Social networking sites give trolls the ability to hide their real identity and cause grief to others. Here is what you need to do if you face an online attack.

Though social networks were not designed with the intention of letting someone anonymously abuse another online, the reality is that people utilize the ability to hide behind online identities to threaten other users. These could be veiled attacks, direct abuse, or even threats to cause bodily harm”.

What can you do if you’re trolled and threatened on any social network? Follow our five-step guide.

Avoid conversation if you can

The responses could come in relation to something you may have just posted online. Or perhaps it could be just a random trolling attempt, to get a response from you. It is important to understand and identify such intentions. And as difficult as it may be, do not respond. Getting into a direct interaction with a bully only makes things worse.

Report to the social network

You should report any instance of cyber bullying or harassment to the host social network — the website or forum on which the interaction happened. There are various methods of getting in touch with the moderators — customer support email, contact submission forms or even via phone, in certain locations. Describe the problem in detail, and persist till the offending account is blocked from the platform.

Most social networks have systems that allow you to report abusive content and users. However, there is great variance in the speed with which they respond across different platforms, jurisdictions, etc.,” says Sunil Abraham, executive director at the Bangalore-based non-profit research organization Centre for Internet and Society. New Delhi-based Anja Kovacs, project director, at civil society organization Internet Democracy Project, adds: Blocking and reporting an account can be two ways to stop harassment on some social networks, but on other platforms, such as Twitter, it is possible for the person to immediately make a new account under a different username, meaning that these measures do not necessarily stop the harassment.”

Ankhi Das, director, public policy, India and South Asia at social network Facebook, says: Every reported piece of content is reviewed. Serial offenders are notified for non-compliance.” Facebook’s Community Standards, that prevent harassment and offensive posts, have an 11-point categorization for reported content — violence and threats, hate speech, graphic content, bullying and harassment, to name some.

Raheel Khursheed, head of news, politics and government at Twitter India, did not respond to our mail about how Twitter handles trolls at the time of going to press.

On blogs and forums, it may be a bit easier to deal with trolling and abuse. If it is your own blog, you can delete comments and block users. If it is a forum, the administrator can do it for you. But, with social networks having millions of users, it is not possible to have one administrator managing it all. And it is not just Facebook and Twitter, all social networks have a method by which you can register your complaint. LinkedIn, for example, automatically blocks a user who gets multiple I don’t know” responses to invitations to connect. There is a strong monitoring policy where any reported content (recommendations or direct messages) is examined and immediate warnings are sent out to offending parties.

Keep a copy of the offensive posts

Be it a post, or a series of posts, direct message or even an offending photograph, always save it for future reference. Never assume that the matter will end soon, and always prepare for the worst.

Don’t ignore privacy settings

Most people start using Facebook, Twitter and other social networks without paying much attention to the privacy settings — what content people can see on your page, and who can directly contact you. Be conservative in sharing information — the less you share, the lower the chances of someone picking on you. Avoid friending or linking to people whom you don’t know in real life unless you are certain of the chain of trust that exists between you and the unknown person,” says Abraham. New Delhi-based cyber lawyer Apar Gupta, adds: The privacy settings on most social networking platforms allow users to prevent (restrict) the audience for their posts as well as strangers from contacting them. This will prevent most cases of online harassment.”

Get help from the law

In case social networks are not able to effectively block a user, or are in some way unwilling to do so, take help from the law-enforcement authorities. File an FIR in the nearest police station. Unfortunately, the progress may not be very smooth. The reality is that not every law-enforcement officer may know about social networking sites. You could try and go to the police, but without support from the social network platform, they are often at a loss to do much themselves,” warns Kovacs.

The police may look for hints of threat to cause bodily harm or worse still, to life. In such cases, they may recommend the case to the Cyber Crime Cell of the Central Bureau of Investigation. Generally, while the substantive offences do exist under law, the process for having them enforced is deficient. These are deeper structural problems of delay, investigation and conviction which are prevalent across criminal justice or civil litigation,” clarifies Gupta. Officials at the Cyber Crime Cell say they take up cases after reference from the local police, who file the report first and do a preliminary level of investigation.

But it is important to realize that only the police and the law-enforcement agencies have the right to demand further details about the perpetrator from the social networks, starting with profile details and Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, which will help track the person down. Das clarifies: Facebook has a point-of-contact system through which the law-enforcement agencies tell us what the actual case is, depending on severity. The police may ask us to take down particular content, or even ask for user information like IP info, to prevent real crime.”

According to Facebook’s Government Requests Report for July-December 2013, the network restricted access to 4,765 pieces of content after requests from the Indian government and law-enforcement agencies.

Originally published in LiveMint.