SOCIAL MEDIA is everywhere, and growing every day. We use it for marketing, advertising and getting our brand across to a target audience. It’s been one of my favorite tools for spreading my company’s message. I was excited to be among the first people from the event industry to jump on the Twitter and Facebook bandwagon. It was a happy place, opening a door into the lives of people around me. But that door swings both ways, and it can open a Pandora’s box of trouble. We’re talking about cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying, or cyberstalking, uses electronic technology — cellphones and computers as well as social media sites, text messages, chat rooms and websites. The cyberbullying arsenal can include harassing text messages; rumor-driven emails; false postings on social networking sites; embarrassing photos, videos and websites; and/or fake profiles.
In 2011, a University of Wisconsin-Madison study estimated that 15,000 abusive tweets were posted per hour. That’s 100,000 abusive tweets per week. Those numbers have since tripled, and not just for teenagers and celebrities. Cyberbullying can happen to anyone, like me. I know firsthand the devastation that can result when a cyberstalker takes your professional reputation, name and value system, and uses them against you.
A personal story
Several months ago a colleague sent me an urgent message to tell me that a fake Twitter account had been set up in my professional name. She was doing a story about industry designations and came across this bogus account in her research.
Thus began the battle of my life. The bogus account used my name, my CSEP industry designation and my company headshot.
The information in this false account was nightmarish. The tweets were mean-spirited, and the bully created a false vision of my business, my personal self, my habits and reputation. The remarks were hurtful and called my reputation into question in a way usually reserved for melodramatic Lifetime movies.
Cyberbullies, also known as “trolls,” can easily create fake accounts to attack people they don’t like or with whom they disagree. I was devastated, but I had to gut it up and find a solution. Fast. I investigated the law, how to get the account taken down and what I could do to save my reputation. The first site I visited was the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) page. It explains cyberstalking, cyber-harrassment and laws from each state that address the abuse of social media.
Next I contacted the police and the FBI, who immediately began investigating. They also gave me a case number to report to Twitter with my request to take the page down, stating this was indeed a harassment account, and not a “parody” account. (Twitter lets users create parody, commentary or fan accounts.)
A parody account usually makes fun of someone famous or infamous. It’s clearly marked as such. I had to prove that the fake account was using my professional name and that it wasn’t a parody account. And the account needed to remain active while police investigated.
My detective explained that this was not just cyber-harrassment, but also plain harassment, intent to harm, identity theft and cyberstalking/bullying. He said it was hard to track these accounts without a lot of investigation and that it could take up to six months to find the perpetrator. I had one thing in my favor: From the style and wording of the tweets, I knew who was behind the bogus account.
If this happens to you
- Investigate your state and city laws regarding harassment. Visit the NCSL website for a state-by-state breakdown of violation codes. Understand the statutes and laws, and use this to determine what applies to your case.
- Take screenshots of the entire account. Even though it’s hard to read this information, you must collect evidence of the crime. Screenshots will be help police with your investigation.
- Report the violation to authorities. Be concise and clear. The police understand you’re upset, but try to be as unemotional and professional as possible.
- Contact Twitter and/or Facebook and file a report. Have as much information as possible and remain professional in your request. Do your research and be prepared to wait a few days before someone gets back to you. Twitter and Facebook do not have humans you can call directly. You must do all requests online and with factual information.
- Be prepared to wait. A long time. When most people set up false accounts, they are very good at staying anonymous. Investigations require court orders and IP address locating, and that takes time. Be willing to give that time, but do not go dormant. Call your investigating officer every few weeks and discuss any progress. Help them investigate. Give them any clues, tips or research you have found yourself. As my detective says, “This is still unchartered territory, and we can use all the help we can get.”
The bottom line: You should never ignore any type of abuse. If you see anyone being violated or slandered, report that person to the proper authorities. If we stand up to cyberbullying, we bring a voice to the problem and can help end it once and for all. Change starts one person at a time.
Cyberbullying is serious business. Have you encountered it? Have any tips to share? Please post your comments in the space below.