USA WEEKEND columnist Steven Petrow offers advice about digital etiquette.
Like just about everyone I know, I was really upset to hear the news about Robin Williams' death. But what happened to his poor daughter after that was almost as bad. Zelda Williams had to quit her Twitter account after anonymous posters pretty much bullied her right off the Internet. I've seen it lots of times, where people come out of the woodwork to post the most awful things. If a celebrity's not safe from attack, how can regular people protect themselves?
— Name withheld
Like you, my heart broke when I heard about Robin Williams' suicide. But when I heard how the Internet trolls were harassing his daughter, I got angry. For those who missed the details (and the devil is in these details), Zelda Williams was quickly inundated with horrifying photos purported to be her father – showing bruises around his neck. In a smart move, she decided to quit Twitter, but not before tweeting:
"I'm sorry. I should've risen above. Deleting this from my devices for a good long time, maybe forever. Time will tell. Goodbye."
It's true that we often see headlines about celebrities being attacked online but it's "regular people" (especially tweens and teens) who are most often victims of these anonymous and cowardly attacks. Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, explained to me: "The Internet has broken down barriers to information and human connection that once isolated youth from the world and identities around them. One of the downsides to our new digital world is the potential for cyberbullying," which can include stalking as well as rape and death threats.
How can we protect ourselves? A Twitter spokesperson said the company is "expanding our policies regarding self-harm and private information, and improving support for family members of deceased users." That's a good first step.
In the meantime, if attacked by anonymous individuals or mobs:
Don't respond. If they don't get your attention, they're more likely to move on.
Block them. Facebook and most other social media services allow for easy blocking.
Report them. Either to site administrators or to your local police.
Protect others. Let them know they're not alone and pass along these guidelines.
Do not be shamed. Tell your friends and relatives what you're experiencing and ask for their support.
Delete your account. While this may be a last resort, your psychological and physical safety should always come before social-media connectivity.
Read more of Steven Petrow's Your Digital Life columns here. Submit your to Steven at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow Steven on Twitter @StevenPetrow and like him on Facebook at facebook.com/stevenpetrow.