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In preparing for online harassment, an important step you can take is to enlist a supportive community of friends, colleagues, and digital allies who you can call to your aid—and who you can aid in return—when harassment begins. Online communities are especially important to cultivate, as they intersect most frequently with the platforms where cyber harassment takes place.

The following information is specific to creating online communities, which may overlap with other social networks in your life, but which, during episodes of online harassment, serve as a potential pool of first responders to be relied upon when the abuse escalates or goes public.

1. Locate your people.

If you’re active on social media, chances are you already belong to one or more conversation threads, Facebook groups, or online forums dedicated to the topics and issues you care and write about. Maybe you’re a writer of color who belongs to a group that promotes the work of other writers of color. Maybe you’re a journalist with a disability who hosts a Facebook group offering tips to other journalists with disabilities. These curated social networks are crucial communities to tap into when you’re preparing for an online attack, or when you want to be supportive of other writers targeted by online harassment.

If you’re not very active on social media or in chat rooms but wish to find a community of writers or other individuals online, start with your real-world connections. Send a group text to your writer friends or an email to the professional, editorial, and/or alumni groups you’re a part of in which you ask people if they belong to any online communities looking for new members.

And if all else fails . . . start your own online group! Writers’ and journalists’ lives are rich with connections worth bringing into online spaces. Potential networking veins to mine include:

  • Any publication that’s ever published your work, online or off.
  • Professed fans and/or followers of your work.
  • Editors, copy editors, and researchers you may have worked with in the past.
  • Former classmates if you graduated from a journalism school, a writing program, or an MFA program.
  • Former members of a writing workshop you attended.
  • A list of attendees with whom you networked at a recent writing conference.
  • Any identity-specific group you belong to. This could be a group that shares a religious, ethnic, cultural, political, physical, sexual, ideological, or any other identifying characteristic that’s important to you. Your online support groups can be made up of a variety of people, not just people connected to writing and journalism.

2. Post a note to the group on the subject of online harassment.

It’s important that online communities talk about and acknowledge the implications of online harassment before it begins. If you trust a particular online group, or at least a few of its key members, to have your back the next time you’re attacked online, don’t be afraid to post a message containing the following information:

  • An explicit acknowledgement that online harassment exists and is incredibly problematic for productive online dialogue in any online forum.
  • A brief anecdote about how online harassment has impacted you personally, to help personalize and narrativize the issue (only if you’re comfortable sharing this information; not everyone will be, and that’s fine).
  • A call to action to the group. This could be a general request for a pledge from group members to maintain the community as a harassment-free space. Or you could publish a more specific request asking people to pledge their allyship to anyone in the group who asks for help or intervention during an episode of online harassment.
  • A request to collect contact information from anyone who wishes to be on a direct mailing list. This step is more sensitive, as many people will have good reasons for not wanting to hand over their personal contact information, especially to someone they don’t know very well. (This is, after all, part of the appeal of joining online communities in the first place.) But if there are people in the group with whom you have trusted relationships offline, or if the group members know and trust each other, sharing contact information can expedite the intervention process during an episode of online harassment.

Pro Tip for Women Writers

Pew Research Center has found that online harassment impacts women more severely than it does men. Are you a woman writer seeking support outside of your usual online communities? Here are a few places to start.

  • SheWrites connects both established and aspiring female writers.
  • Feministing runs an online community dedicated to operating online as a feminist writer.
  • The WoMentoring Project offers mentoring to aspiring writers.
  • Women, Action, and the Media connects media activists through local chapters, a yearly conference, and a community action network.
  • Hashtags can be surprisingly effective in establishing supportive cyber communities.

3. Create a separate place where members of your community can be easily reached in a time of crisis.

This could be a private Facebook group, an email distribution list, a Whatsapp chain, etc. Create a spreadsheet with the email addresses of individuals who have offered to show up for you during an episode of harassment. In some cases, you might want to draft a note in advance to fire off when your writing is published and/or the harassment begins.

Example of a crisis note: “SOS—Publishing an article about Finnish politics today. Last time I published on this topic, I received major hate on Twitter (people doxing my home address and calling me racial slurs). Can anyone get on the article’s comments section at 12pm EST and write something positive to help set the tone of the thread? You don’t have to agree with what I write, but anything written in a respectful tone without hateful language will help!”

Pro Tip for Journalists

If you know the topic you’re covering is controversial or prone to provoke abusive language in comment threads, reach out to your fellow journalists and ask them to consider posting a comment as soon as the article is published. Research has shown that if the initial comments in a thread are civil and polite, the ensuing posts are more likely to take on the tone of those early comments. Reporters who cover specific beats should consider banding together with journalists from other news organizations who cover the same issues. When harassment begins, you can tap into this community to chime in on the online conversation.

4. Give back to your online community.

In quieter times, when you aren’t exhausted by your own online abuse, be sure to offer your support and allyship to other writers facing their own episodes of harassment. When digital communities come together to push back against toxic online behavior, it serves as important ballast to counterbalance the groups and individuals perpetuating online hate.

Writers looking to connect with other writers in their genre and/or geographic locale can check out Poets & Writers“Literary Places” database, a resource of “writerly destinations—places writers can visit for inspiration, to promote their writing, for research, and to discover community.”

For more information about how to leverage your supportive cyber communities during episodes of online abuse, see Deploying Your Supportive Cyber Communities.