When it comes to whether to “feed the trolls,” there is a lot of conflicting information out there. For some, practicing counterspeech can be empowering—as long as it’s done safely.
Some say not to do it under any circumstance. Others argue that the risk outweighs the reward: a confrontation might escalate the abuse, or inadvertently reward the troll for their behavior. (Oftentimes, online abusers want nothing more than to know that they’ve ruined your day). In certain cases, it frankly might not be safe to directly engage an online harasser.
For many writers and journalists, however, challenging the authority of online trolls, engaging in counterspeech, or directly confronting one’s harasser can be an important and empowering step in countering online abuse and reclaiming control of online narratives about one’s life and work. As a free-expression organization, PEN America believes that exercising speech in spaces where others are trying to shut it down is one of the most powerful tools we have. “Confronting” a harasser can mean reaching out to an individual directly, but it doesn’t have to. It can also mean making a broader statement to your social media network, online support communities, and the public about why the abuse leveled against you is unacceptable and must be stopped.
Whether and how to respond is a personal choice. Below are a series of guidelines that PEN America recommends following when deciding whether or not to respond to an online harasser. These guidelines have been crafted with the help of a licensed mental health professional with your wellness and safety in mind.
1. Assess the threat level.
Before choosing to confront an online harasser, you should make an honest assessment of the threat level, both in terms of your physical and digital security. Work your way through the questions in the Assessing Online Threats section of the Field Manual and remember: trust your judgment and follow your instincts. You are in the best position to decide whether or not engaging a troll will escalate the abuse or compromise your safety.
If you’re still on the fence about what kind of threat level you’re facing, the following guidelines may help:
- If you believe you’re on the receiving end of a legitimate threat to your physical safety, do not engage your troll. Contact your local law enforcement agency and enlist members of your community to provide you with support and, if necessary, secure housing at this time. (Bear in mind these considerations when contacting law enforcement, and be sure to document all harassment against you.)
- If you believe that your harasser poses no risk to your physical safety, but appears volatile or disgruntled enough to continue harassing you online, it’s likely not worth engaging.
- If you believe that your harasser poses no physical threat and most likely will not escalate the abuse once you confront them, you may benefit from engagement.
- If you believe that your harasser poses no physical threat, and that the risk of increased online abuse is worth the emotional benefits you’ll experience by pushing back against your online abuser, you may benefit from engagement.
2. Self-evaluate: Am I ready for a confrontation?
It’s not worth confronting an online harasser until you’re emotionally prepared to do so. Engaging a harasser when you’re highly agitated might escalate the abuse, or cause ensuing abuse to have a more harmful impact on your well-being.
How will you know if you’re ready? The following questions can help clue you into your own emotional state:
- Are you constantly ruminating on the harassment? Do thoughts of your online harassment crop up throughout the day, interfering with your work or interrupting your social life?
- Are you more interested in retaliating against and humiliating your troll than in standing up for yourself and your ideas?
- When you think about your online harassment, do you get agitated and/or upset? If so, are you able to calm yourself down?
If you’re unable to calm yourself down when confronted with thoughts of your online abuse, or if you’re fixated on thoughts of revenge and retaliation, you’re likely not ready to confront your abuser. Instead, consider following these guidelines to practice self-care. If, however, you’re in possession of good coping mechanisms for regaining calm when you’re agitated, and you’re less fixated on harming your troll and more fixated on ending the abuse and standing up for what’s right, then you’re likely ready for the next step.
3. Decide how and where you want to confront your harasser.
Confronting your online harasser does not have to mean sending a direct message or naming the individual abuser. (In fact, in instances where you’re targeted from multiple online accounts, you’ll be unable to address specific individuals and will need to confront the abuse more generally.)
There are several forms this confrontation can take. You could decide to publish a statement on social media condemning the particular form of bigotry of which you’ve been the target. You could deploy your online support community to help correct a defamatory narrative being spread about you. Or you could choose to screenshot and re-post hateful messages against you in order to spotlight the outrageousness of this behavior, as journalist Julia Ioffe chose to do during an episode of online harassment in 2016 when she was barraged by anti-Semitic tweets. Her efforts served to highlight the egregiousness of the abuse and allowed her to wrest back control of at least one part of the narrative.
Questions to ask yourself before confronting your harasser include:
- Is it important to you to speak out against abuse on the very platform where it happened, or would you prefer to make a statement on a different platform?
- Are you more concerned with confronting a troll directly, or with condemning their specific form of behavior?
- Are you more interested in debunking false claims made against you and setting the record straight, or with calling attention to absurd and harmful behavior?
Deciding where and how you want to confront your harasser is important. Remember, speaking out about online harassment—even when you’re not engaging your abuser directly—is still a means of fighting back. Condemning the harassment instead of the harasser may help to prevent further escalation.
4. Establish your end goal.
Clarify for yourself what you hope to accomplish with your messaging:
- Do you want to undermine the message using humor?
- Do you want to fact-check a claim?
- Do you want to raise awareness about a specific attitude or belief you perceive as harmful?
- Do you want to enlist others in spreading your message?
Be prepared that, while you might not change your attacker’s mind, you can still set the record straight and become a positive example for others who are being attacked online.
5. Use language and craft messages that are likely to de-escalate the abuse.
It can be hard to remember that the people guilty of dehumanizing you online are usually humans themselves (unless, of course, they’re bots.) It might feel impossible to generate empathy for your attacker, which is understandable. But some targets of online harassment have found it surprisingly helpful to do so. Many times, online abusers are deeply unhappy in their own lives—which is not an excuse for abusive online behaviors, but at least a partial explanation. (If you’re interested in trying to learn more about why people engage in online harassment, check out the Making Sense of Online Hate and Harassment section of this Field Manual.)
Whether or not you find it useful to consider the human being behind the hateful messages, the below information can be helpful for composing messages meant to help mitigate, rather than escalate, a tense online situation, while also ensuring you get your point across clearly and firmly:
- Condemn the content of the harassment rather than the harasser. You’re likely to have a more productive conversation if the person attacking you doesn’t feel attacked in return. (This might feel unfair at first, but taking the high road when someone else goes low is a validating act in and of itself.)
- Name the consequences of the harassment and how it impacts you or your community directly. Explicitly stating how something harms you or the community you represent offers a concrete sense of the harassment’s impact and transforms online hate from a theoretical issue to a real-life harm. It also invites your abuser to see their actions as something with real impact, which can be a difficult thing for online harassers to comprehend when they’re sitting on the other side of a computer, physically removed from their targets.
- Avoid name-calling, using hostile or insulting language, or threatening your harasser. It might be tempting, but it will almost certainly make things worse.
- Find a way to express your humanness. So often, online abuse makes us feel less than human. If there’s an identifiable aspect of your humanity that’s been attacked—your beliefs, your background, your physical features—then seize on that element, and reclaim it for yourself.
- If you’re up for it, try empathy at the same time that you’re condemning a specific behavior. In early 2018, Sarah Silverman offered a dose of deep empathy to a sexist troll. Finding a shared connection in the fact that they both suffered back problems, Silverman acknowledged her harasser’s physical pain while also exhorting him to rise above online hate. Her approach worked: the troll ended up apologizing. While this kind of encounter won’t necessarily end in the same outcome for everyone, and while it requires emotional investment that some people may rightly be unwilling to expend, it’s a nice example of what can happen when we rise above our own pain to acknowledge someone else’s.
Some confrontations may not go as well as you’d like, while others may surprise you. If you follow the steps above and a confrontation still doesn’t result in a helpful outcome, take pride in the fact that you spoke up and your online harasser failed to silence you.