So, you’re getting harassed on the Internet. What do you do now?
The past year or so has seen an incredible intense ramp-up around online harassment and abuse. It’s as if everyone who ever had a sadistic digital thought ever looked at the #gamergate mess and said, “Yeah! That’s what I want to do!” Many people feel helpless in the face of such attacks. But there ARE things you can do, right now, to protect yourself. Read on.
Online harassment isn’t anything new for folks who have been swimming in Internet culture for a long time, but if you’re new to certain kinds of online activism (or, frankly, even if you’re not) the harrowing amount of vitriol that can come at you during heated moments can be extremely disturbing. For example, we watched traditional harassment tactics spill over into mainstream digital culture this summer and fall, as Planned Parenthood was victimized in the media, and subsequently in Congressional hearings and state-based battles, over the falsely edited videos that actually show no wrongdoing. (Disclaimer: Planned Parenthood is a client of mine, staff there are longtime friends, and I have always unequivocally supported them since I became aware of them in my teens.) Watching everyday supporters — not just the hardcore activists and professionals — get the crap kicked out of them online was maddening. Sharing your stories and political opinions should not get you run off the internet, but that seems to be what the current online cultural climate has worked itself into.
There are a myriad of reasons why we’ve collectively crescendoed to this point — and they could take up an entire post on their own. From platforms and tools that don’t value nuance, to technologists who prioritize revenue over human impact, to social isolation and filter bubbles… the list is seemingly endless. It’s going to take a bunch of work to steer our culture, digitally and otherwise, away from this madness. Some folks may feel like this is leading digital culture down a dangerous road of censorship, but I disagree. What we’re facing now is already censorship — using fear and threats of violence to silence huge groups of people, and the chilling effect that’s creating.
Until we get this straightened out, I thought I’d share some pointers for how to keep your digital life a little more sane, and safe, as you wade through the world.
Level 1: Twitter bombardment
This is a pretty common scenario these days, unfortunately: You tweet with a hashtag like #StandWithPP or #BlackLivesMatter or #Dreamers and suddenly your notifications and mentions are flooded with people telling you all kinds of terrible things. Most of this tends to be vile, but relatively innocuous — ie, people aren’t making physical threats. The best thing you can do? Block those folks.
Some people think that blocking people who “disagree” with you goes against the dear, sweet values we hold in America of public discourse and free speech. To this, I say:
Your Twitter feed (or your Facebook feed, or what-have-you) is not a democracy. You get to be the tyrant and decide what you want to see and what you don’t. Besides that, I’m not suggesting you block people who say, “Hey, I don’t agree with you.” I’m suggesting you block people who say that you’ll burn in whatever version of Hell they believe in for your support of equity and justice in the world.
Blocking them all individually can be time consuming, for sure. That’s why tools like BlockTogether.org, created by one of the survivors of #gamergate, are really helpful. With this free service, you can take advantage of the fact that there are people who have already blocked hundreds, sometimes thousands, of abusive Twitter users.
This is a quick walkthrough of how to sign up. Visit BlockTogether.org to get started:
You can decide whether or not you want to check the first two boxes — if you’re getting harassed by people who are creating new accounts rapidly to keep getting around previous blocks, consider these options.
You’ll be asked to log in with your Twitter account; go ahead and do this, it’s safe.
Then you can start by subscribing to some lists that others have shared. Here are a few you might consider:
- @randi_ebooks: This block lists blocks a lot of folks who are anti-feminist, originating in the #GamerGate brouhaha, but extending into other parts of abusive internet culture.
- @deanna: That’s me! Now, I’ve been on Twitter since 2007, so I’ve blocked a lot of folks. That means some people who aren’t political, or harassing/abusers, might be on my block list. Since 2014, most of my blocks are for harassment.
- Do you have more? Feel free to share yours in the comments.
Note that BlockTogether won’t block people you’re following, as a partial failsafe to not block folks you actually like. To subscribe and block, just click the button:
Level 2: Multiple platform harassment
Uh-oh. Something has happened and now people are coming to find you on other social networks. What can you do to lock down your accounts?
Facebook has finally simplified, to some extent, a lot of ways to keep your information private. Running through their basic security features is a great place to start — just click on the little lock icon in the upper right corner.
Facebook Pages tend to get intensely harassed via comments on posts. No fun whatsoever to subject your community to the kind of vile behavior that people engage in! Deleting the comments is really the only response here, as far as I know, and is a total pain. It’s also a lot of emotional labor to subject yourself, or someone you work with, to look at the terribleness of humanity over and over and over.
Make sure you disallow everyday people from posting to your page:
If there are common words or hashtags in the harassing comments, you can try blocking them in your Facebook Page’s settings:
First, you can set your account to private. Go to your profile page and click on the little gear in the upper right corner:
Then turn on the switch that’s labeled “Private account.”
Then there are the private messages on Instagram.
Instagram Direct allows any user to send any other Instagram user direct photos. If you’re getting harassing messages/photos here, the only thing you can do really is change who you get notifications from.
Scroll down in your settings to the Push Notifications:
And then scroll down to the Instagram Direct section:
If you find yourself getting overwhelmed here, you can get free help from an amazing organization called Access Now. They run a Digital Security Helpline for activists, journalists and everyday folks who are under attack — whether that’s from internet mobs or government agencies. Drop them a line at email@example.com, and feel free to mention me and this post.
Level 3: Doxxed, threats, violence.
This is probably the scariest level: when abusers and harassers online start to threaten you or people close to you with physical, offline harm, and/or have published your private information online (like your address or phone number or work details — this is known as “doxxing”). There’s a lot to cover here, a lot more than I can do justice to with a simple blog post. That’s why resources like these are incredibly helpful. They can be overwhelming, too, though; if you find yourself in a panic, do not hesitate to be in touch with the good folks at Access Now (firstname.lastname@example.org).
- Journalist Yael Grauer has an extensive guide freely available here.
- Tactical Tech’s “Zen and the art of making tech work for you”
- Crash Override Network also has a ton of guides and resources.
- Community Red, an organization that provides security support to citizen journalists worldwide, has a collection of 9 things you can do to keep yourself safe from abusers.
- Journalist Sally Kohn was doxxed, and shared her story: “I Got Doxxed So You Don’t Have To”
Documenting and reporting this kind of harassment — to authorities, to the social networks — can be very difficult. I don’t want to sugarcoat this part of things, and pretend that reporting is going to solve your problems.
Local police departments are woefully unprepared for dealing with online abuse. Many don’t treat the problem as “real” because it’s on the Internet. Others just don’t have the resources. Don’t let this deter you from documenting what’s happening to you — the digital paper trail is the best thing you can have on your side, no matter what happens. Enlist trusted friends to help with this when it all becomes too much! There are also tools like Heartmob coming down the pike to solicit and receive help when you’re under fire.
The social network companies themselves are also often slow to move on reports of abuse and harassment. And in many cases the way that they even accept reports is problematic. Twitter, for example, doesn’t accept screenshots as a way to report abuse. That means harassers can tweet threats and delete them before they’re reported or examined. Ugh. The platforms are working on it, but you shouldn’t always expect them to take care of your needs in a timely manner.
This should cover a lot of your bases technically, but let me end with this: You are not alone. The main thing that harassers and abusers try to do when they’re silencing you is to also make you feel isolated and trapped. Do not let them win: we are all in this together.