Online harassment targets strike back against abusers. Will it work?

The new network's premise is that targets can help other targets. Could this be the next step to preventing and dealing with online abuse? 

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

People suffering online abuse now have a lifeline.

Crash Override, billed as an “online harassment task force,” is a private network of experts in such fields as law, information security, public relations, law enforcement, threat monitoring, and counseling – all of whom are on-call to assist and support victims of online harassment.

The site, which went live this month, is run by game developer Zoe Quinn and producer Alex Lifschitz, both of whom have been heavily harassed online. Ms. Quinn was the first target of Gamergate, a movement that styles itself as a voice for ethics in video game journalism but which has come to be defined by its vicious anti-feminist harassment campaign.

As Gamergate unfolded, both Quinn and Mr. Lifschitz received death threats and insults and had personal information published online.

Through Crash Override, the co-founders hope to provide professional advice from people who have experienced it about protecting oneself from online harassment, “especially when the responses from both Internet platforms and law enforcement tend to be either inadequate or nonexistent,” Wired reported.

Most states have laws against cyberstalking and online harassment, but confusion over jurisdiction – what category of law was violated, for instance, or where the perpetrator and the victim were at the time of the alleged crime – has made it difficult to enforce them. Companies such as Twitter and Facebook have taken some steps toward preventing and reporting harassment, but less is being done towards helping those who are dealing with the after-effects of abuse.

Crash Override allows targets of abuse to get in touch with someone who both has experience in being harassed online and has expertise in legal matters, information security, psychology, or whatever it is the target needs help with. The network also provides information and resources on cyberbullying, cyberstalking, and online harassment, detailing various ways that a person can be targeted for abuse.

“We realized that people needed a resource of people who had experienced it [online harassment] and could give them best practices and advice,” Lifschitz told Wired.

A growing number of people could benefit from such a network, but the increasingly entrenched culture of harassment could also make it difficult for Crash Override to get off the ground.

In the United States, about 40 percent of adult internet users have been harassed online in varying levels of severity, ranging from name-calling to physical threats to outright stalking, the Pew Research Center reports. The same report found that social media was most often cited as the scene of harassment, and half of those harassed online don’t know who their tormentor is.

Gamergate, by virtue of online stalkers and harassers who associated with the movement, caused a number of women including Quinn to flee their homes after being bombarded with rape and death threats. One web developer had police officers knocking on his door in response to an anonymous tip that gave his name and address to authorities – a tactic called “swatting.”

New as it is, Crash Override is already getting its share of critics.

Still, Quinn and Lifschitz are optimistic. They currently operate out-of-pocket, but have plans to expand their resource center to include more general guides for dealing with law enforcement when it comes to issues related to the internet.

"[I]t’s about trying to figure out how to move forward, how to make sense of it,” Quinn told Wired. “So much of our control over our own lives has been taken away from us. This is one way we can take it back, to decide what happens to us, and try to help other people decide what happens to them.”

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