During episodes of online harassment, enlisting the help of supportive cyber communities can make a big difference.
To learn more about how to establish supportive cyber communities, check out this section of the Field Manual.
1. Find a few very close friends you can trust.
If the harassment gets so bad that you need to take a break from your online life, but are afraid to miss information relevant to your personal/professional life, enlist a close friend or family member to monitor your account for a period of time. If you need to grant them access to your account, agree to a set of ground rules before you hand over the keys.
Ask your chosen confidant(s) to store your passwords and log-in information safely. After an episode of harassment has concluded, you should ask your confidant(s) to delete this information. You should then change your passwords yourself so that your security can’t be compromised at a later date.
You might want to discuss:
- How to document and save evidence of the abuse.
- When and how you want to hear about serious threats.
- Whether or not your friend should report the abuse on your behalf to the platforms on which it’s unfolding.
Remember: Different loved ones have different roles to play. One friend can monitor your email while another monitors the online platforms where people are posting hateful messages. A third and fourth can alternate serving as the key listener you turn to when you need to vent about online harassment and how it’s impacting your daily life. (This Wall Street Journal article offers helpful insights for enlisting different kinds of emotional support from different friends.)
2. 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.
3. Mobilize your online community to respond to specific kinds of online harassment with strategic counteraction.
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. When an online community comes together to condemn 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 of bots and trolls 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 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. Pledge your support in return.
What you’re going through might one day happen to the very friends who right now have your back. Assure them that if and when they encounter online abuse, you will step in to play a supportive role, too, provided it’s not triggering or traumatic for you to do so. Hopefully it never comes to this, but pledging your support in return can generate a sense of solidarity and allyship that is too often missing during episodes of harassment.
7. Spend time with loved ones doing offline activities you enjoy.
A great deal of our lives now unfold online. Our favorite hobbies and conversations might even take place in an online forum. But there is no substitute for face time with favorite friends, family members, children, and pets. It might be hard to imagine playing Monopoly or going to dinner at your favorite restaurant when you’re in a state of heightened distress, but even choosing a simple activity to do with a trusted member of your community—such as watching a movie or taking a walk—can go a long way toward easing your anxiety.