Harassment is a real problem.
In the early days of the internet, getting harassed online was taken as a granted. If you played Call of Duty, you would eventually be called some sort of slur. This was doubly true if other players could determine your gender or regional accent over voice chat. The internet is largely anonymous, there wasn’t any punishment for calling names, insulting/bullying players, or getting into heated arguments – at least none that were lasting. If it got too heated, the harassment would bleed over elsewhere. In games, they’d send mean messages in private chat, hoping to get a reaction. The same went for forums. Sometimes, in bad enough arguments, they’d make a note of the other player’s username, and sometimes – if the target had made enough of an impression – they would start actively targeting them.
Now, that’s not such a big deal. On one website or game, from one account? An angry person is easy enough to ignore or block. Most people probably just block the antagonizer and get on with their day. The issue starts when the target gets another message, from some account they don’t recognize, and has to block them too. And then it happens again, and again, and again! It starts spreading to Twitter, or to other forums. Eventually, one of you gives up. Either you change your username or the other person runs out of steam.
Welcome to the world of account-based harassment!
Many websites do use usernames to record things like post history and account status. It also makes it much easier for moderators to track and ban problem characters from their forums or pages. Websites that don’t rely on usernames have to perform much more difficult IP bans, which don’t stick if the problem party is good enough with computers. Even if they’re not, they can always log in at the library, or their phone. Nobody is accountable, and so you get sites like 4Chan out of this method. It’s a trade-off – use a username, and become more traceable; use a username, and have a more pleasant online experience.
Usernames make everyone’s life easier! Unfortunately, that includes people hoping to target specific individuals online.
You can limit how useful your username is to outsiders, and you can use a different handle for every site to make sure people can’t follow you from place to place! It’s common advice now, but in the early days of the internet, people used to pick a username and stick with it for every site. If you were XxShadowRaiderxX on your game forum, you were also XxShadowRaiderxX on your Myspace or Digg account.
Eventually, someone stalking your handle could tie together enough detail to find you personally on Facebook. People made themselves too easy to track – which enabled long-term harassment. If you simply must use the same handle (like streamers, artists, or Youtubers do) then try to keep your real name far, far away from your accounts. Consider using throwaway accounts, as well as private accounts for family and friends, so you can keep your details away from your marketing.
Bans – And Evading Them
If the antagonizer can’t manage to find other accounts, sometimes they’ll use ‘puppet’ or ‘shadow’ accounts to evade bans on websites they can find you on. Sometimes, they’ll use the accounts to stay anonymous – their real, main account never messages you, just one or two-day old accounts, so you can’t tell who you ticked off. Other times, the accounts are used to create the illusion that a whole mob is harassing the target, when really it’s just the one person with a grudge.
But surely, on websites that limit this by requiring one email for one account, no more, no less, it’s less of an issue? Well – not when Google, Yahoo, etc. allow you to make effectively unlimited emails. It’s just a little more tedious. Some of them even let you log in before verifying the account, making spam messaging that much faster.
Unfortunately, many websites don’t take this as seriously as they should. The whole point of banning or blocking someone is so they don’t come back. So you’re not subjected to the same harassment, threats, and insults day after day. Circumventing the ban means that banning or blocking does nothing when it’s often the only tool the targets even have. It’s not only annoying to have to keep blocking people, it’s also stressful! The other guy is winning when the target feels that stress. Plus, they have to see the message to delete it and block the person again. If someone’s only interested in spamming ‘kill yourself’ over and over, they can type that in the subject line. Saying ‘don’t read it’ is an impossibility at that point.
That’s not the worst of it. Stalkers and trolls tend to escalate if they think they can get away with it! Some start aiming for accounts in different places if they’re allowed to continue with no consequences, which is why it’s so important to nip it in the bud! If an anonymous account has sentimental value, it’s tough to delete or rename it, but someone could be pushed far enough to do so. The target can escape back into anonymity, even if some harm is done. If it’s an account with a real name attached – like Facebook or Instagram – getting away from the antagonizer without admins stepping in can feel impossible. Therefore, it’s critical to stop it from spreading that far. A targeted user could be forced to set their account to ‘private’, something artists, influencers, and small business owners are understandably very reluctant to do.
There have to be consequences for evading a ban in the first place! If anybody can just keep making accounts, and those accounts get ignored until the victim kicks up a fuss again, the ban is effectively worthless. It doesn’t do anything but force the problem-causer to create another account, and that means nothing to someone who’s become obsessed.
It’s become enough of an issue that some websites don’t let the blocked person know they’re blocked – they think their messages are going through and therefore don’t try to make another account. This is a great response because it limits interaction even further! It also helps tremendously if you never respond, or even show signs of interacting with their messages. Obviously, this isn’t foolproof, but limit the interaction between you and the antagonizer as much as you can. Eventually, they may leave for more ‘fun’ targets.
Other methods include those IP bans mentioned before and putting restrictions on messaging users who have been targeted in the past. This isn’t an option on every site, though – unfortunately, it’s a very difficult problem to solve. Setting up a friendly, well-run site where people can post without fear of attracting a digital stalker is difficult, but necessary for a good community. If the hypothetical website’s creators can’t, they’ll lose all ability to function as a site – they’ll turn into that CoD lobby. The person with the most free-time comes to dominate the discussion, and other members are either bothered into going offline for their opinions/existence or leave due to a lack of content.