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How to deal with Instagram harassment
If you suffer harassment on Instagram and are desperate to find out who your harasser is, there are steps you should take to stop the harassment, identify your harasser and communicate to other potential harassers that being famous, does not necessarily make you a fair target on social media.
Solicitor Yair Cohen represented the claimant in the case, who was an Instagram influencer. The claimant used Instagram to promote himself in the public relations business and did this very successfully for a number of years. At one point the claimant started to receive dozens of harassing messages via his Instagram account. The harasser was an anonymous user of Instagram who created numerous Instagram accounts using different names.
The harassment started the with the usual internet trolling, which the claimant first ignored and then it gradually became more intense. The harasser had posted posts and images which were particularly vile and highly offensive. The messages included personal attacks on the victim with a racial and sexual element including sending her hard-core sexual images and pictures of beheaded men. The campaign encompassed distressing references to the victim’s family home and threats to harm the members of her family. The harasser then started to share purported private information about the victim and her family. The victim sought an injunction against the unknown Instagram harasser to prevent further harassment and the disclosure of private information about her under Protection from Harassment Act 1998 and to prevent publication of private information under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998. The victim instructed Yair Cohen to carry out the initial investigation of the case, to preserve the evidence, to apply to the court for an injunction to stop the harassment and for Instagram to disclose the real identity of the harasser.
It takes time to obtain disclosure of the ID of Instagram users, to evaluate the information and to cross reference the information received from Instagram, with other data. In the meantime, it is important to bring the ongoing Instagram harassment to a halt as quickly as possible. Mr Cohen therefore asked the court to grant an interim injunction against the, yet, unknown Instagram user pending an application for disclosure of their identity from Instagram (known as a Norwich Pharmacal Order).
By that point, Instagram had already agreed to provide the information sought but it was going to take a little more time before Instagram would have been able to compile all the information pertaining to the disclosure of the identity of the anonymous user. It is inevitable that an application for an injunction against an anonymous Instagram user will involve some derogation from the general rules, such as that you must give a defendant an opportunity to defend themselves against the grant of an injunction which would restrict their right to free speech. In the case of an anonymous Instagram user, it will generally not be practical to notify the defendant of the court hearing because the defendant has not yet been positively identified.
Furthermore, it could be very worrying for the victim of the harassment to send a notice of the court hearing to an anonymous Instagram user via Instagram because you simply don’t know who they are and what they might do with the information. In this case, the harassing Instagram messages included threats of serious violence against the victim and her family, which made the victim extremely nervous. In other cases, the victim might be subjected to blackmail or to other forms of intimidation by the anonymous Instagram user. Therefore, there would often be compelling reasons for bringing an application for an injunction against an anonymous Instagram user without giving them prior notice of what is about to happen. Usually, you would also need to serve the case papers and the witness statement of the victim on the defendant prior to the application for an injunction. In the case of harassment on Instagram in this case, the court allowed for the injunction application to go ahead without serving any court papers on the defendant.
Usually, court proceedings are open, and the media is allowed to report the legal proceedings in a fair way. However, in this case, the victim of harassment was concerned that if the legal proceedings would be reported by the press, this would result in an infringement of her privacy and in further harassment that the publicity might bring.
This was therefore a matter which had to be addressed with the court. Yair Cohen had asked the court to protect the victim’s right to private life by having the injunction hearing in "secret" and for the judge to grant anonymity to the victim and to impose reporting restriction on the media. There was no public interest in naming the victim which could outweigh the harm that publicity would cause her and her family.
Service of legal documents via social media is possible under certain circumstances. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of this case was in relation to service of the legal documents, including the injunction via the social media platform Instagram. It was first necessary to ask to judge to grant a special court order permitting the service of the claim form and injunction on the Instagram user via Instagram.
The application to the court to serve legal documents via social media must be supported by evidence that there is no other practical method to serve the legal documents on the defendant. The most important purpose of service is to ensure that the contents of the documents are communicated to the harasser. As the Instagram harasser was yet to be identified and the injunction sought was urgent, the only means of contact which the victim had for her harasser was the harasser’s Instagram accounts. As Instagram is based in the USA, there was also a requirement to ask the court to grant permission for the legal documents to be served outside the jurisdiction.
Service of legal documents via Instagram requires some preparations. Firstly, many social media sites, including Instagram have minimum requirement of image size and pixels. The documents must comply with those requirements otherwise they will either not be posted at all or be too unclear for the recipient to read. For example, you cannot simply photocopy or PDF an A4 document and post it via Instagram because the document will not be readable.
So, to ensure that service of the legal documents was properly affected, each page of the injunction had to be converted into a small number of high-resolution readable images. The only way to post messages via Instagram was by using a mobile device. Unlike email, when a user deletes their Instagram account, the messages they had already sent to other users are automatically deleted from the recipients’ account too.
This means that as soon as a copy of the injunction is posted to the defendant, the poster must make an instant screenshot to prove that they serve the legal document. Otherwise, if the defendant deletes their Instagram account after service but before the screen grab, there will be no way to prove that they actually received the injunction because all the documents relating to the deleted Instagram account will instantly disappear.