When stalking happens over the internet we call it 'cyberstalking', and these stalkers can use all sorts of tools to harass their victims at any time of the day; social media, messaging apps, and even email, to name a few.
We're also sharing more details about ourselves online than ever before. It's handy to have a digital scrapbook of memories, sure, but it also makes a cyberstalker's task that much easier.
I've touched on how to prevent cyberstalking a few times, but in this post I'll be looking specifically at cross-platform harassment – the kind of stalking or abuse that can start on a video game or a stream and spill over into social media. These kinds of campaigns are especially egregious, and the cross-platform threats and defamation can leave the victim feeling incredibly frightened and exposed.
Cross-platform cyberstalking is way more involved than just keeping a close eye on a streamer's Twitter page. Often, repeated threats, slander and libel are involved, and even unsolicited requests for sexual favors. Some cyberstalkers even resort to identity theft to further embarrass their targets.
And the stalkers will work hard to preserve their anonymity. Think TOR, remailers, and even an army of fake social media accounts. This makes them fiendishly hard to root out and report, let alone take action against.
Women are significantly more likely to be stalked online and report instances sexual harassment – and female gamers are certainly no strangers to these sorts of unpleasant interactions. Similarly, black women and non-binary people are more frequently targeted by online harassers.
In fact, according to a 2022 PEW survey, around 54% of black and Hispanic respondents reported that they had been targeted because of their race, and seven out of ten LGBT individuals reported that they had first-hand experience with online abuse. Similarly, 18% of Jewish respondents, and 25% of Muslim respondents, expressed that religion had played a part in their experience of online harassment.
But what does the law say about cyberstalking?
Well, law enforcement often finds it as hard as we do to dig up dirt on a cyberstalker – cross-platform or not. The internet is full of disheartening stories from victims who experienced severe online harassment, across social media sites and email, and turned to the police only to be told that there was nothing they could do. Victims feel helpless more often than not, but that doesn't mean that there's no hope, or that times and technologies aren't adapting.
Cyberstalking is now accounted for in legislation across the world. In the US, for example, it's classed as a criminal offense under state anti-stalking, slander, and harassment laws. Cyberstalking is also criminalized under the Protection from Harassment act in the United Kingdom.
Why do people resort to cyberstalking?
That's a big question, and there're all sorts of reasons a person might take it upon themselves to follow a person across the internet.
It'll vary case by case, but jilted ex-lovers could act out of revenge or want to monitor their previous partner's activity, a bitter loss in a video game (especially if it's to a woman) could spark an angry campaign of insults and threats, and extreme idol-worship can influence a person, too, prompting them to repeatedly harass their idol in any way, and on any site, that they can. In a nutshell, some of the more common reasons for cross-platform cyberstalking include:
- Desire, either romantic or sexual
- An ex-lover seeking reconciliation or revenge
- Perceived attachment
- Envy and resentment of an individual
- Racially motivated resentment, or intolerance of a person's sexual orientation or gender identity
- A desire to scare or embarrass the individual with threats
- Depression, or other mental health concerns
Modes of cyberstalking
The fact that we spend so much of our time communicating across various sites and apps makes the thought of cross-platform harassment particularly invasive. It's horrible to think that a determined stalker could find us no matter what corner of the internet we flee to! Victims of cross-platform stalking often report feeling extremely exposed and unsafe in their own houses.
I mentioned earlier that, for gamers, cross-platform harassment often starts in the games themselves, or even in Twitch or YouTube chat. All it takes is an in-game disagreement, a loss, or an off-hand comment; the disgruntled stalker might Google your username and find your Twitter, or maybe an Instagram or Snapchat account. From there, they might find their way to your Facebook, any online stores, or even get hold of your email address.
I've rounded up the more common platforms that harassment tends to spread to below, so check them out.
Sending creepy letters is a pretty typical stalking tactic – the only thing that's changed is that now they're emails. Hate mail can be composed easily enough and sent through a burner account or remailer, and stalkers tend to use email as an auxiliary mode of harassment. Someone facing abuse on a more public forum, like Twitter or Facebook, might not expect to find their inbox full of the same stuff – it's the nastiest of surprises.
And some stalkers really go all out with the emails, sending a torrent of tailored messages full of threats. However, even unthreatening messages can count as harassment. It's just as unpleasant to constantly receive solicitations, offensive links or images, or a flood of spam (potentially loaded with data-logging spyware), after all.
The quickest and most direct way to get in touch with someone is often via social media... and cyberstalkers are well aware of that. They can bombard their victims with DMs, comments, tags, friend requests, and more, and turn on notifications to be kept up to date with every new post or picture. The very public nature of social media can also be leveraged – how many witch hunts or 'cancellations' begin on Twitter these days? Stalkers can generate the same momentum behind unwarranted and inaccurate defamatory statements.
It's frighteningly easy to gather information about a person over social media. A determined stalker can check out the profiles of your friends or family or examine the metadata in your pictures, for example, to learn about upcoming trips or events, or other profiles belonging to the victim. And for a stalker intending to commit identity fraud, or do a bit of catfishing, social media is their go-to.
📱Texts and IMs
If a stalker knows the phone number of their victim, they can flood their mobile phone with dozens of messages a day... or even more. It's possible to send voice clips now, too, and voicemails, pictures, and links can all be used to harass an individual. Whether the stalker is trying to threaten their victim or demand their attention, texts and IMs are often the quickest way to do so. We all typically keep our phones close at hand, after all.
Just like with emails, these texts don't need to be implicitly violent to count as harassment. I'll get into what else 'counts' a bit later, but generally, if someone's texting you multiple times a day, and if it's invasive and upsetting, that can definitely be called cyberstalking.
Not all stalkers are going to go to the lengths of impersonation, but those that do can co-opt the details of their victims to defame, intimidate, and threaten them in an incredibly invasive manner.
They may take to social media, under their victim's persona, and compose embarrassing (and potentially falsified) posts that could harm their reputation at work, online or amongst friends. If they have enough details, they could even have items explicitly shipped to the victim's house or workplace, or share pictures, videos, and chat logs without their express consent.
If a stalker cooks up a fake identity and tries to strike up a relationship with their victim, it's known as catfishing. It's a classic internet scam, and a lot of stalkers catfish for monetary gain, but some set out to harass their victims, too.
By cozying up to the individual they could learn an awful lot about them; habits, work information, their location, details regarding their identity. Armed with this sensitive information, the catfisher can release it without permission, which could lead to online ostracism or a damaged reputation.
How to handle online harassment
There's obviously no quick fix here, though I wish there was, and we can't solve cross-platform harassment overnight. It's kind of inevitable at this point to come across unpleasantness on social media – either first-hand or from the outside looking in.
However, this really shouldn't be the norm, and there are a few simple steps you can take to deter the more determined creeps from wreaking havoc across your socials.
- Be savvy on social media – I might sound like your parents, but don't go handing out information that you wouldn't trust a stranger with. I'm talking full name, address, place of work, and any private social media profiles you might have.
- Check your settings – the apps and sites we use usually have customizable privacy settings that you can tweak according to preference. Take a look, and take control over who can view your profile, as well as who can send you friend requests or leave comments.
- Strengthen your passwords – this is internet safety 101, and it goes without saying that you shouldn't be using a weedy password, or the same password for multiple accounts. That's a hacking nightmare waiting to happen! Throw in some numbers and symbols into your passwords... and invest in a password manager!
- Do a mini dox – okay, this might seem counter-intuitive, seeing as we're trying to combat doxing, but running your name and handles through Google can give you a pretty good idea at what information is readily available to, well, anyone who might want to search for it.
- Block, block, block – don't be afraid to utilize the tools given to you on social media. Block users, ban them, mute them; if they're being ignorant or disruptive, you're not obliged to put up with it.
- Invest in a moderator – if you're a streamer with a growing following, it might be worth looking into getting some moderations for your chat, so they can nip any trouble-making in the bud without disrupting your session.
- Set a good example – this one's for streamers, too. The chat, and your viewers, will largely follow your lead, so it goes without saying that if you denounce harassment and do your best to stay positive, then so will they!
- Keep a log – hopefully, you won't be caught up in any cross-platform harassment, but if it happens, but sure to screenshot any correspondence and save direct links. Any DMs, texts, emails, comments, or Snapchats can be valuable evidence to present to law enforcement, and acts as a digital paper trail documenting the incidents.
It's bad enough knowing that you could run into someone combative and unpleasant on a video game... but the thought that they could, if they wanted, follow you across the net is even more unnerving.
It's isolating and humiliating, especially if you're a streamer or content creator just trying to put a little good out into the world. I'd definitely recommend running through the steps in this guide to take a proactive approach against harassment, but ultimately, it's down to game devs, social media moguls, and our governments to take a real and concerted stand against online harassment.
The sites we inhabit day-in and day-out need better moderation, and so do the games we play, and maybe that means developing more niche tools to curb targeted abuse, or opening up safety APIs. Harassment should not be something that's just kinda accepted in the video game world, and maybe that's something we ought to teach in schools.
It won't happen overnight, of course. Ultimately, what you and I can do is keep calling out abuse when we see it, keep pushing for change, and keep talking about how invasive and unacceptable this sort of harassment is.