*Trigger Warning: This blog post contains potentially distressing discussion of online stalking and cyberharassment.*
Dear Trish: I found a post on FB where this woman, a stranger, is saying bad things about me! She shared a photo from my public LinkedIn profile. Everything she’s writing is a complete lie, but FB won’t take the post down. The whole situation is disturbing my mental health, and I don’t know what to do. Please help!
First of all, I’m so very sorry to hear that you’re in this position; I understand the stress, mental trauma, and frustration you’re likely experiencing right now. Amidst all of that, I applaud you for your bravery in sharing this story/experience with our community — I have no doubt that you’re not the only one going through this. And with that said, let me speak also to this week’s readers, following along — this can be a heavy topic, so be sure to care for yourself as you explore it.
Before I share some advice on how to tackle what I often refer to as “digital rumors” or “digital defamation,” let me go ahead and share a bit more about what, exactly, I’m talking about. Digital defamation is a specific type of cyberharassment: it’s when anyone online — though, in situations like these, it’s often a stranger — spreads malicious lies and rumors about you and your life. This stranger will often take public images and content about you, then re-post the information with lies; they may even create a fake account in your name (which they will claim as authentic), and begin using your public content to share damaging or false posts with followers.
Because things spread so quickly online — often without a second glance or thought — this kind of situation can be really scary because many people won’t take the time to figure out if the content is actually from you/real. And, of course, once online, it can seemingly “haunt you” for quite some time. Further, platforms (sadly) rarely take action, which can leave you feeling like you have no options.
That’s not true: this is not a “doomsday”-type situation (and as a general rule of thumb: no cyberharassment or bullying is. I know how hard these situations are, but don’t let them define how you see yourself/self-worth, or make them think you’re at fault — YOU’RE NOT). They are approaches — many similar to those I recommended in the “Photoshopped Nudes” post from a while back — to minimize the damage and hopefully move on.
The first approach is one I heard a few of reference in your notes to me: taking a step back from social media. To keep the digital rumors from growing, I would immediately 1) make all of your accounts private — and I mean ALL of them, from Tumblr to Insta to LinkedIn — and/or, if you feel comfortable 2) turn all of your accounts off (you can always return at another time). In other words, do everything you can to limit the amount of public information that’s available about you online. Without content, your attacker may stop or lose interest — after all, with you gone from the digital universe, there’s no longer really anyone to target and defame. Note that this advice isn’t just applicable to tackling this issue post-damage; this is also really great advice on how to proactively avoid this issue. By avoiding sharing location information online, and being smart about the pictures you post on social media — stay away from anything that could ever be misconstrued or weaponized against you later — you can really minimize the chance that anything like this ever happens to you.
But maybe you know your attacker has other content, and you’re worried that, by removing yourself from the spotlight, you’ll shine all of the light on them, allowing them to take control of/run with the narrative they’ve built around you. In that case, another option is to build another, accurate narrative on social media. I’d avoid fighting fire with fire — you don’t want to EVER put yourself at risk of danger — but you can use your social media accounts to tell the people in your life that you’re being attacked, and they should avoid engaging with anything they see that looks malicious. Be sure to emphasize that the content is defamatory and that you’ve struggled to have platforms take it down; you can even encourage them to help report the content to the platform. In other words: build a community that won’t buy into the fake stories/will help you push back. When the stories are no longer causing damage, many attackers will stop.
A huge thank you to the Ask Trish community for engaging with this week’s topic/post; it’s a tough, serious issue, and thus can be a hard conversation to have — but by learning more, we can spread awareness and empathy, and those ripple effects can be tremendously powerful. For those of you struggling with digital rumors, please know that I’m sending you a big hug and a lot of support 💙 I promise: it will pass. As hard as it may be to believe in the 21st century, the Internet does not define you.
Maybe this post has sparked a similar (or completely different) question about the Internet, in which case, please share your note, question, or thoughts here (I can’t wait to hear from you)! Your topic might be the focus of an upcoming TikTok/blog post. Remember: anything you want to chat about is fair game, so feel empowered to speak your mind/truth. This community will always be here for you. 💙
See you all next Tuesday for the second-to-last Ask Trish post of 2021 (can you believe it?)! Until then,