Content warning(s): references to stalking, harassment, abuse, sexual assault, violence/murder, strong language, rape culture.
In February of 2019, a voice actor who had gone public with accusations against another voice actor tweeted out a definition of harassment, in response to attacks she had received. The tweet was, “And just so we’re clear, [here’s] the legal definition of harassment: Harassment is governed by state laws, but is generally defined as a course of conduct which annoys, threatens, intimidates, alarms, or puts a person in fear of their safety.”
The response to this tweet was predictable: namely, more abuse. She was accused of making it all up to further her career. People called her an “SJW” and a “feminazi.” They called her horrible for “trying to ruin some poor guy’s career.” Some snarked her for making a typo. And many people seized on one word in her tweet—annoy—to belittle her and accuse her of exaggerating. They said that she was confusing “criticism” for harassment and that if “annoying” someone on the internet was harassment, that meant the whole internet was harassment.
The problem here is that there are really two kinds of harassment out there: overt harassment and covert harassment. While most people recognize overt harassment as such, they often fail to recognize the other exists. Here is your harassment-splainer.
This is what we generally define as, “actions that the average, decent person would look at and go, ‘YIKES.'” These are actions that will usually get intervention by social media abuse teams, because they’re obvious violations of social norms and often blatantly illegal.
Examples of this include:
- Direct Threats: For example, “When you come to [name of convention], I’m going to f*ck you up.”
- Implied Threats: For example, “Next time you’re in [name of city], you best be wearing a bulletproof vest.”
- Intimidation: For example, “We’re all going to be at [name of convention], so we better not see you there or else.”
- Doxxing: Revealing someone’s legal name, address, or other personal information when they have not chosen to share it. (Sometimes abusers will argue “but it’s all online somewhere!” Even if that’s the case, going out of one’s way to search for it and post it all in one place is harassment.)
- Nonconsensual Pornography: Posting nude or sexually explicit images of someone without their permission. Also known as “revenge porn.”
- Slurs or Hate Speech: Abusive, offensive words that attack someone based on race, gender, gender identity, sexuality, etc.
- Impersonation: Creating an account pretending to be a certain person, often for the purpose of making it appear that the certain person supports positions they actually find repugnant, or to engage in harassment under their name.
- Suicide Baiting: Encouraging someone to kill themselves.
This is where “annoying” behavior comes into play. Covert harassment can be defined as, “actions that may seem innocuous to an outside observer but are a continuation of a course of unwanted attention.” Covert harassment is less likely to be taken seriously by social media abuse teams, as each individual action may seem harmless. Even your friends may tell you that you’re “overreacting” because they don’t see the big picture. This may include comments that most people see as minor, such as “you suck” or “you’re stupid.” While others might be willing to identify these kinds of comments as rude, they also tend to dismiss them as being the price we pay for being on the internet. Even if what the abuser or bully is doing isn’t “as bad” as direct threats or doxxing, when they are repeatedly committing those offenses over a period of time, they constitute harassment.
In fact, covert harassment can actually more insidious and terrifying than overt harassment. It indicates a consciousness of guilt by trying to mask the harassment in “innocent” actions, or offenses that are minor enough that anyone complaining about them might be seen as “too sensitive.” Each incident in and of itself seems not that bad, until they’re seen as part of a pattern, a deliberate course of action. Unfortunately, typical offenders often engage in cross-platform harassment, which makes it easier to get away with. Your abuser may make three hateful comments on your tweet and another three on your post on Instagram. Each platform may decide that the comments made on their site aren’t very serious and are unlikely to take action based on offenses elsewhere.
Covert harassment can also come in two forms: harassment from people you know and harassment from strangers. We’ll review harassment from people you know first; this is harassment from people who you’ve tried to cut out of your life due to the relationships being unhealthy. These could be former romantic partners, friends, even family members.
Here are some examples of this kind of covert harassment and the excuses they/others will use to explain why it’s “not that bad.”
Making “Innocent” Contact Against Your Wishes
Myth: Why are you so upset about someone liking your post or just saying hi? It’s no big deal. It’s not like they said anything mean.
Reality: If you’ve told someone you want no contact with them, they should respect that. Period. It doesn’t matter what the contact is. Going through someone’s instagram and liking posts or commenting “hi” may not seem like a big deal, but when that person knows you don’t want to interact with them, then it’s harassment. This is crossing the most basic boundary that you’ve established, and it plants the idea that there are other, more explicit boundaries that they’re willing to cross, which can lead to anxiety and even paranoia.
It can be even more alarming if you never gave them that account information, and it required a “deep dive” to find it. This is a way of telling them that you can’t ever escape them.
In addition, stalkers often create new accounts to monitor their targets, usually because their existing accounts have been blocked. If their intent is to frighten and upset, they’ll make it obvious that they’re the ones behind the avatar. The username may be very similar to their “real” account, or something they know the target will find offensive, assuming they don’t just blatantly use their face for the icon/header. Even something seemingly innocent such as a like or a “hewwo” is their way of saying, “I’m still watching you.”
If someone says they’re not comfortable with someone continuing to make contact with them, it doesn’t matter what the content is. It’s harassment.
“Warning” You That They Might Run Into You
Myth: It seems like they just want to let you know that they’re going to be at a con/event, so you know to ignore them. Then you can stay away from them to avoid being harassed. Isn’t that helpful?
Reality: No. No, it’s not. This is along the same lines as the “innocent” contact above. Stalkers and abusers will often contact their target to say, “Hey, we’re gonna be at the same place you are, but we just want to let you know that we’re going to keep our distance and not start anything.” They think if anyone finds out about the conversation, they’ll look like they were being thoughtful and considerate. In actuality, this is another threat. They’re saying, “I’m still watching you. I know where you’re gonna be and I’m gonna be there too.” This is usually done to intimidate the target, either to keep them from enjoying the convention or consider changing their plans and not even attending.
It also implies that you’re responsible if anything does happen when you’re at the mutual event. “We’re not gonna start anything. You can’t say we harassed you. If you do, we have proof that we’re not the ones who started it, so it was clearly your fault.”
Reaching Out to “Apologize”
Myth: They’re just being nice and trying to make amends.
Reality: Another form of “innocent” contact. If you’ve told someone you want no contact with them, they should respect that. Making apologies via text, email, social media, or anonymous message sites like ask.fm or curiouscat.me is deliberately ignoring that request. Often, people will claim they were just trying to “make amends” but even Step Nine in Alcoholics Anonymous specifies that you need to make direct amends to those you harmed except when to do so would injure them or others.
Abusers will often reach out to “apologize” regardless of if they regret their behavior or not. They then get to claim that they tried their best to reach out and “make things right”. They’ll talk about how upset and hurt they are and how mean it was of the target to ignore them. For these people, apologies are just another tactic they use to make their targets look unreasonable or abusive and gain sympathy for themselves. Nobody is required or obligated to accept or even listen to an apology.
Myth: It’s not that big a deal. They probably just forgot. Or maybe that’s how they were raised.
Reality: Deadnaming is referring to a person by a name they no longer use to identify themselves. Deadnaming coupled with misgendering is most often used to harm trans people in a way of invalidating their gender. However, people may also intentionally use a name that is specifically not associated with a target’s public identity as a way of asserting power over them ‘I know your personal information’ and potentially subtly encouraging doxxing. An example could be using a sex worker’s legal name to address them rather than their professional one. For people who have changed their names in cases of abuse or stalking, it can be used as a subtle attempt to trigger memories of that abuse. Misgendering is when someone refers to an individual with pronouns or other words that don’t apply to that person’s gender. For example, referring to someone who identifies as a woman as “he” or “dude.”
While mistakes do happen, once you’re aware of someone’s current name and their gender identity, it’s wilfully disrespectful to use outdated names and inappropriate pronouns/terms. Sometimes individuals will argue that they use words as, “dude” as “gender neutral” terms, but if someone informs you that they don’t want you using those terms with them, you should respect it. Furthermore, if you habitually use the incorrect name/terms, that’s harassment. There’s no excuse.
Slandering/Libeling You Without Using Your Name
Myth: How do you know it’s about you? They didn’t use your name. Nobody even reads what they write, anyway.
Reality: This is a common tactic used by offenders to try to avoid repercussions on social media or in the court system. They think by not using a specific name, they’ll be able to get away with it. However, these abusers want to make sure that not only their target but others know exactly who they’re referencing, and subsequently will give out more than enough information to identify the person. They may often say things like, “DM me for details” so they can provide their friends and followers with more specifics. The legal system can determine that there’s a preponderance of evidence supporting that the abuser was targeting a particular individual (especially if private messages are subpoenaed), but social media outlets are reluctant to take action against this kind of harassment.
It’s very important to note that survivors of abuse and assault may wish to discuss how their trauma impacted them in public without naming their abuser specifically. They may fear repercussions or simply not want to get the attention of their abusers. As with all things, it’s important to consider motivation. Is the author discussing how they feel, or trying to warn others of red flags they ignored? Or are they focused on attacking someone else?
Intentionally Triggering You
Myth: It was probably a mistake or a joke or someone being a jerk, but harassment, really?
Reality: If someone knows there’s sensory input that will trigger a severe psychological reaction in you, and they repeatedly do that, that’s harassment. It doesn’t matter if other people don’t have the same reaction to bugs, blood, the sound of someone vomiting, etc. Some abusers specifically try to re-traumatize and trigger their targets, either by presenting them with the sensory input that they know upsets them, or arranging for their images and/or name to appear on social media timelines.
Consider a rapist who creates a new account to follow the person they assaulted with the username being the date of the rape. A cosplayer who has been bullied for their weight having links to diet pill websites posted in the comments of their posts. A stalker creating new instagram accounts with their face as their avatar to follow the person they’re harassing, or creating fake accounts to leave comments like “we see you” or “we’re all connected” on that person’s posts. Commenting on an arachnophobic’s posts with pictures of spiders. These aren’t just someone being “silly” or rude. It’s harassment.
Myth: Not everything is about you. Why are you trying to control who your friends talk to?
Reality: Stalkers and abusers frequently try to isolate their victims. Online, this often takes the form of friending/following people their target knows in the hope of turning them against the target. Their goal is to reduce the target’s support network; the convention world, that can include convincing photographers, artists, and other cosplayers not to work with the target of harassment.
They Didn’t Specifically Say “Stop”:
Myth: You keep saying that “if someone tells you to stop, you stop.” They didn’t tell me to stop! It’s not really harassment if they haven’t told me to stop.
Reality: Although laws about pursuing legal justice for harassment vary from state to state, and certainly outside of the United States, you don’t need someone to specifically say the word “stop” for you to understand that they no longer wish to speak to you. For example, blocking holds the same message of “stop.” If you go to someone’s page and find that they have blocked you, it is a clear sign that they do not want you to view their content. It should not be implied as a reason for you to escalate and attempt to contact them through some other means. They have blocked you; they are telling you to stop without saying it explicitly. If you decide to use the business email that person has posted in their bio to send a message asking why you were blocked, you are engaging in contact that they have strongly implied they don’t want. Continuing to engage with someone in any way, anonymous or otherwise, after they have blocked you is harassment.
Estranged family, former friends, and ex-romantic or sexual partners aren’t the only ones who can engage in covert harassment. These next examples of covert harassment can be carried out either by abusers you know or strangers.
Myth: They’re just trying to help you out.
Reality: Here is a quick-and-easy test to determine if you should offer someone criticism of their cosplay: Did they ask you for advice on how to improve? If the answer is “yes,” go ahead. If the answer is “no” or there was not a question in the first place, then don’t. Unless someone asked you for help, then offering advice/criticism is, at best, rude.
As cosplayers, we post our cosplay pics to share our love of fandoms/characters with others, and we’re often very aware of any flaws in our craftsmanship. Even if you think you’re being “nice” by saying, “Oh, I see your bias tape is crooked; I would love to show you how to do it better next time!” just don’t do it. You may hurt their feelings, make them feel self-conscious about their work, and even discourage them from dressing up as that character again, or even cosplaying altogether. The same applies to gaming. If you’re watching someone stream, don’t sit in the chat and tell them everything you think they’re doing “wrong.”
In addition, bullies like to claim their criticism is rooted in “accuracy.” This usually means racist, body-shaming, or ableist attacks because the cosplayer’s skin tone or body is different than the character’s.
While a single criticism is merely annoying or rude, when someone is persistently criticizing your work, offering advice you didn’t ask for, and ignoring your requests that they stop, then they’ve crossed the threshold into harassment. These people aren’t actually interested in helping you improve your skills, but rather making themselves feel superior and tear you down.
Myth: If you mention someone on the internet, don’t be surprised if they have something to say about it.
Reality: There are myriad reasons why an individual may talk about someone online without tagging them. They may want to keep someone from receiving excessive notifications. They may not want the other person to become the target of harassment. And they may fear the other person will turn around and harass them. If someone hasn’t tagged the target of their post, it’s not appropriate to do so on their behalf—what’s known as “snitch tagging”.
People who do this often argue that it’s okay because “it’s public information.” However, snitch tagging often leads to the author being the target of mob harassment (see below). In addition, this has gone beyond just tagging an individual; it can include taking screenshots of posts and sending them to people who the author has blocked.
The simple fact is, if someone hasn’t tagged the subject of their post, it doesn’t matter if the post is complimentary or critical. Don’t snitch tag.
Myth: QRTs don’t put the author of the original tweet in danger. If I say “don’t mob OP,” even if I’m telling my own followers that OP is wrong, it doesn’t mean it’s my fault if they get harassed.
Reality: In a similar vein to snitch tagging, quote (re)tweeting or QRTing a tweet with the intention of “exposing” the author of the tweet is targeting the author for harassment. Rather than replying on the tweet itself, which primarily shows up in the author’s notifications (although it is easily searched within the original tweet), QRTing ensures the tweet will be seen with whatever context the QRTer provides, and is instantly seen by everyone who follows them. Celebrities and people with large followings have been known to QRT authors with much smaller followings with snide or cruel comments, resulting in the author receiving harassment from a much larger group of people than if the celebrity would have taken the route of replying or DMing.
Authors of tweets also have the capability to hide replies on their own tweets. QRTing does not allow the author of the original tweet to hide offensive or abusive comments. In fact, the only way to stop QRT abuse (other than reporting, which doesn’t always account for context) is to turn one’s account private.
Additionally, QRTing an author’s tweet with the tag “don’t mob OP” (or similar) does NOT exculpate the QRTer of targeting the author for harassment. If you QRT to an audience that you know is of an opposing viewpoint to the author of the original tweet, you are exposing them to potential danger at the hands of others. Even if YOU don’t do or say something abusive, harmful, or harassing, others might. If you intentionally expose the author with a context that could provoke harassment from people who follow you, you are harassing that person through a third party.
Twitter has recently implemented a feature that allows authors to restrict the audience of who can reply to specific tweets, as set by the author. However, unless the author’s account is private (locked), the tweet can still be RTed and QRTed. By disabling replies instead of QRTs, Twitter is putting its users in more danger. As we say in so many other places on this website, you can’t ever guarantee that you’ll be able to stop someone who is determined to be an offender. Someone who wants to reply with (even sneakily) hateful or abusive comments who finds that the tweet has locked them out of being able to reply will find a way to throw their 2 cents in, and they’ll do it through QRTing.
Myth: The internet is just like that, you know? People are jerks. What are you going to do?
Reality: It’s disturbingly common for people on social media to link to someone else’s post and encourage others to “drag them.” Social media tends to enjoy it when the post in question is offensive or can be taken out of context to be made offensive. But like any public list of “bad people,” harassers can turn a crowd of people who support them against you for any reason. Not only that, but if there is a large group of people engaging in harassment, nobody tends to scrutinize the initial harasser who set the mob on the “offensive” individual.
Doing Literally Anything That They’ve Asked You Not to Do:
Myth: Aren’t you overreacting? It’s not that big a deal.
Reality: It doesn’t matter what, if someone sets a boundary, and you knowingly cross it, you’re committing harassing behavior. If someone says stop, you respect that.
-Fractali, Trickssi, & Feytaline