One of the first questions to ask yourself when you are harassed online is whether the abuse makes you feel physically unsafe. The guidance below, developed in consultation with security experts at major media outlets, can help you assess your sense of safety.
Important: This information is offered for educational purposes only. You are in the best position to assess your sense of safety. Remember: follow your instincts, trust your judgment, do a gut check with trusted allies, and consult with security experts (law enforcement, your media outlet’s security, etc.) if at all possible.
When you are being attacked online, it is important to try to make an honest assessment of the threat level, both in terms of your physical and digital security. Online abuse comes in many forms, and individuals who have been previously targeted by online harassment, who belong to particular demographics, or who cover controversial issues in their writing will have different opinions and perspectives when it comes to their own security. (Women, for example, receive sexualized forms of online abuse at much higher rates than men and are also far more likely to be sexually assaulted, so it’s understandable that they might respond to sexually-explicit online harassment with feelings of fear and intimidation.)
Because the internet offers a cloak of anonymity to disgruntled people who might have no actual intention of causing physical harm, it can be difficult to know whether or not an online threat is “authentic” or not. The following questions, suggested by security experts at major media outlets, can help you assess your sense of safety:
- Has your harasser made an explicit threat that names you specifically and/or includes specific details, such as time and place (“Someone should do something” VS “Here is how I am going to do this thing to you”)?
- Does the content of your harasser’s messages contain specific personal details about you or you loved one(s) (e.g., your location, your place of employment, the name of your child’s school)?
- Are you seeing “indicia of irrationality”? In other words, is your harasser using their real name, real email address, real phone number, or otherwise openly identifying themselves while threatening you?
- Is your harasser engaging in a course of conduct; in other words, are they attacking or threatening you repeatedly and in a concerted way?
- Do you know the person who is harassing you? If so, do you believe them capable of escalating the abuse?
- Have you been hacked, your accounts compromised or taken over?
- Are you being stalked via electronic communication?
- Has your abuser published nonconsensual, sexually-explicit images of you?
- Are you concerned that the content of your harasser’s messages, circulating publicly, will negatively impact your personal or professional life?
Answer these questions as honestly as you can and trust your instincts. You may find it helpful to get an outside perspective by discussing these questions with a trusted friend, family member, or colleague.
If you answered “yes” to any of the above questions, please seriously consider contacting local law enforcement, consulting a lawyer, and/or informing your employer. If you do not feel safe engaging with law enforcement and you do not have the support of an employer, reach out to nonprofits that support press freedom and human rights and to professional associations or individual colleagues you trust for support. In this Field Manual, you can find further guidance on engaging with law enforcement and on speaking to your employer.
If you’re still not quite sure what to do, check out OnlineSOS’s detailed Threat Modeling Guide or the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Threat Modeling Worksheet, which walk you through a more detailed series of questions.