The Monsters of the Digital Age

by JD Supra Perspectives

[The latest in a series in which we ask JD Supra contributors to address the perils, legal or otherwise, of being an online citizen today, and all that entails. Stay tuned for additional articles in this theme.]

Trolls. Until recently, they only existed in the pages of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Now they’re online.

Like the beasts of Tolkien’s imagination, digital trolls skulk around the internet shrouded in anonymity, unprovoked yet fiercely attacking the unwary. These trolls are individuals who use anonymous screen names to post deliberately inflammatory or provocative messages with the intent to cause disturbances and/or arguments for their own amusement.

In the aftermath of Robin Williams’ death, his daughter, Zelda Williams, was the victim of trolls. Their comments on her Twitter feed blamed Ms. Williams for her father’s death. They posted graphic, photoshopped pictures of the late Mr. Williams to his daughter’s social media accounts. Ms. Williams received dozens of these hateful messages from numerous accounts with different screen names. Even the monikers themselves were incendiary in their own right (e.g., @GetCancerPlease). Ms. Williams  closed her social media accounts in the wake of these vicious assaults.

Practically speaking, trolls are nearly impossible to stop. According to The Washington Post, the trolls’ posts to Ms. Williams’ social media pages were most likely from a handful of individuals using multiple online aliases. This is a key problem with troll attacks – if one account is banned or deleted by the social media provider, ten fresh new ones quickly spring up to replace it.

In the context of harassment, courts view statements or pictures sent or posted via social media, text message or other electronic sources no differently than offensive verbal comments or lewd Polaroids left on a co-worker’s desk...

But what happens when trolls invade the online workplace? What happens when an employee suspects offensive or harassing social media comments are coming from a disgruntled co-worker, an angry customer or someone who attacks them for no reason other than (possibly) their affiliation with a particular company?

In the context of harassment, courts view statements or pictures sent or posted via social media, text message or other electronic sources no differently than offensive verbal comments or lewd Polaroids left on a co-worker’s desk. Courts and administrative bodies across the country have held that online harassment is analyzed under the same legal standards applied to traditional claims. For example, in Espinoza v. County of Orange, a 2012 case from California, the court upheld a $1.6 million jury verdict against an employer after one of its employees was harassed by a co-worker on a blog. Similarly, an employer, Fry’s Electronics, paid $2.3 million to settle a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which alleged that the company failed to take appropriate action to stop an employee’s supervisor from sending sexually charged text messages to a subordinate.

Thus, it is  clear that companies should take allegations of online or other electronic harassment seriously. As a first step, employers should create, update and enforce a strong social media policy. A good social media policy should make clear that any harassment – whether in person or online, during work or after hours – violates the company’s policy. The policy should also be clear that the company takes allegations of conduct like e-harassment seriously, and employees who violate the policy will be subject to disciplinary action. While employers should be mindful of the National Labor Relations Board’s stance on social media policies and the potential for chilling “protected concerted activities,” a well-drafted and clear policy can still be an important tool.

Until technology finds a successful way to bring today’s digital trolls out of the shadows of anonymity and into the sunshine, being proactive and prepared is an employer’s best defense against these marauding monsters...

If an employee makes allegations of online harassment, an employer should conduct a prompt investigation regarding the allegations. When discussing trolls, it is easy to imagine a scenario when an employee complains of an online attack that he sincerely believes – but cannot prove – is by a co-worker. However, even in those situations when an employer may not be able to definitively establish the identity of the harasser, conducting an investigation is itself a defense to any later claims that may arise. If the investigation establishes that harassment took place, the employer should take prompt, remedial action against the perpetrator. The response should be tailored to the violation, in accordance with any progressive discipline policy of the company.

Finally, while employers may ultimately be powerless to stop anonymous online harassment, companies should proactively conduct workplace training regarding the company’s policies on online activity and harassment. Further, companies may want to consider including practical guidance on how to protect oneself online (e.g., use restrictive privacy settings, do not post private information).

Ultimately, harassment is harassment, regardless of the medium. Employers have a responsibility to take allegations of harassment seriously – whether it occurs in person or online. Allegations of offensive conduct affecting the workplace should be investigated promptly and thoroughly.

Tolkien’s trolls were turned to stone when touched by sunlight. Until technology finds a successful way to bring today’s digital trolls out of the shadows of anonymity and into the sunshine, being proactive and prepared is an employer’s best defense against these marauding monsters.


[Evan Gibbs is an associate with Constangy, Brooks & Smith LLP, which recently launched a new e-law service group to address the impact of technology in the workplace.]

Image credit: Behind the Voice Actors


Written by:

JD Supra Perspectives

JD Supra Perspectives on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Custom Email Digest
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.


JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at:

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.