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PEN America views online harassment as a clear threat to free expression.

For years, online harassment 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, independent journalists, 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 work and express themselves, while threatening their livelihoods and mental and physical health. It is also clear that online harassment can extend into the offline world, especially when people receive direct, specific threats—of sexual violence (which are disproportionately targeted at women and nonbinary folks), bodily harm, and even death—and have their personal information published without their consent.

State-sponsored online harassment, too, is now often used as a disinformation tactic that aims to chill the free speech of activists and journalists who are working to build or participate in democratic processes across the world.

Often, those who risk speaking truth to power are targeted online. As an organization of writers, PEN America is particularly concerned about the ways in which online harassment affects writers’ work. A global study conducted by UNESCO and the International Center for Journalists, found that nearly 23 percent of journalists reported that the online harassment they faced included threats against their professional standing and prevented them from practicing their work. Online harassment can lead journalists to refrain from publishing their work, practice self-censorship, permanently delete their social media accounts, or fear for their safety or the safety of their loved ones and/or impose self-exile to protect themselves and their loved ones. The impact of online harassment on the work of journalists, writers and activists, proves as a major roadblock to the practice of free speech and human rights advocacy that drives these individuals’ careers and their personal goals.

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 and transparency, race, religion, public policy, the rights of marginalized groups, and social norms.

It is well-established that people from marginalized groups are more likely to experience more severe forms of cyber harassment that can affect their personal lives and result in mental and emotional distress. As a result, those who most intensely feel the effects of online abuse may be all the more hesitant to speak out about these problems online. This chilling effect 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 continue their work or take part in public debate. We must make online spaces safe and accessible for all voices.

Democratic structures depend on a robust, healthy discourse in which every member of society can engage.The boundary between harassment and combative but legitimate debate can sometimes be murky. While threats, doxing, and cyberstalking are unlawful in some countries, other content that may be offensive, intimidating, or abusive are not necessarily illegal. The parameters of permissible speech on social media can and have been narrowed by online platforms that implement their own community rules. But there are serious flaws in reporting mechanisms for such platforms.

PEN America recognizes that calling on private companies to restrict or police speech could mean that certain viewpoints could be silenced or erased amid conversations in digital “public squares”. Yet unmitigated online abuse has already dampened expression severely. Combatting genuine harassment while maintaining robust protection for free speech, even speech that offends, is a task that requires careful thought, judgment, and engagement with a wide variety of stakeholders. PEN America also acknowledges that laws supposed to protect journalists, writers and human rights defenders can be used to censor these populations.

PEN America’s Online Harassment Field Manual was created 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 comprehensive information about how to enhance cybersecurity, establish supportive online communities, counter online abuse,, practice self-care, engage law enforcement during severe episodes of harassment, and best practices for allies and employers of writers and journalists 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 dedicate 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

The National Democratic Institute


Code for Africa