PEN America views online harassment as a clear threat to free expression.
For years, it was dismissed in some quarters as less real, or less harmful, than harassment in the “real world.” More recently, after sustained efforts and pressure from those who bear the brunt of this harassment—women, people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals and people identifying with other marginalized or threatened groups—social media companies and the broader public have begun to take this issue seriously. There is now a growing recognition that online harassment can affect its targets’ freedom to express themselves, their livelihoods, and their mental and physical health. It is also clear that online harassment can extend to the offline world, especially for those who receive direct, specific threats of sexual violence, bodily harm, and even death, and who have their personal information published without their consent (known as “doxing”).
As an organization of writers, PEN America is particularly concerned about the ways in which online harassment affects writers’ work. Our 2017 Online Harassment Survey of over 230 journalists and writers found that 67 percent of respondents had experienced a severe reaction to being targeted by online harassment, including refraining from publishing their work, permanently deleting their social media accounts, and/or fearing for their safety or the safety of their loved ones. More than one-third of respondents reported avoiding certain topics in their writing due to online harassment, 16 percent reported permanently deleting a social media account, and 37 percent felt that online harassment had damaged their reputations. These survey findings align with years of reports from writers, journalists, and activists that experiencing harassment and hateful speech online can drive people offline entirely or lead them to avoid speaking or writing about topics that they fear will lead to further harassment.
When people stop speaking out and writing about particular topics due to fear of reprisal, everyone loses. The ability to freely give and receive information—to make an argument, to read about someone else’s point of view or personal experience, to offer new data or a fresh idea that changed your mind and could change someone else’s—is an essential part of freedom of expression. Online harassment directly harms the free flow of information by deterring participation in public discourse. People are targeted not only for what they write and publish online but often simply for being an outspoken member of a particular group—for their race, their faith, their gender identity, their disability. Even more troublingly, this problem is at its worst when people are trying to engage with the most complex, controversial, and urgent questions facing our society: questions about politics, race, religion, public policy, the rights of marginalized groups, and social norms.
Studies have shown that people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, and women are more likely to experience more severe forms of cyber harassment that affect their personal lives and result in mental and emotional distress. Thus the people who are most directly experiencing the effects of, for example, racial profiling, sexual harassment, discrimination against transgender individuals, or crackdowns targeting immigrants may hesitate to speak out about these problems online, where much of our public discourse now takes place. This is an unacceptable constraint on online discourse. No one should have to contend with death threats, the posting of their home address, or a torrent of abusive language just to take part in public debate. We must make online spaces accessible for all voices. Democratic structures depend on a robust, healthy discourse in which every member of society can engage.
The boundary line between harassment and combative but legitimate debate can sometimes be murky. While threats, doxing, and cyberstalking are often unlawful, other types of content that may be experienced as offensive, intimidating, or abusive are protected by the First Amendment. The parameters of permissible speech on social media can and have been narrowed by online platforms that implement their own community rules. Such rules can serve the legitimate purpose of rendering such forums open and welcoming to all comers and preventing threats, doxing, and other forms of noxious speech from drowning out genuine dialogue. As a free speech organization, PEN America is leery of calling on private companies to police speech, recognizing that the ubiquitous role of these platforms in our discourse can mean that viewpoints that are frowned upon or rejected can be effectively silenced. There are situations in which political opinions, religious views, and ideas about social life may be voiced in a manner that is deeply offensive or hurtful to others but which do not rise to the level of harassment that should be banned or suppressed. Combatting genuine harassment while maintaining robust protection for free speech, even speech that offends, is a task that requires careful thought, judgement, and engagement with a wide variety of stakeholders.
PEN America’s Online Harassment Field Manual was created in an effort to aid writers and journalists who must navigate online spaces as they exist today—not as we want them to be. It is designed to give people resources, tools, and tips to help them respond safely and effectively to incidents of online harassment and hateful speech, and to encourage them to stay online, to keep speaking out, and to keep writing. Featuring first-person interviews with writers and journalists who have been targeted online and who refuse to be silenced along with comprehensive information about how to enhance cybersecurity, establish supportive online communities, confront online abuse head-on, practice self-care, and engage law enforcement during severe episodes of harassment, the Field Manual also offers best practices to allies of writers and journalists as well as the institutions that employ them. We invite you to explore everything the Field Manual has to offer, and to share this information widely with your social and professional networks.
The Field Manual is only a first step, however. We and many others have a role to play in advocating for freedom from harassment online.
Social media companies must improve their policies regarding online harassment, including reconceptualizing procedures for reviewing cases of alleged online abuse, creating appropriate penalties for offenders who commit abusive behavior, being more transparent about their internal processes, and offering an appeals process for users who have been punished. Twitter and Facebook especially—well resourced as they are—should be dedicating significant resources to training and hiring people (not just developing machine-learning methods) to detect and review harassing behaviors. These efforts should go hand in hand with initiatives to diversify the leadership of tech companies. Bringing to bear the perspectives and ideas of people who likely have a firsthand understanding of what it means to live through harassment and discrimination can inform the ways in which companies respond to these problems, the tools they build to help users, and the policies they develop.
Employers and publishers of writers—including newsrooms, publishing houses, and digital publications—can do more to support writers who experience online harassment by creating policies and procedures to help employees and freelancers during episodes of harassment. On the literary side, many publishers require their authors to maintain an online presence in order to build their audiences and promote their books. With this requirement should come additional support in the event of harassment or abuse.
Civil society should prioritize advocating for protections against online harassment. It is an urgent free-expression concern, as well as an issue that can cause deep and lasting damage to mental and physical health. Advocacy should include engagement with tech and social media companies, research to better illuminate the harms of online harassment, and identification of ways to protect users from online harassment and disincentivize would-be harassers.
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PEN America thanks the following organizations for their support:
- The New York Community Trust
- The Authors Guild
- Asian American Journalists Association
- Lambda Literary
- Canto Mundo
- Writers Guild East
- Dramatists Guild of America
- National Association of Black Journalists
- News Guild of New York.
- Kathie Mahoney
- Lisa Feldman Barrett
- Alison Levin-Rector