in public," Tim says.
Cyberstalkers can also assume many different forms, according to Wood, although they're basically characterized by a continuing pattern of communication that the recipient considers to be offensive. Other common traits of cyberstalkers are malice, premeditation, repetition, distress to the victim, an obsession on the part of the stalker, seeking of revenge, threats that make victims fear for their physical safety and disregarded warnings to stop.
As with trolls, there are several different types of cyberstalkers, according to Wood:
Intimate partner: The most common type of stalker, this is usually a man who has a history of controlling and emotional abuse during a relationship.
Delusional stalkers: This type of stalker builds an entire relationship with the victim in his or her mind, whether any prior contact has taken place or not. Such stalkers are likely to have a major mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or erotomania, which means they believe the victim is in love with them. The typical delusional stalker is unmarried, socially immature and a loner who is unable to sustain close relationships with others.
Vengeful stalker. This type of person is angry with the victim due to some real or imagined insult or injury. Some of these stalkers are psychopaths -- a person affected with an antisocial personality disorder -- who have no conscience or remorse. They may have paranoid delusions, often feeling that they themselves are victims and are striving to get even.
What to do
In many cases, victims feel they have very little ammunition -- whether legal, technological or tactical -- to stop the abuse. However, there are some things bloggers and other online contributors can do to try to avoid this kind of harassment or at least keep it from crossing into the physical world.
1. Know the trolls' tactics
According to Wood, the first rule for dealing with trolls is to avoid being deceived by them in the first place. Don't trust anything you receive or read without verifying the poster through known, reliable sources, he says. Also, ignore postings or private e-mails that are suspicious, such as those that praise, flatter or evoke a sympathetic response.
This is one of the more important acronyms in the blog world, meaning, "Don't feed the trolls." "Just like in-person bullies, trolls feed off your reaction," Tim says. "Under no circumstances should you acknowledge the behavior or repay it with anger or defensiveness. If you don't react, they'll get bored and go away."
Even if ignoring the harasser doesn't get him to stop, at least you won't fan his flames, Wood says. "The more a person responds, the more they teach the stalker about themselves or divulge information they shouldn't," he says.
3. Maintain your privacy
Don't publish any personal information, such as your address or phone number. If you need to, use a Post Office box number. Wood suggests asking your state's motor vehicles and voter registry to put a block on your address and phone number. "Otherwise, any person may obtain them just for inquiring," he says.
Some longtime bloggers, such as Bray and his wife Lauren Wood, a senior technical program manager at Sun, refrain from posting photos of their children on their blogs.
4. Block and ban
If you're experiencing abuse on a moderated blog, you can appeal to the administrator, who can try banning the troll. Be prepared to include a history of the troll's posts, including full headers.
Some blog services offer technologies that enable you to block offensive participants. Using Wordpress, Silverstein can moderate the comments of anyone who hasn't contributed to the site before, which helps eliminate the hit-and-run type of trolls. "That allows me to weed out 90% of the abuse I get," he says.
Another plug-in enables him to ban certain IP addresses. "That's especially good for the really crazy people, if they post one comment that goes beyond the pale," he says.
5. Keep a log
Be sure to keep a copy of anything you receive from the harasser, Lauren Wood suggests. If they contact you by phone rather than e-mail, take notes on what they say and how often they call, she says. "You'll need proof rather than, 'I think he was calling three times a day,'" she says. "You'll want a log that says, 'He called at 9:14 p.m."
Above all, when you have an online presence, you need to prepare yourself for the possibility of becoming a target, Wood adds. "Just like in the real world, you need to realize which dark alleys you shouldn't enter at night, and if you do, have protection and know what you should do when," she says.
Adds Silverstein, "you're very vulnerable as a blogger. You're out there hanging on the line, and anyone can take a shot at you."