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Updated Dec 20, 2023

How to Handle Social Media Harassment

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Max Freedman, Business Operations Insider and Senior Analyst

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Online confrontation can be stressful and challenging. However, in an ever-increasingly connected world, experiencing internet harassment is a distinct possibility. With billions of people on numerous social media channels, online harassment can happen to anyone and could even, ultimately, impact your offline safety. If you or your business are the target of social media harassment, this guide can help you take the appropriate steps to put this chapter behind you.

What defines social media harassment?

Social media harassment refers to several antagonistic behaviors practiced by social media users. Cyberbullying is a similar term. However, cyberbullying is more associated with children. In contrast, social media harassment affects people of all ages. Social media harassment can also affect small businesses with a social media presence on Instagram or other platforms and can have serious consequences if not handled correctly.

Harassment on social media is unique because online communication creates a disconnect between the subject and the harasser. People are often unlikely to insult someone in person but feel emboldened when they have a screen that distances them from their target.

Businesses are particularly vulnerable to social media harassment because companies must be on specific platforms to interact with customers and partners. For example, consumers may leave negative customer reviews on a business’s social media platforms or use the comments section or direct messaging channels to complain if the company’s products or services fall short of their expectations. An escalating onslaught of negative communications, especially over an extended period, would constitute harassment.

If an irate user launches an attack on the company, the brand may face severe repercussions, including reputational damage and lost business. Deleting a social media account may not be an option for many companies that use online platforms like Facebook for business. They often rely on social channels to promote their products and services and communicate with customers. Therefore, business owners must learn the proper tactics for handling social media harassment.

Did You Know?Did you know

According to Statista, about 41 percent of United States adults report experiencing online harassment, from offensive name-calling to physical threats.

What steps should you take if you’re the target of social media harassment?

Clarissa Windham-Bradstock, chief executive officer of Any Lab Test Now, advised taking the following steps if you become the target of social media harassment:

  • Save screenshots of everything to use as evidence: Social media harassment often happens in your direct messages where the public can’t see it. When you screenshot these private interactions, you prove they happened. Although publicly sharing these screenshots may not be tactful, saving them helps you amass evidence.
  • Notify social media outlets that someone is using your name inappropriately: You can easily report personal and business accounts on most social media platforms. For example, on Instagram, any post in your feed will include three dots at the top right. When you select these dots, you can report a post and its account. You’ll typically be asked why you’re reporting the post or account as you submit your report.
  • Use social media channels to connect with decision-makers: A harassed business account may face escalating negative reviews and comments and the risk of account removal. Your reputation, sales volume and livelihood are at risk. For this reason, it’s crucial to combat the harassment with a social media content strategy that resonates with the people most likely to buy your products or services. Ask yourself: What messaging can you share to showcase your prowess, knowledge and strengths when harassment threatens your reputation?

Consider hiring an online reputation management service to keep your business well-regarded in the eyes of consumers amid social media harassment.

Additional tips on dealing with social media harassment

Managing online harassment is challenging because you’re not dealing with the perpetrator directly. Therefore, handling social media harassment must be more nuanced than managing in-person confrontations.

Here are a few tips for businesses forced to handle social media harassment.

1. Don’t engage with social media harassment perpetrators.

It’s a natural human instinct to defend yourself when being attacked. But in the realm of the internet, firing back at an abuser is like adding oxygen to a wildfire. By engaging with their insults or threats, you are giving them what they want. Therefore, whenever possible, it’s best to stay silent and not risk escalating a situation.

2. Neutralize the situation with positivity.

If you’re being harassed to the point where silence is not an option, try engaging with the aggressor positively. For example, instead of getting defensive, offer something constructive. There are smart ways to respond to online reviews, even negative ones.

For example, if the harasser says something like, “Your brand is awful,” reply with, ‘I’m sorry you had a negative experience. Let us know how we can improve in the future.'” 

Expressing empathy may defuse the situation because it’s harder to attack someone trying to put their best foot forward.

3. Share how you feel about the social media harassment.

It may be easy to say that it’s “just Facebook” or “it’s only a troll,” but that doesn’t negate the emotional impact of social media harassment. Know that it’s perfectly OK to feel frustrated, isolated or anxious about the harassment you’re facing. Online life is very much real life as well. So, if you’re feeling stressed, talk to a friend or a professional to help work through your feelings.

4. Shore up your passwords and cybersecurity measures. 

Your private information may be published online if you’re being harassed on social media. This can include information like the passwords to your social media accounts and your home address. You can take several steps to combat this issue. 

First, check the health of your online accounts: If you haven’t changed your password in a long time or have very easy-to-guess credentials, now is the time to create a strong password ― one that’s impossible to guess. Additionally, consider turning on two-factor authentication, which requires you to verify your identity via a texted code or authenticator application before gaining access to your account. 

Did You Know?Did you know

It’s also helpful to take other steps to secure your devices, such as implementing security apps and virtualization.

5. Report the social media harassment situation.

If all else fails and the harassment gets to be too much, don’t hesitate to block the account and file a report through the proper channels. Every social media platform has a procedure for reporting users who violate the company’s code of conduct.

The company may take a few days to do its due diligence. However, if the situation is quickly escalating, contact support ― they may offer a helpful solution in many cases.

If anyone online threatens your property or safety, consider reporting it to the police in addition to the social media platform. Although they may not be able to take action on the report, this creates a paper trail so that you have formal documentation if the social media harassment escalates.

File a report with the police district where your business and home are located and include all documentation of the cyberharassment or cyberstalking. If you have evidence of the perpetrator’s identity, file a restraining order because you don’t know when that person might take the harassment offline.

What is an example of social media harassment?

Cyberbullying and online harassment aren’t just the domain of high school kids and spurned ex-lovers. It can happen to your company too. And although social media is likely an integral part of your business marketing plan, unpleasant ramifications like social media harassment may ensue.

Windham-Bradstock discovered firsthand just how bad it could get.

A hostile former franchisee and vendor whose services Any Lab Test Now had stopped using began cyberstalking and cyber harassing Windham-Bradstock in an apparent attempt to make her and the company look bad. The man began by posting negative comments about her and Any Lab Test Now on an open internet forum.

Next, friends and colleagues received friend requests from a Facebook profile bearing the same picture as Windham-Bradstock but with a slightly different name. The fake profile included her home address, children’s names and pictures of her children.

Windham-Bradstock said she thought she could distinguish her actual profile from the profile created by the perpetrator by changing her profile picture. But he kept updating the fake profile with the new picture.

The perpetrator then used the fake profile to say bad things about her, Any Lab Test Now and some of its franchisees. He also implied that Windham-Bradstock had inappropriate relationships with other company executives. Later, he put up another fake Facebook profile under a different name.

People asked Windham-Bradstock why she didn’t just delete her Facebook profile and get offline entirely. Windham-Bradstock explained that if she deleted her profile, it would have left the harasser as the only image of herself and her brand online, letting him win and leaving her looking bad to the world.

Did You Know?Did you know

Windham-Bradstock experienced “doxing,” which is the discovery and publication of personal details online for the world to see. While doxing itself is not illegal, it may fall under stalking and harassment laws, depending on where you live and the degree of harassment.

Emerging on the other side of social media harassment

Although almost all social media harassment eventually blows over, it’s entirely unpleasant to experience. Plus, it has highly negative business consequences. However, take the steps outlined in this article and you’ll counter many of these effects. The internet may not quite be real life but, like beyond the screen, when people know you’re being harassed, they might take your side.

Stella Morrison contributed to this article.

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Max Freedman, Business Operations Insider and Senior Analyst
Max Freedman has spent nearly a decade providing entrepreneurs and business operators with actionable advice they can use to launch and grow their businesses. Max has direct experience helping run a small business, performs hands-on reviews and has real-world experience with the categories he covers, such as accounting software and digital payroll solutions, as well as leading small business lenders and employee retirement providers. Max has written hundreds of articles for Business News Daily on a range of valuable topics, including small business funding, time and attendance, marketing and human resources.
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