Is there anything I can do about online rape threats?
March 20, 2013 10:29 PM   Subscribe

So I've joined Rebecca Watson in that I now get actual rape threats, sometimes with a side of death threats because of things I have written about feminism online. Is there anything I can do about this?

The things that are written by non-anonymous users typically just call me a cunt, a bitch, or say they wish I was dead. But there are some comments now, by users not associated with a real name, that say that I should be raped and then also murdered. These comments are on a website run by a man I used to know, who now says I am a feminist cunt, and I have asked via email for them to be removed in the past to no avail so I'm not sure what else to do. Mainly do I have any recourse? Should I be reporting this somewhere or is it pointless since the comments are anon?
posted by melissam to Law & Government (21 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I believe that if you have asked for them to be removed and he has not done so, you could probably make a case that he is an accessory to rape threats by hosting them.
posted by corb at 10:37 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have asked via email for them to be removed in the past to no avail so I'm not sure what else to do.

This sucks, but unless they're escalating to the point where they are sending you emailed threats or making threatening phone calls, the best thing to do is probably just to not read that website, or really, comments on websites in general. People like that thrive on confrontation, and sending legal threats is just going to exacerbate it. People have a right to act like dickwads online, unfortunately. You can name and shame the blog like daily kos does on his 'hate-mail-a-palooza', if you want.
posted by empath at 11:12 PM on March 20, 2013 [5 favorites]

I wish I knew more about the law in this regard.

I know that two girls were just charged for making online threats against the rape victim in the recent Steubenville Rape Trial, so surely there are laws against this? I'm certain this is not the only time I've heard of arrest and prosecution in situations like this.

Contact your state's attorney general office.

Six hundred and ten million years ago, when I was looking into a possible embezzlement crime committed by a local official, my attorney general's office was amazingly helpful over the phone. In fact, as a result of their advice, the public official was indicted, plead guilty (because I had done my homework on the investigation end - heh) and the official went to jail.

Call your attorney general's office for general advice. Stick to the facts. Keep it succinct and on point.

They should be able to tell you what, if any, recourse you have here.

I'm pretty sure this type of speech online is not OK, and possibly, actionable.

If they tell you it is a civil matter - keep calling around to other agencies and authorities.

Again, I'm pretty sure that after multiple deaths in the US from online bullying and whatnot in the past 10 years, there are likely protections in place for you. I just don't know what theye are.

Good luck. Stay safe.
posted by jbenben at 11:27 PM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Maybe you could report it to the company that hosts the site? Free speech is great, but when people are literally threatening you harm, that's crossing a line and I think (or at least hope) that most hosting companies would take that crap seriously.

But... there is definitely something to be said for just ignoring it and not giving the trolls more energy to feed on. A few years back somebody was using my name online and pretending to be me, posting all sorts of gross stuff on forums. (Yes, this is not my birth name, but this person wasn't just using the name... They were very specifically pretending to be me.) I went on this big crusade and bitched and threatened and got that stuff taken down, but it took a while, it was incredibly draining and depressing and I made myself a target for other trolls. I didn't feel like I could just walk away and let these awful little shitheads win, but in hindsight... Well, I'm still glad I fought them, but if I could get a Spotless Mind thing and erase the whole ugly episode from my brain, I just might do it.

I've always thought "troll" was a little too badass for nasty little internet dorks. Troll sounds big and tough, and I picture them more like gibbering little gremlins. Do you really want to feed them after midnight?
posted by Ursula Hitler at 11:54 PM on March 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

In which jurisdiction are you?
In which jurisdiction is the site owner?
In which jurisdiction is the server?

Practically, you're probably SOL.
posted by pompomtom at 12:08 AM on March 21, 2013

[Let's go ahead and try to give productive / helpful suggestions please. OP already knows that it's a tough situation, so concrete practical or personal advice is what we're looking for.]
posted by taz (staff) at 12:20 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

You can name and shame the blog like daily kos does on his 'hate-mail-a-palooza', if you want.

Never post anything the day you write while you're angry!

I wouldn't do this without first carefully grinding through the possible consequences. Including playing into a confrontational dynamic. Or temporarily coming off as a "high drama" person in your online persona - it would temporarily change the feel of your writing for your readers. If I maintained a chipper, personable birdwatching blog, and then tore into someone who had assaulted me, I'd feel vindicated, but it would change the tone. And it might energize the assailant.

For example, if you were going to lawyer up, naming and shaming might trigger (or serve as the excuse du jour for) a bunch of hateful or threatening speech, but that subsequent speech might seem less actionable to a DA or jury if it seems as though it is in dialog with you, or it might give the feeling that it was part of a long back-and-forth. (I do not know if this is a reasonable scenario.) But calling them out probably won't do much good. You'll feel temporarily vindicated, you'll get a few sparrows chirping moral support, and then the trolls will get worse.

It will be less relaxing or useful than a restraining order.

It sounds as though what is going on may well be legally actionable. If you don't get any results from a DA or state attorney general, lawyer up. If you're low on cash, find a pro bono paralegal or lawyer through a womens center.

You may want to document it as evidence to substantiate a charge or restraining order : take screenshots or so on.

Should I be reporting this somewhere or is it pointless since the comments are anon?
It's only quasi-anonymous. IP addresses and email addresses can often be traced back to people.

And if it is taking place on a website run by an individual who is encouraging it, they may be subject to a restraining order.

I would lawyer up before contacting the hosting company or making unorthodox attempts at fixing it.
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:53 AM on March 21, 2013

If you do post anything public about this, I would suggest using the fewest words possible and remaining as unemotional about it as you can. Just brief and business-like. That will make you look like the classy one, and it also doesn't give the bastards much to play with. Resist the impulse to post a long, angry essay about it. That will thrill these guys, you're giving them something new to obsess over and make fun of. Do not publicly lose your shit, and do not give them fodder for message board image macros.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:19 AM on March 21, 2013 [10 favorites]

Please do not listen to those who tell you to ignore threats of rape and murder. Threats of rape and murder do not equate to trolling. Please do as jbenben says and call your attorney general's office. They are the arbiter in your jurisdiction. And it's probably best to not mention it online or to visit the site until you've spoken the attorney general's office.

Good luck, stay safe.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 4:25 AM on March 21, 2013 [21 favorites]

Seriously, you should absolutely report this. You actually do have avenues of recourse. Where I live, this is also handled by the A.G.'s office. Start there. While these commenters are their own publishers, technically, under DMCA, he is also being (at best!) complicit by not managing the situation.

You can also report this to webhosts and publishing services.

If you can look at this stuff, please screenshot it all to at least prevent future gaslighting. ("This crazy feminist said we were all saying we'd murder her!" is usually uttered while deleting comments).

Finally, depending on how much stomach you have for making it known, some fresh light shown on the situation on the web can be a tactic. One's willingness to do this and deal with what ensues will vary.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 4:59 AM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

In general, I am all about not ignoring harassers, but, if this is all happening on the site of a random dude with a hate-on (and not on your social media or elsewhere) you are better off blocking and avoiding.

If you are getting tweets, emails, or comments on your own blog, that's different.
posted by emjaybee at 5:08 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

State Attorneys General are not hands-on law enforcement officers.

If someone is threatening to rape you in a way which by its context suggests they know who and where you are IRL, what you need is cops. This isn't 1997; police departments have well-established protocols and procedures to respond to direct threats of criminal violence made online. They can easily get the identity of most people who might threaten you (host of the site will give up the IP, the ISP will give up the subscriber info of the IP, in most cases) and get the local cops where your threateners are to roll by and put the fear of God into them, or worse. It can be done in an hour if you're lucky, a few days if not. Frankly, your greater concern might be how badly you want them hurt; in some jurisdictions your threatners might be charged with felonies and face years of jail time. (That wouldn't bother me, of course.)

And don't call, print out the threats and go to the police station and make a report in person. The cops need to know that you are calm and sane and also that you are seriously frightened by what you see is credible threats. If you get blown off, less likely than you might think, your next stop is your City Councilman (or analagous local figure) to light a fire under the top cops to get attention paid.
posted by MattD at 5:08 AM on March 21, 2013 [14 favorites]

I believe that if you have asked for them to be removed and he has not done so, you could probably make a case that he is an accessory to rape threats by hosting them.

No. IAAL who has actual experience with these matters. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provides immunity to hosts of content provided by others. If he doesn't create the content, he cannot be held liable for it. (This is why the Daily Kos cannot be liable for its "hatemailpoolza" publications)
posted by Tanizaki at 6:00 AM on March 21, 2013

technically, under DMCA, he is also being (at best!) complicit by not managing the situation

This isn't true; DMCA isn't relevant to this situation.

You're receiving death threats; I would go to the police if it were me.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 6:21 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

DMCA isn't relevant to this situation.

Correct; this would be right in the case of copyright only, with commenters acting as their own publishers.

In the end, as the lawyer above points out, you absolutely have rights and avenues to pursue this.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 6:33 AM on March 21, 2013

I would ask yourself if you are fearful that someone may actually attempt to follow through with these threats. In other words, are they credible threats? If so, I would do exactly as MattD suggested and go to the police. Take screen shots in case the offending material is taken down and also print everything out.
posted by tr0ubley at 6:34 AM on March 21, 2013

Perhaps you should reach out to some of the other feminist bloggers out there who experience the same thing. The ones who have been writing for a while, like Watson, Amanda Marcotte, etc, may have some advice for you.
posted by MsMartian at 7:11 AM on March 21, 2013

Always report it. Even if that doesn't help immediately, at least it creates a record that may be helpful later on - either for you, or for the next person these jerks go after.

You can call your local police department, to start. Depending on your jurisdiction, they sometimes have a department that is entirely dedicated to 'cyber crimes'. That department can help you figure out next steps.

Also - save evidence, in case it does go to court and they delete their posts to try to hide. If it's too emotionally difficult for you to reread and do so, have a friend do it for you.

Another thing you can do is check to see who the provider is that's hosting the website, and check their Terms of Service. You may be able to send (or have an attorney send for you) a cease and desist letter to the host asking that the site be taken down because you have reason to believe it is violating their TOS.

IANYL, &c.
posted by 168 at 7:48 AM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

The Geek Feminism blog has talked about this a lot. This article, On Being Harassed, might be a good place to start for tips.

From what I've read of people who have tried to report this sort of thing to law enforcement, it often does get blown off. "I hope you get raped" is not exactly a direct threat, upsetting and nasty and inappropriate as it is.
posted by jaguar at 9:22 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm so sorry you have to deal with this.

I feel like legally, you may have recourse as it's definitely against the law to threaten to kill or rape someone. But part of me wonders if you want to escalate it. If these are just "internet tough guys" who are misogynist trolls, it's disconcerting but generally harmless. If these are people who really would commit harm, it seems escalating the situation and raising the stakes could make it worse. I guess I would determine whether I believe the threats are credible in the first place and if they are affecting your life.

I would safe guard my information and be careful about using my real name, but I understand not using your real identity is less credible and sends a message that you should hide for your views, which you obviously should not. Still, I'd try to make finding out where I live difficult.
posted by AppleTurnover at 9:59 AM on March 21, 2013

I think MattD has it. Screenshot, save and print the threatening comments and show them to the police. Make sure you lock down your accounts as soon as possible if you haven't already. Change to strong passwords, don't reuse passwords and the like.

I'm sorry you're going through this.
posted by ziggly at 5:04 PM on March 21, 2013

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