Right To Be
Understanding Online Harassment

Knowing what online harassment looks like is a first step that will help you understand the scope of this problem, what to do to prevent it, and how to react if you experience or witness it.

Sometimes people may feel confused and not understand what kind of abuse they are experiencing. We have created this guide with some basic concepts and explanations about the most common types of online abuse, who are most affected, and some of the most significant impacts on those who experience it.

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What is online harassment?

For this guide, we will use the term online harassment to describe a wide range of targeted behaviors online perpetuated to scare, intimidate, threaten, or harm. Online harassment can target – or come from – a group or individual, and it might be ongoing and sustained over long periods.

A 2020 Pew Research Center survey revealed that 41% of Americans have personally experienced some form of online harassment, including offensive name-calling, purposeful embarrassment, stalking, physical threats, harassment over a sustained time, or sexual harassment.

Who experiences online harassment?

Everyone can experience online harassment, but there is evidence that women, people of color, and LGBTQ folks are disproportionately impacted. According to a 2017 study, 57 percent of people reporting harassment in the U.S. are female, and 46 percent of women worldwide have received sexist or misogynist comments as a form of online abuse. Research has also revealed that female politicians, activists, and journalists, are at higher risk. Furthermore, the 2020 Pew Research Center survey showed that seven in ten of the lesbian, gay or bisexual adults had faced online abuse while only four-in-ten straight adults have endured any form of harassment online.

What are the impacts of online abuse?

Online harassment has severe repercussions for those who experience it. It can affect people’s mental health and wellbeing and lead to anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Online harassment often has the expressed purpose of forcing the person to abandon the internet or take down their content. Consequently, diverse voices are being censored and silenced, and people’s right to freedom of expression is being drastically impacted. There are also concerns about real physical safety risks. Furthermore, people are incurring financial costs when they are forced to shield themselves from the abuse (e.g., if they have to change their locations, get professional help, etc.).

The Online Abuse Wheel presented below is used to illustrate and help us think about the key connections between the tactics used to harass, the overlaps with what is considered illegal depending on various contexts, and ultimately the impacts, both short-term and long-term, that online harassment and abuse has on those who are targeted.

This wheel was created by Soraya Chemaly and Debjani Roy and is based on the Domestic Abuse Intervention Program’s Power and Control Wheel, which was created in 1984, to better understand the experiences of survivors of domestic violence.

To better understand the wheel and for specific definitions for the terms used, check out Women’s Media Center Free Speech Project.

What are some types of online harassment?

Online harassment can take different forms, but it frequently involves sending abusive comments or threats with the intention to scare or harm. Below are some of the most common types of harassment:

  • Doxing:
    Doxing or Doxxing is the act of publicly revealing previously private personal information about an individual or organization, including email addresses, phone numbers, addresses, social security numbers, or bank information. Methods employed to acquire such information include searching publicly available databases and social media websites, hacking, and social engineering. Doxing may be carried out for various reasons, including online shaming, extortion, and vigilante aid to law enforcement. (To learn more about Doxing, check out this guide by Pixel Privacy)
  • Cyberstalking:
    Cyberstalking could be understood as the “repeated pursuit of an individual using electronic or Internet-capable devices” (Reyns, Henson, & Fisher, 2011, 1153). According to the National Crime Victimization Study stalking supplement, it can include making unwanted phone calls, leaving voice messages or unwanted messages, spying or monitoring activities on social media, or posting or threatening to post unwanted information on the internet. Cyberstalking can cause a person to reasonably fear death, serious bodily harm, or substantial emotional distress to themselves, an immediate family member, or a spouse or intimate partner. (See 18 U.S.C. § 2261A). Some states will only classify behavior as cyberstalking if it includes a “credible threat,” which usually involves proving the harasser’s intent to cause fear for their safety or their family’s safety. (See e.g., California Penal Code § 646.9)
  • Swatting:
    Swatting is the act of making hoax emergency phone calls in order to provoke an armed police response from a SWAT team. The purpose of swatting is to harass someone believed to be at a specific location. (Department of Justice, Criminal Division, “Massachusetts Man Charged with Making Hoax Emergency Service Calls to Elicit Swat Team Response” (August 9, 2015)
  • Sextortion:
    The FBI defines Sextorsion as a form of cyber extortion in which people are demanded to provide sexual images or sexual favors. “These demands are accompanied by threats to harm or embarrass the victims if they fail to comply, for example, by threatening to distribute personal and intimate photos of the victims or their personal information unless they agree to send the offenders sexually explicit images” (Donovon 2016, 6).
  • Non Consensual sharing of intimate images (“revenge porn”):
    This form of abuse involves the publication online of sexually explicit images or videos. The content is typically taken with consent, but it is published without authorization, usually by a victim’s former partner. Revenge porn can be combined with other tactics, such as doxing. The material can be circulated along with personal information such as email addresses or phone numbers. Women experience higher rates of sexual harassment and intimate content sharing. According to End Revenge Porn 2014, 90% of reported “revenge porn” cases targeted women. Check out this resource by Cyber Civil Rights Initiative to learn more about laws against revenge porn that states have adopted in the U.S.
  • Online Sexual Harassment:
    Sexual harassment includes unwelcome “sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature,” according to RAINN. Acts of harassment in online spaces as “sexually explicit pictures, content, jokes, misogyny, the use of nicknames, requests for company, sexual favors, and comments about the dress” (Biber et al. 2004).
  • Defamation:
    According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, defamation is a “false and unprivileged statement of fact that is harmful to someone’s reputation.” The statement has malicious intent, and it often has the purpose of becoming viral. Some examples of defamation include accusing someone of being a thief, a liar, or other unethical behaviors.
  • Online Impersonation:
    Online impersonation is when someone creates a fake account pretending to be you. They usually post offensive or inflammatory statements in your name or send abusive material to people you know. This tactic can also be used to commit fraud and ask for money to your social media contacts. Impersonation can damage someone’s reputation and also serve as an incentive to encourage others to harass you.
  • Online hate speech:
    The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe defines hate speech as any form of expression “that spread, incite, promote or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or other forms of hatred based on intolerance” (Council of Europe 1997).
Works Cited

Donovan, Jim. Cybermisbehavior. United States Department of Justice Executive Office for United States Attorneys, 2016

Jodi K. Biber, Dennis Doverspike, Daniel Baznik, Alana Cober, and Barbara A. Ritter.CyberPsychology & Behavior.Feb 2002.33-42.

“Safety of Women Journalists” UN WOMEN. August 12, 2020,

Statista, “Most common types of online abuse or harassment experienced by women worldwide as of July 2017” (website, 2019)

Reyns, B., Henson, B., & Fisher, B. (2011). Being Pursued Online: Applying Cyberlifestyle–Routine Activities Theory to Cyberstalking Victimization. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 38(11), 1149–1169.

Council of Europe (1997) Hate Speech. Council of Europe Portal