The Internet creates a free-thinking platform for people to express their views and opinions. This well of knowledge can allow any individual to research a topic and have mature, thought-provoking conversation with other users.

However, like with all good things, there are always some bad apples in the group. Welcome the “trolls.”

Troll is the slang term for those who use the anonymity that the Web provides to exploit their right to voice their own opinions. Instead of being constructive, trolls are those who enjoy causing mischief by purposely pretending to be frustratingly ignorant, unnecessarily playing Devil’s Advocate to an extreme degree and sometimes using offensive language to prove why what they think is correct instead of what someone else does. While trolls are typically harmless, sometimes things can enter the danger zone — especially when journalists and the media are involved.

The Escalation

There have been many cases where an angry user on the Internet has taken his or her frustration out in the comments section of a news article or on the social media feed of a reporter. While these are usually one-time-only incidents, there is the chance for the situation to escalate into something much more dangerous.

Reporter Amanda Hess was in the middle of a relaxing vacation in Palm Springs when she checked her Twitter account and found a number of cryptic tweets. Twitter user @headlessfemalepig had sent her several messages, beginning with the “tamer,” “I see you are physically not very attractive. Figured” to the terrifying “Happy to say we live in the same state. Im looking you up, and when I find you, im going to rape you and remove your head.”

While a survey conducted by the University of Central Lancashire to explore harassment received by journalists currently only has 87 responses as of March 4, 2014, the results are still telling. Of the respondents, 70 percent of them said they had received insults about their work or news outlet, and almost half received personal insults. Many people try to claim “freedom of speech” to cover these types of situations, but you should know when a person crosses the line from being a jerk to actually breaking the law.

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What to Do

While most people will tell you to ignore it, get over it or get a tougher skin, sometimes an Internet abuser needs to be taught a lesson — especially if you sincerely feel unsafe. Recently, Twitter modified its Terms of Service agreement to create stricter rules around Internet harassment. Outside of the Internet, there are other steps one can take to feel safer:

  1. Screenshot all of the harassment incidents. It’s very easy for someone to delete a comment or tweet, and while it’ll never really be gone, it will make it harder for authority figures to gather information and proof of the offense. Even if you’re still unsure if you want to try pressing charges against an individual, capture the offense anyway just in case.
  2. Look up your local harassment laws. The National Conference of State Legislatures is a good place to look for state-by-state laws regarding different types of harassment classifications and the qualifications. Informing a harasser that they’re breaking a state law and redirecting them to a legal confirmation website may be a solution in itself without having to actually involve the authorities.
  3. Contact the website. Report buttons are created for a reason. Use them.
  4. Be patient. Because the offense will have taken place in cyberspace and the perpetrator could be using a false identity, it’ll be a little more difficult to resolve, and some authority figures may not initially take you seriously. But don’t let that deter you. Everyone has a right to feel safe, and no one has a right to take that away from them.
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