Talking about online harassment can be difficult—because there is still so much stigma, shame, and victim-blaming around abuse. Yet it’s often important, and in some cases necessary, to engage friends, family, and other allies for support.
That said, even as the internet and social media become an indispensable part of writers’ lives and careers, there are still plenty of people who don’t use online platforms with the same frequency—or at all. When these people are friends or loved ones, it can be challenging and even exasperating to convey how and why online harassment is impacting your life.
Here are some reasons you might be inclined to talk to members of your support community about your online harassment:
- You need help monitoring your online accounts, documenting your harassment, or contacting law enforcement.
- You want to warn loved ones that they could become implicated in your online abuse or even targeted themselves.
- An online account you use for communicating with loved ones might be compromised, and you need to inform the people accustomed to contacting you there.
- You need care and support to endure or move beyond the abuse.
- You might not be up for socializing/attending family functions and want your loved ones to understand why.
Steps for discussing your abuse with friends, family, and acquaintances
Identify your goal.
What do you hope to achieve with this conversation? Do you wish to inform your friends/loved ones that the online harassment is occurring? To explain why you’ve been MIA at the last few trivia nights? To warn a member of your community that they, too, might be targeted by your attacker—either because the two of you have an intertwined online presence or because your online accounts have been hacked? Or are you asking for specific support—either technical (e.g., asking someone to monitor an online account) or emotional? Come to the conversation with a clear vision for why you’re having this discussion and what you want to convey.
Assess your audience’s tech fluency and start with the basics.
Not everyone is familiar with internet platforms, not to mention the havoc online harassment can wreak on a person’s professional life and well-being. Take stock of your audience’s digital fluency; if it’s low, prepare to discuss your abuse in simple, easy-to-understand terms, and try to be open to any clarifying questions that are posed. (These questions aren’t necessarily meant to cast doubt on your experience but rather to clarify what’s happened.) Without using language that’s too tech-oriented (memes, tweets, GIFs, DMs, etc. might require further explanation), do your best to describe where and how your abuse occurred. (Crash Override Network offers a great Star Trek analogy for what happens when you get too jargony about internet life.) It might help to prepare a few statements or even to write down a few facts about online harassment and its impact. Once you’ve established a baseline for the conversation, you can go from there, deciding how granular to get about your own experience.
Have language and even documentation prepared.
It can be painful and raw to continue revisiting your online harassment in conversation after conversation. There’s no harm in writing down some thoughts and language that will help you to refine your message over the course of these discussions. If you’ve been taking screenshots or otherwise documenting the abuse, it may be helpful to bring that along to spare yourself from having to repeat painful or offensive language.
Emphasize why the internet is a crucial and practical tool for your writing life.
While not everyone can relate to the aspects of the internet that are most meaningful to you, people can usually relate to why certain tools are necessary to do certain jobs. (Just as a doctor needs a stethoscope and a construction worker needs a tool belt, today’s writers and journalists, by and large, need the internet.) Try framing your relationship to online platforms in terms of what they bring to your writing life. Here are a few examples:
- “As a journalist, Twitter helps me make contact with sources from different walks of life who would otherwise be difficult to track down. They give me important tips and information that help shape the stories I report. I wouldn’t be able to do my work as well without Twitter.”
- “My blog is what led to my book contract. If I stop blogging, I’ll be disappointing the thousands of followers who have helped make my career possible.”
- “My friend sold her novel after an agent read her short story, then located her via her personal website. I need to maintain a personal website, too, so that I’m accessible to people in the publishing world when they come across my work.”
If the conversation is not going as well as you’d hoped, don’t panic.
You can always restart the conversation. You can always grab a glass of water or step outside for a breath of air if you find yourself getting upset. And if the person you’re speaking to lacks empathy for your position, or is brimming with compassion, but can’t find a way to help you, then step back and consider your options. Is there someone else you can talk to, a different friend? It’s possible that not everyone can or will want to support you during an episode of online abuse. This is not your fault. Keep trying, and always be sure to tap into your support communities, online and off.
Common issues you might encounter during a conversation with friends/loved ones (with suggested responses):
- “But this isn’t even real life—it’s online life. They’re different.” Explain that, for you, there is less of a distinction between “real” and “online” life, especially when it comes to your writing life. Today, most writers and journalists depend on the internet either for publishing or spreading the word about their work. Another, more concrete, approach to try if you happen to make a living from your writing: Explain that a lot of your livelihood now depends on your online engagement—and how you earn money absolutely is your real life! Other responses to try:
- “Online hate can be a prelude to severe, real-world consequences (there are studies linking social media to increased suicide rates; hate campaigns have a recent history of stoking ethnic violence), meaning this is absolutely a real-world problem.”
- “Marginalized communities depend on the internet to exercise their voices and be heard in a way that they aren’t offline—for members of such communities, this is ‘real’ life.”
- “If you’ve ever watched a movie on Netflix or bought a birthday present on Amazon, guess what—the internet is part of your ‘real’ life, too!”
- “Why don’t you just get offline?” Depending on one’s reasons for being online in the first place, responses to this question will vary. Concrete reasons that solicit your interlocutor’s feedback tend to go a longer way than general statements like, “Because I like it.” Some examples include:
- “My publisher says that if I post to social media on a regular basis, I’ll grow a larger audience for my next book. Wouldn’t that be great?”
- “As a journalist, I get a lot of tips for stories by posting about my research topics on social media. Remember that immigration story I wrote last month? Without Twitter, I never would have found the family I ended up profiling.”
- “Statistically, the likelihood of someone actually coming to your home and hurting you is really, really small.” Explain that it’s not just about the likelihood of the threat coming true, but also about how the threat makes you feel. Explain how threatening language interferes with your sense of personal safety, causing you anxiety and distracting you from your personal life and professional life—especially when you’re out in public or every time you leave the house.
- “Why don’t you call the police?” Explain that how the law applies to online harassment continues to evolve—and that there are many documented scenarios of instances in which the police are not always helpful to victims of online abuse. If you’re from a community that has a fraught relationship with law enforcement, you may have an even more personal reason for not wanting to involve the police.
If you’re reading the statements and answers above and feel completely baffled that you would have to defend your social media use to anyone in your social circle, then you probably run with a pretty tech-savvy crowd, which means you can shorthand a lot of these conversations. Unfortunately, not every writer is so lucky.