Cyber-defamation: Cyberbullying’s Cowardly Cousin

When we think of cyberbullying, we tend to think of teenagers tapping away at their phones or computers, too young and immature to fully comprehend the impact of their words or the consequences of their actions.

The unfortunate reality is that too many adults are stooping to the same petty tactics with deliberate, malicious intent, emboldened by the anonymity and/or immunity that the cyber world can offer. As cyberbullying laws tighten, abusers are becoming more creative in how they can digitally terrorize their targets. They choose tactics that safeguard them from culpability, but inflict the same level of distress to their victims.

What is Cyber-Defamation?

Cyberbullying laws vary from place to place. Generally, cyberbullying can be defined as “the use of electronic communication to bully a person, typically by sending messages of an intimidating or threatening nature.”

Despite the strides that have been made in anti-cyberbullying legislation, what constantly slows down reform is the persistent and inaccurate perception that what happens online “doesn’t really count,” that abuse conducted in the digital world holds less weight than abuse in the real world. Yet so often cyber abuse is an extension of preexisting abuse in reality. Cyber abuse can and does emerge when the victim is no longer available to the abuser in the physical realm.

While there is still a lot more to be done in policy-making to bring cyberbullying to a complete end, by now many abusers and stalkers realize that contacting their victims directly through text, email, or the like could wind themselves in deep trouble should the victim show such evidence of harassment to the police.

To sidestep any legal accountability for their actions, abusers now resort to cyber-defamation, where they do not contact their victim in any way, but utilize social media and other online platforms to destroy their victim’s reputation. That way the abuser can relish in their online abuse with very little if any consequences.

What is Cyber-Defamation Meant to Accomplish?

Cyber-defamation is intended to accomplish three main goals for the abuser:

(1) It intends to preserve their false image by demonizing the victim.

Abusers who stoop to cyber-defamation are usually very conscientious about their own public image and view their victim as a threat to that image. From that fear of exposure cyber-defamation occurs. Once their image is on the line, these abusers take a Machiavellian approach where no act of retaliation is too cruel or vicious.

(2) It intends to damage/destroy the victim’s social support.

Isolation  is one of the most deadly weapons in the abuser’s arsenal, so if the abuser is no longer in a position to isolate their victim themselves, they must rely on others to do it for them. They will do that by spewing gross exaggerations and full-blown lies to everyone in the hope that everyone will sever their association with the victim.

(3) It continues the abuse.

Regardless of what the relationship between abuser and victim was, cyber-defamation becomes a way to continue punishing the victim, to show them that they will never be fully free of the abuser. It is the abuser’s way of saying, “You thought life was so miserable with me? Watch this!”

The Impact of Cyber-Defamation

Cyber-defamation can be just as emotionally distressing as cyber-bullying. Depending on how much the abuser’s and victim’s social circles intertwine, the abuser can wreak serious social and/or economic havoc for their victim. Their social circles may not even intersect at all, yet the abuser uses social media to track down the family, friends, co-workers and anyone else close to the victim, people they don’t know or even really care about, all with the intent to destroy the victim’s good name.

Cyber-defamation can sometimes be even worse than cyber-bullying because it is a type of abuse that does not guarantee intervention from a higher authority should the victim complain about the abuser. So often abusers try to mask their abusive rhetoric as free speech. Often a victim’s only possible recourse is a civil lawsuit for defamation, an option that is an unpractical gamble unless the victim can prove a certain degree of tangible damage beyond psychological distress. Personal accountability for cyber-defamation should also be based on the severe emotional pain brought onto the victim.

Perhaps a victim has a sympathetic social circle and their reputation is saved, but does that mean the abuser’s actions should simply be ignored? Let’s say someone tries to stab me in the back, but I turn around and prevent them from doing so. Does their failure to kill me mean that the police should just ignore the attacker’s murderous intent? Of course not.

That mentality should be applied to cyber abuse as well. Just because circumstances beyond the abuser’s control prevented them from inflicting a certain level of desired damage does not mean that their malicious online behavior should be swept under the rug.

Such antagonistic behavior should not be overlooked because it has far-reaching implications beyond mere threats to one’s reputation. Cyber-defamation goes hand-in-hand with cyber-stalking, since the abuser must keep tabs on their victim to know to whom and where they should showcase their online smear campaign.

As stated earlier, cyber-defamation can come into play when the option of abuse in reality has been removed. However, the information the abuser gathers through cyber-stalking and cyber-defamation could bring about the potential for real-life abuse in the future, which leaves the victim in a constant state of fear. No one should have to deal with the anxiety of looking over one’s shoulder until the day the abuser’s self-restraint snaps and online abuse doesn’t satisfy them anymore.

What Should Be Done?

We all need to work together to push for cyber-defamation to be classified as a cyber crime with real consequences. Without that, abusers with continue to abuse their victims gleefully.  The lack of contact between abuser and victim does not promise the absence of abuse. The abuse is real and countless people are living in fear because of it. Cyber-defamation is not free speech; it is hate speech, and it has no place in the civilized world.

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