(noun | al·ly)
One that is associated with another as a helper; a person or group that provides assistance and support
(noun | wit·ness)
A person who sees something (such as a crime) happen
(noun | in·ter·ven·tion)
The act of interfering with the outcome or course, especially of a condition or process (as to prevent harm)
(noun | by·stand·er)
One who is present but not taking part in a situation or event
If you’re here, it’s likely because you’ve witnessed hateful or abusive online behavior and aren’t sure what to do about it. There are a lot of people in your position: while over 66% of Americans have witnessed abusive behaviors directed at others, just 30% have intervened.
When you witness another person being targeted by online hate or harassment, it can be intimidating to intervene. What if you have no idea where to start or no one else is intervening? What if you inadvertently make the harassment worse? What if you become the target of such harassment yourself? What if the harassment you’ve witnessed is traumatizing to you in some way, making it difficult for you to remain in the same online space where the incident occurred?
These are important and necessary questions to ask yourself when considering whether or not, and how, to support a person being targeted by online harassment. But if you feel compelled to help, and believe you can do so without risk to yourself, bystander intervention is one of the most powerful tools we have to speak out against hate and harassment on the internet and push back against the culture of impunity proliferating in our online communities.
1. Prioritize your safety.
You have every right to proceed with caution before delving into an abusive situation online. Prepare yourself in advance, so you’re ready to be an ally. Take some time to tighten your own cybersecurity to protect from doxing and hacking and impersonation. If you’re concerned that intervening in someone else’s online harassment could put you at risk, take a look at these guidelines for assessing threats and trust your instincts. Remember: there are many ways to be a good ally without intervening directly (see below).
2. Identify the abuse taking place.
Understanding what, exactly, you’re witnessing can help you think about how to respond. Is the attacker spewing racial epithets on Facebook that should be publicly condemned? Are the comments sections of your favorite blog being overrun by a misogynistic troll, and are you up for trying to redirect the conversation? Has someone been doxed and do they need help assessing their threat or finding a safe place to stay? Is someone on Twitter issuing threats of violence so specific you feel the need to alert the police in that user’s jurisdiction? Identify the kind of abuse that’s taking place and check out defining online harassment to familiarize yourself with different kinds of tactics.
3. Check in with the target (if possible).
Before you intervene in online abuse in a direct or public way, think about your relationship to the target and prioritize their needs and concerns. The most effective way to do this is to reach out and ask them what kind of support they’d appreciate—especially if you’re considering drawing public attention to the situation or engaging law enforcement.
If the person targeted by abuse is willing to connect with you, start by listening and asking how you can help. Some people might be overwhelmed and have no idea how you can help—in which case, you can offer them a set of options or just a sympathetic ear. Others might not want any help, perhaps because they just want the situation to die down, in which case their wishes should be respected. Try not to tell the target how they should be feeling or reacting.
Hannah Schacter, a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Southern California’s Department of Psychology, says public displays of support for a victim can be powerful because they have the capacity to change norms and mobilize other online bystanders. But being aware of the benefits and drawbacks of public intervention can help distinguish between effective and potentially detrimental intervention strategies. Targets who feel socially isolated, she explains, may have more difficulty asking for assistance, and it may be important to offer them unsolicited help. On the other hand, some targets may prefer to deal with the harassment themselves and/or feel that public displays of support undermine their own coping ability. That’s why checking in, if possible, is always a best practice.
Remember: if you can’t get in touch with the person being abused, there are still things you can do to help, such as amplifying their voice or reporting the abuse against them to platforms (see more below).
4. Find the best way to help.
The nonprofit Hollaback!, a “people-powered movement to end harassment,” has developed a really helpful framework for bystander intervention, The Five D’s: Distract, Delegate, Document, Delay, and Direct. What’s brilliant about the 5Ds is that only one involves “Direct” intervention. In other words, you can offer support and allyship in all sorts of ways even if you’re not comfortable intervening directly.
If you decide to distract, you can “derail the incident by interrupting it” (Hollaback!). Abusers are often trying to silence their targets. You can push back by:
- Amplifying the original content posted by the person under attack (like, upvote, retweet, etc.).
- Drawing attention away from the abuse and the abuser by (for example) responding with puppy photos or flooding a hashtag with funny gifs.
- Reporting the abusive content and the abuser’s account to the platform on which it appears. While platforms do not always take action, it’s always worth a shot. Follow these guidelines for reporting online abuse.
By delegating, you’re asking “for assistance, for a resource, or for help from a third party” (Hollaback!). There is power in numbers, and an online harasser may be less likely to go after an entire group than a single individual. If a target has posted a specific call for help, assist them by spreading the message to your own networks. You can rally a supportive cyber community publicly (via posts or tweets), or privately (via email listservs, professional or alumni groups, private groups, etc.). Send a message to your support community alerting where the abuse is happening (e.g., the platform on which it appears) and issuing a call for an effective, swift response. This supportive community can help you:
- Amplify the content of the person being abused.
- Draw attention away from an abuser via funny or unrelated content.
- Report the abuse to the platform where it happened – and even tag the platform to draw extra attention.
One great way to help someone being abused is to monitor their mentions (for threats, hate speech, impersonation, doxing, etc.) and document it by taking screenshots and saving hyperlinks. Take a look at documenting online harassment for more information about why this is so important. Keep in mind, looking at screenshots of abuse can be retraumatizing for those on the receiving end, so when you share the information you’ve collected, be sure to offer a clear trigger warning. You can try something like: “Hey, documenting abuse is really important, but I realize it can also be traumatic, so I’ve taken screenshots and saved hyperlinks for you in this folder. You can just store it somewhere safe in case you need it later.”
Delay (ie, Check In)
Online abuse can be profoundly isolating (that’s often the abuser’s goal), so checking in with the person being abused can be very impactful. You can:
- Offer a listening ear and provide emotional support. Always listen to the target without judgment. Be sure to exercise patience and empathy, and defer to their wishes.
- Affirm that what’s happening to them is not OK and not their fault. Remind them they’re not alone.
- Share resources—including this Field Manual.
- Offer specific support (“Can I help you report, document, or tighten your digital security?”).
If you have a close relationship with the target and know that they’re afraid for their safety or the safety of their loved ones, consider offering them a safe place to stay, such as your home or the home of a mutual friend.
Direct intervention is rooted in responding “to harassment by naming what is happening or confronting the harasser.” This is what many of us think of when we imagine bystander intervention—and it may sometimes be an especially impactful form of allyship—but it comes with risks, for you and for the target of abuse. The abuser may turn their attention on you or escalate abuse against the target. That’s why it’s so important to prioritize your own safety and to check in with the target whenever possible. If you feel prepared to intervene directly, here are some things you can try:
- Chime in with supportive, affirming, or constructive comments, messages, or hashtags in response to the content of the person targeted by abuse.
- Publish a statement of solidarity that backs the target and condemns online abuse, on the platform where it appears. Name the harassment, state why it’s wrong, and offer a rallying cry enlisting others to reject it. If you’re part of a group or organization affiliated with the target of the abuse—or with a group or organization that condemns hate generally—put out an official statement that explicitly states why you condemn this particular form of online harassment. The Tor Project offers a good example of a solidarity statement you can put out on behalf of a target of online harassment.
- Expose impersonation and ask for help reporting it to the platforms.
- Use your privilege or power to fact check a false claim.
- Use humor.
Here are some key tips for practicing counterspeech. For detailed guidance, check out our Guidelines for Safely Confronting Your Online Harasser.
- You can condemn hate and harassment without interacting with the abuser. Condemn the behavior, not the individual, and set an example for others that such behavior can’t and shouldn’t be tolerated.
- Do not engage in abuse yourself, not only because bystander intervention is about breaking the cycle of vitriol and violence, but because the abuser may be deliberately trying to goad you as a tactic to do you harm.
- Rally others to intervene with you and organize peer support networks. There’s strength in numbers.
5. Take care of yourself, too!
Witnessing abusive online behaviors, threats of violence, hate speech, and graphic images can take its toll on even the staunchest of allies. Don’t be ashamed if you experience feelings of fatigue and become overwhelmed—you need to take care of yourself if you’re going to be a good online ally to others. Visit the Wellness and Community section of this Field Manual for more information about how to take care of yourself in the face of online harassment.
Understand the factors that influence the likelihood of bystander intervention. Nick Brody, a communication studies professor at the University of Puget Sound, has conducted research on bystander intervention and found that three variables play a significant role in determining whether or not bystanders take action: the number of bystanders, anonymity, and closeness with the victim. More bystanders and greater bystander anonymity are both correlated with a lower chance of intervention, while closer ties between the bystander and the victim often indicates a greater willingness to intervene. Being aware of such phenomena can help bystanders gain a heightened sense of self, leading them to better understand their own responses to harassment — both consciously and unconsciously.
6. Be honest with yourself
Make an honest evaluation of your own relationship to injustice. Keep in mind that the people being targeted might have a history of being exposed to injustices that you haven’t personally encountered. Making an honest evaluation of your own relationship to injustice, or lack thereof, is an important part of being a supporter—not a savior. Check out Melissa Harris-Perry’s guide to being a good ally on Feministing for more tips.
Remember: The online world is the real world. Don’t diminish someone else’s online experiences by suggesting that what happens to them online doesn’t matter as much as what happens to them offline. What happens on the internet has real consequences for our careers, personal relationships, mental health, and productivity, and can also cross into our offline lives, and vice versa. According to Nick Brody, the online world can exacerbate the effects of harassment and bullying due to the potential enormity of online audiences. An isolated incident in the virtual world, Brody says, can be seen by millions of people and can therefore have an extremely detrimental impact on victims’ mental health as well as their professional lives.