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Comments sections and message boards can offer a forum for engaging in enriching debate and meeting communities of like-minded people. But they can also devolve into ad hominem attacks or be overrun by trolls more interested in sowing conflict.

Here are some tips for preparing to deal with online harassment on these platforms.

  • Consider selecting a screen name that does not reveal personally identifying information.

    The information you may want to keep hidden includes your name, ethnicity, age, religion, gender, sexual orientation, interests, or other features specific to your identity. Some people may be proud of their identifying features and want to name them in their online identities, but others may be concerned that this information can be used against them by harassers intent on exacerbating online abuse. Only you can judge what username is safe and right for you.

  • If you must make an email address public in an online forum, be sure to use a secondary email address.

    One that isn’t linked to your personal or professional life and does not reveal personally identifying information.

  • Be aware of the forum’s moderation policies.

    Some forums have a moderator who enforces rules of conduct; others do not. If you choose to participate in unmoderated online conversations, be aware that abusive language, images, threats of violence, etc. may not be removed right away—or at all—even if they violate the forum’s terms of use.

  • Familiarize yourself with the forum’s complaint procedures.

    If you find yourself directly attacked in a way that violates the terms of service, you’ll know exactly who to message to report the abuse.

  • De-escalate and move on.

    Much of the time, engaging an online harasser will only fuel their fire and make you vulnerable to attack outside the forum where the exchange began. In these cases, you might be better off taking a break from the conversation and leaving the wrongdoer behind. But if it’s a forum that matters to you, and you don’t wish to exit the conversation, there are a few strategies you can try:

    • Make a strong, one-time statement.

      Use firm but noninflammatory language—following these Guidelines for Safely Practicing Counterspeech. The goal of such a statement is to assert your own voice and establish why the content of the attack is harmful or inaccurate, but it should also offer the clear message that you won’t be dragged into an unproductive back-and-forth, and that you are committed to the actual content of the conversation thread.

    • Enlist allies in the forum.

      In some cases, trolls are more likely to cease and desist when faced with community pressure to do so. If it’s taking too long for the host platform to respond to a harasser’s rule-violating conduct, try posting a message to the thread that calls on others in the conversation to take a stand against the abusive behavior. Keep your message simple and direct, i.e. “Let’s keep this conversation respectful. Show you don’t tolerate racist remarks here by posting #EndRacism along with your next message.” Most likely, the troll won’t have the energy or resources to take on everyone posting condemnations of his or her behavior. Just be prepared for the possibility that a harasser’s anger could escalate in response to being called out—in which case, it might be good to take a break from the conversation.

Books on a bookshelf

Read On!

Marginalized Voices in Comment Spaces
Meredith D. Clark, The Coral Project