Bystander Intervention Online

By Emily May, co-founder and Executive Director of Hollaback!

The concept of bystander intervention is really simple: It’s people helping people.

If I was to have a medical emergency, you’d know what to do. If I dropped my hat on the street, you’d know what to do. But when people witness online harassment, they freeze. They don’t know what to do. And for good reason: The consequences of action (or inaction) online are unclear and unpredictable — and worse, we’ve started seeing online abuse as normal. We told ourselves there is nothing we can do. But that simply isn’t true.

Bystander intervention has been popularized in public spaces, colleges, and workplace settings — but bystander intervention online is still a relatively new concept with new opportunities and challenges. For example, when you experience harassment in person, there are not always other people around. But online, it’s easy to ping people and get them to show up in the blink of an eye to help. It can also be easier to check in on the person being harassed without being detected by the folks doing the harassment.

The online setting also brings new challenges, however — the scariest of which is how quickly and easily the harassment can turn on you if you intervene publicly. At Hollaback!, we partnered in 2020 with PEN America to launch a one-hour training on bystander intervention online using Hollaback!’s five D’s of bystander intervention: “Distract,” “Delegate,” “Document,” “Delay,” and “Direct.” Four out of the five forms of bystander intervention we’ll discuss are indirect, meaning that you won’t be detected by the people doing the harassing — but you’ll still be able to support the person being harassed online.

Let’s look at all five approaches in-depth:

  1. Distract: Creating a distraction to de-escalate the situation

The good news is, the internet is a very distracting place! We’ve got a lot to work with here.

One idea is to amplify the original post that caused the harassment to begin. You never want to amplify the abuse (don’t give them the pleasure!). But by amplifying the original voice you’re saying, “hey, we’re going to let this person have their voice. We’re going to like it, we’re going to upvote it, we’re going to retweet it, we’re going to share it.”

Another strategy is drawing attention away from the abuse. It’s really hard to be hateful while staring at a flood of photos of cute baby animals, gifs of jumping goats, or elephants running through the wilderness with pink Converse. This type of content is not only de-escalating; it’s funny. And the internet is fantastic at generating tons of it.

2. Delegate: Finding someone else to help

One person intervening is good, but more is better.

Consider reaching out to supportive communities — like listservs, your BFFs text chain, your private Facebook community, etc. — and sound the alarm. You can ask them to support by amplifying the voice of the person being harassed, or by reporting the harassment to the platform where it happened.

A word to the wise: The first thing a lot of people think about when they think about delegate is contacting the police. You want to check in with the person being harassed before contacting the police on their behalf (unless it’s a medical emergency) because many of the communities most targeted by harassment online — including communities of color, trans* communities, etc. — may not feel safer with police presence.

3. Document: Creating documentation of the incident and then giving it to the person who was harassed

It’s a best practice to have screenshots and hyperlinks of any harassment that you experience online — even if you don’t think it will escalate and you don’t want to report it to law enforcement. The trouble is: Capturing that information can deepen the trauma of people harassed online by increasing their exposure to the hate. That’s where you, the bystander, come in.

This is especially important because when harassment is reported to social media companies and removed, the evidence of harassment disappears. When offering to do this for someone, we recommend putting the screenshots and hyperlinks into a folder and emailing the entire folder to them with a message like, “I want to ensure you have evidence of this abuse. Attached are screenshots to file away.” You want to hide the evidence under a layer of protection (and not cut and paste them directly into an email) so that the person being harassed has some control over when they see the evidence (if they choose to see it at all).

Another option if you’re being harassed is to go to HeartMob (iheartmob.org) where you can leverage a vetted community of bystanders to screenshot the harassment on your behalf, and it will be saved on the backend of the system when (and if) you want to review it.

4. Delay: Checking in on the person who experienced harassment

When it comes to in-person harassment, we know from research with Cornell University that as little as a knowing glance can reduce the trauma related to harassment. It’s not much different online — if you replace a knowing glance with a direct message or text.

“Delay” is simply that check-in. It’s about affirming to the person who was harassed that it’s not their fault, and they are not alone. It’s about asking if they want to talk, or if they need help reporting the harassment or locking down their digital security. While this may seem so simple it’s obvious — too often we see this as a missed step in the process. Most people who experience harassment understand that not everyone in the world is going to be kind, or agree with them. But what they have a harder time stomaching is that they can be publicly humiliated, with everyone watching and no one saying anything. What we see time and time again is that the trauma of no one doing or saying anything is oftentimes worse than the trauma of the original incident. So take action, text them if you know them, and send them gifs and gifts to support their healing process.

5. Direct: Setting a boundary with the person doing the harassing, and then turning your attention to the person being harassed

The last form of intervention is “Direct.” What distinguishes “Direct” from the other forms is that you’re publicly allying with the person being harassed, in a way that can be easily detected by the person doing the harassment. It’s the one we all think of when we think about intervening, but it’s also the one with the most safety risks because the harassment may turn towards you. Keep in mind your goal is to support the person being harassed — not to name, shame, and blast the person doing the harassing off the internet (as tempting as that may be).

One way to intervene is to fact-check claims or expose impersonation. For example, if your friend is being impersonated, you may want to publicly share something like this to show support: “If you’re as big a fan of Victoria V as me, be sure to follow their REAL handle: @vvictoria. Abusive trolls are impersonating her — help me report these @victoriav and @vvv impersonation accounts.” Here, you’re not only elevating the voice of Victoria by encouraging others to follow her, but you’re also getting more folks to report the fake accounts in hopes that social media companies will deal with the issue quicker and more seriously.

While it can be tempting to want to educate the person doing the harassing on why their behavior is not OK, people who are actively harassing others are rarely in their best learning mindset, and certainly not in a growth mindset. However, publicly stating what is and isn’t OK creates norms online and helps others who may be at risk for the same behavior feel more seen, heard, and cared for online.

The meaning of action

A 2017 Pew Study found that while 66% of Americans have witnessed online harassment, only 30% have ever intervened in it. The next time you see online harassment — assess your safety, and notice what holds you back from intervening. Then, see if there is something that you can do. Remember, four out of the five D’s are indirect approaches to bystander intervention — and that your goal is to support the person being harassed. When we all start to intervene, we also start to shift the culture that makes online harassment so prevalent to begin with.

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