So, more about avoiding internet harassment. In part one of this series I advised you not to use guestbooks on your web site and to be careful about which chat rooms you use. Part two discussed instant messaging programs. Now we’ll talk about unmoderated forums.
Whether it’s a newsgroup or a web-based discussion board, participating any forum might expose you to posts that you won’t like. In unmoderated forums, though, you won’t have any recourse no matter how offensive the messages might be.
Use filters in newsgroups, and use PGP to make it difficult to believably forge posts from you—but grow a thick skin to deal with nasty posts, as well. As far as web-based discussion boards go, I wouldn’t personally post to any that don’t use unique, verifiable user IDs (with passwords, of course) for each user and have good anti-harassment policies which they enforce. In my experience, Yahoo is absolutely shameful about not enforcing their policies—they seldom even respond to complaints with anything but an autoresponse form letter. I suggest that anyone concerned about harassment avoid their message boards, online games, chat venues and messenger client. While Delphi seems to be better about giving forum managers tools to keep out known trolls, they don’t seem to take much real action against users who violate their policies. I’ve yet to receive any reports of problems from people using Six Degrees but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been problems.
There are certain people referred to as "trolls" who apparently live to upset people. They don’t necessarily even hold the opinions they express in their own messages—they say whatever is most likely to annoy and disrupt those in a particular forum. So they’ll come into soc.support.fat-acceptance or alt.support.big-folks and tell everyone to go on a diet, or pop into soc.religion.pagan claiming that they’re trying to convert all the Wiccans to Christianity, or go into alt.support.childfree claiming that anybody who doesn’t want children is a sick pervert. I have, in fact, seen the same troll posting in abortion and anti-abortion forums, just to get people riled up. They often like to cross-post discussion threads between two such antithetical newsgroups, then sit back and watch the flames roar. Don’t respond to trolls. Don’t give them feedback. Report them privately to their ISPs if you must, but it’s usually a waste of time and effort. Even if they say nasty things in direct response to your own posts, they aren’t necessarily harassing you—it is likely that you are a target of opportunity.
If you can’t deal with trolls, only participate in moderated forums. If you aren’t sure as to whether or not a particular forum is moderated, ask whoever is in charge of it.
If you’re concerned about harassment in general, there’s much more information to be found on WHOA’s Staying Safe Online page.
As you’re getting to know someone online, you need to be very careful about the information you make available to him or her. If you’re considering meeting someone in person after getting to know him or her online, there are other considerations—enough so that I had to put them in another article. Check for it tomorrow.
Originally published December 12, 2000