Virtual Stalking – A Real World Problem for Social Media

Would You Die For The Glory Of Russell's TeapotSocial media is great. Social media brings people together. Social media opens the conversation. Social media puts you in the eyes of the world. Social media gives you a voice.

All true. All valid. All beneficial.

But what happens when the eyes that social media puts you in front of aren’t the friendly kind? What happens when being transparent in social media opens you up to harassment, abuse and virtual stalking?

Sadly it’s a very real problem. Even sadder, some of the social networks seem very slow to react to this problem. Does this mean they’re not taking it seriously, and if so, will virtual stalking be the straw that potentially breaks the social media camel’s back?

Online Friend? Case Study

People are friendly by nature. We want to connect and meet others – it’s in our genetic make-up. The last few years have made this easier than ever.

Sites like Facebook, Twitter, Ning, MySpace, Friendfeed and more open up the world to us. Our blogs are our own private community in a public setting. Online forums and chat rooms mean there’s no such thing as physical walls or barriers.

Which makes targeting someone easier.

Karen* is a blogger who owns her own business and also runs a Moms community online. It allows other bloggers to take part in community discussions, write, sell and buy products and generally acts just as an offline community would.

Last year, she invited a new girl to join the community. For Karen, this is what happened next:

  • Her business was reported as unethical and fraudulent on Ripoff Report
  • The girl set up fake social network accounts to spread lies about Karen’s business
  • Karen is followed on every network and forum by the girl, who publishes false information on Karen and her business

These are just some of the ways Karen has been targeted.

Why doesn’t she have the lies taken down from Ripoff Report or contact the police? Unfortunately, the owner of Ripoff Report Ed Magedson seems more interested in traffic to his site than actual facts being reported.

I’ve written about why Ripoff Report is just as big a ripoff before, and the fact that the site won’t take down old reports says it all about their integrity.

As far as Karen reporting her stalker to the police, she’s more afraid for her little girl’s safety as well as the continued anguish cross-state law cases would cause. The cost is prohibitive as well.

Karen isn’t the only example. On Twitter, I’ve seen first-hand examples of guys throwing sexual abuse at female users, with graphic descriptions of what they’d like to do to the user. I’ve seen other users bombard accounts with profanity, racial slurs and more.

I know that these cases have been reported to Twitter’s support team and nothing’s been done about the abuser, who instead continues to add new people to their account to abuse further. This says a  lot about the customer service support that sites like Twitter has. Or doesn’t, as is abundantly clear.

We’ve also read the stories about suicides from MySpace bullying and Facebook groups spreading malicious and hurtful lies.

So what’s the answer? Some people have suggested that the very transparency that is advocated on social media is part of the problem. By offering too much information, we’re feeding the abusers and the harassers and the stalkers.

Is this true? Can our openness be used as an excuse for virtual abuse? Personally I don’t buy into that argument. I can see why it’s suggested but no excuse can make up for the type of mental anguish people are put through for being honest.

I don’t have the solution. But there are questions that can be asked to work toward a solution.

Do we make it more difficult than just signing up with a false email account? Should social networks be more pro-active at responding to reports of abuse? Can we as a community highlight and name and shame abusers?

Websites like Jodi’s Voice help raise awareness but they’re currently the few among the many abusers.

Like I said, I don’t have the solution. It’s clear that one is needed though, before the likes of Karen and others like her become another real-life statistic from a virtual hate campaign.


* Karen is a pseudonym to protect the real identity of the person behind her. Her stalker has admitted to Karen that it’s jealousy behind her hate campaign. It’s still continuing today.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Dude Crush

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