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Deciding whether to “feed the trolls” is a highly personal decision, there’s no right answer. And for some, practicing counterspeech can be empowering—as long as it’s done safely.

There is no one right way to navigate online abuse. And what seems like the best or most comfortable choice for you might look different for someone else. Because of this, there’s a lot of conflicting information out there about whether or not you should reply to your trolls. Some say not to do it under any circumstance, while others say it’s not so simple or 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.

What is Counterspeech?

Not to be confused with outrage mobs, which tend to flay the messenger instead of the message, and can end up silencing discourse that actually contains important nuance, witty comments and other forms of online counterspeech are a valuable way for targets of online harassment to assert their own voices and humanity while simultaneously eroding the impact of hateful or defamatory messages. Counterspeech is also a useful tool for witnesses who wish to intervene in online attacks. Some examples include:

  • Retweeting hateful messages along with an explicit statement about what makes the message so harmful.
  • Reclaiming a hashtag that’s been used to promote a hateful idea by flooding that hashtag with positive messages.
  • Enlisting an online community to redirect the conversation in a comments section, Twitter thread, etc., by posting a succession of positive and constructive statements aimed at content, not people. (For more information, check out the Deploying Your Supportive Cyber Communities section of this Field Manual.)

Practicing counterspeech can empower allies and bystanders in acts of resistance, as happened with The Milk Tea Alliance: In April 2020 Thai actor Vachirawit Chivaaree wrote a Tweet voicing support for Hong Kong’s independence. Chinese nationalists responded by trolling his account. When fans leapt to protect the Thai star, a meme war broke out. Since then, #MilkTeaAlliance has been a clear and effective mark of pro-democracy solidarity among social media users in Myanmar, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, and other parts of Asia.

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. If you are facing state-sponsored harassment, check out this section of the Field Manual for guidance on how to address government-backed abuse.

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.

For more guidance on how to assess threat levels, consider the following:

  • If you believe you’re on the receiving end of a legitimate threat to your physical safety, do not engage your troll. Contact any local or regional civil society organizations working in this area and enlist members of your community to provide you with support and, if necessary, secure housing at this time. 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, and the nature of the attack does not appear organized or informed by state-led entities, 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, and also cause ensuing abuse to have a more harmful impact on your well-being.

“I prefer remaining silent rather than engaging with trolls,” says a Tanzanian journalist, interviewed by PEN America and who prefers remaining anonymous. “I am afraid that engaging with trolls might lead to the situation getting out of hand and which will harm my reputation.”

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 Wafa Al-Amm chose to do when she was barraged by sexist tweets, telling her to “stay in the kitchen” and away from discussing politics and social issues. “My strategy in naming and shaming online abusers produced positive results,” Wafa said in an interview with PEN America and the National Democratic Institute. “No one wants their abusive tweet to be pinned at the top of my page, which has a large following. When I repost such tweets, trolls tend to scale back their abusive language or entirely stop targeting me.”

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?

When Beninese journalist Angela Kpedija posted on Facebook denouncing the harassment of female journalists in newsrooms, in honor of International Labour Day 2020, she didn’t expect to be hit with a harassment campaign. In an effort to mobilize her allies, Kpedija started the hashtag #N’aiepaspeur (which translates to #Don’tBeScared); her online community quickly came to her defense. Practicing counterspeech allowed Kpedija to regain control over the defamatory narratives being spread about her. “My struggle in this hostile environment is really to liberate speech. More and more women and even men must feel free to express themselves and fight for their convictions and ideals. I dream of a domino effect,” she told PEN America.

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 person behind the hateful messages, the below information can help you compose messages that 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. After being bullied throughout grade school, Sameer Jha founded the Empathy Alliance, an organization dedicated to making schools safer for LGTBQ+ youths in the U.S. “The first thing that I did was I went back to the middle school where I had been bullied,” Jha wrote in an article for Global Citizen. Jha wanted to tell school leadership about the lack of support they faced not only from their peers, but from the school itself. The result? “Luckily, my counselor and principal were incredibly understanding, and they wanted to make a difference and to change the school environment. I partnered with them and started a gender and sexuality awareness club at that middle school, specifically focusing around anti-bullying initiatives.” 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.