How-To Guide to Documenting Online Harassment For Real Life Victim

Online harassment is not less serious than analog or real-life harassment.

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Online harassment is not less serious than analog or “real-life” harassment. It can cause you mental anguish, get you fired from a job, broadcast sensitive personal information to the public, or in some cases put you and your family at risk for physical harm.

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Unfortunately, current federal and state laws have little in place to protect victims of online harassment or deter harassers from committing their crimes. At this point in time, “revenge porn” is one of the few forms of cyber-harassment that can get a harasser booked with a misdemeanor or felony. But just because another form of online harassment is legal doesn’t mean you should just “get over it.” Consider the “nude selfie” that an anonymous user circulated to harass Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Legal? Possibly. Harassment? Definitely.

You might not be able or willing to pursue legal action on harassment, but you should always document as much as you can and as soon as you can. Note: It’s okay to take small or extended breaks from social media and the internet — this is a critical step in self-care — but the last thing you want to do is ignore or delete the incidents of harassment.

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Here’s how to begin documenting online harassment:

Define Your Harassment

If you suspect that you are being harassed online, even if you aren’t sure, it’s worth your while to familiarize yourself with what online harassment in all its forms. Online harassment evolves as our technology and forms of social media evolve, but there are some long-standing patterns or methods of harassment that can clearly be defined. PEN America produced the “Online Harassment Field Manual” which includes a helpful glossary outlining each form of harassment, covering cyberbullying, cyber-mobs, doxing, hacking, trolling, and revenge porn.

Save All Correspondence

If you’re getting harassment through email, don’t delete these documents or forward them to anyone; you want to preserve the IP address associated with the initial correspondence. You can move these emails out of your inbox into a separate folder though. You will also want to save a backup copy on a hard drive in case you’re not able to access your email account — especially if your harasser is someone capable of hacking into your account.

If you’re being harassed through social media or messaging apps, take a screenshot of any instance of harassment as soon as possible, as tweets, posts, and photos can easily be removed by your harasser. Make sure you can see the date and timestamp in these files. Again, save them onto a separate hard drive as well. For correspondence on your smartphone, take the extra step to contact your carrier for a log of texts and calls soon after they occur.

Keep a Journal

Keeping a detailed journal is another step you should take in documenting your harassment. This journal will be integral in building your case should you pursue any legal action. Additionally, it will help you identify any overarching patterns that are developing.

Be specific about the time and places where these incidents occurred, if there were any witnesses, if anything preceded or followed the harassment, and any interaction you had with your harasser about the incident. Don’t forget to keep a record of how you feel, too, but make sure you only include information that is relevant to the harassment; you may end up submitting these documents to an authority figure, so be honest but discerning about what you’re including or leaving out. Check out the National Network to End Domestic Violence sample “Technology Abuse Log” to get an idea of what you’ll want to be documenting.

You may want to consider using an online resource like HeartMob, a supportive community that works against online harassment, to document your experiences. HeartMob catalogs your harassment experiences privately for your own records or publicly as a way to connect with allies who can offer support, advice, or intervention.

File a Police Report

Filing a police report is one way to get your experiences with harassment “on the books.” Even if you don’t intend to pursue a court case or file a restraining order right now, it makes it easier for you to take legal action in the future. But this measure comes with major caveats. For one thing, interacting with local law enforcement can expose certain groups of people to grave risks; consider the risk that ICE agents could be summoned to your door or the reality unarmed people of color, especially Blacks, are killed at a disproportionate rate compared to Whites.

Beyond any personal risk you might be taking in contacting the police, there’s the practical matter of inadequate education. Local law enforcement isn’t normally well-trained about what constitutes online harassment and may not even understand what aspects of it are illegal. Because of these circumstances, talking with law enforcement agents can be frustrating or downright traumatizing.

HeartMob suggests filing a police report with the assistance of a lawyer or victim’s advocate if you have the means to do so; that way you have someone there with you who understands the legal framework of online harassment. At the very least, you could ask a trusted friend to be with you for emotional support and as a witness.