Harassment Online – You don’t have to put up with it

Harassment online | SD Law Blog


Barely a day goes by without some new scandal or harrassment making the rounds on social media. Usually it involves a celebrity and is generally an exaggerated account of a minor social gaffe. It is soon made to go away by the celeb’s PR team and life goes on. It’s just one of the risks of being in the public eye. But sometimes … in fact all too often … ordinary private individuals also fall victim to this sort of public humiliation.

Some of you may remember Monica Lewinsky. She was an ordinary person who got caught up in an extraordinary set of circumstances just at the beginning of the digital revolution. Fortunately social media had not yet been invented but she was still vilified worldwide thanks to the internet and received unprecedented (at the time) hate email which nearly drove her to suicide. She talks about the effects of that and calls for a much more compassionate approach to internet reporting in this moving TED talk.

A new and vicious form of bullying

Unsurprisingly online harassment happens most often to young people, the generation that has embraced the digital revolution with the most fervour; but those over the age of 25 are not immune to its devastating effects. Think of the vengeful ex who posts nude photos of the previous partner online in order to cause pain and embarrassment.

Perhaps the worst type of electronic harassment is cyber bullying, which the Cyber Bullying Research Centre defines as: “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices”. Put very simply, “cyber bullying is when someone repeatedly makes fun of another person online or repeatedly picks on another person through e-mail or text message or when someone posts something online about another person that they don’t like.”

Trolls don’t just lurk under the bridge any more

While anyone of any age can be a victim of cyber bullying, the term tends to refer to the behaviour of adolescents, and there are far too many tragic examples of teens who have taken their own lives, unable to withstand the onslaught of cyber venom. With adults the term ‘internet troll’ is more common, and defines slightly different activities. New Zealand recently became one of the first countries to enact legislation specifically outlawing harmful digital communications. Under the Harmful Digital Communications Act which came into effect in July, anyone convicted of “causing harm by posting digital communication” faces two years in prison and a NZ $50,000 (R440,000) fine, while businesses face fines of up to NZ $200,000 (R1.76m). Harmful communications can include truthful as well as false information, and “intimate visual recordings” such as nude or seminude pictures or video content shared without permission.

Protection under the law

Here in South Africa we don’t yet have an equivalent law specifically referring to digital harassment, but the Protection from Harassment Act 2011 covers electronic as well as physical harassment. The Act also includes sexual harassment but it is important to note that other forms of harassment are equally damaging and protection is available under the law if you are suffering from bullying or character sabotage in cyber space. The Protection from Harassment Act 2011 defines harassment as:

“… directly or indirectly engaging in conduct that the respondent knows or ought to know –

(a) causes harm or inspires the reasonable belief that harm may be caused to the

complainant or a related person by unreasonably –

(i) following. watching. pursuing or accosting of the complainant or a related person, or loitering outside of or near the building or place where the complainant or a related person resides, works, carries on business, studies or happens to be;

(ii) engaging in verbal, electronic or any other communication aimed at the

complainant or a related person, by any means, whether or not conversation ensues;

(iii) sending, delivering or causing the delivery of letters, telegrams, packages, facsimiles, electronic mail or other objects to the complainant or a related person or leaving them where they will be found by, given to or brought to the attention of the complainant or a related person;

(b) amounts to sexual harassment of the complainant or a related person”

(Italics ours for emphasis.)

Tips to help you stay safe from digital harassment

If you are being relentlessly targeted with abuse on social media or via email you can apply for a protection order under the provisions of the Act. We can help you do that. But there is a lot you can do to keep yourself safe online. The website www.bullying.co.uk offers the following tips for staying safe on Twitter and other sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, etc.:

  • Never give out your real address, or any personal details – remember everything you say can be open to the world
  • Never give out your password – also be extra careful when you sign into Twitter or Facebook through other websites. (Some are scams trying to find out your log-in details!)
  • Think before you Tweet or post to Facebook – anyone can see what you say unless you make your profile private. On Facebook if a friend replies to your post their friends will also be able to see your posts. To avoid this, go to settings and ensure that only friends can see your posts, not friends of friends
  • Don’t follow back people you don’t know – this can help protect you against Direct Message spam. You can still talk publicly using @replies
  • Go private – if you don’t want the world to see everything you say on Twitter make your profile private; the option is in your settings. That way only people you follow back will be able to see your updates. Your tweets will also be hidden from the public search as well
  • Pictures and other media – as with any internet service be careful what you post; it’s really easy to post pictures or video but take care not to post anything that could embarrass you later or get you or anyone else into trouble. So think twice about those drunk photos from last night’s party – you don’t want a future employer finding them!

If all else fails, contact us

If you are not sure if behaviour you are experiencing is classed as harassment, we can review your situation and advise you of your rights. If you are the victim of cyber bullying, internet trolls or other online defamation, we can arrange a protection order against your assailant. Contact Simon on +27 87 550 2740 or simon@sdlaw.co.za today for more information or to make an appointment. Don’t suffer in silence. The law is there to protect you.


Simon Dippenaar | SD Law Cape Town


Simon Dippenaar has a BBusSc LLB degree and Professional Diploma in Legal Practice from the University of Cape Town, and is an admitted attorney of the High Court of South Africa. He is the founder and director of private legal practice, Simon Dippenaar & Associates, with offices in Cape Town and Gauteng representing South African and international clients.

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