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What Are Cyberbullying, Trolling and Cyberstalking?

The Dark Side of Free Speech, Pt 2


Our culture and probably most others have historically felt that bullies are bad news, but that being bullied is also a rite of passage. We often think that bullying tends to end with grammar school. Nothing is further from the truth.

As a culture, we tolerate and often reward adult bullies - especially bully managers in the workplace. We celebrate bullies in entertainment as warriors and winners (even as we also celebrate a bully getting his or her comeuppance), and although hazing in schools, the military, and fraternities are getting pushback from the culture, we otherwise do little to eradicate bullying. Our politicians are often famously bullying in nature. Unless there are dead bodies, it seems that we expect people to just put up with it (or fight back).

As harmful and heinous as bullying can be, cyberbullying takes things a step further. Cyberbullying uses the Internet and other electronic forms of technology to post mean or embarrassing photos, messages, emails, or to make threats. However, the attacker is often anonymous - unknown - and there is no one to fight back against. As a result, the potential cyberbully is often emboldened to create as much havoc with their victim's life as possible. The potentially viral nature of such posts - that is, the ability for these posts to be replicated widely, quickly, and endlessly - doesn't happen in a face-to-face encounter.

A typical (non-cyber) bullying event happens at a moment in time and then is over (although another such event may occur). The bullying happens at a location in space - a street corner or the office, perhaps. A bullying is often witnessed, with the victimizer known to everyone present. A cyberbullying incident, on the other hand, can be spread to hundreds of people in seconds and millions of people in fairly short order, can persist for a lengthy period, can be distributed worldwide, and has no one to answer for their action.

As a result, damage from such an incident can recur and echo over and over. Sadistic sorts can take pleasure in repeating and reposting, and even create web sites to encourage their persistence. These sites cause a pile-on effect, with fellow nasty travelers putting in their own often excruciatingly foul insults, reposting the private images, and multiplying the harm. Some may not realize or care about the damage they cause; others delight in it.

One unfortunate creation of cyberbullying is "revenge porn." There are sites on the Internet that are in place solely to embarrass and hurt people (mostly women) by electronically publishing and reposting sexual images of a former lover or interest. Some such postings are designed to embarrass associates of the person whose pornographic image is being posted. The target may be the former boyfriend or husband with the victim being "collateral damage." Even well-known individuals may participate in the ugly behavior, such as the recent case of a hip-hop star and his site featuring pornographic video of a girlfriend of hip-hop in his beef with a rap.

Many victims of seemingly endless cyberbullying, including clients who have come to us for help, have had their self-esteem devastated. Others have been driven to substance abuse, dropping out of school or society, and such bullying behavior has even been implicated in suicides. While not usually considered a crime, it is far from victimless.


Cyberstalking is a more specific form of cyberbullying, and like cyberbullying, is much enabled by the anonymity possible via the Internet. It is the use of the Internet and other technology to harrass someone, although some cyberstalking can be secret for a time. While a "traditional" stalker may shadow a victim's movements, spying on them from hidden areas, or with binoculars or telescopes, the cyberstalker keeps an eye on their target(s) electronically.

Much of our social life is semi-public these days, on social media such as Twitter & Facebook. The Internet makes it easy for a person to hide his or her identity, make a fake identity, or pose as someone else - as a false friend perhaps - making it simple to spy on a person's activities via social networking. Like cyberbullying, the ease of anonymity on the Internet may embolden the cyberstalker, thinking (often correctly) that they will not be found out.

We regularly encounter cases where the stalker has managed to research and guess credentials for their victim's email or other online accounts making it easy to discover the victim's whereabouts, conversations and correspondence. In some of these cases, the perpetrator will even impersonate the victim, sending faked emails and messages, posting as the victims themselves, or publishing embarrassing images as if the victim herself were the source of the statements, pictures, or videos.

This has come to be understood and adjudged to mean that the government can't keep you from saying your piece, no matter how much the government, or anyone else might disagree. This applies to all government in the U.S. - Federal, State, local entities and public officials of those public entities. You are free to speak in "the Public Square." Note that the concept of the Public Square applies only to governmental entities, property and officials. It does not apply to private or commercial property. Property owners or business owners can prohibit you from saying certain things, or from saying anything at all on or within their own property, business, or broadcasts unless it is otherwise allowed.

Stalkers can find a way to infiltrate themselves into the fabric of the victim's financial, social, and family life, leaving personal lives in tatters. Though it is easy to read about such events and behavior - it's all over the news - the victims often find themselves not being taken seriously, with friends and loved ones calling her neurotic or paranoid. Because the cyberstalker is often trying to damage the victim's reputation, the reactions of those close to the victim often further the stalker's aims.

And while cyberstalking is illegal in many places around the country and around the world, these actions rarely rise to the level law enforcement needs to see in order to take it seriously, or to investigate. Read between the lines in the news and you will find that nearly all arrests that include cyberstalking also include a dire threat, a violation of an existing restraining order, ID theft, theft of physical property, or child abuse.


Internet trolling is a behavior wherein the troll intends to inflame, upset, or otherwise damage civil discourse. In the context of this series of articles, it tends toward disrupting the online or public communication of others through the use of vile invective, insults and other verbal havoc. It is often misogynistic. The ability to be anonymous on the Internet removes much of the inhibition a person might otherwise feel to behave so uncivilly.

What To Do?

A common thread throughout the described behaviors is the ability to be anonymous on the Internet. One might imagine that removing the option for being anonymous would remove the motivation for the behavior, but in this case, the solution would arguably be worse than the problem. In part one of this series, we discussed free speech - one of our most important rights - and the importance of anonymity. Both have played a huge role in the very creation of our nation and continue to protect those who would speak out about abuses, even as said anonymity enables other kinds of abuse. What are we to do?

In Part 3 we discuss what we can do and what is being done - both legally and societally - to limit damaging cyber behavior

Steve Burgess is a freelance technology writer, a practicing computer forensics specialist as the principal of Burgess Forensics, and a contributor to the text Scientific Evidence in Civil and Criminal Cases, 5th Edition by Moenssens, et al. Mr. Burgess may be reached at

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