UPDATED, Tuesday, 4:55 p.m.
Lori Stewart started her blog, This Just In, as a way of writing about gardening and sharing stories about her family. She started a program and related website, Toys for Troops, to send toys to soldiers so they could distribute them to children overseas.
All of which seems uncontroversial enough—but that did not protect Stewart from online harassment. A troll using the name JoeBob began leaving profane, vile comments on her blog, messages filled with curse words and violent fantasies about the death of her son. Stewart tried turning off comments, and JoeBob retaliated by creating an email address under her name to send anti-Semitic and homophobic comments to her friends and family. JoeBob kept up his program of harassment for seven whole years.
JoeBob’s tenacity is perhaps unusual, but online abuse isn’t. What, then, can victims like Stewart do to protect themselves? The answer is often, unfortunately, not much. The journalist Amanda Hess, for example, wrote about receiving death threats. When she called the police, the cop who showed up "anchored his hands on his belt, looked me in the eye, and said, ‘What is Twitter?’"
No doubt there are police out there who have used social media. Still, according to a recent paper from the Center on Law and Information Policy at Fordham Law School, Hess’s experience is not unusual. "Although online harassment and hateful speech is a significant problem, there are few legal remedies for victims," authors Alice Marwick and Ross Miller wrote. Victims who go to the police often find what Hess found; most law enforcement agencies have neither the resources nor the expertise to deal with harassment, and are ill-equipped to even understand the problem, much less take it seriously.