Monday, November 24, 2014

(Series Piece 7) Anna Kavanaugh - Syndicated Columnist. Column - Cyber Abuse: The Virtual Violent Crime

Written by: Anna Kavanaugh, Syndicated Columnist
Published for syndication by: The Global Institute for Cyber Safety and Standards

Most of us do not want to see it. Who would? Most of us do not want to call it out for what it really is. Why would we? Once we do, we then become socially accountable and can no longer enjoy the luxury of turning a blind eye to the suffering of others without betraying our conscience and disregarding our moral compass. That can be an overwhelming and helpless feeling, and a heavy cross to bear. It is much easier to pretend it’s not really there or that we are none the wiser to it. Still, once seen, it cannot be unseen. It is there, waiting conspicuously in the middle of the room to see if and when we will do something about it. Will we?

Cyber-slaughter. And yes, it is just as bloody a business as it sounds. Victims of all ages and both genders continue to die at an alarming and increasing rate. When we contemplate the number of attempted and fulfilled suicides that can be confirmed as consequential tragedies resulting from the virtual violent crime of cyber-abuse, and then add to that number even a reserved projection of all those we cannot confirm but can reasonably conclude are happening, the reality is staggering. That’s a lot of blood on the hands. But, whose hands?

If we are to manifest change in legislation, law enforcement, legal precedent, and operating standards of online accountability and social decency in the virtual realm, we must first define the conversation that will lead us there. There is much confusion in understanding how to distinguish one set of victim circumstances from another. Every cyber-abuse case can be measured on a continuum. They all begin somewhere, meander into the middle, and then ultimately reach an inevitable finality. Each instance differs in degree and has its own anatomy of factors that will determine how far to either end of the spectrum it will go, and whether it may result in suicide or recovery. The constant is the distinct and predictable pattern seen in abuser initiation and escalation, in contrast to the unpredictable responses and level of psychological trauma seen in either victim resistance or submission.

When we talk about virtual violent crime, it is important to understand how it is distinguished as such, and how it varies from other forms of online cruelty. Among the most commonly used terms to describe various virtual offenses are cyber-bullying and trolling. Both of these can result in extreme damage to both the life and psychological well-being of a victim. Cyber-bullying is often still thought of as an issue affecting children and adolescents whereby “bullies” bombard their victim with a cruel but reckless infliction of public humiliation and severe emotional distress. Trolling, on the other hand, is a non-specific and non-personal form of abuse that is more about the interaction between the trolls themselves than it is about their victims. It is an odious version of competitive gaming and an almost ritualistic popularity contest in which those who behave the most offensively are awarded the highest honors in status and earn virtual “street cred” among their peers. Most trolls have no particular interest in, or real hostility toward, the victims they use.

The virtual violent crime of cyber-abuse or “kill campaign” is something different altogether. Cyber-abuse is an umbrella term describing the pathology of abusers and the calculated methods and manipulations they use to carry out a malicious campaign aimed at a specifically targeted individual. A campaign is devised to hurt, harm, humiliate, and destroy that individual in every way possible. The intention is to kill a victim, leading to either a figurative or literal result. To do this, abusers will arm their assault with every tactic they can contrive. Their arsenal often includes illegality and their most commonly deployed weapons are privacy invasion, data theft, harassment, cyber-stalking, threats, intimidation, psychological terrorism, public humiliation, social engineering, mobbing, the planting of false realities and blatant lies on various websites, social networks and in search engine results, and going to extreme lengths to pry into the personal life of an individual in search of anything they can manipulate, warp out of context, or interpret as a possible blemish to then cause further harm, humiliation or damage to their victim by exploiting it. A cyber-abuse campaign is a twisted, delusional and illegal process of deliberate demolition wherein an online abuser makes nefarious use of the public reach and exposure of the internet to dismantle another human being. Abusers derive gleeful pleasure and experience a drug-like high as they feed their demented need to inflict the maximum amount of pain and suffering on their target prey.

Once you look past the barbaric cruelty, dirty tricks and predictable cloak and daggers an abuser will use to serve their motivations, cyber-slaughter is not particularly complex and is easy to detect. For the most part, it all looks fairly similar to what you might expect to see in a brutal assault carried out in the physical realm. First, a cyber-abuser will stalk their prey to size them up and plan their attack. When they are ready, they will hit their victim with a cowardly sucker punch out of left field. This is how they strike first, and they do so with such intentional force their victim sustains immediate and debilitating wounds. The victim is then hemorrhaging in a state of shock where they are unable to react or defend themselves as they are rendered defenselessly incapacitated. The assault continues as the cyber-abuser pummels their victim with relentless poundings. They do this so the victim cannot catch their breath, get their bearings, stand, or even pull themselves to their knees.

But as it is human nature, a victim will likely at some stage begin to rise after a certain amount of time has passed and the shock has subsided. Life does have to go on, even when under attack. This is when the abuser will batter their victim with shattering emotional blows in desperation to knock them face down and flat once again. Should the victim continue to rise, the abuser becomes angry and their frustration evident. They then up the ante and escalate from general assault and ridicule by posturing a position of intimidation, threat, and omnipotent control by publicizing a victim’s personal information, stolen data, or exploiting what they perceive to be potential insecurities about them. This process plays out until the victim has somehow managed to either overcome the trauma and emotional debilitation to reclaim their life, or they succumb to the excruciating and soul-destroying damage inflicted upon them to the point they seek desperate relief from the unbearable pain in the fulfillment of suicide.

Yes, cyber-slaughter is a bloody business and with a staggering number of victim suicides, that’s a lot of blood on the hands. But again, whose hands?

Is it on the cyber-abusers who devise vicious campaigns of deliberate demolition and aim to kill? Yes.

Is it on the law enforcement agencies and legislators who fail to protect victims? Yes.

Is it on the architects and builders of the virtual online world and its websites, forums and social media networks, who pass the buck by blaming third party content while enabling abusers to hide behind claims of free speech as they administer the most vitriolic abuse? And who allow their platforms to be exploited and used as weapons to kill? Yes.

Is it on the bystanders whose silence empowers cyber-abusers by conveying approval that condones their behavior? Yes.

Is it on the search engines, like Google and Bing, who allow the names of victims to appear in auto-suggest menus with unsubstantiated defamatory terms that propagate as abusers continue to type them in or click on them to maintain their presence? Yes. Imagine if you no longer existed in the public domain for who you really are and what you really do, and were replaced with a false reality of someone you are not and things you did not do. Imagine typing your name into a search engine and nothing indicating your business, hard work, organizations, clubs, accomplishments, etc., appears in the auto-suggestions. Instead, your name appears only with reputation tarnishing and life destroying terms such as “pedophile,” “rapist,” “child molester,” “schizophrenic,” “impostor,” “scammer,” “fraud,” “prison,” “criminal,” “kidnapper,” and so forth.

Any of these things are enough to make a victim want to die, and too often, they do.

So to all those responsible, whoever they may be, hear this. When they lower the latest victim of cyber-slaughter into the cold, dark ground, the rest of us will know it was you who put them there. And no matter how deep you bury your hands in your cold, dark pockets, we will still see the blood that stains them. If you cannot face the families and friends of the victims left destroyed, then wash your hands by taking personal, legal, or corporate accountability, and from this moment forward keep them clean. Do what you can, whoever you are and whatever your position, to bring this virtual violent crime to an end. Help ensure that nobody else is ever hurt or humiliated so badly in the public domain they are driven to die. And if you still don’t know what to do, let me simply ask you this…

What if it were you? What if it were someone you love?

No one has the right to abuse the internet to abuse you. No one has the right to rewrite who you are. Cyber-abuse kills. Doing the right thing is not a choice. It is a responsibility.

Heal, do not harm. And be kind online.


  1. Uncomfortable to read. The sheer brutality of cyber-slaughter as you so well put it is ultra scary and maddening but this perspective is motivating to those of us who want to see this senseless online violence wiped out for good. I'm on board whatever I can do!

  2. The nitty gritty of it makes me cringe when phrased this way, as it should everyone. Human nature has a nasty side the internet exposes in people keen on abuse.