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What to do if you are a victim of online harassment

Steps that victims should consider when faced with harassment online

The rapid growth of information technology (IT) has transformed the manner in which we interact at work and socially.

Every day, we send and receive e-mails and enjoy the use of social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

It is no surprise that businesses are riding on this growing trend to increase their presence on social media to promote their products and services.

Amidst the innumerable benefits IT provides, many often overlook the myriad ever-lurking challenges that individuals and businesses face online, in particular, when dealing with cyber-bullying and harassment.

One of the key challenges comes from the sheer vastness of the Internet.

It is impossible for any individual or business to have access to all the information or content generated and shared by users online.

False statements could be posted online for a considerable length of time before being identified and brought to the attention of the targeted victim.

Secondly, the ease by which information can be disseminated on the Internet acts as a double-edged sword.

With a single click, we can share or post a statement online to a huge potential audience. Once posted, the information may be shared or commented on by others.

While this is helpful in promoting a product or service, malicious and baseless comments could negatively impact your business and reputation.

In the face of cyber-bullying and harassment, victims can challenge their perpetrators using the legal system, through both civil and criminal action.

The Protection from Harassment Act (Poha) was a timely introduction of laws intended to protect people from online defamation, harassing conduct and related anti-social behaviour.

Perpetrators in breach of Poha may face both criminal and civil penalties.

Unfortunately, many of the legal remedies available are costly, time-consuming and invasive.

Additionally, there is a lack of legal precedent in some areas, and combined with the lack of legal education, victims may find that the law does not provide the "justice" they seek.

Despite the challenges, there are several steps that victims should consider when faced with harassment online.

TAKING STEPS TO IDENTIFY THE PERPETRATOR

Most perpetrators choose to hide their true identities when engaging in wrongful conduct online.

Victims should, with caution, attempt to engage and gather more information about the perpetrator.

If e-mail or social media accounts are used, the service providers will generally disclose relevant information on the perpetrator if an order of court compels them.

FILING A REPORT WITH THE POLICE

This should be done even if there is no expectation that criminal proceedings will follow.

MANAGING THE IMMEDIATE DAMAGE CAUSED TO THE INDIVIDUAL OR BUSINESS

The longer the harassment continues, or false statements stay online, the greater the risk and damage the victim could suffer.

Carefully crafted responses to the perpetrator or on the victim's social media account to "set the record straight" may be necessary in the interim, even as legal recourse is sought.

In appropriate cases, an expedited protection order could be obtained from the court under Poha.

RECORDING PERTINENT INFORMATION AND PRESERVING VITAL EVIDENCE

Most victims tend to stop communicating with perpetrators and delete exchanged messages or social media accounts to avoid further contact.

But it is important that vital information is kept and documented within the social platform or websites.

Screenshots are also important as the perpetrator may try to delete evidence, or the service provider may remove the content.

CAREFULLY CONSIDERING WHETHER TO COMMENCE COURT PROCEEDINGS

It is important to remember that legal proceedings are usually a matter of public record and it is difficult to control the manner the media reports on the matter.

Public scrutiny may also arise as a result. In particular, if the harassment online relates to very intimate or personal matters, victims may not want to subject themselves to further embarrassment.

tnp@sph.com.sg

The writer is Senior Legal Associate, Litigation & 
Dispute Resolution, 
at Withers KhattarWong.

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