Trolled Online: What You Can Do When You’re Bullied on Social Media

Read more on the laws and legal options available if you've been trolled or bullied online.

An internet “troll” is someone who harasses others in response to the other peoples’ opinions or even just their participation online.

Trolling happens in all corners of the Internet and became a tool (or a weapon) during the 2016 presidential campaign. Most trolling occurs on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, but trolls also harass people in the comment sections of blogs and websites. People get trolled on gaming sites, and even on dating sites, so the reality is that almost anyone with a significant online presence can be targeted by a troll. Some social media sites have responded to the scourge by bolstering policies dealing with abusive content.

For example, Twitter has updated its policies, and has added reporting tools to counter trolls. Martin Shkreli, the notorious pharmaceutical company owner, is an extreme example of a troll. After journalist Lauren Duca wrote an essay critical of Donald Trump, Shkreli (a Trump supporter) launched a relentless Twitter attack on her and egged on other trolls to harass her, which they eagerly did . Twitter finally agreed to temporarily suspend Shkreli’s account after Duca pleaded (via tweets) with Twitter’s CEO to take action. Twitter also responded to pleas from the actress Leslie Jones to permanently ban Milo Yiannopoulos after he incited other trolls to harass her with racist and sexist tweets.

Most trolls are not media pariahs and most people targeted by them do not have the platform of a widely-read journalist or movie star. This isn’t to say that if you find yourself at the receiving end of a troll campaign, you are necessarily helpless.

How Prevalent Is Trolling?

According to a Pew Research Center 2014 survey, 73% of adults have observed the harassment of others online, and 40% have themselves been targeted for harassment. Trolls most frequently target young adults (18-29), 65% of whom reported that they have been trolled. Young women face particular types of trolling, including stalking (26%) and sexual harassment (25%).

Your Range of Responses

You can respond in one or more ways to a troll, depending on the situation. Some trolls are simply annoying jerks who continually hover like a gnat in your face. Some trolls make threats but are not actually dangerous. A few are stalkers and predators who intend harm. How you choose to respond depends on the nature of the trolling, the type of Internet site on which it occurs, and the level of threat presented.

While the scope of relevant criminal and civil laws is somewhat limited, there are some legal remedies that you can turn to if you are trolled.

  • Criminal laws. Trolling is not a crime under federal law. But under the laws of many states, harassment, stalking, and/or bullying are illegal. For more information, see Cyberbullying Laws by State.
  • Civil laws. When a troll uses false, disparaging language to attack a target, these acts may constitute online defamation. And, if the troll’s attack is egregiously personal and offensive, the troll may be inflicting emotional distress on the victim. These are torts, and the victim may file a civil lawsuit against the troll for damages.

The civil remedies available to a victim of an online troll vary from state to state. For more information, see Can a Cyberbullying Victim Sue for Future Damages?

Defenses

A troll may raise a First Amendment free speech defense to criminal prosecution for online comments. Such a defense is more likely to succeed when the object of the harassment is a public figure, rather than someone who has not entered the public arena.

Efforts to sue or prosecute online service providers will likely come up against protections for those entities embedded in the Communications Decency Act, which exempts the providers from liability for material posted by others. (For more information on this Act, see When Is an ISP Liable for the Acts of Its Subscribers?)

Call the Police

If a troll threatens physical violence or reveals private information that may put you at risk of harm, contact the cops.

And, if someone is posting intimate images of you without your consent, see Revenge Porn: Laws & Penalties, as well as our state-specific articles on revenge porn laws in your state.

Practical Responses to Trolling

In addition to any legal options that a person targeted by a troll may have, non-legal responses include the following.

  • Don’t feed the troll. Most trolls just want attention. You “feed” trolls by engaging with them, so if you ignore them, they sometimes give up.
  • Block them. Unfriend or block a troll, if possible. Of course, this won’t stop the troll from posting offensive comments or tweets about you, or prevent others from taking up the cudgel against you, too.
  • Report them. Report the troll to the online service. This eventually worked for Duca and Jones, and online service providers and social media companies may respond to reports. Check the site’s terms of service to see if the troll is in violation.
  • Discuss. Start a discussion of the trolling, in hopes that you’ll marshal support and inspire responses that may discourage the troll. (This, of course, “feeds” the trolls, but it might work when ignoring them doesn’t.)
  • Expose. Trolls skulk in anonymity, and may back off if exposed. You can get some information on the sites themselves. Twitter, for example, requires users to provide a name and username, which are publicly available. However, Twitter allows users to give pseudonyms. Check the privacy policy of any site in question to find out what user information is publicly available.
  • Exit. You always have the ultimate option—to exit the online site. A less extreme measure is to change one’s username and/or delete one’s profile.

Policies for Your Own Blogs and Websites

One way to take control of what’s written about you is to present your online self on your own terms—on your own website or blog. You can literally write the rules of engagement on your own site. An effective anti-harassment comment policy includes:

  • barring harassing comments
  • requiring user identities
  • reserving the right to remove and block harassing comments, and
  • prohibiting off-topic rants, user identity theft, threats, or hate speech.

Check the online tools that can help you fight trolls on your own site, such as “stealth banning” (blocks trolls or spammers) and SMC4 software (analyzes inbound communication), among others.

Keep Your Perspective

Most trolls are just low-risk blow-hards. Mud-slinging is part of public engagement and the internet is no exception--vigorous give-and-take is the point of the “marketplace of ideas.” Not all aggressive dissent or criticism is trolling, but there is no bright line. Be aware that you assume some risk of push-back when you enter the public cyber-square.

Questions for Your Lawyer

  • Are the comments I’ve shown you egregious enough to justify filing a civil lawsuit for defamation?
  • I became a bit of a public figure when I intervened in a fight and it got written up in the press. I’ve since been trolled. Did my Good Samaritan act deprive me of my “private” citizen advantage when it comes to defamation claims?
  • How can I show that the website where “my” troll posts his dirty remarks knows full well that they are there? Once they review what’s posted on their site, aren’t they complicit?

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