It’s been a little over a year since I left AOL. but the harassment and abuse that occurs there hasn’t. Recently, a friend of a friend contacted me to report they she had been the subject of another person’s harassment, intimidation and stalking. In this piece, I intend to share my advice on how to stop the abuse of others on the Web.
There’s a peculiar kind of abuse that occurs on AOL, unlike most other online communities. It involves multiple services, online monikers and of course — drama. AOL attracts the best and worst of online characters and a few of the worst folks still remain with the service once known for being easy to use.
Often people seek help from others, from the service provider and eventually, law enforcement when it’s too late. Not too late in the sense of some crazy homicide, but late in the sense that the abuser has all the information needed to endlessly harass their target. Because of this, it makes it more difficult to prevent abuse, but there are a few simple actions that can help a victim quickly escape it and move on with their online interactions.
Be Careful with Your Information
Information is how online stalkers gain power. Be sensitive with who has your phone number, address, children’s names and ages, additional email addresses, where you work, whereabouts with friends or even financial issues.
At face value, no one would share personally identifiable information to strangers on the Web. Despite this, we tend to release bits and fragments of sensitive information along our Internet usage. Even privately through email and instant message, contacts may be vulnerable to various social engineering tactics. It doesn’t mean that you can’t trust your friends; you just need to aware of the risks and vulnerabilities with your online reputation.
De-list Personal Information from White Pages Directories
A common tactic that abusers do against a victim is to post their information in forums, blogs and classified Websites like Craigslist. To minimize this unwanted disclosure, perform searches for your name on White Pages directories and follow the process to remove your listing. These directories offer removal at no charge and it takes about a week for removal to be effective.
If it’s an option, opt for to be unlisted from your telephone company. Many offer this when you create or change phone numbers, and you can even anonymize your listing by changing your name to be initials on the listing (e.g. for myself, that might be “J M 480-555-1212″).
Manage Privacy Preferences with Online Services
Today, many services empower the user to manage their privacy, release of data and gives users control in how they interact with people. Facebook is the best example, because you can essentially create lists of friends and give those people access to more or less of your profile. AllFacebook has a great guide on how to better manage your privacy features on Facebook.
It’s a good idea to examine how much of your profile is visible to friends, all users, search engines and non-friends. Facebook lets you test this through your privacy settings. Ideally, if you’re not sure, be aware of your friends and remove untrusted contacts from your friends list on your profile and make your profile private. If you’re even more concerned, send a message to your trusted contacts asking them not to release your sensitive information to anyone and to ask them to forward their note to you.
Manage Online Reputation and Build Your Brand
Definitely as a proactive measure, it’s suggested to manage your own Website, blogs and online presence. It would be safe to say that if you write what you say about you, no one can really dispute that. Should you encounter conflict, you can set the record straight in a matter of minutes. Likewise, as a blog owner, you can manage the comments and who can access private blog entries if you wish.
There are plenty of personal branding resources out there so you can stand out and get noticed in the right ways. Beware though, if you have adversaries out there, they can use it against you and attempt to harass you with it. Being smart and aware of how you interact with people is a good idea that pays its dividends later.
Excuse Yourself from the Drama
In almost all the foul interactions that I’ve resolved involve the victim wanting to get in the last word, the last jab or to somehow prove the other person is inferior. Let it go. You can’t convince a troll they are wrong, it just won’t happen. Letting go of the issues will empower you to give the right attention to matters that let you give back to the community and friends and family.
It’s relatively simple to excuse yourself, simply don’t respond. Don’t bait abusers to reply and keep your interactions to the topic being discussed in the community. If you respond, don’t get personal about it, stick to the merit of the matter and don’t deviate.
As Conflict Elevates, Tell the Right People
If the community is unable to stamp out the conflict, often they do, but sometimes it’s unsuccessful. The next step is to contact the provider through various “Report Abuse” links on the offending content. If the provider is unable to stop the abuse and it elevates, it may be wise to open a police report about it. Additionally, if the abuser is across state lines, report it to the FBI through their IC3 Internet complaint center. Nothing is immediate, but as you maintain and update these reports you’re doing so for record purposes so as someone’s senseless behavior elevates to criminal, the police can easily see how it’s progressing.
If victims heed the above advice and become aware of how their interactions on the Web take place, they will resolve and prevent conflicts between trolls and stalkers more effectively.
While, my experience primarily derives from AOL, these behaviors exist on virtually all social networks. Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Bebo and UStream can equally attract the worst in people, so be mindful of the privacy capabilities and how those services handle abuse. The good thing is, most providers handle abuse in the right way when it comes up. Abuse will always happen and can’t be stopped — it’s a matter of response time to address it, that’s the bottom line.
If you have questions or comments, share it below.
[Image by Mikey G Ottawa on Flickr]