Uncharted territory – cyberstalking in the new age

Greetings all,

I spoke to the topic of trolling and cyber stalking at @MedicineSocial on Saturday. I chose the topic as I wanted to explore whether this was a new phenomena, or simply, what we know about stalking behaviour in general, but on a different playing field. I also wanted to relay the message that on or offline stalking is a crime, victims are protected by the law, and that they are often very distressed by the behaviour.

I also wanted to provide a profile of the different types of stalking behaviors well known to those working in forensic psychiatry and the judicial system.

What I found when I researched this area, was that other terms and behaviours such as trolling were less well defined, and often confused with stalking. It speaks to the heart of the matter that most of the information I could find about internet trolling  was derived from Wikipedia and Google. Hence I believe we are walking into uncharted territory when it comes to these understanding these behaviours.

When it comes to trolling, it is very hard to recognise or manage the behaviour when we are still unsure about how to define the behaviour.


At @MedicineSocial, I made the point that I do believe trolls differ from stalkers. Notwithstanding this, the behavior of trolls causes all sorts of distress and can lead to catastrophic outcomes for the victim. The victim is often shocked and thrown off-topic from the feed the are contributing to. The troll’s motivation seems to be to cause intense emotions in somebody they have often not even met. I have noticed trolls pop up and go away and don’t seem to have a consistent pattern to their behaviour, except to throw everybody off the topic and cause anguish. I mentioned that it seems consistent that the best way to deal with trolls is to block them and most importantly not to engage with them.

I also made the point that trolling is not the same as somebody having a different view to you and expressing it in a way that upsets you. That’s the world of social media. Post something, and you may very well upset others by your comments or beliefs. It’s the way that trolls go about their business that seems different to me, that is, they tend to show discord on the internet by;

  • Starting arguments
  • Upsetting people
  • Posting inflammatory, extraneous or off-topic messages in an online community

with the deliberate attempt of

  • Provoking readers into an emotional response
  • Or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.

The references I used to present this can be found here.


When preparing my talk I thought back to my training in forensic psychiatry, and re-visited the types of stalking behaviors that Prof Paul Mullen, Michelle Pathe et al identified way before Google and the internet. One of their first articles published can be found here. Their work has well and truly stood the test of time, and I note that some of these types of stalkers now carry on with the same behaviour using the internet as a new way of carrying out their acts, often alongside off-line behaviour.  And although social media sites state they have methods and policies around incorrect use of the internet, I wonder if they truly understand the complexity and diversity of these behaviours. For example, reporting such behaviour may have an alleged stalker taken down, who can obtain another twitter handle or facebook page with another email address and continue along their way.

Also, if a potential stalker is reported and blocked one may be placated that they are safe when in fact all that happens is  they can no longer see what the alleged stalker is up to 

My best advice is to take screen shots of everything you may see that you will need as evidence before blocking and reporting potential stalking to behaviour to the sites and/or the police. If their site or page is taken down, or you block them, you lose your evidence. Don’t presume sites such as Facebook will assist you in retrieving this information.

Some people who stalk victims on the internet may be mentally unwell. They may have a paranoid delusion that in some way a person or an organisation they may have never met has caused them harm. Sometimes this is the case, often it is up for debate, but no matter what, the matter should be dealt with off-line through appropriate channels. In these cases, the actual stalking behaviour occurs as a way of ‘exposing’ or ‘getting back’ at someone they feel has delivered them a gross injustice. No matter what, victims must and should feel able to report such matters to the police, and in an ideal world, a forensic psychiatry assessment would occur as part of the investigation.

I also spoke about cyber-bullying, which is more clearly defined, probably as a result of high profile cases with tragic outcomes that have turned society’s attention to this phenomena. Bullying is bullying no matter where it occurs. It has been thought that the main targets are adolescents who are often bullied at school, but now, the behaviour doesn’t stop when the school bell rings. In cases I have been involved with as a psychiatrist, the victim is well known to the perpetrator, often a classmate or a peer. But this is not always the case.

I concluded my presentation with reflections I gleaned after reading the wonderful new book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” by Jon Ronson. In this latest book, one of my favourite authors has interviewed victims of shaming that has generally occurred on-line. Shaming that has occurred in the name of ‘good’.  That is, an interviewee has made a monumental mistake on social media, often even one tweet as in the case of Justine Sacco, but has had no way of coming back from that. Jon Ronson’s article in the NY Times can be found here and is a very thought provoking read. After I read it, I came to the conclusion that:

Just as we need  policies and guidelines about how to behave on social media, we need policies and guidelines on how to be able to apologise if we make a mistake.

It led me to ponder the idea that if we expose someone on social media whom we as an online community feel has behaved badly, and we shame them by setting up hashtags for retribution, or lobby to expose them, are we in fact trolling? Don’t we also cause harm? Isn’t it just better to promote forgiveness in certain cases?

A final tribute to another favourite author, Dr Samuel Shem, who wrote the incredible novel  ‘The House of God’. In this novel the protagonist is an intern at ‘The House of God’ after graduating from ‘BMS’ (Best Medical School). The novel chronicles his journeys through internship and many years later, still resonates with junior doctors worldwide.

One of the laws from the ‘House of God’ was;

At a cardiac arrest, the first procedure is to take your own pulse. 

Perhaps, if we take our pulse before we reply to something that enrages us on our twitter feed, and decide to delete the post before sending, or even mull over it before we do, we may continue to keep the social media space as kind as possible.

Special thanks to Dr Tim senior and Dr Brad McKay for helping me prepare my talk on this important topic. 




The legal fraternity may disagree,

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