Online abuse is no joke. In 2017, 41% of Americans reported being the target of cyber harassment. And it’s not just name-calling or spam. Nearly 1 in 5 Americans have been the victims of the most severe kinds of cyber harassment, such as physical threats, sexual harassment, sustained harassment over a period of time, or stalking. But even as digital violence becomes more and more common, there’s a lot of misinformation about it. So we’re debunking the top 5 myths about online abuse.
Myth 1: Abusers need tech skills.
No! Abusing someone online is as easy as setting up a Facebook account. Or creating fake dating app profiles. Pretty much the only thing you need to sign up for a social media platform is an email address, and it’s ridiculously easy to get one of those. In fact, Facebook estimated in 2018 that there were up to 116 million fake profiles on its platform. If you want to impersonate someone else on a dating app, all you have to do is put in a fake name and some photos. A New York Times reporter was able to set up 11 identical fake Facebook profiles and 10 imposter Instagram accounts… and the platforms didn’t even notice. Even if companies claim they’re taking down false or duplicate accounts, the sheer number of people creating them makes it difficult to keep up. Offenders can easily hide behind fake social media profiles or impersonate you. Our own client Matthew Herrick had thousands of strangers sent to his home after his ex-boyfriend created a fake Grindr profile to impersonate Matthew. The psycho used this fake account to give out Matthew’s address and invite people over to have sex, which caused Matthew to fear for his safety when 1200 people a day showed up.
Okay, so we get how simple it is to abuse someone via Tinder or Facebook, but what about hacking? Surely you need a computer science degree or PI training or at least some experience in order to do all of the complicated techy stuff? Wrong again.
You would be shocked by how many apps you can just download on the app store to monitor someone’s phone calls/texts, their GPS location, emails, social media usage, internet browser, and just about anything else you can think of. The scariest part is that many of these apps are undetectable once installed. Leave your phone on the kitchen table while you go to the bathroom, and a partner may have the opportunity to download one of these spying apps without you ever knowing. It’s also possible to use spyware to access your laptop or to install keylogging software to record your passwords and screenshot your computer usage. What’s keylogging software, you might ask? It’s software you can download that will record every keystroke someone makes. This means they can see your passwords, your emails, and your internet searches. All an abuser has to do is download a program. Someone else has already done all the complicated computer stuff for them.
It’s important to realize that psychos bent on abusing you will learn how to do this stuff. The info is free and easily available. Then they’ll pretend to be ignorant when you confront them. It’s all a disgusting game to them.
Myth 2: You need money.
False! Most social media platforms and common dating apps are completely free. That’s because these companies make money primarily by using you–the user–to convince advertisers to pay for space to promote their brands. Advertisers will often pay more to get their posts promoted to reach a larger audience.
But even if you’re not paying to use social media or dating apps with money, you’re paying with something else: your personal information. Think about everything you put on your Facebook profile. Your name, hometown, job, birthday, who your friends are, where you went to school, your current interests, photos from your last vacation… Facebook probably knows more about you than the federal government!
In addition to social media, abusers can easily post on sites like 4chan or 8chan in order to attract hordes of trolls to harass you themselves. These are websites that host imageboards and message boards on a variety of topics, and they’re kind of like the Wild West of the internet. Offenders can use these sites for free, and they can even post explicit photos or personal information about you while keeping themselves anonymous. Remember when Jennifer Lawrence’s photos got leaked? Yeah, that was 4chan. That’s some serious abuse without shelling out a dime.
Myth 3: It only occurs in heterosexual “romantic” relationships.
Abuse can occur in any type of relationship, whether you’re straight, gay, bisexual, trans, casually dating, married, randomly hooking up, etc. In fact, a 2016 study found that internet users who identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual were significantly more likely to be the target of revenge-porn threats (15% compared to only 3% of all Americans) and were also more likely to have their sexually explicit photos posted online (7% of LBG internet users were victims, while only 2% of all Americans had their photos posted).
And let’s be clear; online abuse doesn’t only occur in “romantic” relationships. Platonic friends and family members can be perpetrators as well. This might look like them limiting who else you can communicate with online, dictating how you use social media, or otherwise monitoring your digital life. Just because you’ve never had sex with someone doesn’t mean they’re off the hook for abusive behavior.
Myth 4: It’s just the internet, you’re overreacting.
Sticks and stones, right? Wrong! Online abuse can have severe mental health consequences. In fact, 55-67% of women polled in the U.S. and the U.K. said that harassment on social media meant they were less able to focus on everyday tasks, had experienced stress, anxiety or panic attacks, and had a feeling of apprehension when thinking about social media or receiving social media notifications. Women also reported feeling dis-empowered and wanting to censor themselves online to avoid more harm. More alarmingly, 41% of these women said that the online abuse made them feel like their physical safety was threatened. The psychological toll of cyber harassment certainly impacts how victims function and interact with the world in their offline lives, too.
And it’s not just emotional distress or fear, either. Cyber sexual abuse can also impact your personal relationships and your ability to retain custody of your children. Offenders may use sexually explicit photos in child custody cases to try and portray you as an “unfit parent,” send photos to your kid or their school, or try and portray you as a consumer of child pornography.
There can be professional repercussions to online abuse, too. Our own client Annie, a former high school principal in Queens, was the target of a vicious hacking and revenge porn campaign by her ex-boyfriend. He sent her naked pictures to officials at the school she worked at, and he also spread lies and photos to media outlets who republished them! In response, the city tried to fire her and ended up suspending her for a full year without pay. This is a classic example of how victims are the ones who get punished while offenders get off the hook. That’s why we at C.A. Goldberg represented Annie in a gender discrimination lawsuit against the Department of Education. Carrie said it best: The DoE “effectively became a de facto instrument of abuse for Annie’s vengeful ex.” Their retaliation only worsened the trauma and harm Annie already suffered.
Thankfully, Annie won a settlement from the city for her gender discrimination lawsuit. Although her ex’s disgusting actions ended her career as an educator, Annie decided to become a warrior for other victims by going to law school and becoming a lawyer at our firm! While Annie’s case ended well, a settlement can never negate the emotional toll and real-life career impact this abuse created. It’s not just the internet. You’re not overreacting. This sh*t is scary.
Myth 5: It is driven by passion, not violence.
Abusers might pretend that they just love you so much they can’t help themselves. They want to keep you safe, make sure you’re being faithful, or keep you where they can see you because they “just couldn’t bear to lose you”. LIES! These egregious actions don’t come from a place of love. They come from a desire to exert their own power by taking away yours. Online abuse is an act of control and violence. Offenders create fear through intimidating or threatening messages, isolate you by limiting your ability to communicate with friends and family, humiliate you by posting intimate images online, or try to get you fired by sending your nudes to your boss. Think about why stalkers do what they do. These psychos are delusional, and they feel entitled to you. But they aren’t. They are NOT entitled to you or any part of you.
Abuse always involves control. It is never something that is deserved. If you are scared of leaving a relationship for fear of what your partner might do to you, you are not alone. We help many people who feel like captives, and we will help you plan a safe escape when you are ready.
PLEASE BE AWARE THAT MANY ABUSERS MONITOR THEIR PARTNER’S ONLINE ACTIVITY. MAKE SURE YOU ARE READING THIS FROM A SECURE DEVICE AND THAT YOUR BROWSER HISTORY IS NOT AVAILABLE TO YOUR ABUSER.
A note on pronouns: We tend to use female pronouns when talking about victims of abuse, and masculine pronouns when talking about perpetrators. This is a deliberate choice based on a number of things, including the demographics of our clients. It is essential to note that men can be victims of abuse and women can be perpetrators of it. Abuse happens both in straight and same-sex relationships. Two in five gay or bisexual men will experience intimate-partner violence in their lifetimes. Half of all lesbian women will experience it. Transgender people are at the highest risk of intimate partner violence and are 2.6 times more likely to experience it than a straight person.