Cyber Stalking Is Too Easy
New laws were supposed to make it simpler to prosecute stalkers, but that hasn't been the case.
Photo: Chloe Orefice
I always imagined that if I ever had a stalker it would be kind of like the movies. Walls covered in pictures of me, some kind of hair-based shrine. Something resembling the music video for Mariah Carey's "Obsessed", essentially. Instead, it's entirely social media-based and incredibly emotionally exhausting.
I dated this guy for a while and it didn't end brilliantly, but we came to a mutual agreement to never contact each other again. When we were going out I followed him on Instagram, but when we broke up I blocked him so he couldn't see my posts. He realised and made a new Instagram account to like and unlike my pictures, until I blocked that one too. On this went: new account after new account. And he didn't try to hide it – he used a variation of his own name each time.
It wouldn't have been that out of the ordinary if he'd just wanted to have a peep at what I was doing, maybe slyly checking my account on a friend's phone. But it wasn't about that. It was about letting me know that I can't escape him, that it's not up to me whether he's in or out of my life.
My feelings about his behaviour were initially confused. "Stalking" is a standard piece of social media vocabulary; it's just one of those things people do: scroll through a guy they fancy's pics, check out what an ex is up to. The kind of stalking that's not a criminal offence. But this was more than that; it felt like dictionary definition stalking. Only, equate someone following you on Instagram to someone standing outside your house every day and feels like you're overstating the problem.
The fact his behaviour took place online rather than in real life didn't give me any comfort. I still felt on edge every time I got a notification, every time I had to block another new account, only for a new follow request to appear. Still, I wondered if it was just something I had to put up with.
According to the police officer I spoke to about it, it can be classified as stalking. In 2012, stalking both IRL and URL was made a crime. The new law defined stalking as "persistent and unwanted attention that makes you feel pestered or harassed". Prior to that, stalkers were dealt with under more lenient harassment laws, allowing them to get off lightly much of the time.
Yet even with the change in the law, very little has changed. Amber Rudd trumpeted a new National Online Hate Crime Hub, which aimed to ensure that stalking and harassment was taken seriously. Then she showed how seriously she took it by investing just £200,000 in the programme, which amounts to around £3 per incident.
One of the issues is that there are still many legal grey areas when it comes to stalking. Tamanna, was harassed online throughout university on all social platforms and email, also went to the police for help. When she made the report, she remembers the police saying "they didn't have time to deal with it, even though I had screenshots and video recordings".
She also reported her harassers to Twitter and Facebook, but just received a generic response telling her they would look into it. "You'd think they would take it seriously, but they don't."
Earlier this year the Digital Economy Act passed into law. It introduced a social media code of conduct, which hopes to ensure that social platforms actually address online intimidation. It covers bullying and any other tactics used to humiliate, but it's not yet clear how it is going to be enforced and what role companies like Facebook and Instagram will play. Tamanna hopes to see social platforms becoming "harsher and stricter if someone reports [harassment], and not giving a bog standard response".
When I reported the online stalking, police told me to make sure I had screenshots so there was evidence that it was happening often, but once I'd collected all this information they pretty much said it was useless. If my stalker denied harassing me, they said, they probably wouldn't be able to do anything. IP addresses are the easiest way for the police to identify who is behind the accounts, but as most are created on phones, which can have constantly changing IP addresses, you're back to square one.
The only other advice the police left me with was to delete all my social media: then he wouldn't be able to find me. But because I freelance as a model and get most of my work via social media, it would affect my livelihood. Besides, why should I? I like Instagram.
Around 94 percent of stalking victims have to make major changes to their lives, including changing their appearance or career because of stalking, according to a 2005 study by the University of Leicester. However, a permanent social media detox isn't always a perfect solution, because only 4 percent of stalking takes place exclusively online. Leah's harassment started online after she broke up with her boyfriend, but soon became tangible.
"I blocked him on WhatsApp, Facebook and his email, but then I started getting a postcard every two weeks at my new address," she told me. "They were by my favourite artist, but he had left them blank, apart from my name and address."
The ex-boyfriend had researched her address and later told her, from a newly created email account, that she should make it harder to find her address if she didn't want it to happen. "It got to a point where, anytime I heard from him, I was on high alert," says Leah of the affect the ordeal had on her mental health.
Like many victims of online harassment, Leah thought her situation was too low level for the police to get involved: "It just didn't seem serious enough. Before I spoke to the Samaritans, I wouldn't have even coined it as [stalking], although that's how I felt – harassed and anxious." This is regularly the case, especially as even when cases are reported to police, only 8 percent of recorded harassment is registered as a crime, according to a report by the GLA.
Leah also feared that anything she did may have a knock-on effect to her ex's mental health: "I also felt responsible for him as a person. If I push him too far then he might hurt himself." This is a recurring theme: the stalking checklist that highlights potential tell-tale behaviour of a stalker includes the perpetrator threatening suicide if contact isn't made.
Leah explained why she ended up seeking a legal route, which led to her sending a cease and desist letter: "My lawyer explained that this behaviour could escalate and the letter would be good for evidence if I ever did decide to go to the police."
Along with ensuring all your details are secure, collecting any evidence is crucial if you want to stand more of a chance of stopping your stalker. There's a new app in development for "medium risk" stalking victims, which records messages and audio or visual recordings, as well as their metadata, to help gather more information about the stalker.
As of now, there aren't many statistics on cyberstalking specifically, mainly because so little research has been conducted. The National Centre for Cyberstalking Research wants to change that, and invites victims of online harassment to share their experiences in the hopes that more can be done to combat it.
It's likely that one day my ex will just get bored – it's been a couple of weeks since he last tried to contact me. But for now, all I can do is keep screenshotting and blocking.
Some names were changed to protect identities