Dealing with online abuse: some practical tips

So its back, once more, to online abuse, and just what you can do about it. Today, it’s a charming tweet from some online Neanderthal that has me thinking.

(Trigger warnings: rape, abuse, violence discussed)

It was directed at feminists in general, which is why, he argued in later self-justification, it shouldn’t have upset anyone. As is sort of obvious, according to da patriarchy. Cause, if someone tweets that all feminists should be raped, it’s just a bit of a laugh, innit? And why can’t you wimmin just get that?

Reading onward, a little more information came to light. He hadn’t made the offending tweet, he claimed. Oh no: one of his “mates” had got hold of his phone/into his account and done it.
However, just how contrite he actually was can be seen by a tweet made some way into the ensuing froth. He wrote: “some one was on my account and sent ‘i will rape all of you’ to a feminist account nd i got shit loads of abuse for it aha”

Its that “aha” at the end that gives the game away. He’s not sorry. He doesn’t get it. He only vaguely begins to get it – like all abusers, he’s a coward at heart – when a number of people start, seriously, talking about reporting this to the police.

As they should. Because the only way this sort of thing is going to stop is when men learn that abuse of any sort will not be tolerated – and that women WILL respond.

In the meantime, here’s a brief guide to dealing with online abuse.


First off , most systems, legal and otherwise, are set up reasonably well to deal with threats and harassment against you as an individual. There are two components to that. If someone makes a direct threat – I will hit you/rape you/do any sort of violence to you – then that IS a threat.

It counts as such within social media and you should report it as abuse. Twitter and others will most likely advise you to block the individual concerned – and they will also investigate the offending comments.

As with any assault, preserve evidence: take screenshots, copy down what was said, copy the words used.

If someone makes less direct threats, but.. . they are constantly on your case, making comments that cause you alarm or distress (which may be because of their content or simply because it is clear that you are “in their sights”) then the chances are it counts as some form of harassment. In public, there is law to deal with harassing actions. Online, there are a variety of Communications Acts (in England: slightly different law applies in Scotland) that the individual may be reported for.

Most social media will be alert to some degree to these sort of campaigns: though the US-based ones may be a little less sympathetic. After all, “its only speech”.

Take threats seriously

Which brings you on to part 2: take the matter to the police. If it’s a threat, it’s a threat. It may be, where the tweeter has no earthly way of locating you, and therefore no way of putting that threat into action, that the police will suggest it doesn’t count as such. In some instances, they have a point.

Contrariwise, if, as happened to me about three years back, the abuser goes out of his way to demonstrate that he “knows where you live” – a very typical power ploy – don’t hesitate. 9 times out of 10, they haven’t the testosterone to follow through. But the moment they move from online name-calling to something that COULD take place in the real world, talk to the police.

At very least, expect the police to have words with the individual concerned – and if not, ask why not. If they are proving reluctant to do anything, get above desk sergeant level: make sure you are talking to inspector level or above.

Whereas, if its just a continuing level of nastiness, there is almost certainly still a case to be pursued, as such nastiness, where it is a “course of action” (two or more interactions) almost certainly constitutes harassment of some form or other.

General misogyny

Although the real problem is that a lot of abusers think they are clever. Like the guy who set this incident off, they argue that if they’re “just” having a go at women in general, that’s OK. Its free speech, innit? No different from a group of women sat around having a go at blokes.

As if! Except that is not what seems to happen. If it were just a matter of men speaking vileness unto other men, it would be deplorable, but at least it would not be affecting women directly. Only, as became very clear on the #silentnomore hashtag, some guys seem to have gone out of their way to turn up, in spaces that were clearly set up by women, for women who were survivors of the worst possible sorts of abuse, in order to taunt, make fun, and take the piss out of women for having the temerity to object.

That’s harder to deal with. First, because many social media outlets simply don’t accept it’s a problem. If you have a moment this evening, write and tell them it is. Social spaces have begun to take on a reality of their own: and blokes invading a space set up for women to feel safe in, there to spout abusive language are every bit as wrong, as blokes walking into a women-only meeting and starting to shout abuse.

So the forms aren’t there. Twitter is geared for reporting one-on-one abuse: not generalised stuff. Still, its worth taking note: because the same insult about feminism, say, if it is directed more than once at the same individual COULD constitute harassment. Which takes us back up to the position above.

Hate crime and nastiness

But what about simple general nastiness? Is there a remedy? Yes. Though you may have to work harder. Again, report to local police. Name it as a hate crime (gender abuse is not included in the five official hate crime strands. However, courts DO have leeway to consider it such).

Be aware though that hate speech is not a crime on its own. Rather, “hate” towards a particular group – in this case, women – is not a crime, but it may be considered an aggravating factor, both leading to a swifter, more intense police response and more severe sentencing in the courts.

However, the offence is most likely to be covered under the generic term of “communications which are grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false”. These are punishable under section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988 or under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003: if the police person you talk to doesn’t think an offence has been committed, refer them to these relevant pieces of law. Then ask them to think again.

For a fuller outline of what might constitute an offence online, the CPS consultation on the subject is an excellent source: use it! Otherwise, ask friends for help, support and advice. And above all, don’t skip the middle one of those three.

Stay supported. Because what some individual abusers don’t get – and others get all too well – is that these simple tweets can, of themselves, be intimidating, shocking and traumatic. Sometimes, you’ll just laugh them off. Sometimes – it may just be the final straw after a very bad day – that process of laughter is much harder.

Sometimes, they get to you. Which is why they need to stop, or be stopped. NOW.



About janefae

On my way from here to there
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2 Responses to Dealing with online abuse: some practical tips

  1. stream angel says:

    Very good article. I spend a lot of time in Youtube “feminist” territory, & see a constant thread of threats & abuse. A lot of people let it pass, due to that modern myth of disempowerment (“Oh well, that’s the internet, & its FULL of misogyny – ergo – there’s NOTHING we can do”). However, Youtube has an option whreby comments can be “flagged” (resulting in action being taken against the wrongdoer) & if enough people took a “zer tolerance” attituvde towards this, these idiots would NOt be doing it.

  2. The ‘aggravating’ factors in ‘hate crime’ legislation/sentencing are currently only racism and intolerance of religions. this means a crime aggravated by racism can carry a higher maximum sentence than one without that factor.

    other issues such as homophobia and gender identity are included in hate crime law but they’re not ‘aggravating’ factos. Judges only have the power to take them into account when sentencing, up to the existing maximum sentences for relevant crimes.

    The Law commission are currently looking into including homophobia, disability and gender identity hate crimes in the ‘aggravated’ category:

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