Skip to content

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 journalists’, activists’ and 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 your friends or loved ones, it can be challenging and even exasperating to convey how and why online harassment is impacting your life.

It’s possible you may also face the added challenge of family members shaming or blaming you for your experience with online harassment out of fear for the “family name” or “honor.”

Given these complexities, it’s important for you to determine why, how and who you want to share your experience with.

Remember, if you suspect the safety of your family and friends may be at risk, this will influence your decision on who to talk to. For more information on how to do so, refer to our Manual’s page on Assessing the Threat.

Why you might want to talk to your support community

Practical Reasons
  • You need help monitoring your online accounts, documenting your harassment, or contacting law enforcement if this is relevant in your context.
  • 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.
Emotional Reasons
  • 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.
  • You need to spend time alone and away from your phone or computer and will not be reachable by friends and family members for a period of time.

How to discuss your abuse with your support community

  • 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 it’s been difficult to contact you? 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 or might require further explanation (memes, tweets, GIFs, DMs, etc.), do your best to describe where and how your abuse occurred. 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 distressing to revisit 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.”
    • “As a freedom of expression advocate, my Instagram page is where I connect with thousands of followers who support my advocacy efforts. Without my Instagram page, I’m unable to share my message through creative and meaningful ways that touch the hearts and minds of people in my community and beyond.”
    • “My Facebook page is a place where I can connect with other professionals in my field as a journalist. It’s helped me work with media outlets that I’d otherwise have little access to. Through Facebook, I was able to secure several freelance projects that jump started my career.”

Who to talk to from your support community

Since not all people are aware of the psychological impacts and “real-life” dangers of online abuse, it can be a little tricky deciding who you want to share your experiences with. Depending on your family dynamic, identity, personal views, and the reason you’re being targeted, family members in particular can negatively contribute to your crisis—perhaps by dismissing your feelings or blaming you for the incident.

When deciding who to speak with from your support community, you might want to consider gauging who in your existing circle of family and friends fit any of the descriptions below:

  • They are most likely willing to actively listen with empathy and honor your feelings
  • They are supportive of your work as a journalist and/or activist
  • They have experienced something similar
  • They have demonstrated support for you during other times of need

If a few people already come to mind, try “testing the waters” by letting them know you’d like to talk about something that’s happening to you. It’s up to you to decide how much information you’d like to disclose and how you want to frame your request for support using the steps mentioned earlier.

Pro Tip for Women Writers and Activists: Assess the Threat When Deciding to Talk to Family Members
Women often experience much higher rates of online harassment than men. Particularly in countries outside of the United States, family members can sometimes be tempted to blame women for experiencing online harassment by justifying the abuse as a result of women having an online presence. Examples of this double assault on women include non-consensual pornography, attempts to blackmail women with the threat of exposing women with real or falsified “evidence” to their families and public shaming of women online. When facing online harassment, it is important that women and other marginalized community members assess the willingness of family members in supporting victims facing online abuse.

Start by asking yourself if you have family members that:

  • are committed to supporting women’s rights
  • have experienced something similar
  • are open to discussing issues of sexual harassment
  • work or are affiliated with any civil society organizations protecting digital or women’s rights.

If you answered no to most of these questions, you may want to first try seeking support from local or regional civil society organizations that can help you navigate your situation.

What to do if things go wrong during the conversation

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 lifeit’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 history of stoking ethnic violence and attacks against religious minorities), 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.”
    • “Have you ever experienced waves of insults, threats and negative comments about your lifestyle or family every time you log in to your social media account to do work? Guess what, the consequence is real since it’s hard to focus on anything else!”
  • “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.”
    • “Because of the pandemic, the internet has become a lifeline and most journalists have been left with no choice but to be online.”
  • “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 is not always helpful to victims of online abuse. This is particularly true if you are from a community that has a fraught relationship with law enforcement or if you live in a country where law enforcement is not being the most trustworthy entity to report online harassment to.

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 journalist, activist or writer is so lucky.