The first step to combatting online abuse is developing a shared language to identify and describe it.
The phenomenon has many names: cyber harassment, cyberbullying, trolling, flaming, etc. Some terms are used interchangeably, others have been drained of meaning. PEN America prefers the terms online harassment or online abuse, which we define as the “pervasive or severe targeting of an individual or group online through harmful behavior.”
- Severe because even a single incident of online abuse, such as a death threat or the publishing of a home address, can have serious consequences.
- Pervasive because, while some individual incidents of online abuse, such as insults or spam, may not rise to the level of abuse, a steady drumbeat of incidents, or a coordinated onslaught, does.
- Online includes email, social media platforms (such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok), messaging apps (such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp), blogging platforms (such as Medium, Tumblr, and WordPress), and comments sections (on digital media, personal blogs, YouTube pages, and Amazon book reviews).
Below you’ll find definitions of many of the abusive tactics that writers and journalists face, as well as examples and tips on what to do. We hope you’ll explore the rest of this Field Manual for more detailed guidance.
Definition: Astroturfing is the dissemination or amplification of content (including abuse) that appears to arise organically at the grassroots level and spread, but is actually coordinated (often using multiple fake accounts) by an individual, interest group, political party, or organization.
Example: In 2012, Russian youth group Nashi was accused of paying people to criticize negative articles and dislike negative YouTube videos about Vladimir Putin.
What to do: Astroturfing is effective because harassers go to great lengths to make fake accounts seem real. Nevertheless, it’s a good idea to check for signs that an account might be fake (see the guidance on fake accounts below). You can try deploying a supportive community to help you report accounts, block and mute, and document the abuse. If you’re considering investigating the astroturfing campaign to expose and discredit it, take a look at these guidelines for practicing counterspeech.
Definition: Abusers pose as fans or supporters of a target’s work and make harmful and demeaning messages comments masked as constructive feedback.
“Confrontational practice of leaping into an online discussion with endless demands for answers and evidence” [Source: Oxford Dictionary of Social Media]. “While the questions of the “sea lion” may seem innocent, they’re intended maliciously…to exhaust a target’s patience, attention, and communicative effort, and to portray the target as unreasonable. [Source: The Multiple Harms of Sea Lions,” Amy Johnson, quoted in Forbes].
Example: According to Anita Sarkeesian’s Guide to Internetting While Female, “when targeting women, [concern trolling] is most often done through ‘helpful’ suggestions on how to improve one’s appearance. . . The concern troll’s disingenuous comments are actually designed to undercut or demean you.”
What to do: Because concern trolls are trying to get your attention and waste your time, counterspeech may be counterproductive and blocking could escalate the abuse. Muting—which enables you to hide specific abusive content (by user, keyword, etc.) so you don’t have to see it—might be more effective. Be sure to report any content that crosses over from the annoying to the abusive and consider rallying a supportive cyber community to have your back.
Cross Platform Harassment
Definition: Cross-platform harassment is coordinated and deliberately deployed across multiple social media and communications platforms, taking advantage of the fact that most platforms only moderate content on their own sites [adapted from WMC].
Example: After publishing a satirical feminist article, a writer found herself in the midst of a Twitter storm, which rapidly spread to her professional Facebook Page, the website of a professional membership organization she belonged to, and beyond; abusive trolls coordinated these attacks on platforms like 4Chan and Reddit.
What to do: There is no easy way to deal with coordinated cross-platform harassment. It’s critically important to tighten your cybersecurity to protect yourself from hacking and doxing. To cope with the volume and reach of the attacks, it helps to rally a supportive cyber community to share the burden of documenting, reporting, blocking and muting the abuse.
Definition: An umbrella term, cyberbullying encompasses many harassing behaviors, but boils down to “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices” [Source: Cyberbullying Research Center]. The term is primarily used in relation to children and young adults.
Example: In a tragic and now infamous episode of cyberbullying, a twelve-year-old girl took her own life in New Jersey.
What to do: Visit Cyberbullying.org for the best resources and information related to cyberbullying.
Cyber-Mob Attacks (aka Dogpiling)
Definition: When a large group of abusers collectively attacks a target through a barrage of threats, slurs, insults, and other abusive tactics.
A form of mob justice focused on publicly exposing, humiliating, and punishing a target, often for expressing opinions on politically charged topics or ideas the outrage mob disagrees with and/or has taken out of context in order to promote a particular agenda.
Example: Ricochet editor and politically-conservative columnist Bethany Mandel experienced a surge of anti-Semitic trolling from self-identified white nationalists via Facebook and Twitter after publicly declaring her opposition to Donald Trump.
What to do: Trying to navigate cyber-mob attacks can feel like an exhausting game of whack-a-mole. If reporting the abuse isn’t getting you anywhere, consider asking a member of your support community to monitor and report the abuse on your behalf while you take a break. Other options include: launching a counterspeech campaign to reestablish a narrative or reclaim a hashtag associated with your username; making a statement on social media alerting your social network to the negative activity; and/or temporarily taking a break from or going private on your social media accounts until the worst of the harassment has passed.
Definition: In a legal context, “cyberstalking” is the prolonged and repeated use of abusive behaviors online (a “course of conduct”) intended “to kill, injure, harass, intimidate, or place under surveillance with intent to kill, injure, harass, or intimidate” a target [See: 18 U.S. Code § 2261A].
Example: Over a 15-year period, a freelance journalist at Scientific American was the target of cyberstalking from a man who would go on to steal her identity and threaten her career. Read her story at Wired.
What to do: Cyberstalking is a federal offense, and many states have cyberstalking laws on the books. If you’re comfortable contacting law enforcement or seeking the advice of a lawyer, you might wish to take legal action against a cyberstalker. Other strategies include blocking your stalker on social media, documenting every harassing incident that occurs in relation to cyberstalking, making sure your online accounts are protected if you anticipate identity fraud, and enlisting your support community.
Definition: The use of “a form of artificial intelligence called deep learning” to make manufactured images, audio, and/or video that appear real. [Source: Guardian] These images, audio, and/or video are “mimicking speech or facial expressions so as to make it appear that someone has said or done something they haven’t.” [Source: The Boston Globe].
Example: A deepfake porn video created using the image of investigative journalist Rana Ayyub was shared more than 40,000 times in an attempt to humiliate and silence her. She was brave enough to share her story.
What to do: If a deepfake image or video of you starts circulating online, report it—and the accounts posting or sharing it—wherever possible. Try a reverse image search using all or part of the photo to figure out where else it may have spread and continue reporting. To protect yourself from further violations of your privacy, ake some time to research what information is available about you online and try to reduce it or limit its visibility. You may also consider speaking out to discredit the deepfake and enlisting a support community to help you with research, reporting, and counterspeech.
Denial of Access
Definition: Leveraging the “features of a technology or platform to harm the target, usually by preventing access to essential digital tools or platforms” [Source: Data & Society].
Mass Report (aka False Reporting)
Abusers coordinate to falsely report a target’s account as abusive or otherwise harmful to try to get it suspended or shut down.
Message Bombing (aka Flooding)
Abusers flood an individual or institution’s phone or email accounts with unwanted messages meant to limit or block the target’s ability to use that platform.
Example: In 2017, a flood of emails sent by bot accounts shut down the servers at ProPublica in a retaliatory attack against ProPublica journalists who had written a controversial article about the relationship between tech companies and extremist websites. The attack prevented the company’s employees from accessing important emails and interfered enormously with the news outlet’s day-to-day operations.
What to do: Immediately report the incident to the social media platform, phone provider, internet company, or email provider where the harassment is taking place. If necessary, create a new and/or temporary email address or username to inform your colleagues, family, and friends that you have been message bombed and no longer have access to your usual accounts. You can find more in-depth information on dealing with online harassment via direct messages here and on talking to friends and family about online abuse here.
Denial of Service (DoS) Attacks
Definition: A cyberattack that temporarily or indefinitely causes a website or network to crash or become inoperable by overwhelming a system with data. DoS attacks can prevent you from accessing your own devices and data, and they can compromise sensitive information stored on your devices.
Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS)
When an attacker takes control of multiple users’ computers in order to attack a different user’s computer. This can force the hijacked computers to send large amounts of data to a particular website or send spam to targeted email addresses.
Example: In 2016, the BBC suffered a targeted DDoS attack in its U.S. offices, which also caused limited access to Reddit, Twitter, Etsy, GitHub, SoundCloud, and Spotify.
What to do: Because DoS attacks target email addresses, websites, and online accounts, it’s essential that you contact the necessary providers to report the abuse. Check out this DDoS Incident Response Cheat Sheet for more information.
Definition: Using words or symbols with a double (or coded) meaning that is abusive or harmful, sometimes to signal a group of online abusers to attack a specific target [PEN America and IWMF, Totem Project].
Example: In 2016, white supremacists on Twitter began using triple parentheses—an (((echo)))—around an individual’s name to identify them as Jewish and instigate a coordinated campaign of abuse. Jewish writers and journalists banded together to reclaim the symbol, proactively adding triple parentheses to their own Twitter handles.
What to do: For dog whistling to work as abusers intend, only the abusers can know of the double-meaning of the terms or symbols deployed. One potentially effective way to respond is through counterspeech. Consider reclaiming the symbol or word or rallying a supportive cyber community to expose the dog whistle and undermine its power. Here’s some guidance for practicing counterspeech safely. If you’re concerned that the dog whistle might unleash a cyber mob or threaten your safety, you can find more information about those tactics elsewhere on this page.
Doxing (aka Doxxing)
Definition: The publishing of sensitive personal information online—including home address, email, phone number, social security number, photos, etc.—to harass, intimidate, extort, stalk, or steal the identity of a target. Short for “dropping docs,” doxing was a revenge tactic among ’90s computer hackers, according to HTML.com.
Example: After reporting on the police officer involved in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, two reporters for The New York Times were forced to flee their homes when their personal addresses were posted online in retaliation for their coverage.
What to do: Check out the Protecting Information from Doxing section of this Field Manual for tips on preparing for and preventing doxing. If you’ve already been subjected to doxing, immediately report the dox to the platform on which it appears, and do your best to assess the threat level to your safety. If you believe that the doxed information could fall into the hands of someone intent on harming you, please consider involving your local law enforcement immediately.
Definition: The unauthorized intrusion into a device or network, hacking is often carried out with the intention to attack, harm, or incriminate another individual by stealing their data, violating their privacy, or infecting their devices with viruses. When hacking is used to perform illegal activities or intimidate a target, it is a cybercrime.
Example: Fancy Bear, a Russian hacking unit, has targeted hundreds of journalists, including independent Russian reporters, at least 50 New York Times journalists, and several reporters at The Daily Beast, among other journalists who report on intelligence, national security, and Russian troll farms.
What to do: Practicing rigorous cyber security is critical to protecting yourself from hacking.
Definition: The creation of an abusive hashtag—or the hijacking of an existing hashtag—which is then leveraged as a rallying cry for cyber mob attacks. [Source: Adapted from RSF]
Example: In 2015, Feminist hashtags #TakeBackTheTech and #ImagineAFeministInternet were overwhelmed by a coordinated flood of misogynistic messages and memes in an attempt to “destroy” the campaigns.
What to do: Rally a supportive cybercommunity to reclaim a hijacked hashtag or create a new supportive hashtag, as comedian and actress Leslie Jones’ fans did with #justiceforleslie to counter the coordinated campaign of racist and misogynist abuse she was subjected to in 2016. In 2020, gay men across Twitter turned the tactic back on the purveyors of white supremacist hate by overwhelming #ProudBoys with positive images of themselves with their partners.
Definition: Expression that attacks a specific aspect of a person’s identity, such as their race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, sexual orientation, disability, etc. Hateful speech online often takes the form of ad hominem attacks, which invoke prejudicial feelings over intellectual arguments in order to avoid discussion of the topic at hand by attacking a person’s character or attributes.
Example: In 2016, comedian Leslie Jones was the target of a widespread trolling campaign built on racist, misogynist messaging, which culminated in her being subjected to revenge porn, doxing, and hacking. (The incident also resulted in notorious troll Milo Yiannopoulos being kicked off Twitter for his targeted, publicly racist abuse—thanks in part to a #LoveforLeslieJ Twitter campaign launched by her supporters.)
What to do: Depending on the level of threat and intimidation couched in these attacks, you may wish to block or mute a user, engage in counterspeech, or, in some cases, even consider directly confronting your troll. If you don’t feel safe responding to or blocking a user, turn to your support community and make sure you’re practicing self-care. If you’ve been named in a threat of violence or sexual intimidation and are afraid for your safety, please consider contacting law enforcement.
Nonconsensual Intimate Images (aka Revenge Porn)
Definition: Nonconsensual pornography is “the distribution of private, sexually-explicit images [or videos] of individuals without their consent” [Source: Cyber Civil Rights Initiative].
Example: Countless women and high-profile celebrities have been the targets of nonconsensual pornography. Leading revenge-porn expert Carrie Goldberg, a Cyber Civil Rights Initiative board member and lawyer who has dedicated her career to taking on cases around sexual privacy and internet abuse, was herself a former victim of nonconsensual intimate images by an ex-boyfriend.
What to do: Undergoing an attack of nonconsensual pornography can be extremely traumatic and may require legal intervention. (There are currently 46 states with nonconsensual pornography laws on the books—check to see if yours is one of them.) If an explicit image has been posted to a social media platform or chat forum, flag it for removal and, if possible, contact the platform’s administrators. Be sure to lean on your support community for help during this time as well.
Definition: Creation of a hoax social media account, often using the target’s name and/or photo, to post offensive or inflammatory statements to defame, discredit, or instigate further abuse. A harasser can also impersonate someone the target knows in order to cause harm.
Example: Writer Lindy West was subject to a particularly cruel episode of impersonation trolling when an online troll posed as her deceased father. Her story has an unusual ending, however: the abusive troll ended up apologizing.
What to do: Immediately report the impersonation to the platform on which it appears. You may want to consider making a statement on your real social media accounts alerting your online communities to the imposter. (If the harassment is taking place on Twitter, you can “pin” the tweet to the top of your profile for a period of time, so it’s visible whenever someone visits your real Twitter profile.) In some cases, it may be appropriate to inform your employer or your loved ones of the abuse, especially in cases in which they’re implicated in the impersonator’s comments.
Online Sexual Harassment (aka, Cybersexual Abuse, Gender-Based Harassment)
Online sexual harassment encompasses a wide range of sexual misconduct on digital platforms. Those who identify as women and/or LGBTQIA+ are disproportionately targeted.
Revealing a target’s former name against their wishes to do them harm, a technique “most commonly used to out members of the LGTBQIA community who may have changed their birth names for any variety of reasons, including to avoid professional discrimination and physical danger” [Source: WMC].
“Anything meant to infantilize a [woman], from calling her “hon” or “sweetie” to telling her she’ll get it when she gets older. Named after the candy that doctors and merchants handed out to young children, to placate them” [Source: FlavorWire]
Non-Consensual Intimate Images (see below)
A form of black mail in which an abuser threatens “to expose a nude or sexually explicit image in order to get a person to do something.” [Source: Cyber Civil Rights Initiative]
Sending sexually explicit or violent images and videos to a target [adapted from WMC].
Sending “unwelcome sexual requests, comments and content” to a target [Source: Project deSHAME].
Example: When author, attorney, and feminist blogger Jill Filipovic was a student at NYU School of Law, she discovered hundreds of threads on an anonymous message board that were filled with rape threats — many of them graphic — directed at her. T The online threats transitioned into offline contexts when harassers began appearing at Filipovic’s law school and later on at her law firm. Filipovic writes that her confidence and safety were compromised as a result of the online sexual harassment she faced.
What to do: An important place to start is reporting the harassment to the platform on which it was received and documenting the abuse. Online sexual harassment can be extremely traumatic for a target, and may require legal intervention. (There are currently 46 states with nonconsensual pornography laws on the books—check to see if yours is one of them.) If you do wish to seek help from law enforcement or a lawyer, please visit the Legal Considerations section of this Field Manual.
If you are a target of online sexual harassment, it is extremely important to keep in mind that you are not alone. Reaching out to others for support can go a long way in taking care of your mental health. Take a look at the Guidelines for Talking to Friends and Loved Ones section of this Field Manual for more tips on how to discuss sensitive topics, including online sexual harassment, with those around you.
Definition: An online scam that starts with some form of communication—an email, a text, a Whatsapp message—designed to look like it comes from a trusted source. The aim is to trick you into doing something—usually clicking on a link or opening an attachment, which may automatically download a virus onto your device or lead you to enter private information, like login details, which could then be used to gain control over your online accounts, impersonate you, or sell your info to others. [Source: Totem Project]
Example: In 2019, science journalist and academic Erfan Kasraie received an email from someone fraudulently claiming to be a Wall Street Journal reporter reaching out for an interview, who turned out to be a hacker affiliated with the Iran-linked group Charming Kitten, trying to break into Kasraie’s email account.
What to do: Be careful when opening unexpected or unsolicited emails. Don’t open any unsolicited attachments or links without first verifying the sender. If you get an email with an attachment or link from a friend that you weren’t expecting, send them a quick note and make sure it’s legit.
Definition: “A statement of an intention to inflict pain, injury, damage, or other hostile action” against a target [Source: Lexico]. This includes death threats, threats of physical violence, and, for women, often threats of sexual violence.
Example: Writer Jessica Valenti has been the target of rampant misogyny, toxic (and irrelevant) character attacks, and rape and death threats throughout her 14-year career as an online writer. In 2016, she temporarily quit social media after online rape and death threats were directed at her 5-year-old daughter.
What to do: Because of the anonymity afforded by the internet, it can be difficult to know how to navigate a threat. The guidance on assessing the threat in this Field Manual can help, but ultimately: take all threats seriously, ask yourself if you’ve been made to feel unsafe, and trust your instincts. If you feel unsafe, consider finding a place of safety, reporting to law enforcement, and informing allies and potentially an employer. It’s also critical to document threats, which you’ll need to engage law enforcement and pursue legal protection.
Definition: Placing a hoax call to law enforcement detailing a completely false threatening event taking place at a target’s home or business, with the intention of sending a fully armed police unit (SWAT team) to the target’s address. Swatting is rare, but extremely dangerous, and a clear example of how online harassment has the potential to cause harm in offline life.
Example: In 2013, an online security journalist was swatted at his home in Virginia, where 10 to 12 police officers surrounded his driveway with their guns drawn.
What to do: Swatting is illegal. It is often the result of a doxing incident, in which a person’s home or business address has been posted online. You can take measures to proactively protect your information from doxing. If you believe you could be the target of swatting in future, consider informing your local law enforcement to prepare them for this possibility. If you’ve been the target of swatting, you may want to pursue legal action.
Definition: “The act of hijacking a virtual meeting and disrupting communication through the sharing of text, video, or audio… commonly referred to as “raiding” or “bombing”… Sometimes these raids are… [for] targeted reasons, including disruption of business activities and identity-based attacks on marginalized groups.” [Source: “Space Invaders,” Shorenstein Center]
Example: Journalists Kara Swisher and Jessica Lessin were forced to shut down a Zoom event focused on the challenges faced by women in tech when abusive trolls bombed the session with pornography.
What to do: The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s guide to tightening your Zoom settings and the Global Forum for Media Development’s tips for what to do if you’re Zoombombed offer excellent guidance. Be sure to regularly update Zoom and any other videoconferencing software because they are constantly releasing new security features. If you are targeted with hate or threats, report it to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at ic3.gov.