Tackling Online Abuse

Philip Grindell
Written by Philip Grindell
tackling online abuse

There is rarely a day when the subject of tackling online abuse isn’t mentioned in our news.

I launched Defuse to combat online abuse having been brought into Parliament following the murder of Jo Cox MP and spent the next 3 years leading a team investigating the abuse, threats and intimidation targeted at politicians during the Brexit debates. In that time, I had the privilege of engaging with and learning best practices from many of the world’s experts, including those working at the major social media platforms.

Defuse are now known as having expertise in dealing with online abuse targeted at high profile people and public figures, and some of the global experts I learnt from when in Parliament have joined Defuse to expand our services to wider audience.

In this article I’ll share some of the methodology that we now use to combat online abuse and the impact on those affected.

1. It’s part of the job isn’t it?
Let’s start with the ridiculous notion that because you are in the public eye you should just ‘put up’ with it as part of your job. There isn’t a single role I’m aware of where that statement is true. No-one, high profile or otherwise should have to put up with such abuse, any more than they would be expected to put up with such abuse when walking down the street.

The truth is that if you are a public or high-profile figure you are likely to have a significant online following, one that you may have nurtured and in some case your livelihood depends on it. One of the by-products of having such a following is that within that cohort there is likely to be some that are suffering from mental health issues and others who are potentially dangerous. The expertise is to identify those who make threats and are abusive from those that may actually pose a threat and are potentially dangerous.

Therefore, the very first task of a security specialist when tackling online abuse is to analyse whether the individual receiving online abuse is in any physical danger.

One of the patterns of online abuse targeted at high profile figures is that it can be counter intuitive. In general, those who threaten do not actually pose a threat. There has been significant research into this, initiated by Defuse’s special advisor, Dr Robert Fein. Dr Fein was tasked by the US Secret Service to review all attacks and attempted attacks on prominent public officials in the United States since 1949.

2. Are you in danger?
One of the findings is that none of those attacked had been subject to a direct threat from the attacker. The study identified that those who did attack had an understandable and discernible process of thinking and behaviour, in other words they left clues!

The study has been replicated across Europe and again in the US and after I conducted a smaller study on British MP attacked since 2000, I identified the same to be true.

Persons who have attacked or come close to attacking public officials often exhibit attack-related behaviours. They generally let others know about their intentions, use a range of planning strategies, behave quite rationally most of the time, are frequently interested in radical or militant groups, and usually attack after a downward spiral in their lives.

These behaviours once identified enable those tasked with tackling the online abuse to narrow their focus to those who demonstrate these behaviours, together with a number of linguistic indicators that can be seen in communications, be they emails, letters or social media posts.

This cohort are thankfully still in the minority, but any threat to a public figure must first be reviewed with these in mind to satisfy the first principle, to save lives.

The majority of online abusive posts are not going to lead to a physical attack, but still remain deeply hurtful, at time frightening and often corrosive. The fact is that women receive more online abuse and it is very often more harmful in that it is often sexually violent, personally abusive and misogynistic.

3. Cyber-Stalking
Cyber stalking is simply stalking conducted online, however there are a few subtle differences. It is important to understand the signs of stalking as it can escalate into a particularly dangerous behaviour. This is especially true with ‘celebrities’ with whom stalkers may start as fans and then turn dangerous when the stalker’s expectations are not met.

An indication of this may be a sudden change in their behaviour, making a physical approach or starting to communicate via different channels, such as moving from social media to phone calls, or emails or multiple methods.

4. Police Investigations.
The threshold for the police to be involved in perhaps higher than many think and their ability to investigate not always what it might be. There are numerous offences that cover tackling online abuse but generally they will be recorded under as Malicious Communications or Harassment.

The prosecution threshold for Malicious Communication is the term ‘grossly offensive’ and this is where that the criminal justice system often places a higher threshold on than many of those who are recipients of abuse. This is often because the context is not properly articulated nor considered. Before the police can start to identify the person responsible for the abuse, they must have the authority of a senior officer and the threshold for this authority is often not met. Equally, if the IP address (basically the identifying internet address which helps to identify the sender) is identified as being an overseas address, it is often considered to be outside of UK jurisdiction and again any investigation is thwarted.

The other issue to recognise is that it is then likely that you will lose any control you had of any investigation or intervention.

Tackling online abuse by consultancies such as Defuse are not required to adhere to the above principles and as such can quickly conduct investigations to identify the sender. It is perhaps adding that even if the IP address and sender cannot be identified, negating the attack-related behaviours must still be a priority.

5. Can you just stop it happening?
Assuming that we have identified that the posts are not threatening, the next priority as described above is to identify who is behind the posts. This is important for those on the receiving end as the uncertainty is what adds to the already harmful impact. Once identified and satisfied that the poster isn’t threatening, the option to block can be considered. The reason why I wouldn’t block before this stage is that I would want to ensure that I don’t miss any evidence of escalation and moving from being abusive to threatening.

6. What about injunctions or stop and desists letters?
Lawyers and some security managers are often quick to recommend taking civil action such as an injunction or sending a cease and desist letter. There is evidence that these have mixed results and can in fact be the trigger for an escalation, especially with stalkers. For that reason, any intervention must be done in cooperation with any investigative team or the police. Such interventions have triggered a dramatic escalation in a number of cases, some of which have resulted in murders.

7. Psychological Analysis
Everyone is different and many who are repeatedly targeting high profile people can have associated mental health challenges. Each case requires a particular response bespoke to its circumstances. In order to ensure that the response is the correct one, a more forensic approach is required. One size does not fit all! By psychoanalysing the communications it’s possible to identify specific personality issues, which can then direct the response. As an example, on a recent case Defuse were able to advise a client not to respond or take any action in response to abuse they had received. The reason for this was based on the narcissistic personality of the person of concern. What the abuser wanted, was a response and by responding the recipient may encourage more abuse and feelings of grandiosity in the abuser. In doing nothing, whilst counter intuitive, the abuser went away.

If you are considering an intervention, it is vital that this is supported by analysis and if appropriate some form of surveillance be that online or physical. It is crucial that any sudden change of behaviour is quickly identified, and the appropriate security measures considered.

8. What about reporting to the social media platform?
I would always advocate reporting every abusive post to the relevant platform. The key is that you may not be aware who else or what else that individual has posted, and your evidence may be the final piece of the jigsaw that enable the platform to remove that profile.

The most important element of reporting abuse on any platform is to explain, despite how obvious it may be to you, why the post is abusive, hurtful or intimidating to you. Social media platforms are global businesses and will not necessary understand local contexts or what specific words or phrases mean. As an example, I once had cause to speak with one platform when an MP had been referred to as a ‘coconut’ To anyone in the UK that should be immediately obvious that that is an unacceptably racist term. However, we needed to explain that as the term had a different meaning in the US. That explanation enabled us to have that post removed.

Because of my experience working with the most popular platforms, Defuse has a good understanding of their complaints processes and can help ensure any application is maximised.

9. What about my mental health?
Anyone tackling online abuse must understand the implications on the mental health and harm caused to those in receipt of targeted campaigns

The problem with being in the public eye is that for many, the show must go on and as such they may present a façade that they are unaffected. This can be especially true of men. However, my experience is that the psychological impact of being targeted can be significant and for that reason Defuse provides a psychological support service to compliment other security measures, because at the end of the day feeling safe can be as important as being safe.

Everyone has tipping point, and the psychological impact may creep up on the recipient. Part of the purpose of those posting abusive messages is to intimidate and suppress the opinions and views expressed, hence why we see recipients leaving social media.

The impact of being subjected to targeted online abuse can cause performance levels to drop, second guessing their decisions and mistakes being made. At its worst, those affected can be suicidal and sadly we have seen that in recent times.

Those tasked with providing psychological support must be properly qualified. Having a psychology degree and being a member of the BPS does not qualify you per se. Some TV. Psychologists are well equipped to talk about a number of issues, but they be less qualified in providing the expertise required.

Defuse only uses highly experienced forensic and/or clinical psychologists, many with decades of experience in working with clients.

10. Consequences
Part of the issue about tackling online abuse lies with the perceived lack of consequences. If you are found to have racially abused a sportsperson, should that information be shared with al sporting bodies who may then decide that you can be banned from all sporting events or from having the privilege of watching sports via paid for channels?

Equally, if you have sent misogynistic messages to a female musician or ben homophobic towards someone online should there be wider implications.

Defuse believes that this must be the case and in order to make online abuse as socially unacceptable as other behaviours that are no longer tolerated, were possible we identify those being abusive and share it with our clients with the hope that they will then share that intelligence with other governing bodies.

Of all the services we offer, I often think this is the most important and the one that has the most impact.

Defuse are committed to support those who are subjected to online abuse and can be contacted via www.defuseglobal.com

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