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For some writers, ignoring the trolls, focusing on one’s writing, and practicing self-care are the best ways to move beyond an episode of online harassment. For others, taking a stand against an online troll is a form of self-care. 

Roxane Gay, a writer who consistently and publicly pushes back against vicious online rhetoric, states on her Twitter profile: “If you clap, I clap back.” Clapbacks, a form of counterspeech Merriam-Webster attributes to a 2003 song by Ja Rule, are targeted comebacks intended to shutdown negative online interactions. (What’s “counterspeech”? In short, it is a direct response meant to undermine forms of expression that promote hateful rhetoric and increase the risk of violence against members of another group. The Dangerous Speech Project does an excellent job of breaking down counterspeech in all its forms.)

Not to be confused with outrage mobs, which tend to flay the messenger instead of the message, and can end up silencing discourse that actually contains important nuance, clapbacks and other forms of online counterspeech are a valuable way for targets of online harassment to assert their own voices and humanity while simultaneously eroding the impact of hateful or defamatory messages. Counterspeech is also a useful tool for witnesses who wish to intervene in online attacks. Some examples include:

  • Retweeting hateful messages along with an explicit statement about what makes the message so harmful.
  • Reclaiming a hashtag that’s been used to promote a hateful idea by flooding that hashtag with positive messages.
  • Enlisting an online community to redirect the conversation in a comments section, Twitter thread, etc. by posting a succession of positive and constructive statements aimed at content, not people. (For more information, check out the Deploying Your Supportive Cyber Communities section of this Field Manual.)

Examples of Counterspeech in Action

UN Women’s Google Ad Series
Using genuine Google searches, UN Women launched a campaign to expose negative sentiments circulating about women online, from gender stereotypes to denials of women’s rights.

Virtual Racism, Real Consequences
When a black woman was hired to forecast the weather on Brazilian television in 2015, she became the target of extreme online racism. Afro-Brazilian civil rights advocacy group Criola tackled the abuse by using geolocation tools to publish hateful online messages on billboards in cities where the commenters lived. No one’s identity was outed, but a majority of hateful commentators deleted their accounts because of the campaign.

#SırtımızıDönüyoruz
Translated in English to #WeTurnOurBacks, #SırtımızıDönüyoruz is a hashtag used by Turkish women and men to post pictures of themselves turning their backs to sexist statements made by president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Of course, different kinds of online harassment merit different responses depending on their severity, which is why you are the best person to judge whether or not it’s safe to confront an online harasser or intervene in someone else’s online abuse. Always assess the risk online counterspeech poses to you, your social network, and your loved ones before deciding to engage in it. (To learn more about threat assessment, visit these guidelines.) If you’re confident that your personal security won’t be compromised—or if that’s a risk you’re willing to take in order to stand up for what you believe in—it can be cathartic and empowering to confront an online abuser using the power of the written word. You’re a writer, after all. The written word is your most powerful tool for wresting control of false and dangerous narratives.

If you think you’d benefit from confronting online abuse head-on, please follow our Guidelines for Safely Confronting Your Online Harasser.

For some additional inspiration, check out the below examples of people who have confronted their trolls to some degree of success.