In the “Preparing for Possible Online Harassment” section of this Field Manual, we describe the value in establishing supportive cyber communities. Here you’ll find tips for effectively enlisting help from these cyber communities during episodes of online harassment.
1. Post a call for help to your trusted online group(s).
When you reach out to members of your online communities, be sure to include a note that:
- Identifies the problem and its location—e.g. Genuine followers of my blog are being drowned out by trolls who are posting a volley of sexually threatening messages in the comments section.
- Clearly states what kind of help you’re seeking—e.g. I believe in my work and its message, but I need a break from these threats. If you’re interested in lending your help as a guest moderator, please DM me, and I’ll add you to my emergency outreach list!
Keep the note as brief and to the point as possible, especially when you’re posting it on social platforms where people tend to have short attention spans. You can also pledge to offer your own support at a later date, if and when the time is right.
2. Mobilize your online community to respond to specific kinds of online harassment with strategic counteractions.
While online harassment comes in many shapes and sizes, there are also a variety of ways you can rally your internet communities to respond to it. Below are some ideas that PEN America has crowdsourced from writers targeted by online harassment.
Countering hateful or defamatory comments on social media platforms
- Rally your online community to post messages on the same platform where the abuse has occurred. Encourage posters to write messages that directly contradict or condemn harassers’ messages without baiting the harassers themselves, which could lead to further conflict. Counterspeech and counter narratives are powerful tools for quelling online hate, which you can learn more about here.
- Ask your community to post their counter messages using the same hashtag(s) employed by the abuser, so that you can reclaim and reappropriate the original messaging (unless the hashtag in and of itself is defamatory or offensive, in which case you may be inclined to ditch it completely).
- Ask your community to tag your username in their counter tweets if your abuser is doing the same. This can help counterbalance the content connected to your username in searches.
- Ask members of your support community to put their counter messages in their own words, especially if you send out a template message for them to follow. Doing this distinguishes supportive online communities from the bots and trolls who swarm internet forums with the intention of shutting down legitimate forms of speech. When an online community comes together to condemn a message of hate in a variety of ways from a variety of users, it adds legitimacy and authenticity to an online counterspeech campaign, and stands in contrast to the cyber mobs intent on shutting down productive online discourse.
Countering harassing behaviors in comments sections
- Enlist supporters to help set a civil tone in comment threads by encouraging them to publish a polite, constructive comment the moment your piece is published. You can reach out to supporters ahead of time, letting them know when and where the post will be published.
- Enlist supporters to jump in on comment threads where you’re being subjected to ad hominem or defamatory attacks. Encourage posters to write messages that directly contradict or condemn harassers’ messages without baiting the harassers themselves.
- Enlist guest moderators. If you’re in the position of having to moderate the comments that appear in connection to the writing you publish, and you’re overwhelmed by hate speech and/or threats, reach out to your online support groups to see if anyone will volunteer to take over moderation duties for a period of time. Make sure you already have clear community guidelines in place that explain what content is and isn’t welcome on the platform so that both commenters and guest moderators are aware of the rules governing the conversation. For additional information about community standards and ideas for enforcing them, check out this 2016 article from The Guardian.
3. Ask for support before publishing.
When you’re about to publish a piece of writing you know is controversial and/or likely to raise the hackles of serial harassers, send a message to your digital support group(s) asking for people to chime in on the comment feed or social media platform where the online abuse is likely to occur. Provide the date, time, platform, headline, and hyperlink (if available) that the article will be published under, and ask the group what you specifically need help with, such as adding constructive comments to a comment thread, reclaiming a hashtag, etc.
4. Ask your support communities for their input and ideas.
Crowdsource ideas from your digital support communities for how best to navigate a particular episode of online harassment. Start by describing the threat in as much detail as you feel comfortable giving, then ask the group members for their input. One goal of maintaining a supportive cyber community is to learn from one another’s experiences and operate in solidarity. By sharing your own experiences and asking for help, you’re encouraging others to speak out about and seek solutions to online harassment.